Archive for November, 2009

Not really. But the 5-kilometer diameter asteroid 3753 Cruithne is one of a kind — at least a far as planet Earth is concerned. It orbits the Sun in a 1:1 orbital resonance with the Earth (this is space-talk for the fact that its orbit is just about exactly one year long).

The things I learn from Wikipedia. The upper illustration shows the orbits of the Earth and 3753 Cruithne from the vantage point of a stationary sun. The two make their closest approach (about 30 times the distance from the Earth to the moon) each November.

From Earth’s point of view 3-C (I’m tired of typing the full name) moves first toward and then away from us, and further oscillates between being farther away from, then closer to, the Sun.

The resulting motion, far from being random, follows a shape known to cosmologists by the highly technical terms “kidney bean-shaped” or “horseshoe.” This is the perspective of the second illustration.

There are other, more  subtle effects as well. Gravitational attraction between Earth and C-3 increases and decreases as they approach and recede. The resulting tugs move C-3’s orbit by about half a million kilometers, and Earth’s by a whopping 1.3 centimeters, so the orbits as a whole move apart and together over a period of several hundred years. The next closest approach will be in July of 2292, so set your alarms.

The existence of 3-C was not known until the 1980’s. Alas for the science fiction writers and others who have postulated a second moon for Earth, this technically isn’t it, since 3753 Cruithne does not literally revolve around the planet. But it’s the closest thing we have.

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I promise this will be my last post about Johnny Mercer — for a while, anyway. The opening lines of his Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” offer a nostalgic portrait of steam train whistles:

Do you hear that whistle down the line?
I figure that it’s Engine Number 49.
She’s the only one that’ll sound that way
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.

He’s right that the sound of a steam whistle was distinctive — but that distinction didn’t depend on the engine. It varied depending on a number of things — steam pressure, ambient temperature and pressure, speed, humidity, and certainly not least, the engineer’s manipulations. Whistles were so much a part of the engineer’s “signature” that senior ones were allowed to take them home and use them only on their runs. So people near the lines knew from the sound, not which engine was coming, but which engineer.

I learned this from a historian I interviewed at WLRH when I did a documentary on steam trains. The switch to diesel meant many things, not least of which was a loss of job skills and status for engineers. A good steam engineer had to know just the right combination of steam, grade, train weight and a host of other things to move the train forward properly. With diesel you simply clicked the throttle into one of eight forward positions. And a diesel horn was simply a compressed air blast. You couldn’t tell from listening who was at the controls. No one doubts the advantages of diesels, of course, but loss of control over how to do your work was keenly felt by engineers.

For all the romance, trains were and are huge pieces of heavy, complex machinery. And they’re dangerous. My great-grandfather Hudson worked for the railroad and was killed on duty. This was of course before the days of pensions and death benefits, so his widow became a pauper. Her children, including my grandmother Eula, were sent to orphanages.

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Yesterday I posted an item about the Mercer House in Savannah G-A and mentioned Johnny Mercer, whose ancestor built it (but Johnny never lived there, apparently). I’ve been thinking about Johnny lately. There was a wonderful tribute to him, produced by Clint Eastwood, on TCM recently. And my sister Margaret gave me two compilations of his Capitol recordings from the 1940s, which I have really been enjoying (he was a co-founder of, and obviously made a pile of money from, Capitol).

Here’s a link to one of our favorite clips — Johnny and Nat King Cole singing “Save the Bones for Henry Jones”. I believe this was from Cole’s variety show. Nat was of course an incomparable singer, and Johnny was no slouch. This is kind of a novelty song, full of the playful rhymes and Southern expressions that make his songs of the period so much fun.

Johnny’s accent here and in similar songs is what any Savannian would recognize as “Geechee.” Used by whites in informal settings, it shows a heavy influx of the rhythms and accents of the region’s African-American population, perfect for the kinds of songs he was writing in this era.

Some of Johnny’s later songs are emotionally and lyrically very rich (“Midnight Sun,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” etc.) but there’s something really bubbly and optimistically American about his songs from the 40’s. They just pop out of the speakers. I love the way he can weave found words and expressions into his lyrics. Who knew that the words “Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” were so poetic, until Johnny Mercer pointed it out?

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On last week’s episode of The Office, the clueless (so to speak) manager Michael tries to divert his staff’s attention from the company’s apparent meltdown by having them role-play a murder mystery game. The game is set in Savannah, Georgia and all the characters dive into their Southern personas and accents with gusto.

At one point Andy, played by Ed Helms, corrects an office mate’s “Florida panhandle” accent and demonstrates the proper low-country Savannah accent. (Helms is a native of Atlanta, as is Brian Baumgartner [Kevin]). It’s one of the few attempts movies or TV make to distinguish different types of Southern accents. Mostly, every Southerner speaks with a generic hillbilly accent and says y’all in places where real Southerners would not. Good for The Office.

