Monthly Archives: July 2010

Tom’s Top 25, 2010 Edition

Every year at this time, our sports department steps front-and-center to trumpet its picks for college football glory.  This is a topic of interest to, oh, three or four visitors to this site; for the rest of you, be patient — our usual stew of offbeat subject matter will return soon.

So with that stirring preamble out of the way, let’s get right to the predictions, along with an occasional rationalization for these choices:

1.  Alabama     The 2009 national champion brings back an excellent offense.  The question mark is the defense, which lost nine starters.

2.  Boise State     Twenty-two starters return, and they went 14-0 last year.

3.  Texas Christian     The Horned Frogs won 11 in ’08, 12 last year.  Could it be 13 victories this season?

4.  Ohio State

5.  Nebraska

6.  Florida     Tim Tebow’s departure did not leave the Gators helpless.

7.  Wisconsin     Standout RB John Clay and the entire offensive line returns.

8.  Virginia Tech     The Hokies have reached double digits in victories every season since 2004.

9.  Texas

10. Miami (FL)

11. Iowa     The schedule is favorable:  toughest games are at home.

12. Oregon     Some team from the mediocre Pac-10 gets a BCS bowl; Ducks figure to be it.

13. Auburn

14. Oklahoma

15. Florida State     New coach Jimbo Fisher invigorates the program.

16. Pittsburgh

17. Penn State

18. Houston     QB Case Keenum threw for over three miles last season (5,671 yards).  He’s back, along with eight other offensive starters from ’09.  We won’t talk about the Cougars’ defense.

19. Georgia

20. Oregon State

21. Utah     Utes have nonconference games vs. Pittsburgh and Notre Dame to prove they belong with the big boys.

22. Georgia Tech 

23. West Virginia

24. Central Florida     Defense will be outstanding; can the Knights’ offense score enough to win?

25. Navy     A second consecutive 10-win season is an achievable goal for the Midshipmen.

You may have reason to disagree with some of these choices, and you’re probably right.  Bear in mind, though, that these selections were not made frivolously, but after several minutes of research.  And what usually happens is that my choices — wrong though they may be — won’t be that different from those of “experts” who actually get paid to do this.  Yep, we’re all just guessing, aren’t we?

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After You’ve Seen the Highlights

Personally, I’d have gone with a big-screen TV on that wall.

Among the challenges of travel is how to apportion the limited time one has at any given destination.  It’s simply not possible to take in all the attractions of Paris or Yellowstone in one day, while one hour may be plenty for Death Valley in August.  Most of us assign priorities before we go:  “For sure I want to see the Statue of Liberty, and Central Park, and Times Square.”  That’s good planning, unless your trip is actually taking you to Honolulu and not to New York.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a stay of a week or more, it’s possible to include some lesser-known sights, too.  Oh, you should definitely visit the Statue of Liberty and so forth — but if you have time left after the “must-sees”, you might also enjoy the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  (It recreates immigrant life in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Or let’s say you have some discretionary time in Philadelphia.  You’ve taken in Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Pavilion; a short walk will take you from there to another memorial operated by the National Park Service.  You’re probably way ahead of me — yes, I’m referring to the Thaddeus Kosciuszko House.  As you know, he was a Polish-born general who fought on the Colonials’ side in the American Revolution.  It’s a nice little house in a nice little neighborhood, and it is absolutely tourist-free.  Try to open the front door as gently as possible so that you don’t startle the NPS ranger at the front desk; he’s not accustomed to seeing other human beings during his work day.  If you ask nicely, he will tell you how to pronounce “Kosciuszko”.

One could spend months in Rome without seeing all that the Eternal City has to offer.  When I’m there my impulse is to sprint from one attraction to the next, and I’ve managed to take in many wonderful sights… and a very strange one.

