Spare a moment to remember that this is one of the most important dates in American history.
The British troops left New York in early December, leaving the American army in control of the colonies. All over the world the usual result of such a situation was the head of the military declaring himself king.
On December 23 commander George Washington appeared before Congress to resign his commission and go back to being a private citizen. And ever since then in our country the military has been the servant of civilian rule.
Supposedly when King George III heard about this he said "If this is true he is the greatest man who ever lived."
You may have heard the news that scientists have concluded thy be three times as many stars as they previously thought.
Cool stuff, but what got my attention was newspapers responding to it. For example, the Bellingham Herald, my local paper, had the best headline (and it is a rare thing when I think they do the best of anything). Here is what they came up with:
Star count may hit 300,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 On two lines, just like that. Doesn't that capture the enormity better than words would do? But the best lede for a story on the subject came from the New York Times.
It really is full of stars.
If you don't know what reporter Keneth Chang was invoking (and using to capture a sense of wonder in our amazing universe), shame on you. Brush up on your Clarke.
I just discovered the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, a website that brings together articles on many subjects from the Smithsonian Institution. One that caught my eye was The Feather Trade, about a 19th century conservation movement. Feathered hats were so popular they were endangering some species of birds. Very cool stuff.
Here is a fascinating government document (not a contradiction in terms) that you can read for free on the web. The Invisible Cryptologists is the story of an all-African American unit of the U.S. Signals Intelligence Service (SIS) that served from World War II to the mid-fifties. These men and women, all college graduates, worked at mostly boring low-paying jobs with little hope of promotion, but they categorized and translated thousands upon thousands of enemy messages. Their unit was variously called "the snake pit," "the plantation," and "the black hole of Calcutta." Not a lot of respect there.
Here is one worker explaining how he moved from the boring task of typing punch cards to a more challenging job: "I knew that somewhere people were selecting messages, and I began to wonder how did they pick some messages and throw some away. So as a result, I enrolled in a Russian course at the Department of Agriculture. Soon, I was off the machines and pulling tapes, based on keywords. Once we pulled the tapes, we bundled them in categories and put numbers on them that designated subject areas. But it was a little more complicated than that. Many times the print on the tape was not clear, so we had to read the punched holes. I think what we did was was critical because we threw away what we thought wasn’t any good. If there was anything good in there, it was lost – it went in the burn bag."
Yesterday we went to the new Lightcatcher Building of the Whatcom Museum. Certainly one of the finest buildings in Bellingham, and a terrific exhibit from the Smithsonian. 1934: A New Deal For Artists. In late 1933 FDR set up the Public Works of Art Project, paying artists to create works about the American Scene. The exhibit has about 100 amazing works from this blossoming. My favorite is this stunning painting by an unidentified painter, of a new underpass in Binghamton, NY. To me it looks mysterious and classical, as if the other end of that tunnel could be ancient Athens. The gold miner is another masterpiece. (The Roosevelts chose to hang it in the White House). And my wife's favorite is a picture of cotton workers by an African-American painter who died at age 23...
After that we rushed over to the Episcopalian Church on Broadwat to hear the release concert for the third CD by Bellingham's premier klezmer band, What The Chelm. Great show and I am eagerly waiting for a chance to open Til Chem Freezes Over and pop it in the player.
Deja vu all over again. I saw a container of Peaberry coffee and the words Teaberry Shuffle popped into my head. For the younger generation, the CLark Company put out a commercial for Teaberry Gum in 1967 using a maddeningly memorable tune by Herb ALpert and the Tijuana Brass. The tune was a huge hit and sold a lot of gum. I had no trouble pulling it out of my memory banks 40 years later. Here it is.
Okay, maybe I am indulging in wishful thinking, but boy, I would like it to be true. Just spent a week in Copenhagen and this is, as advertised, a world-class cycling city. What you are looking at is a bike lane, physically separated from the car lanes and the sidewalk. Some of them have their own traffic lights (which give the biker a head start over right-turning cars). Some of the lanes have green bicycle imprints which mean they are part of the Green Wave - at rush hour bikers traveling at 20 km per hour don't ever hit a red light.
Denmark created a policy to encourage biking and the result is that almost 40% of Copenhageners commute that way. Incredible.
An interesting side effect: don't expect to see a lot of jocks in the bike lanes. Instead you see the typical commuters: cigarette in their lips, cell phone in one hand, no helmet.
I saw one guy with a popcicle in one hand and a map in the other, no hands on the handlebars. One day in the rain I saw a man in a suit bicycling, full speed ahead, with an open umbrella in front of him. I doubt if he could see anything, but he didn't seem to mind.
