Monthly Archives: February 2010

That Graduation Song

Elgar: the man behind all that pomp.

Every time you wore a cap and gown, you heard this tune.  It gets played at every graduation ceremony in the United States, probably even at nursery schools.  You can hear it in your head right now, can’t you?  BUMMM-bump-bah-bah-BUMMM-bum… Yes, that’s the one.  As you may recall, it’s known as “Pomp and Circumstance”.  That phrase means “a ceremonious, ostentatious display”, and let’s face it — graduations are rarely occasions for quiet reflection.

As with so many other idioms in the English language, Shakespeare gets credit for this one:  pomp and circumstance is part of a line from the third act of Othello.  It was appropriated by an English composer named Sir Edward Elgar, who actually wrote five Pomp and Circumstance marches from 1901 to 1930.  The one that gets our tassels shaking, though, is officially known as Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D.

A section of it was worked into the coronation ceremonies for King Edward VII and it wasn’t long before people recognized the composition’s suitability for other pompous occasions.  Elgar’s status as a composer led to his knighthood in 1904, which was quite a feather in the cap of someone who began his musical career as the bandmaster of something called The Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum.

An Elgar admirer at Yale University seems to be responsible for Pomp and Circumstance becoming the theme music for graduation ceremonies in the United States.  A Professor Sanford had arranged for Sir Edward to receive an honorary doctorate, and at the 1905 commencement, with Elgar in attendance, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 was played as the recessional.

OK, remember how it went when you got a new TV, and then the neighbors suddenly all needed new (bigger) TVs?  That’s sort of how it worked with Pomp and Circumstance.  Some rival Ivy Leaguers must have been at Yale’s 1905 graduation and loved that march music, because Princeton used it in their 1907 ceremony — and not at the end, either; this time graduates marched in to that tune!  That’s also where it appeared in the program at University of Chicago the following year, and in 1913 at Columbia, and in 1916 at Vassar.  Within a few years Pomp and Circumstance had pretty well worked its way across the U.S., and has tenaciously hung on ever since.

That is not the case in England, however.  Patriotic lyrics had been attached to that melody long ago, and the song, known there as “The Land of Hope and Glory”, has become an unofficial second national anthem.  For the English to use it as a graduation processional would be like graduates in the U.S. marching in to “My Country “Tis of Thee”.  Oh… come to think of it, that is the same tune as “God Save the Queen”, which is the U.K.’s official national anthem.

At any rate, Pomp and Circumstance has gotten students launched into the real world for over a century now; maybe it’s time to consider fresher alternatives.  I know Tulane University uses “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and some schools could candidly recognize their graduates with “Wonderful World” (Don’t know much about history/Don’t know much biology…)  Any other suggestions for a Pomp and Circumstance replacement march?

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Murphy’s Law

What could possibly go wrong?

There are hundreds of variations on the notion that the universe is somehow out to get us.  “Nothing is as easy as it looks.”  “Everything takes longer than you think.”  “Bread will always fall on the buttered side.”  “A repairman will never have seen a model quite like yours before.”

The list goes on, but the general idea has come to be known as Murphy’s Law, and is usually expressed this way:  Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.  So — who was Murphy, and why is he associated with unhappy outcomes?

The Law’s namesake was Captain Edward A. Murphy, Jr., who was an aerospace engineer.  Following World War II he devised sensors that were supposed to accurately measure gravitational force.  Tests were underway at what is now called Edwards Air Force Base (California) to determine how many Gs the human body could withstand.  An Air Force doctor, Colonel John Paul Stapp, had courageously volunteered to ride the test sled.  In effect, Stapp was a living crash test dummy on a device that was built to decelerate from 200 miles per hour to 0 mph in less than one second.

Every time Stapp rode the test sled he sustained some sort of injury — concussions, broken wrists, ruptured blood vessels in his eyes — all in the interest of improving safety for pilots.  One day in 1949, Col. Stapp was fitted with the sensors Murphy had invented; this test promised to be a big step forward in G-force science.