Photo: The Wikimedia photo here is of the house formerly called the Mercer House, now the Mercer Williams house in Savannah. One of the most beautiful in Savannah (and that’s saying a lot), it was built for General Hugh Mercer, great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer. It’s most notorious as the site of the killing of Danny Hansford in 1981. The trials of owner Jim Williams for the murder are the subject of John Berendt’s 1994 book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Williams’ sister Dorothy Kingery now owns the house.

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DrRalphStanleyBookIn a recent thread on the Fasola discussions group (about Sacred Harp and other shape-note styles), I wrote about the close connection between music and its place of origin.

I should have let the great Ralph Stanley do the talking. Here’s a quote from the 11/16 Newsweek, taken from Ralph’s book Man of Constant Sorrow:

We were the last generation from these mountains to live from the earth . . . It was a hard life and there was a lot of suffering. But the music we made couldn’t have come from any other place or time. The suffering was part of what made the music strong, and I reckon that’s why it’s lasted . . . What’s real doesn’t die.

He’s talking about his kind of old-time music, of course, but to me this speaks to Sacred Harp as well.

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Goo Goo Goo Joob

walrusHow can you represent song lyrics in a diagram?

The Huffington Post has some clever graphs of popular songs, including Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and this one of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.”

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freecycle_logoMy friend John put me on to FreeCycle. It’s essentially an on-line “swap & shop” radio show (remember them?). If you have something you want to get rid of and don’t want the hassle of selling it, just offer it on your local FreeCycle. I joined about a month ago, specifically to see if I could locate a scanner. Last week an office about a mile from my home offered an HP scanner that works with my Mac, has OCR, and can scan slides and negatives. Perfect.

Here’s what their website says:

The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 4,851 groups with 6,690,000 members across the globe. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them’s good people). Membership is free.

Here in Cincinnati there are 3 flavors, organized geographically (City, East Side, West Side), with a few thousand people in each one.

WARNING: do NOT confuse this with FreeCycle.com, which appears to be a rip-off site advertising deals which are for the most part not free.

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Why newspapers matter

Herald-LeaderToday I attended a meeting of the Institute for Nonprofit Capacity at Northern Kentucky University. The speaker was from the office of the Kentucky auditor, discussing findings and recommendations from recent audits of Lexington KY’s Bluegrass Airport and the Kentucky Association of Counties.

These guys were real beauts — charging $700 bottles of champagne and hundreds of unreceipted credit card bills, among others. The auditor estimates that KACo alone mishandled $3 million in charges. Many of the top executives of both organizations have resigned, been fired and/or indicted. The speaker presented us with a list of 28 recommendations for strengthening board oversight of agencies receiving taxpayer funds. Among them was the idea that there should be no penalties for whistleblowers.

What I found frightening was the notion that these abuses might never have come to light if not for anonymous tips submitted to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Fortunately the paper still has (or had) reporters who can dig. But what will happen when such people are long gone from local newsrooms?

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Stay away from MyLife


Just like this blue poison dart frog (from Wikimedia Commons)

I got an email today from something called MyLife-dot-com (I’m not going to reproduce the URL, for reasons which will become clear). It said that someone whose name is sort of, but not exactly, familiar to me was trying to contact me through this site.

I went to the site but was highly dubious of it, since I would have had to register to even find out who this person supposedly seeking me is. I Googled the name of the site and found lots of people who were warning users to stay far, far away. There’s plenty to dislike here including aggressive marketing, capturing address books for spamming purposes, and privacy concerns. I’m sticking with LinkedIn for professional contacts and FaceBook for personal.

Don’t take my word; here are some links if you’re interested:

Time to move on to less sleazy topics.

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TreadmillcraneThe Bishop of Southern Ohio, the Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal, is visiting our church today and I’m scheduled to introduce him. He’s a remarkable thinker and communicator in our diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.

As I was reading his biography on the Diocese of Southern Ohio website, I noticed a link to the translation engine Babelfish (named, of course, for the universal translator in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in turn named for the Biblical Tower of Babel, pictured).

The Bishop is a indeed great communicator, but I’m not so sure about Babelfish. I decided to translate parts of his biography into French using Babelfish, and then reverse engineer it by rendering the French back into English the same way. The results are rather . . . whimsical, shall I say. To get the full effect, imagine that I am speaking this in a comical French accent somewhere between Pepe LePew and Hercule Poirot. What was:

A noted author, he has written about the issues of same-sex unions


A remarkable author, it wrote about the exits of the trade unions even sexes


Ordained to the priesthood in 1982, Bishop Breidenthal brings a strong intellectual and academic background to the diocese

is rendered as:

Ordered to priesthood in 1982, Breidenthal bishop extremely brings a intellectual and school bottom to the diocese

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