Monthly Archives: January 2009

Poll Results

Our inaugural poll, which asked what you’d like to be eating right now, has gone off to take a nap.  “Manicotti” got no votes; perhaps I should have specified how that pasta dish would have been prepared.  “Cheese enchilada” and “cheeseburger” tied for third with 19% each.  A quarter of the poll’s respondents selected Filet Mignon, putting it in second place.  The winner, with 38% of the vote, was Profiteroles.  Evidently a majority of you follow the maxim, “life is short, eat dessert first.”  

Thanks for participating — give yourself a hand.  And an antacid tablet!

Wright Flight

A replica Orville on the actual Wright Flyer, National Air and Space Museum

A replica Orville on the actual Wright Flyer, National Air and Space Museum

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first powered, sustained, and controlled flight of an airplane.  The modifier “controlled” is a crucial distinction, because there had been earlier attempts at flight that lacked that component.  Those aviation pioneers were, presumably, identified by their dental records.

Why, then, did the Wright brothers succeed when others had wound up creating debris fields?  Encyclopedia Britannica states it succinctly:  “The Wrights did not make the mistake common to many of their predecessors; i.e., to attempt powered flight without first learning to fly.”  That seems like a fairly important detail, one that would be hard to overlook, but as we know, there are also lots of cars on our highways being operated by people who never learned to drive.

The Wright brothers studied birds, then kites, then tethered gliders and eventually gliders in free flight.  After all that research they felt they were finally ready to attempt powered flight with a man aboard.

And who, you may ask, was that man?  Even though that first flight is always credited to the Wright brothers collectively, obviously only one of them was aboard that flimsy little 600-pound biplane.  The pilot on the first successful flight was Orville Wright, the younger brother.  How was it decided that Orville should have the controls that day:  superior hand-eye coordination, better “feel” for flight, paid-up life insurance policy?  No, as with so many history-making events, it was random chance — a coin flip.

That coin flip had been won several days earlier by Wilbur, as it turns out.  He made the first attempt on December 14, and things didn’t go well.  It took a couple of days to retrieve the broken parts and lash them back together.  A modification was also made to the layout of the takeoff track at Kill Devil Hills.  So now it was Orville’s turn, on a blustery day with 20 mph headwinds.  “Go for it, bro,” Wilbur said.

Orville’s historic flight gained an altitude of twenty feet, lasted twelve seconds, and covered a distance of 120 feet.  The wing span of today’s 747-400 is 211 feet, by the way, so Orville could have taken off and landed on one.  There were three subsequent flights that day; Wilbur, on the final attempt (around noon), stayed aloft for fifty-nine seconds and covered 852 feet.

The Wrights were both lifelong bachelors so had no direct descendants, but their achievement that day left quite a legacy:  long lines, missed connections, cramped seats, infuriating flight delays… in short, an industry so poorly managed that it needs government handouts to survive.  Thanks, guys.

Which Super Bowl Is This?

Maybe the announcers could call the game in Latin

Maybe the announcers could call the game in Latin

This year’s game will be Super Bowl XLIII, but I’d be surprised if there are more than DC or DCC football fans in all L states combined who could tell you off the top of their heads that XLIII is number 43.  Roman numerals may be appropriate for royalty:  Louis XVI, Elizabeth II.  We also tolerate the use of Roman numerals for legal documents:  “The provisions of Title IX, as the plaintiff asserts, are hereby…” and so forth.  But to use that system of numerical notation for a head-knocking, bone-crunching game of football just seems wrong.

I wonder if the National Football League decided to go with Roman numerals to cover the mistake they made by naming it the Super Bowl.  OK, the prefix super–  does mean “above” or “beyond”, and the league’s top brass probably wanted to suggest that their bowl was above and beyond all those bowl games the college kids play.   In common usage, though, super has lost its value; it has become prosaic, as in “Your hair looks super today, Joyce,” or “Did you want to super-size that burger?”