Stapp was fired down the track and jolted to a violent sudden stop.  His eyeballs eventually settled back into their sockets while Captain Murphy read the results.  The reading was a big fat zero.  Seems there had been an error in the wiring that had caused all the sensors to fail.  There are varying accounts of the immediate aftermath of this discovery, all tactfully omitting what must have been torrents of profanity.  According to most witnesses, Murphy muttered about the lab technician who had wired the strain gage bridges, “If there are two ways to do something and one of those ways will result in disaster, he’ll do it that way.”

At a press conference a day or so later, Col. Stapp made mention of Murphy’s Law, amending it to “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”  After that, Murphy’s Law frequently turned up in aerospace publications, usually as an exhortation to identify and eliminate potential flaws.  It made its way into popular culture, getting a boost from a 1977 book by Arthur Bloch called Murphy’s Law, and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong.

As mentioned at the outset, Murphy’s Law has spawned many variants and corollaries.  One, coined by Australian journalist John Bangsund in the Society of Editors Newsletter, is called “Muphry’s Law”.  It states that “if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

Here’s another one that occurred to me recently:  “If you make a fine product but insist on improving it, expect massive recalls.”  I call that the Toyota Corollary.

Winter Games Outlook

Since the first Winter Olympics, speedskating equipment and techniques have changed dramatically.

It’s strange, the species of cicada that only appears above ground every seventeen years.  Equally strange is human knowledge of winter sports, which is dormant in most brains for four-year stretches and then, almost miraculously, emerges when the Olympic theme music is played.  Very few of us have given a conscious thought to halfpipe snowboarding or aerial skiing or ice dancing since the games of 2006, which were held in… oh, heck, where was it?  Somewhere in Italy, I think.

But here we go again, as the 2010 Games get underway in Vancouver:  Suddenly our expert opinions have resurfaced.  We can watch a curling match and detect a slight flaw in the sweeping technique of that team from the Netherlands.  We instantly recall that the Nordic Combined event consists of ski jumping and a cross-country race, and that times are adjusted to compensate for the competitors’ staggered starts.

We can tell when a figure skater was just slightly under-rotated on the landing.  And when it comes to figure skating, why do those TV announcers feel they need to explain to us the difference between a double salchow and a triple lutz?  C’mon, we’ve had that tucked away in our memory banks since Dorothy Hamill (who, of course, invented the “Hamill Camel”)!

We do have a new sport to learn this year; skicross is an Olympic event for the first time.  It will probably only take you a few minutes to form strong opinions about it, but just to whet your appetite, it involves skiers in packs of four on a course that has moguls and jumps; collisions are almost inevitable.  What I’m saying is, don’t bother mentally computing style points.

Since you’re an expert on most Olympic sports, you don’t need me to tell you that Germany, Canada, and possibly the U.S. will be the top medal winners.  Among those not making frequent trips to the victory stand will be Peru and Ghana, but the biggest loser will be NBC, which overbid on the broadcast rights and stands to be in a $200 million hole by the end of the Vancouver Games.

Of course, every athlete who is interviewed on television insists that winning isn’t that important — they say stuff about it being an honor just to participate in something as wonderful as the Olympics.  They don’t really mean that; they’re just trying to help NBC feel better about its crushing loss.

All right then, fellow experts, enjoy the Games.  Oh, and don’t forget:  only two years until Synchronized Swimming in London!

The Liberty Bell: How “Clang” Became “Clank”

It is not just the symbol of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.  It is not just the image on the U.S. Postal Service’s Forever stamp.  No, most Americans will tell you that the Liberty Bell represents freedom — although they aren’t too sure how it got that honor.  Or how the bell got its famous crack.  Last time I was at the center in Philadelphia where the Liberty Bell is displayed, many of my fellow Americans were swarming around it, and  I overheard this exchange:  “How’d it crack?”  “I think they dropped it.”  Well, no.  Briefly, here’s the story…

The Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly sent away for the bell, intending to hang it in the new State House.  It was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London and shipped to Philadelphia in 1752.  A temporary scaffolding had been erected near the State House; the bell was hung there for testing.  The tests didn’t go well: the first time it was rung, it cracked.   The colonists in attendance no doubt muttered, “Art thou kidding me?”