On Via Veneto, near Piazza Barberini, is a church called Santa Maria della Concezione.  Tucked under it is a macabre crypt that is filled with some 4,000 deceased Capuchin monks, their bones on “artistic” display.  There are several chambers:  one is known as the Crypt of the Skulls, another is the Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones, yet another is the Crypt of the Pelvises.  You can imagine what is in those rooms, but you probably wouldn’t have guessed that these bones are nailed to the walls in complex patterns.  I also seem to recall there being some bones that had been made into lamps.

The Convento dei Cappuccini is not considered one of the main attractions of Rome, but trust me — it’s one you’ll remember for a long time.  Especially if you stop in at the little gift shop and pick up a souvenir.

Any other suggestions of unusual places to visit, after we’ve seen the highlights?  What is there to do in, say, Rüdesheim, Germany, after you’ve been to the Music Box museum?

One for the Books

Do these improve chances for college admission?

A long time ago we hired an interior decorator to improve the decor of our interior.  He stood in the living room, assessing one of my treasures, a floor-to-ceiling system of shelves laden with books.  After a moment or two, he rendered his professional opinion.  “You need more yellow books,” he said. 

That was quite a revelation, because for years I had made book-buying decisions based only on authors or subject matter; it had never occurred to me that the color of the book’s cover was an important consideration.  For aesthetic reasons, I should have been judging a book by its cover.

The findings of a 20-year study by a University of Nevada sociology professor might support the conclusion that content doesn’t matter.  The recently-released study, which analyzed data compiled on more than 70,000 people in 27 countries, found that having books in the home had a major impact on the educational level of the children who live there.  Just having books around the house propelled students several years deeper into studies than other factors did.  Being raised in a home with a substantial library is twice as important as the father’s education level, for instance.  That pattern persisted across the different GDPs and politicial systems of the countries studied.

Simply stated, in homes that had books, children attained higher levels of education than those in homes that didn’t have books.  (I’m not sure how Kindle counts, by the way.)

What I found odd is that the study, published online in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, didn’t mention anything about the kids, or their parents, actually reading the books.  Can that be possible, that the mere presence of any old books in the home makes a kid want to go to college?  Maybe, but I’d like to believe that reading To Kill A Mockingbird is more inspirational than merely glancing at the spines of Janet Evanovich mysteries on a shelf.  I don’t have any research to back this up, but it’s my bias that some books simply matter more than others.  Especially if you read them.

With that in mind, here is a short list of books that deserve to be within reach of anyone who has an interest in learning…

•  The Bible.  Whether one thinks of it as the revealed Word of God or a collection of myths, this book has undeniably been more important to Western Civilization than any other.  Its influence on literature, music, art — and religion, of course — has been enormous.  That’s surprising in a way, since relatively few people have actually read it.

•  Novels by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and the Bronte sisters

•  Essays and short fiction by Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Garrison Keillor, and David Sedaris

•  Nonfiction:  anything written by David McCullough or Barbara Tuchman; Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson; Working by Studs Terkel

•  A good atlas

•  Plays by William Shakespeare (Hamlet and Julius Caesar for starters), Arthur Miller, and Molière

•  A couple of illustrated art books, possibly inlcuding Art: A New History by Paul Johnson.  Among its other virtues, that book has a yellow dust jacket, so it will look great on your shelf.

This list is ridiculously brief, and doesn’t include science books, or poetry collections, or the Baseball Encyclopedia.  So — what else is missing?  What book (or books) do you consider essential reading?  Maybe another way to ask it is, what made you want to further your education?

Off the Bolt

Because my wife is an accomplished seamstress, I have spent more time in fabric stores around the world than I care to admit.  (Hm.  I guess I just did admit it.)  My role is to say things like, “yes, that is a beautiful pattern,” and to empty my wallet before exiting the store.

Frankly, my focus sometimes goes astray, and I find myself musing about things that aren’t essential to obtaining the perfect bolt of cloth.  For instance, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter why a plush fabric that is designed to absorb water is called terrycloth.  I can’t help it, though — I stare at that stuff and think, “Who was Terry?  Why isn’t it eugene-cloth, or louise-cloth?”