Back in MCMLXVI when the NFL executives were brainstorming about what to call their biggest game, maybe they should have stayed at the conference table a little longer…

“Whatd’ya got, Ernie?”  “I dunno — Sun Bowl?”  “Already taken.  Dwayne?”  “I’m thinking — you ready for this?  The Hegemony Bowl.”  “…The what?”  “”Hegemony.  It means world domination, and I think that kind of captures what we’re all about here.”

After a lot of paper shuffling and throat-clearing, it was agreed that Super Bowl would be a place-holder name — just for the time being, they assured each other.  Then someone suggested that using Roman numerals to designate each year’s edition would give the game a touch of class.

“Hm.  Yeah, it’s pretentious — I like it.”

With that, the meeting was adjourned, and we’ve been stuck with Super Bowl ever since.

As far as the 2009 Super Bowl is concerned, here’s my prediction:  Pittsburgh Steelers XXVII  Arizona Cardinals XXI.  Enjoy the game.  Oh — and Hail, Caesar!


Czech, Please

Main train station, Prague (Praha)

Main train station, Prague (Praha)

One of the challenges of traveling abroad is the language barrier.  I speak some Spanish, although a lot of it is phrases I remember from school.   Many of those phrases, I have discovered, have little application in real-life circumstances:  “¿Donde está su cuaderno?” (“Where is your notebook?”) hasn’t come up all that often in my travels.  Other than Spanish, I have a little grab-bag of French, Italian and German words.  When we go to countries where those languages aren’t spoken, I make a point of learning a few words and phrases in, say, Turkish or Greek or Czech — whatever is appropriate for the country we’re visiting.  And in those countries, I always arm myself beforehand with the five words that are absolutely essential to communication anywhere in the world:  “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you” and “beer”.



Less than a decade after the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe had ended, I made a journey by train from Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Vienna, Austria.  The following is an entry in my travel journal for July 2, 1998.  It illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to speak in something other than one’s native tongue…

The main train station in Prague still has signage in Russian, and looks like what we always thought Iron Curtain countries had to endure in terms of amenities… or lack thereof.  It’s gloomy.  The train did pull away from platform 2 promptly at 9:21.

The villages and Czech countryside are picturesque, but the larger towns tend to reflect the “progress” inflicted by the previous regime:  boxy concrete buildings and rusty train stations.  My “first-class” cabin shares space with a middle-aged couple who speak Spanish; across the aisle are two Americans, presumably mother and daughter.  I’m pretty sure they are stowing away in this car.  When the conductor came to check tickets, they pretended to be asleep.  He eventually got them to wake up, and they had to pay a supplement.

The rolling farmland occasionally gave way to hillsides covered with pine and birch, and there was a river that ran alongside the track for several miles.  I managed to avoid speaking to anyone for a couple of hours.  Then I gave myself away to the Spanish speakers (who proved to be from Chile) when I tried to point out a deer (“¡ciervo!”) in the woods to the señora.  After that, they referred questions to me in Spanish — things about where we were, would the authorities stamp our passports, etc.  It was strange — I was having to summon up my Spanish after several days of trying to communicate with a handful of Czech words.

The process for crossing the frontier by rail was stressful.  At the border town of Breclav, two Czech policemen boarded the train to inspect passports; they were followed by a platoon of armed Austrian border guards.  I spoke Czech to the Czechs, German to the Austrians, all the while explaining the situation in Spanish to the anxious couple from Chile.  After that experience I treated myself to a croissant (French word) and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell pivo (the Czech word for beer).

Aboard the Smetana (the name of my train), the Chileans tried to keep a conversation going all the way to Vienna, which, mercifully, wasn’t too much farther.  The train pulled into Sudbahnhof station about 2:45 p.m.  I waved farewell to the Chileans —  I probably said “vaya con queso” — and stumbled off the train with a blinding headache from my multilingual efforts…

We Knew It For The Test

Capital of Vermont... starts with an "M"...

Capital of Vermont... starts with an "M"...

Back in our school days, most of us developed the ability to fill our short-term memories with facts.  We would retain things like “What is the symbol for silver on the Periodic Table of Elements?” (Ag) or “What is an attributive adjective?”  (Your guess is as good as mine).  By the time the school term ended, though, those facts had been flushed from our brains so that we could make room for the next batch of facts on which we’d be tested.  As a result, many of us can no longer recall from high school, say, the capital of Vermont (Montpelier) — what we remember is important stuff, like that kid named Leland in Geography class who used to pick his nose and wipe it on his pants.

