Lessons from Long Ago

Posted January 24th, 2011 at 4:10 pm (UTC-4)
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If you’re into the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, this is your year in heaven. It’s the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that brother-against-brother conflict in which more than 600,000 Americans died, many quite miserably in hand-to-hand battle. For the sesquicentennial year, a number of Civil War scholars are trotting out new books that examine every imaginable angle of that war.

There’s even a monument at “The Angle” at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There’s even a monument at “The Angle” at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Since more books have been written, worldwide, about our “War Between the States” than about any other subject save for religion, it’s hard to imagine what some of those new angles might be. Maybe one will be an angle about The Angle!  That was a spot on the decisive Gettysburg battlefield where a low stone fence forced Union troops to form a 90-degree angle as they repulsed Picketts Charge — the Confederates’ pell-mell rush, mostly into certain death.

I’m no Civil War scholar, but like millions of Americans, I’m aware of its profound effect upon our nation, and some of its object lessons.

Tom Wheeler DOES have a scholarly look!

Tom Wheeler DOES have a scholarly look!

Some of them are the subject matter of a book by an unlikely Civil War historian. Unlikely, because he’s not the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacket-wearing professor, ruminating in an ivory tower. He is and has long been an entrepreneur and businessman who happens to love history — the “War of Northern Aggression,” as some Southerners still refer to the conflict — in particular.

These days, Tom Wheeler is managing director of Core Capital Partners, a Washington, D.C., venture-capital firm that invests in new technology and communications undertakings. More pertinent to our topic, he’s also the former chairman of the foundation that looks after, and helps to fund, our nation’s National Archives, where you’ll find all sorts of Civil War treasures.

Wheeler’s leadership book plucks several examples of decision-making under fire from the annals of the Civil War. (Tom Wheeler)

Wheeler’s leadership book plucks several examples of decision-making under fire from the annals of the Civil War. (Tom Wheeler)

Scholars and ordinary readers the world over replay strategy and debate what might have happened had the southern Confederacy won the Battle of Gettysburg — or even the war. In his book, Take Command: Leadership Lessons of the Civil War, Wheeler zeroes in particularly on the weak and strong decisions of its generals.

When he was a boy in Columbus, Ohio, his grandfather, a retired U.S. army colonel, walked him across the fields and hillsides of many of the great battlefields of that savage war. So he was already an enthusiastic student of war as he left college and moved into the business world. Almost subconsciously, he found himself diagramming battle strategies in the board room and referring to the management styles of the war’s commanders.

Almost before he knew it, he was writing and writing and writing about the war.

Civil War soldiers did not march upon each other in gentlemanly ranks as had once done in European conflicts.  (Library of Congress)

Civil War soldiers did not march upon each other in gentlemanly ranks as had once done in European conflicts. (Library of Congress)

Tom Wheeler says that like most business leaders 150 years later, Civil War generals had to deal with sudden change. Society moved quickly from an agrarian to an industrial model, and weapons took on great killing power. Leadership qualities like a willingness to take risks were crucial to success.

“A battle is over in a couple of days,” Wheeler told me. “It is very public. There are no secrets. It’s out there for the world to see the decisions that you are making. It has clear-cut winners and losers. It has an intensity that is literally life and death.”  Read the rest of this entry »

The Two Faces of Bawlmer

Posted January 21st, 2011 at 1:38 pm (UTC-4)
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Baltimore’s skyline is stunning.  But there aren’t so many working streetlights in other parts of town.  (old man gnar, Wikipedia Commons)

Baltimore’s skyline is stunning. But there aren’t so many working streetlights in other parts of town. (old man gnar, Wikipedia Commons)

I get several chances each year to drive to, through, and around Baltimore, Maryland, usually without spending more time there than it takes to watch an Orioles’ baseball game.  But it’s always high on Carol’s and my “bucket list” for exploring, just for the atmosphere.  Not its modern side that I’ll describe, but its stately architecture, creaky streets of dignified row houses, and monuments dating to the Revolutionary War of the mid-1700s.

