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“Step it up and Go” – Carolina blues

There’s so much I don’t know about music. Here’s a documentary–apparently from the 1980s by the look of it–about the Carolina blues…various styles of blues and pre-blues folk music among rural black musicians of the southeast. For the people featured here, music isn’t a profession, but it’s not right to say it’s just a hobby, either. It’s a way of life, like breathing. That’s something most of us have lost in the generations since professional recorded music became available. I once asked a music teacher–just to play devil’s advocate–why people of ordinary abilities should struggle to play instruments when professional music was so easily available. She replied, “For the humanity of it.”

1910 car phone

From Scientific American, September 3, 1910, p. 185

The mobile phone is older than you think… or at least the desire for it. The device shown above isn’t a true mobile phone, of course, but it shows a way to combine two relatively new technologies — the automobile and the telephone.

“[A]utomobilists who get into trouble or meet with an accident can have telephone connection from any point in the rural districts where there are overhead telephone wires, within two minutes, without leaving the car. The device is also useful to officers in pursuit of criminals. It is composed of a hand microphone and core. The cord and attachments are lifted to the wires above by means of a jointed aluminum rod, which is packed away in small compass when not in use. The clip with which the connection is made consists of two strips of metal riveted together at the bottom and formed with slots about the size of an ordinary wire. These strips open slightly at the top for the purpose of receiving the telephone wire. When pressed upward by the aluminum rod with the telephone cord attached, the wire drops into the slot and the metal clip closes on it…” A sharp jerk forward or backward would detach the wire when the call was complete.

This is the first I’ve heard of such a device… apparently it didn’t catch on, or wasn’t allowed. I know little about early telephones, but I assume that once the connection was live you’d be connected to “central” and could then ask the operator to connect you to your party.

One advantage over today’s technology: you could drive or you could use the phone, but not at the same time!

From Scientific American, September 3, 1910, p. 185. Elsewhere on the same page:

lawn mowerA motorized, self-propelled lawn mower! Readers of Scientific American must’ve thought they were living in pretty fast times, and that electric wires and internal-combustion engines were going to change their world into something barely recognizable. If so, they were right.

The strange origins of the electric chair

"Nebraska's electric chair." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG

“Nebraska’s electric chair.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG

One thing I love about the study of history is its little weird surprises — such as finding out that a certain notorious invention came with a hidden agenda that had little to do with the death penalty, and a whole lot to do with Thomas Edison’s desire to protect his market share against a superior technology.

First used in 1890, the electric chair is part of a longer humanitarian trend away from acceptance of capital punishment. For much of human history, executions were usually a public spectacle, were widely employed for a wide range of offenses, and were often designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering on the condemned person. Devices like the gallows or the guillotine were actually humanitarian developments because they offered a relatively quick death. And the electric chair was promoted as just such a device — a modern, scientific update for a traditional practice that might otherwise look like a barbaric holdover from more primitive times.

But that isn’t really what the electric chair was about, at least as far as America’s most famous inventor was concerned. Continue reading

Oklahoma frat boys and free speech

Tonight, a political rant, but this time I’m going after many of my fellow liberals: I’m against the expulsion of University of Oklahoma students involved in the recent racist video. I’m not defending these guys. (And I think the closing of their frat house is another matter; one could make a case for it based on nondiscrimination laws.)

What I’m talking about is the expression of ideas, good or bad. There’s an important reason to support free speech as a principle, and not just when we agree with the content, and this reason is amply illustrated by history: Once people get used to prohibiting speech they find offensive, they soon ban the defense of many good ideas and the criticism of many bad ones.

Speech codes have no place at a university. Aside from libel and threats of violence, the only rule should be, “If you say it, you will be called upon to defend it.” Open prejudice is its own worst enemy.

The first sparrow of spring! (Walden 193)

The first sparrow of spring!

The year beginning with younger hope than ever!

The faint silvery warblings
heard over the partially bare and moist fields from
the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing,
as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell!

What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions,
and all written revelations?

…The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire…
as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun;
not yellow but green is the color of its flame…

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden Continue reading

This man doesn’t want you to vote

Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, Heritage Foundation, ALEC, etc., said bluntly, “I don’t want everybody to vote… our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

This isn’t a political blog, but if you’re here you’re probably one of the folks that Weyrich wanted to stay home on Election Day. He thought your vote mattered. Do you?

The lost world under your feet (Walden 128)

Thoreau knew that he and his fellow Concordians weren’t the first people to enjoy Walden Pond. He had long had a knack for finding Indian arrowheads, and he read early narratives about the people who were living here when the first Europeans arrived. But who lived at Walden itself in ages past? So much of it was lost. He could only guess.

He found “a narrow shelf-like path in the steep hillside, alternately rising and falling, approaching and receding from the water’s edge, as old probably as the race of man here, worn by the feet of aboriginal hunters, and still from time to time unwittingly trodden by the present occupants of the land.”

Whoever you are, and wherever you live, it’s a given that yours is not the first culture to inhabit what we all think of as our land. Let me tell you a little about the place where I live… I’ll come back to Thoreau (and to my point) at the end of the post. Continue reading