Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Feather Trade

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.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heroes of the plantation

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."

Tip of the iguana tail to Government Book Talk.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A winning title

You never know what you will stumble on in the Government Documents collection. Here is my absolute favorite discovery in recent years. This is the actual title of a congressional publication:


Personally, I was surprised that the Committee was engaged in terrorism. I suspect some Native Americans would only be surprised that someone was combating it. But perhaps I grow cynical.

The photo, by the way, is of a different hearing by that committee. It was uploaded by sherrielynn33.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Just another day in Bellingham, WA, 4

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.