And worse, I saw a man riding with a baby (one year old?) on his hip. No helmets. Scary. As I understand it, children are required to wear helmets, and most of them did.
We rented bikes for about $80 for the week. Brought our own helmets. Our apartment was about four miles from downtown (south of Amager Faelled) Great ride to town. Highly recommended.
Oh, it probably doesn't hurt that the highest point in Denmark is only 600 feet high.
I was at the university bookstore trying to decide whether to buy a 2Gb flash drive or blow another seven bucks for double the capacity, when suddenly I had an awful memory.
Five and a quarter inch floppies.
Unlike the three inch floppies that came later these things really did flop and were easy to bend and therefore break. The first computer I had ran on them, and I mean ran on them. You had to put in one with the operating system each time you turned the machine on.
But that wasn't the worst part. Each time you bought a new floppy you had to format it. That means you put it in the machine and the computer had to think about it before a minute or two before it could be used.
Ah, the good old days.
Using this website I just estimated that if I had a full 2Gb flash drive and for some insane reason I wanted to convert it all to five inch floppoes (and I could find an antique machine that had such a drive, it would take about 12,000 floppies. If I could format one a minute that would take more than a week, just to format. And boy, did we think those computers were great.
This month the Government Printing Office is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This is the institution that sends depository libraries like mine thousands of publications each year so that the public - not just our students - can be informed.
They have a lovely video which I can't embed but you can see here. Can you imagine an era when a government agency provided an in-house bowling alley for its blue collar workers?
The first Saturday in May is the Procession of the Species. A parade for anyone who comes dressed as an animal or plant. Three rules: No engines, no words (written or spoken), and no live animals. I believe that last rule was violated, or there were some VERY convincing dog costumes.
When I started working at the university I bought a parking pass. This was a hunting license allowing me to look for a space in a gravel lot that was a twelve minute walk from my office.
A year later, when it came time to renew the permit, I said the heck with that, and bought a bike. It turns out that for what it would cost to park a car I can buy a nice bike every few years and throw in the university-subsidized bus pass for those days when the weather or my health make a bike look two wheels too few.
Recently I calculated that I have commuted to work a whopping 30,000 miles since I switched to the bike. According to the EPA’s Household Emission Calculator that's about 408,420 pounds of CO2 I didn't produce.
Besides being good for the planet my bike commute is great for my health and easy on the wallet - it has extended the life of my car by, most likely, two years.
This is worth celebrating, and it happens that Friday, May 21, is Bike To Work And School Day. Oddly enough I will not bike to work that day. Instead I will help to staff one of the many Celebration Stations around town. If you bike or bus or walk to your job that day, drop by one of the stations for all kinds of treats - coffee, fruit, donuts, candy, and chances for prizes.
Don't worry about the calories. You can pedal them off.
This NPR story tells of an idea so brilliant it staggers me. In neighborhoods of Baltimore where there are no grocery stores nearby ("food deserts") the city library is filling the gap. Patrons can order their food in the branch library and a supermarket delivers it to the branch the next day. Each order means a family member visits the library twice - often with kids - and I'll bet they become dedicated fans. Talk about thinking outside the box!
The project is paid for by a $60,000 stimulus grant.
I was listening to Fred Eaglesmith's album Drive-In Movie today and decided to see if there were any videos on Youtube. I'm not a big fan of country, and I guess that's what Eaglesmith does, but wow, what a great album.
You might say it's a theme album and the theme is: love and machines. No, not that kind of machine, wiseguy. The titles include "I Like Trains," "49 Tons (of Diesel Locomotive)," "Here's The Keys," etc. ONe of my favorites is "White Rose," which is about a gas station closing.
I have been enjoying the Government Printing Office's new blog, Government Book Talk, which I wrote about here.The latest entry concerns the new edition of the GPO Style Manual.
That reminded me of my favorite federal book about language, Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go. It was written by John O'Hayre and published by the Bureau of Land Management in 1966.
It is thoroughly outdated, of course. It assumes all women are secretaries, and I don't mean Secretaries of State. But as a guide to clear language and an antidote to gov-speak, it is hard to beat. Here is one of my favorite passages.
"Here's a pompous memo that rankled F.D.R. so much that he rewrote it and shot it back to the man who pomped it up in the first place. The memo dealt with what Federal workers were to do in case of an air raid:
Such preparations will be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reasons of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by black=out construction or by termination of illumination.
Here's how F.D.R. dignified the memo by giving it simplicity:
Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something over the windows; and, in buildings where they can let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights."