Closer in, there’s lots going on in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Closer in, there’s lots going on in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Old and decaying, America’s 21st-largest city got a glorious face-lift between 1960 and 1980 when it redeveloped its grimy, nearly abandoned industrial waterfront.  New and fine restaurants, hotels, and shops — plus the National Aquarium, a science center, and a maritime museum along what Baltimoreans call the Inner Harbor became world-class tourist magnets.

And despite an image problem as a rust-belt city with high inner-city crime, the place that natives call “Charm City” didn’t stop the renaissance there.

Fort McHenry was built just after America’s war for independence to guard the busy port of Baltimore from seaborne attack.  And it worked like a charm in Charm City during another war with the British years later.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Fort McHenry was built just after America’s war for independence to guard the busy port of Baltimore from seaborne attack. And it worked like a charm in Charm City during another war with the British years later. (Carol M. Highsmith)

This old seaport, which was home to macabre poet Edgar Allen Poe and baseball legend Babe Ruth — and was once the nation’s second-leading point of immigration behind New York’s Ellis Island — has carved a reliable tourism niche.  Its restaurant and club scene; tasty blue hard crabs; world-class museums, medical facilities, and symphony orchestra; and a historic stockade — Fort McHenry — that inspired America’s national anthem, entice millions of out-of-town visitors a year.

Exactly how many millions is hard to pin down.  More than 10 million, for sure.

And the tourists aren’t all coming just for crabs and Natty Bohs and baseball at Oriole Park, completed in 1992, which became the prototype for nostalgic, but high-tech and comfortable, “retro” sports facilities.

Hold on, you’re saying.  What in the world is a Natty Boh?

Ah, now you’re venturing into one of Baltimore’s many historic and current subtleties that give it that charm.

You still see “Mr. Boh” around town.  People ask, without getting a satisfactory answer, what happened to his other eye.  (Davezilla, Flickr Creative Commons)

You still see “Mr. Boh” around town. People ask, without getting a satisfactory answer, what happened to his other eye. (Davezilla, Flickr Creative Commons)

National Bohemian was a pilsner beer, first brewed in Baltimore in 1885. Along with the figure of a mustachioed gentleman that was its symbol, it became a local legend.  The brewery changed hands during the industry’s many corporate takeovers in the mid-2000s and is now brewed as an inexpensive niche product in North Carolina.  But it’s still sold in Bawlmer and sells briskly, mostly for old times’ sake.

Now you’re really confused.  Bawlmer?

It’s where I was heading when I said that people don’t go to Baltimore just to crack crabs, drink beer, and tour the fort where Francis Scott Key reported, “Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner still wave” the morning after a British bombardment.  Visitors go to the city on the Chesapeake Bay for memorable local color in its tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods and reflected in its somewhat nasal accent that many Baltimoreans themselves like to poke fun at.

They tend to leave the “T” — and sometimes a lot more letters — out of the city’s name.

Baltimore is “Bawlmer,” hon. Read the rest of this entry »

Telequirking

Posted January 19th, 2011 at 3:36 pm (UTC-4)
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Tuesday morning, I skated to work. Not on blades, and not along some designated trail. I slip-slided in, to borrow a phrase from the Paul Simon song, after freezing rain turned Washington, D.C., into a hockey rink. “Miracle on Ice” would describe my commute, if that title hadn’t already been taken.

Welcome to my world on Tuesday!  Not fit weather for commuting, but off I went. (shazron, Flickr Creative Commons)

Welcome to my world on Tuesday! Not fit weather for commuting, but off I went. (shazron, Flickr Creative Commons)

I didn’t skate the WHOLE way, since the Metro was running. But on my way to the subway you’d have seen me execute — totally inadvertently — triple axels, toe-loop jumps, and sidewalk death spirals.

Only after I got to the office did I find this email to the staff from my editor:

“This morning’s ice and treacherous road conditions may persuade some of you to consider telecommuting today. . . . Whatever your plans, be careful how you step out there!!  It’s REEEEALLY slippery!!”

You betcha, bub.

Funny that Rob should mention telecommuting — or as we bureaucrats might say, “employment at home while communicating with the workplace by phone or fax or modem.”  Just a month ago, at the urging of some big shot in the front office, I put myself on the list of eligible telecommuters. Telework, you see, is wildly encouraged across the government as a “people-friendly” cost saver.