Since it probably wasn’t convenient to return a 2,000-pound bell as defective merchandise, it was turned over to a couple of local metal workers for repairs.  John Dock Pass and John Stow melted it down and started over, but thought the bell might need more copper, so they added some.  That second version produced what was described as “an unsatisfactory tone”.  We can only imagine what that may have been, tone-wise, but everyone knows that a bell should say “bonngg” and not “bonk”; “clang”, not “clank”.

Pass and Stow tried again, correcting the balance of metals in the bell — and including their names as part of the inscription on its crown.  In 1753 the bell went into service in the steeple of the State House (now known as Independence Hall).

It was rung on a great number of occasions after that, but probably not, as one tradition suggests, when the Declaration of Independence was first presented.  During the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell was removed from the steeple and hidden in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to keep the British from melting it down and converting it into cannons.

After the war it was returned to service in Philadelphia; it tolled for the passing of Alexander Hamilton in 1804, for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who both died on July 4, 1826), and upon the deaths of other famous Americans.  Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall died in 1835, and tradition says that’s when the bell cracked again.

An attempt to repair the Liberty Bell was made again in 1846.  The familiar feature of the bell — the visible “crack” with rivets at each end — was not the actual hairline crack, but the method of repair.  That half-inch slot was intentionally drilled into the bell as a way to control its vibration, and therefore its tone.

The repair worked briefly, but new cracks developed while the Liberty Bell was being rung on February 22, 1846, in honor of George Washington’s birthday.  These cracks were deemed irreparable, so the bell was retired from active duty.  It was taken down from the steeple in 1852 and has been on display in various places ever since.  It currently receives over a million visitors annually at its home on Market Street in Philadelphia.  You might say the Liberty Bell has proven to be far more durable as a symbol than it was as a musical instrument.

Balloon Diplomacy

Making friends, one balloon at a time.

The little community on the edge of Kenya’s Masai Mara may have had a name; if it did, we never learned what it was.  Our driver Jeremiah had taken us there one afternoon, and the people of that nameless village clearly knew we were coming.  We were greeted by the chief, a group of warriors, and some women who had lined up to sing a sort of call-and-response song.  The village may have had 125 inhabitants, most of whom seemed to be children.

Before we had left the U.S. for Africa, a friend had tipped us off that if you encounter children in one of these rural places, it’s nice to have little gifts for them.  We had decided against school supplies, partly because we didn’t know if schools exist in that remote corner of the country.  Another consideration was that we couldn’t imagine any kid in any part of the world thinking, “Oh boy, they brought me notebook paper!”  So we had gone to a party store and bought a bunch of little toys:  finger puppets, spinning tops, and balloons.

It hadn’t occurred to us that they had probably never experienced balloons before.  In retrospect we slap our foreheads and think, well of course they hadn’t.  They didn’t have electricity or running water — why would balloons be a priority for them? 

Anyway, we seem to have been the outsiders who brought these novelty items to that village in western Kenya for the first time.  And then our challenge was to help the Maasai tribe enjoy this historic moment.  The chief spoke little English, and Jeremiah spoke Swahili — but basically we were on our own in trying to communicate how to blow up a balloon.

Sally inflated one and released it into the air; as it noisily exhausted itself, the children gasped in amazement.  We passed out several balloons to children — and warriors — and my dauntless wife managed to convey, without words, how to blow up these colorful little objects.  Either she’s a good teacher or they were eager students — probably both.  The villagers took to balloons quickly.

Meanwhile, the chief was more or less ignoring all the excitement and was giving us a speech, in his halting English, about Maasai tribal customs.  We were doing our best to follow the gist of it, but the kids were distracting us.  Within minutes, our brightest students could not only blow up their balloons, they had figured out how to make rude noises with them by pinching the neck as the air escapes.

The chief”s speech about his cattle and his multiple wives was punctuated by balloon-generated… um, you know, fart sounds.  Sally and I should know better than to make eye contact at a time like that, because the look we exchanged made it even more difficult to avoid laughing out loud.

Come to think of it, though, maybe the chief was trying not to laugh at these crazy balloon-bearing American tourists who were standing ankle-deep in the byproducts of his cattle.  Let’s just say it was a rich cultural exchange, and after all, isn’t that why we travel?