Try this one:  Why is January 20th Inauguration Day?

Come on, we all used to know this… let’s see, did it have something to do with — no, that’s not it…

Time’s up!  Pencils down.  Originally Inauguration Day was March 4th, but the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution changed the date to January 20th.  The Twentieth Amendment, as we also used to know, was ratified in 1933, so Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20th.

The primary purpose of the amendment was to shorten the time between the election and when elected officials actually went to work.  The Founding Fathers and their successors knew that a newly-elected president needed time to close up his cottage and hire a carriage to take him to the far-off U.S. capital, which is why March 4th had originally been established as report-to-work day.  Among other things, the 20th Amendment reflected 20th-century modes of travel.

By the way, I didn’t remember the details about the 20th Amendment, either — I had to look them up.  One thing I do know is that I’m going to remember this particular inauguration, and what it says about the United States of America, for the rest of my life.

Blondin’s Question

Blondin -- Niagara Falls, 1859

Blondin -- Niagara Falls, 1859

For a couple of summers in the mid-19th century, many thousands of Americans thrilled to the exploits of a Frenchman who, on several occasions, crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  He was called Blondin, or sometimes The Great Blondin, although his real name was Jean Francois Gravelet.  On June 30, 1859, he made the first transit of the gorge below the Falls.  (It’s tempting to say that he made quite a splash by not making a splash, but that’s too easy.) 

After that first walk, he did it quite a few more times, always adding some new daredevil element.  Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on stilts, on a bicycle, blindfolded, at night… one time he pushed a wheelbarrow along the tightrope;  in the wheelbarrow was a stove.  When Blondin reached the middle of the tightrope, he got out the stove, upon which he cooked an omelet.  He ate the omelet and then completed the crossing.

I first heard of Blondin’s exploits in a sermon many years ago.  The minister cited Blondin to illustrate the difference between mere beliefs and actual faith.  He told a story that may or may not be factual, but the gist of it was that Blondin was discussing with an associate the next variation for crossing Niagara Falls.  He had hit upon the idea of walking that tightrope, 160 above the water, while carrying a man on his back.  Blondin asked his friend if he thought it was possible.

“Of course,” the guy said.  “After what you have already accomplished, it should be no problem to cross the Falls with a man on your back.”  Blondin nodded his agreement and then responded:

“Will you be that man?”

Although the minister’s point about having the courage of our convictions was made in a spiritual context, it applies to ethical, political and matrimonial issues as well.

Blondin’s fifth crossing of Niagara Falls was with a man on his back.  The man, incidentally, was his manager, Harry Colcord.  There is no historical record of whether Colcord then demanded a higher percentage from his client.

Is Something Up?

Down the hatch?

Down the hatch?

Even in hard times — perhaps especially in hard times — people drink.  That has been the historical pattern, but apparently not so these days.  A recent issue of the Los Angeles Times Business section (1/10/2009) reported the following:  “In July, trade publication Wine & Spirits Daily reported that more than 40% of bar managers, bar owners and bartenders surveyed said they had seen a decrease in consumer traffic, while 25% noted a decrease in the number of drinks ordered and 22% said that customers were ordering less expensive drinks.”

It’s true that this news is not all bad, because it presumably cuts down on the number of drunk drivers on our roads.  That’s a good thing.  But the reduction in bar business is one more example of the downward trend in, well — pretty much everything.  On a daily basis we’re getting news that retail sales are down, movie ticket sales are down, construction is down, jobs are down, broadcast TV viewing is down, car sales are down, etc.  Now we find out that even “bottoms up” is down.

But everything can’t be down, can it?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that if, for example, new car sales are down, then auto repairs (for the clunkers we presently own) should be up?  That may not be the ideal illustration; I’m just saying that even in difficult financial times, people don’t just sit in a corner and stare at the wall for 18 hours a day.  Here’s what I’m wondering:  What’s up?  (Besides anxiety, of course.)  Any thoughts?