One of the touted benefits of telecommuting is that it will reduce the volume of the car-and-exhaust kind of commuting.  That’s hard to prove in some cities.  (Atwater Village Newbie, Flickr Creative Commons)

One of the touted benefits of telecommuting is that it will reduce the volume of the car-and-exhaust kind of commuting. That’s hard to prove in some cities. (Atwater Village Newbie, Flickr Creative Commons)

It’s a “green” thing. Think of the gasoline and tolls and brake-pad wear to be saved, and noxious emissions not to be emitted, if thousands of others and I stayed home and instead, as I kid a colleague who telecommutes one day a week, “worked in my jam-jams and bunny slippers” from home all day.

If ever there were a day to do it, this one, when the city was an icy tableaux, would have been it. But there I was, sliding into work.

I’ll tell you why in a bit. But first, as TV programmers like to say before inflicting five minutes of commercials on you, some background:

After a slow start, the idea of allowing employees to telework is catching on. Ten years ago, an estimated 18 million Americans telecommuted at least one day a week. The latest estimate that I could find is 44 million, and it’s not because of some population boom. More than 18 percent of VOA employees work from home at least once a week, and the percentage would be far higher if so many of my colleagues didn’t have to be here chasing stories and getting them on the air.

Even the international teleworking association folks might agree that this would be carrying telework a bit far.  A laptop on the back patio, maybe, but . . .   (mokolabs, Flickr Creative Commons)

Even the international teleworking association folks might agree that this would be carrying telework a bit far. A laptop on the back patio, maybe, but . . . (mokolabs, Flickr Creative Commons)

There’s even an International Teleworking Association and Council, whose president, John Edwards, once told me that telecommuters are “knowledge workers. Their tasks involve brainpower rather than brawn or face-to-face customer service.” They love to telework, he added, “even though they typically have to supply their own computers, telephones, fax machines, and office furniture — sometimes at a cost of thousands of dollars.”

On telework day, the employee does not have to waste time on water-cooler chit-chat, spends less money on lunch and little or nothing on gas, spills no pollution into the air, and, as Edwards put it, “by avoiding the long and tiring commute can spend more quality time with the family.” Read the rest of this entry »

Tinnissee, Y’all

Posted January 17th, 2011 at 5:01 pm (UTC-4)
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I haven’t written much about my father. That’s because I didn’t know him very well. He split when I was four. That’s a whole story for another time.

But I spent a little time with him late in his life, after he had remarried, to a lovely retired schoolteacher whom Carol and I liked very much. They had moved back to the place of their birth — the hills of eastern Tennessee. It was on our visit there, and on many subsequent trips, mostly through rather than to, that mid-South state, that we came to appreciate what a diverse and unusual place it is.

Sun sets in the Smokies.  The Appalachian Trail, the long footpath from Georgia in the South to Maine in far-north New England, winds right through this country.  (Brendan Reals)

Sun sets in the Smokies. The Appalachian Trail, the long footpath from Georgia in the South to Maine in far-north New England, winds right through this country. (Brendan Reals)

Diverse geographically, racially, geologically, and linguistically. You could flip through the big, fat, copy of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published just below the border at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and then check out almost all of the regional idiosyncrasies described therein in a few short days in Tennessee.

If you look at a United States map, you’ll see that states get larger and much more rectangular once you cross the Mississippi River on Tennessee’s western border. Eastern states come in all sorts of odd, crumpled configurations.

Deep in the Tennessee woods, Nature is sometimes left alone to be lovely. (Brendan Reals)

Deep in the Tennessee woods, Nature is sometimes left alone to be lovely. (Brendan Reals)

And Tennessee is a prime example. It looks like a long, thin layer squeezed between jumbles of states to its north and south. And once it was even wider, when it was the western extension of skinny North Carolina that stretches all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Even without Carolina, Tennessee is wide enough to encompass three different topographies: Hot, sultry lowlands along the Mississippi. Rolling hills in the middle. And the ancient Great Smoky Mountains to the east.

