Monthly Archives: December 2012

Technology Wednesday–A First World Problem

You might recognize the tangle of cables pictured above as a fairly typical cluster of power and connection cables for computers, phones, cameras and other electronic devices that we have all come to depend on. You might also think that I need to organize said cables, which I tried, but it didn’t help much. So I keep the ones I use most frequently plugged into a power strip, and the ones I use less piled in a shoe box. I dumped the cables out of the shoe box onto the floor for dramatic effect.

Yes, I know this is a first world problem and I should either get organized or shut up, but it occurred to me that it would be nice if manufacturers of electronic devices could agree on some standard plug-ends for these cables. The USB (the U does mean universal, after all) comes close, but there are also mini-USB’s and 1/4 inch plugs and 3.5 mm plugs and RCA plugs and plugs I don’t know the name of except they’re not like any other plugs.

If standards seem impossible, manufacturers did agree on standards for the LP record, the (shudder) eight-track cassette, the cassette audio tape, the VHS video tape, the CD and, I suppose, the .mp3 format. So it is possible. So what do ya say, manufacturers? You can name it anything you like or you can name it after me. I won’t mind a bit. Just a plug for standardization.


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The Autumn Leaves

Jacques Prevert

I seem to be writing about leaves a lot this week. Maybe that’s because there are great piles of them at the curb everywhere I look when I go outside.

I was reminded of the poem “Autumn Leaves” by the great French poet Jacques Prevert, published in 1945. Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics for the song in 1947 and it was made famous by various artists, including an instrumental version by Roger Williams.

Here’s a combination French/English version by Edith Piaf:

Autumn Leaves

Words: Prevert/Mercer 
Music: Kosma

The falling leaves
Drift by the window
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold

I see your lips
The summer kisses
The sunburned hands
I used to hold

Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I’ll hear
Old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all
My darling
When autumn leaves
Start to fall

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Bringing in the Leaves

Leaf truck and vacuum, but not from Manassas. This does look like our corner of the world, though.

The neighborhood we live in has a number of mature 100 year-plus maples and oaks. They’re one of the reasons we bought the house 25 years ago. In the spring, their leaves are a golden green; in the summer, they furnish cool shade; in the fall, a flaming display of reds and oranges and yellow. And yes, they fall to the ground and must be blown or raked to the curb to be gathered up by the great roaring leaf truck run by the City of Manassas.

I supposed the suburban homeowner could let the leaves lie, but no one does. Every lot is cleaned of its annual leaffall and the great long leafbarrows taken up by the huge vacuum hose. The streets left behind are pristine, and so we are ready for winter. It’s part of a suburban cycle as sure as the harvest of rural areas. 

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Poem of the Week–Floating

(I was reminded of this poem by my former student, Skye Nightingale Robertson. Thank you, Skye. I wrote it in 1990 when my brother was a pilot for Delta Airlines and I was getting up early to teach school.)

Just before the clock radio

Snaps on, I am floating in the dark

Somewhere between sleep and waking

Somehow I know

At this moment

In another time zone

My brother is landing

Suspended forty feet ahead of

Wings he cannot see

He grabs a handful of throttles

And pulls them back.

The turbines settle toward silence

Wings flex slightly upward

And the rippling fuselage sags

Toward the black-streaked runway.

For a moment, we float together,

Buoyed by air trapped beneath the wing,

In the second between flying and waking

In the moment between dreaming and landing

We float toward earth

And the dark dawn.

–Dan Verner

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One of several instruments that I play badly is the five-string banjo. It’s difficult to play in bluegrass style, and while I can play that style very slowly, I don’t seem to get any better at it. But I’m not here to talk about my musical limitations. The five-string, a uniquely American instrument, has a short top or fifth string which is usually tuned to a high “G.” A banjo may be tuned in several ways, but the most common is the “G” tuning in which the strings are tuned (from the top down) G-D-G-B-D. In other words, when played “open” (no strings fretted), a G chord results.

The top G acts as a drone. It is rarely fretted and in bluegrass style, sounds almost constantly.

Other instruments also make use of a drone. The Scottish bagpipe is one example. So is the Indian sitar.

Songs also  use of drone notes. “Restless,” by my man Gordon Lightfoot, begins with a B on the keyboard which is held during the entire song. The Beatles used a middle-range drone in “Blackbird.” There are high drones on the last verses of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.”

The connection to writing is this: the urge to write and ideas for writing form a constant undercurrent for the writers. Every waking moment, that urge and those ideas are present. One of the concerns I have as a writer is that I will wake up one day and have nothing to write about. It hasn’t happened so far, and I don’t think it will and I hope that it won’t. In the meantime, there’s this undercurrent of writing that runs through my life and the lives of other writers I know.

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Technology Wednesday–An Obscure (to me) Machine

Conptometer, circa 1940

I was talking to a lady about my age last week, about various jobs she had had, and she mentioned that she was once a conptometer operator. I had never heard of such a machine, but apparently they were a kind of calculator that somehow enabled operators to figure taxes and discounts and to enter lengthy numbers (depending on how many fingers they cared to use) all at once rather than serially as we are used to doing with a calculator. These machines were in use from the 1870’s through the 1990’s. They were, of course, supplanted by electronic calculators and computers, but for a while anyhow, they ruled the roost. Just goes to show that there’s always something that we don’t know and that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Link to good Wikipedia article on conptometers:

Speaking of older technology, I was at a holiday gathering this past weekend and someone had a phonograph and played actual LP’s. I can’t remember the last time I listened to an LP. It sounded good.

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A Song of the Season

 “Over the River and Through the Woods” is an example of a Thanksgiving song that, in most of the verses, doesn’t mention Thanksgiving. “Jingle Bells!” is another example of a song associated with Christmas that doesn’t mention Christmas, but nonetheless is widely sung throughout the world, even though most of us haven’t been close enough to a one-horse sleigh to be bitten by the horse, except maybe in a museum.

One music historian observes that the title is an imperative telling or wishing for the bells on the horse’s harness to jingle, although “jingle bells” is also taken as the bells themselves.

Most of us are familiar with the first verse and chorus:

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh! (repeat)
The song celebrates the custom of young swains in New England in the first part of the nineteenth century to drive light, open sleighs with the fastest horse they could find. Having the fastest sleigh meant they could outdo their rivals and, not incidentally, impress the young ladies. In my day, young men vied to put the largest engine into the lightest car they could find, with much the same purpose, although they had more than one horsepower. (Sorry.)
The next verses specifically speak of impressing the ladies:
A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we—we got upsot
“Upsot” is an antiquated English past tense for “upset,” although there was a fad at the time for humorous misspelling of words. (I’m just sayin’—we don’t find this as humorous these days.)
In the next verse, our young friend falls out of the sleigh and a rival laughs at him:
A day or two ago,
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow,
And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.
The last verse is full of advice: go sleighing while you‘re young (presumably to better tolerate crashes), take the girls, sing the sleighing song and get a fast horse (“Two forty as his speed“ refers to the horse‘s time in the mile at a trot) and drive as fast as you can.
Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bobtailed bay,
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.

This most popular of Christmas song was written for a children’s Thanksgiving pageant at a church in Savannah, Georgia in 1857. It stands as a testament to the enduring interest of young men in young women and fast vehicles.

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