I'll bet the memo writer hated to lose obscuration. It seemed to be his motto.
Okay, this cracked me up, even though the main part of the story was tragic....
Most mornings, when I'm checking my email before work, I listen to WUMB, the Boston radio station that plays only folk music. Every morning Dave Palmater announces events from music history that happened on this date. Inevitably, most of them are about rock.
Today he made an announcement that went something like this: "On this day in 1966 Jan Berry of Jan and Dean was almost killed in a car accident near Dead Man's Curve."
There was a pause as he thought about what to say next. Then:
"I'm not going to explain it. If you're under fifty, don't worry about it. It's not important."
My university library is a federal depository, which means that the government sends us publications in various forms for us to make available to the public. But it means more than that. For example, we have access, ONLY because we are a depository, to the Homeland Security Digital Library, which has more than 70,000 government publications on a much wider variety of topics than the name might suggest.
For example, a class is working on response to the earthquake in Haiti. I went to HSDL and searched for Haiti earthquake, limiting to publications where those words appeared in the title or summary. Here are some of the 49 responses, all full-text. Many of them have been updated numerous times.
Haiti Earthquake: Crisis and Response 2010 Haiti Earthquake and Caribbean Earthquake Risk Guidance for Relief Workers and Others Traveling to Haiti for Earthquake Response 'Build Back Better' in Haiti: Lessons from the Indonesian Tsunami Council Conclusions on the Earthquake in Haiti: Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council Meeting 2010 Haiti Earthquake Pre-decision Brief: Leptospirosis
A few days ago I was listening to NPR and I heard Susan Jane Gilman review The Bridge, a biography of Barack Obama by David Remnick. I was listening along peacefully enough until she announced:
In a particularly sobering section, Remnick notes that 12 American presidents owned slaves, eight while in office…
Well, yes, I knew that. In fact, while Gilman got that news from Remnick, almost certainly Remnick had gotten it, directly or otherwise, from me.
Back in 2001 I read an article by Andrew Levy in The American Scholar. “The Anti-Jefferson” was about Robert Carter III, a neighbor of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who decided it was wrong to own people. Over time he freed about five hundred slaves, more than any other individual in U.S. history. (Levy later wrote a wonderful book about Carter, The First Emancipator.)
The article fascinated me and made we wonder how many presidents owned slaves. It wasn’t easy to find out. I tried paper and web sources and got conflicting and partial information. Part of the problem was confusion between how many owned slaves during their lifetimes versus how many owned them during the presidency.
Since I’m a librarian I knew what to do next. I spent a lot of lunch hours going through the history books and concluded, as you already guessed, that the numbers were twelve and eight.
Then I created a website: Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves? It includes 4 pages of bibliography to back up my views, and every relevant quotation I could find from our first eighteen presidents (number 18, Ulysses S. Grant, was the last who owned slaves in his lifetime).
Crossing The Bridge
So, I was excited to see if Remnick had cited me. It would be fun to appear in the endnotes of what sounded like might be a bestseller.
My website has been cited before. One author was kind enough to send me a copy of his book. It has also been noted in a doctorate dissertation, a newspaper article, and at least one scholarly paper.
And there is another sign that I have become, so to speak, the authority in the field. Search Google for which presidents owned slaves. My website comes up first. Of the other nine sites that come up on the first Google page, five link to mine. (And I am just malicious enough to note that at least one of the four sites that doesn’t link to mine got the number wrong.)
Of course, I knew Remnick’s book was a popular, rather than an academic volume, so it might not have endnotes at all. As it turns out, The Bridge does. Almost 600 endnotes, in fact, and a bibliography. But my name appears in neither place. The exact quotation, on page 562, says
Twelve Presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office.
But there is no endnote explaining where Remnick got his information.
At first I was quite annoyed. Then it occurred to me: Maybe my declaration has become common knowledge.
Missing a sale
You don’t have to cite things everybody knows. Do you want to mention that Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter about slavery to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855? You had better cite your source. But if you want to say that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president, hey, no endnote needed. Because everybody knows that.
And I suppose that would be Remnick’s take on it. The conclusion I dug out over so many lunch hours ten years ago is now something everybody knows.
You can’t copyright a fact, of course, only the expression of it. And it is kind of cool to have become a bearer of common knowledge, if that is what happened here. Still, if my name appeared in the book, Remnick’s sales would have increased by one.
Went to the Farmers Market downtown. Since it was the first Saturday in April I made sure to get there for the opening.