You can almost hear the differences by listening to Tennesseans’ voices: syrupy drawls in the cotton fields and historic old city of Memphis toward the west, faint southern accents along the mid-state plateau, and sharp mountain twangs in the east. Read the rest of this entry »

Memories in Stone

Posted January 14th, 2011 at 12:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Whenever I get the chance — and it isn’t often enough — I’ll take my lunch hour across the street from our VOA offices, briskly walking as much of the Washington National Mall as time and weather will allow.

So briskly, and so preoccupied by matters at work or the sports conversations streaming into the radio headsets in my ears, that I barely notice some of the most spectacular and moving pieces of architecture in the nation, if not the world.  They are our national monuments, many of them war memorials to the nation’s fallen.

This looks a lot like me on the National Mall these days but for two things: This person is thin, and he or she is RUNNING! (Carol M. Highsmith)

This looks a lot like me on the National Mall these days but for two things: This person is thin, and he or she is RUNNING! (Carol M. Highsmith)

And while millions of people, here and abroad, make elaborate plans and spend great time and money to visit Washington, just to see those same memorials as well as the phalanx of Smithsonian museums that lines the Mall, I am not alone in bypassing them without so much as a thought.  Cross-country skiers whoosh by these winter days, softball and soccer players chase balls right up to their edge come Spring, and commuters drive through and past the great greensward unmoved by its grandeur every day of the year.

Yet all across our nation, we go to great, even glorious, pains to remember those who served, and what they fought and died to defend.

There are statues and monuments dedicated to servicemen — and a few women — who fell in the Revolutionary War and the U.S. Civil War of the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.

This postcard view from 1905 shows a soldier and sailor monument created in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1886 to honor the estimated 4,000 Hartford citizens who served — and 400 who died — in the U.S. Civil War. (Library of Congress)

This postcard view from 1905 shows a soldier and sailor monument created in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1886 to honor the estimated 4,000 Hartford citizens who served — and 400 who died — in the U.S. Civil War. (Library of Congress)

Gigantic soldiers’ and sailors monuments and arches fill public squares and park entrances in Cleveland, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Brooklyn, New York; and other old cities in the North.  And you’ll find a lone statue to an ordinary, anonymous Confederate soldier from the U.S. Civil War in just about every southern town.  In Richmond, Virginia, one of the capitals of the Confederacy, there’s a whole row of memorials — this time to admirals and generals who fought for the South — on Monument Avenue.

But only the First World War and conflicts that followed have truly national monuments.  As you might expect, they are centered on the National Mall.

It’s hard to capture visitation numbers, but what may be the most popular memorial of all commemorates the nation’s most unpopular war.  From the day the memorial to American armed-service members killed in the Vietnam War opened in 1982, people have left thousands upon thousands of objects there – teddy bears, pairs of boots, small flags, photographs by the hundreds, even cans of beer – to remember loved ones and buddies.  Other visitors trace rubbings of one among more than 58,000 names on the memorial’s black-granite wall.

Many decades after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, people are still leaving small tributes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Many decades after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, people are still leaving small tributes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There are also majestic memorials to the veterans of the Second World War and the Korean conflict, even though the latter is considered “the forgotten war” that fell between the merciful end of World War II and the bitter war in Vietnam. Read the rest of this entry »

Aardvarks on the March!

Posted January 12th, 2011 at 2:42 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m on a bit of a nickname kick, as you know if you read my last posting about nicknames given to the 50 U.S. states.

Some things actually cry out for catchy names. You couldn’t very well talk about a college sports team as “that Harvard squad” or “the Texas A&M team” or “those Clemson lads” time after time. What would the play-by-play announcer, or the cheerleaders, say if there were no nicknames? “Go, you Auburn boys!”?  What would the team mascot be?

While we don’t give nicknames to the company accounting department or a utility repair crew, sports teams need razzmatazz.

Someone illustrated the historic first scrap on a football team between Rutgers and Princeton.  Looks more like a rugby match.  (Rutgers University)

Someone illustrated the historic first scrap on a football team between Rutgers and Princeton. Looks more like a rugby match. (Rutgers University)

No one seems to know which college came up with the first team nickname. When the initial collegiate football game was played in 1869 between neighboring Rutgers and Princeton in New Jersey, accounts describe only the competition between two “sides,” a la soccer terminology.