It turns out that terrycloth is not named for its inventor as I had assumed, but no one is certain how it did get its name.  Webster’s Dictionary speculates that it may come from “terret”, a crossword-puzzle noun that is the name for those rings on a saddle or harness.

A more plausible explanation is that terry is derived from the French word tirer, which means to pull, or pull through.  That would apply to the little loops in terrycloth that appear to be pulled up from the fabric.  The first terrycloth was made in France in 1841 (out of silk!), but cotton terrycloth was first made in 1848 by an Englishman named Samuel Holt.  The introduction of terrycloth popularized towels, which in turn popularized bathing — until the availability of terrycloth towels, most people considered washing themselves to be more or less an annual event.

While obediently holding bolts of cloth my wife has taken off the shelves, I once wondered about the origin of the word denim.  It wasn’t until later that I learned it was a variety of serge that had started in Nimes, France; it was called serge de Nimes, but was shortened to… denim.

Since we’re on the subject, I took a brief detour to track down “blue jeans”.  One source says that the first denim trousers were made in Genoa, Italy.  The French word for Genoa is Gênes — hence, blue jeans.  Or if you prefer, bleu gênes.

The man whose name is almost synonymous with blue jeans, Levi Strauss, arrived in San Francisco in 1853 to run a branch of his family’s dry-goods business.  The prospectors who had poured into the area during the gold rush were looking for trousers that were more durable than their suit pants.  Strauss first made garments out of tent canvas, but those tended to make the wearer feel that his crotch was encased in sandpaper. 

When he substituted serge de Nimes, Levi’s were born, and before long, customers were flocking to… What?  Yes, dear, that is a beautiful pattern.  OK, I’ll just stack your bolts of fabric on the counter here and get out my credit card.

Sign Here

What's that about? (photo by Sally Reeder)

The July Fourth holiday celebrates events that occurred on July 2, 1776.  It was on that date that the Continental Congress passed a Resolution of Independence from the British Empire.  Various colonies had been making declarations of independence for several months, but for all thirteen colonies to collectively renounce their allegiance to King George III — that was a big deal.

The colonists knew that there could be serious consequences, but on July 2, they took the step from which there would be no turning back.  John Adams of Massachusetts wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

As we know, Adams’ prediction was off by a couple of days.  So… what actually happened on July 4th?  A document that has come to be known as the Declaration of Independence was put on the table before the Continental Congress.  It was primarily the work of Thomas Jefferson, who served on a committee with Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York.  They had been instructed in mid-June to draft a document that would explain the vote that was coming — the one that happened on July 2.  In a way, this document was the press release, the public announcement of what they had already done.

There are stirring words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, but if you’ve ever read the whole thing, you know that it’s mostly a lot of complaining about King George:

•  “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”

•  “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”

•  “He makes us wear these stupid wigs.”

(OK, that last one wasn’t in there, but trust me, it becomes clear that the king is to blame for pretty much everything.)

Inevitably a rewrite occurred.  There were changes of wording and big chunks were cut — about 25% of Jefferson’s first draft was eliminated.  By the time the vote took place, Jefferson was probably sulking.  This vote, on July 4th, approved the final wording of the document.  Hooray!  Shoot off the fireworks!

It’s possible that some of the founding fathers signed it that day, although scholars debate that — some think the actual signing didn’t take place until August of ’76.  Others think that perhaps as many as 34 men signed on July 4th; it’s fairly certain that not all 56 signers were together for the group photo.

In any case, the most famous signature is John Hancock, who signed his John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress.  The least famous signature was Button Gwinnett of Georgia, who was so obscure that his autograph is now extremely valuable — it has sold for as much as $150,000.

Does anyone besides me wonder if “Button Gwinnett” was a fake name, used by a colonist who didn’t have “manly firmness”?  After all, signing that Declaration was an act of treason that could get you hanged if the king found out.  And come on, does “Button” seem like a real name to you?