Later I ran into G., a friend who moved to town last year. "Were you here for the cabbage toss?" I asked.
"What cabbage toss?"
I explained that, to officially open the new market season, the mayor of Bellingham ceremonially throws out the first cabbage at 10 AM on the first day.
G. gave me a look that said "SURE he does."
Well, it's true. That's life in Bellingham.
Later I went over to Kulshan Cycles to pick up my bike which was in for a tune-up. The wheel wonders at Kulshan have set my vehicle up for another year on the trails and commuting routes.
I pedaled over to the Upfront Theatre. When Ryan Stiles (of The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?) moved to Whatcom County he founded the Upfront to indulge his love for improv comedy. This was the day of the annual Improvathon where a group of young actors do 27 hours of comedy, just for the hell of it. For ten bucks I watched two hours of it. The highlight, for me, was a lengthy story of a quest, which involved a knight having to defeat several monsters at Yahtzee.
After that I wheeled over to the Public Library where I ran into my friend E, who was looking for some new female novelists to try out. I recommended THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT, my favorite novel by Diane Chamberlain, who happens to be my sister. Keep it in the family.
After a hurried dinner I went over to the Mount Baker Theatre, our city's big house, built in the 1920s, and caught the national touring company production of Cabaret. I lost track of people saying "The plot of the movie was completely different." Yup, and much better. But the music is great.
Then it was home to bed. Just another day in the City of Subdued Excitement.
Photo by Layna Bennehoff, taken on a much warmer and sunnier Saturday than yesterday.
The Government Printing Office wants to tell you about interesting government publications (not an oxymoron). They have started a blog called Government Book Talk with a monthly listing for some publication of interest. This month in honor of March Madness they are having a "National Park Playoff." Vote for your favorite park poster or handbook.
The site still has some teething pains (when I first pulled it up it wouldn't work on Internet Explorer, on Firefox some of the boxes were blank, and they are still working on getting an RSS feed.) But it is a step in the right direction.
I often make fun of illustrations in government publications, but this may be the best I have ever seen. If you can't get a good look, blow it up.
The Department of Labor publishes the Occupational Outlook Quarterly to help people decide what job might be right for them. In today's economy a lot of people are trying to think outside the box, and OOQ might give them some helpful ideas.
Have you seen this video? Sorry I can't figure out how to embed it. It is a music video like the Pacific Ocean is a wet place. 185 people singing the same piece in front of their computers, and the sound is beautiful, but just as brilliant is the visual production which lets you see each choir member individually.
A demonstration of what web interactivity can achieve. Amazing.
So, a week before the official U.S. Decennial Census form goes into the mail one of our national political parties has sent out a fund-raising letter disguised as a push poll disguised as a survey disguised as a census form. Let's see if we can count the ways this is offensive.
* It shows contempt for the thousands of people who have been working for years (and spending millions of taxpayer dollars, by the way) to create the most accurate possible census.
* It shows comtempt for the U.S. Constitution which requires the census (Article 1, Section 2) as an important step in establishing Congressional districts.
* It shows comtempt for the party's own message, since it says in effect, "the best way to convince you we're right is to mislead you."
* It shows comtempt for the party's supporters, since it says, in effect, "We think you are too dumb to know the difference between a census form and an advertisement."
Apparently the party in question has been doing this sort of thing for years. That doesn't make it right, and doing it a week before the actual Census form goes out is disgraceful. To my mind, this is about two steps from claiming to be the Nigerian finance minister.
This may be the most unusual music video I have ever put on this blog. Composer Melissa Dunphy has written an opera based on the Alberto Gonzales 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing transcript. The opera is entitled: "The Gonzales Cantata."
I've been working in this library for more than 20 years and there is no government publication here I haven't handled at least once. And yet there are still surprises. Take the attached brochure for Asir National Park, dated 1986.
If you have been to any of our wonderful national parks you probably recognize the format of this brochure (the original is in color, by the way). The National Park Service has been using the same format for their publications for a long, long time. I remember reading an article in a design magazine praising their grid format for its flexibility, clarity, and consistency.
So, hooray, a government program that works. A little unusual, perhaps, but why would I say it's a surprise?
Weirdness Number 1. Asir National Park isn't in the United States. It's in Saudi Arabia. Notice the photo of the Red Sea.
Okay, that's a little more unusual. But not a great shock. Another government liked the style and copied it. U.S. federal documents aren't copyrighted, so no harm done. Flattery is the sincerest, etc. What's the big deal?
Weirdness Number 2. This brochure is in the federal documents collection as an official U.S. National Park Service publication. Sudoc number: I 29.6: As4.