Yale University — like Princeton a member of the prestigious “Ivy League” of private northeastern colleges — is said to have come up with the first sports mascot: a living bulldog that waddled the sidelines. Some time earlier, the school had adopted the “Bulldogs” team nickname that it has kept to this day.

There has been a long success of “Uga” bulldog mascots.  Uga, as in “University of Georgia.”  Perhaps instead of clobbering other teams, the Bulldogs slobber them.  (hyku, Flickr Creative Commons)

There has been a long success of “Uga” bulldog mascots. Uga, as in “University of Georgia.” Perhaps instead of clobbering other teams, the Bulldogs slobber them. (hyku, Flickr Creative Commons)

Other early collegiate team names were unremarkable Tigers, Lions, Bears, Cougars and the like. Ferocious or, like the bulldog with the overbite, tenacious, but predictable. Running low on animals, some schools tacked on a color. Fifteen colleges now send out “Golden Eagles” squads, and there are Golden Bears, Golden Panthers — even Golden Bulls.

Black Bears, Blackbirds, and pesky Black Flies, too. Feisty Blue Hens and a howling Red Storm as well. There’s even a Cardinal team — not the bird but the color. Stanford University chose that deep-red hue as a nickname! Like several other institutions, it had decided that the politically incorrect “Indians” nickname that it had been using would no longer do.

To jack up the pugnaciousness of their squad names, many colleges preceded them with aggressive adjectives. You’ll find scrappers like Fighting Saints, Fighting Sioux, and Fighting Illini all across the land.  (With regard to the last of the “fighters,” Illini appears to be a contrived variation of “Illinois” — the Indian tribe after which the Midwest state and its big university were named.  The origin is so complex that the university archives department devotes an entire Web page to it.) Read the rest of this entry »

The Funky Fifty

Posted January 10th, 2011 at 4:45 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m a Buckeye. Carol is a Gopher.

A buckeye is a nut, so I guess that fits me, but Carol is assuredly not a buck-toothed rodent.

Yet, since I’m from Ohio — the “Buckeye State” — and Carol’s a native of the “Gopher State” — Minnesota — you’d be safe in calling us by our vegetable and animal appellations.

Little Gilroy, California, gets a whole lot more visitors than it ordinarily would, just by calling itself the world’s “Garlic Capital.” (besighyawn, Flickr Creative Commons)

Little Gilroy, California, gets a whole lot more visitors than it ordinarily would, just by calling itself the world’s “Garlic Capital.” (besighyawn, Flickr Creative Commons)

Indeed, Americans give nicknames to just about everyone and everything. I’ve always been a Ted, after all, not a Theodore to anyone but my mother, and she’s been gone for several years.  And I call Carol “Carola” from time to time, even though that sounds like the name of a crayon.

New York City is the “Big Apple.”  Dallas, Texas, is “Big D.”  There’s even a “Cement City”: Allentown, Pennsylvania, which would make its mayor the Cement Head. Various cities in California are the Artichoke, Broccoli, Apricot, Raisin, Garlic, and Avocado “Capitals of the World.”  A city in Michigan – Kalamazoo – is “Celery City.”

And you should hear some of the wild and wacky nicknames we give our college sports teams. I’m going to devote a whole blog to some of them later in the week.  A teaser: One college’s squads are called the Aardvarks!

Today, though, how about a metaphorical hopscotch across all 50 of the nation’s states, which have some of the most historically interesting nicknames?

Alabama is known as the “Heart of Dixie” because of its location smack in the middle of a row of Deep South States. “Dixie” itself is a nickname for the American South. It got started when Louisiana printed notes with the French word for “ten” on them. “Dix” — “D-I-X” — led to “Dixie,” and Dixie to Dixieland music. But it’s Alabama, not Louisiana, that’s the Heart of Dixie.

Alaska, way up by itself next to northwest Canada, is called the “Last Frontier” for understandable reasons. Straddling the Arctic Circle, it was the final part of the nation to be explored and settled.