Fair enough. Our National Park Service helping out a sibling agency. All in the best interest and tradition, etc. So?
Weirdness Number 3. Nowhere on the publication does it mention the U.S. National Park Service. It says the publisher is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ministry of Agriculture and Water.
So it is a federal document that dares not speak its name. The only similar examples I can think of are the street atlases of places like Beijing and Moscow that were put out by the Central Intelligence Agency. Apparently no one wanted to stroll through those cities with a book with CIA stamped on the cover. Go figure.
The Defense Department just put out a nice book, intended for the military but of use to anyone interested in NGOs (NonGovernmental Organizations). Here is the official title: Guide to Nongovernmental Organizations for the Military: A primer for the military about private, voluntary, and nongovernmental organizations operating in humanitarian emergencies globally.
If you think about it, the military runs into NGOs every time they are sent to earthquake zones, or similar disaster sites, so it makes sense to make sure the officers know how they work.
The best part is a 100-plus page directory of NGOs, giving phone numbers, budgets, e-mail, etc. \
Nothing to say here, except that this photograph with caption reminds me of the Census Bureau's jokey ads about taking a snapshot of America. The illustration comes courtesy of the City of Witchita, Kansas.
Occasionally we get questions about the dates the U.S. was officially at war with some other country. Here is a nice, authoritative source. The Congressional Research Service has published a list of official periods starting with the Indian Wars (January 1, 1817, through December 31, 1898) and continuing up to the wars that haven’t ended.
The main purpose is to help determine whether someone is eligible for veteran’s benefits, but students have asked for these dates as well.
Last month I put up a link to a Procol Harum video and said what I really wanted was a live performance of "Power Failure," preferably with original drummer B.J. Wilson in action. And here it is. Sorry about the psychedlia.
It's a strange thing to read about a historical movement or moment and realize that you, unwittingly, were part of it.
Years ago I read a piece by a fellow government information librarian about an older man coming into the library looking for tax forms. When he discovered he was in a depository for federal documents he asked if they had any publications about the Korean War. He had fought there and had always remembered one battle he and his comrades had marched to, fought at, and those who survived marched away from. Life went on, and no one ever told them the point of that fight or even who had won. He was thrilled to find a Defense Department book that told him what his part in the War had been about.
My tale is not so dramatic, fortunately.
I am working on a short story about the riots that hit Plainfield, NJ during the long hot summer of 1967. They effected my family in several ways. But in researching that event I came across an earlier one.
My first years of education were spent at Cedarbrook School, which was all White. In sixth grade I was moved to Washington School which was closer to home and had both Black and White students. The next year I moved to a junior high. I always thought it was weird that Plainfield had a special school for sixth graders, but never thought much more than that.
In one of the articles I read I learned that Plainfield fully integrated its schools in 1967 but two years earlier they had acquiesed to complaints by integrating Washington School, which had been all-Black even though it was close to some White eighborhoods.
It turned out I was part of the school integration movement. Nobody ever mentioned it to me - as far as I recall.
So what do I remember from Washington School? Two great teachers, Mr. Charloff and Mrs. Sonin. One new friend, Craig Sweet. And life went on...
This is incredibly cool. The Council for Environmental Cooperation (i.e. the governments of U.S., Canada, and Mexico) have created a free, online atlas of the environment. You can add and subtract layers, remove political boundaries, etc. The pretty banners you see on this page are actually the lines of marine vessel emissions, which is to say pollution from ships.
If you have been following this blog at all you probably think I'm a complete folkie and never listen to rock. Well, not quite. Here is a number by my favorite band from the sixties/seventies, Procol Harum. Pay attention to the late B.J. Wilson. He seems so much the perfect nerd that it's easy to miss the fact that he was one of the greatest drummers in the business.
While Youtube is loaded with videos of Procol's big soft hits like A Whiter Shade Of Pale and A Salty Dog, a lot of the hard rockers are missing. I would love to see Power Failure (with BJ on drums), Drunk Again, and Nothing But The Truth. (There is a version of Nothing on Youtube, but Sir Gary Brooker screw up the lyrics somethng fierce.)
So on April 1 of this year the U.S. Census Bureau will attempt to count every person in the United States and find out some information about them. As a librarian I can assure that government agencies will be using these figures to place roads, schools, senior centers, etc. and that in fifty or a hundred years people will still be using them to find out how we lived way back when.
To promote the Census the Bureau called in Christopher Guest, director of mockumentaries like BEST IN SHOW and A MIGHTY WIND. The results are, well, weird.