You can walk or ride a mule down to the Colorado River, far, far below the rim of the Grand Canyon.  Either way, going down is scarier. (Carol M. Highsmith)

You can walk or ride a mule down to the Colorado River, far, far below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Either way, going down is scarier. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Arizona is the “Grand Canyon State” because of its awesome natural attraction, the winding canyon carved by the wild Colorado River.

The southern state of Arkansas calls itself the “Land of Opportunity.”  This was strictly a promotional nickname chosen by the legislature. Though one of America’s poorest states, Arkansas is rich in natural resources and has become an affordable, and popular, retirement destination. Locals prefer to call it the “Razorback State,” after a lean and mean wild hog that roams the Ozark Mountains. Read the rest of this entry »

Mum(mer)’s the Word

Posted January 7th, 2011 at 12:18 pm (UTC-4)
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No doubt the star of this posting will be Carol’s photographs, so I urge you to hang in to the end to take them all in.

She and I spent New Year’s Day in an unlikely place: Philadelphia. Unlikely, because we had long figured that Philly’s cherished New Year’s Mummers Parade would be an earnest, energetic, moderately photogenic, but amateurish and intoxicated exhibition of street theater. On an inhospitably frigid January day, to boot.

These folks didn’t look too unkempt back in 1909. (Library of Congress)

These folks didn’t look too unkempt back in 1909. (Library of Congress)

I had seen a few black-and-white photos of costumed Mummers who looked like your scruffy cousin Fred and his dissolute pal Al, paying off a lost wager. Carol, who had lived in Philadelphia for eight years some time ago, never once left the house to catch a Mummers Parade. From what she had heard and had seen on TV, she assumed the procession would be rowdy and, well, tacky.

But we headed north from our Maryland home to see it anyway this year, mostly to reconnect with old friends and to chuck a few new entries into Carol’s photo archive.

And oh, how wrong we were about the nature and quality of the Mummers’ festivities, and how glad we are that we went.

This was no free-form street happening, no bacchanal with bands. The Mummers Parade — the 111th on 1/1/11! — was a daylong procession of performances that were mirthful, magical, mind-bending, and memorable beyond our wildest expectations.

Captain Charlie Roetz and his Quaker City String Band’s “My Kind of Clown” finished first in the tough String Bands Division.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Captain Charlie Roetz and his Quaker City String Band’s “My Kind of Clown” finished first in the tough String Bands Division. (Carol M. Highsmith)

They were a glittering necklace of musical and dance productions that Broadway choreographers would be hard-pressed to match.

Trust me, this is saying something, coming from devotees of Mardi Gras. To our astonishment, the Mummers outdid New Orleans’s costumed street epic in many ways.

At the latter, crowds of excited tourists and lubricated locals — drinking is cheerfully tolerated on the streets of the Big Easy — yell themselves hoarse begging trinkets from masquers passing in review. These “krewe” members ride high atop themed floats that are recycled from year to year.

A comic club’s cadre, large and small, cavort — in “golden” slippers, of course. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A comic club’s cadre, large and small, cavort — in “golden” slippers, of course. (Carol M. Highsmith)

By contrast, Philly’s Mummers walk, run, and dance — quite a few bobbing parasols as they go — block after block amidst the crowd in original costumes each year, sometimes in formation, sometimes in joyous, helter-skelter waves. Their bent-knee struts are a Mummer trademark, said to be inspired by the 19th-century “cakewalk.”  

Replete with bending and bowing, this dance began as a competition — for which fancy cakes were the prize — among plantation masters and slaves in the pre-Civil War South. The cakewalk “went national” in Philadelphia, coincidentally, at the 1876 worlds fair that celebrated the centennial of American independence. Read the rest of this entry »

Just the Facts, Maybe

Posted January 5th, 2011 at 1:12 pm (UTC-4)
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Most decent computer document programs include “spell-checker” software on which students and even some professional writers quickly come to rely.

Spell-checkers would do well in spelling bees.  Or would they? (Artman1122, Flickr Creative Commons)

Spell-checkers would do well in spelling bees. Or would they? (Artman1122, Flickr Creative Commons)

As they type away, the spell-checker miraculously sniffs out words that appear to be improperly spelled.  It does this in nanoseconds by comparing each one against its storehouse of correctly spelled words.  For poor or tentative spellers, this is the best thing since sliced bread.

Some computer spell-sleuths just highlight suspicious words and let the writer decide what to do.  More assertive programs barge right in and change the spelling according to what they deduce belongs there.

As I was batting out the previous sentence, for instance, I deliberately mistyped the word “assertive,” giving it just one “s.” My spell-checker fixed it before I had even finished the word.

If I absolutely DID want it spelled “asertive” for some reason, I’d have had to stop and backspace out the second “s.”  This would have irritated the haughty spell-checker, which would immediately underline “asertive” in red, as if to say, “Don’t blame ME for this, you bonehead.”

After enough of these battles of wits, some writers just let the spell-checkers “fix” whatever words they see fit to fix.

A visual metaphor for the lazy computer user — notice the mouse — who’s too reliant upon spell-checkers to clean up his or her copy. (Public Domain Photos, Flickr Creative Commons)

A visual metaphor for the lazy computer user — notice the mouse — who’s too reliant upon spell-checkers to clean up his or her copy. (Public Domain Photos, Flickr Creative Commons)

Reliance on these electronic copy editors is producing a nation of lazy spellers.  They’ve discovered that even those who can’t spell “cat” can now crank out presentable papers.
But spell-checkers can do more dramatic damage.  Three years ago, I told our VOA audience about what happened to some unfortunate folks at Middletown Area High School in Pennsylvania.

Like most U.S. secondary schools and colleges, Middletown High publishes a yearbook full of photographs and stories about its students, faculty, and activities.  Yearbooks are keepsakes that can be touchstones of memories for generations to come.

The company producing Middletown High’s annual book deployed the hottest and latest electronic proofreading software to edit the yearbook’s text.  A little too hot, as it turned out.  Its hyper-aggressive spell-checker ran amok, overriding and replacing several people’s names.  The spell program turned poor Max Zupanovic, for instance, into “Max Supernova.”  How did Zupanovic become Supernova?  Ask the lamebrain computer. Read the rest of this entry »

Millennium Flap Redux

Posted December 27th, 2010 at 3:45 pm (UTC-4)
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Not to bring up a bad dream, but do you recall the tizzy many of us were in 10 years ago.  Or 11?

Those of us following the Christian Gregorian calendar were worrying ourselves sick about the new millennium, and not just because a lot of doomsayers said this surely meant the End Was Near.

How calm things seem right now, looking ahead to a new decade.

Just another year, or the start of something big, like a decade? (Alaivani, Flickr Creative Commons)

Just another year, or the start of something big, like a decade? (Alaivani, Flickr Creative Commons)

Or is it a new decade?  Must we get into that?  The turn of the centuries and millennia was bad enough.

At least we’ll soon be rid of the 20-oughts, or whatever we’re supposed to have been calling the first few years of this century.  If you’re like me, you’ve avoided calling them anything at all, waiting and hoping that the “teens” would arrive.

If you think all this is confusing, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the announcer used to introduce the old Lone Ranger radio dramas.

As I said, 11 years ago, in late 1999, a lot of us were nervously preparing for the new millennium, which would start with the flip of the calendar to the year 2000.

Or would it?

Is it party time? (besighyawn, Flickr Creative Commons)

besighyawn

Not for a thousand years had a decade, a century, and a millennium changed all at once.  It’s the reason hotel rooms on New Year’s Eve in party cities like New York and New Orleans and Paris had been booked solid for years.  Unprecedented celebrations were planned all over the western world, especially.

But then millennium scholars, mathematicians, and other purists spoiled the fun.  If the calendar in common use worldwide in our modern times was to be believed, they said, the REAL millennium change was a year away, at the end of 2000.

Never mind that in his State of the Union address in January 1999, President Bill Clinton told the nation:

Barely more than 300 days from now, we will cross that    bridge into the new millennium.

And he touted his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, new government initiative called “the Millennium Project” — a series of thought-provoking lectures about the nation’s past and future.

Problem was, there were those who said he was beckoning the nation across that bridge into the new 1,000-year millennium a year too early.

You see, if you accepted the Christian calendar, the Third Millennium wasn’t due to arrive until January 1, 2001. 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

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