Monthly Archives: November 2011

That Birthday Song

How many times in your life do you suppose you have sung it?

The words and melody are so simple, it might not have occurred to you that somebody actually wrote them.  At some birthday parties, it doesn’t occur to celebrants that the simple melody would sound better if everyone sang it in the same key.  The fact is, what is probably the best-known song in the English-speaking world was not only written, it is still under copyright.

“Happy Birthday to You” had its own birthday back in 1893, but it began life as “Good Morning to All”.  Sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill composed it as a start-the-school-day song for kindergartners.  (Patty worked at a school; Mildred was a pianist.)

Within a few years, the now-familiar “Happy Birthday” lyrics had been applied to the Hill sisters’ tune.  Professor Robert Brauneis of George Washington University Law School has investigated copyright issues related to the song and found sheet music for it that dates to 1912.  Paul Collins, writing for, discovered it in print with “happy birthday” words even earlier than that.

What no one seems to know for sure is how “Happy Birthday to You” became so popular, but by the 1930s it was part of the culture.  It was broadcast by radio stations, Western Union used it as a singing telegram, it was appearing in Broadway shows.  That’s when a third Hill sister, Jessica, took legal action.

She had been administering the copyright of “Good Morning to All” for her family, and in 1934 she managed to get a court to see the similarity between that song and “Happy Birthday to You”.  Take a moment to imagine a judge listening over and over to the complexities of those six notes just to be sure he ruled correctly.

The Hills were granted the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You” and split profits with a publishing partner, the Summy Company.  The publishing rights are currently owned by Warner Music Group.  OK, so how much do you think “Happy Birthday to You” is worth?  No — more.  It generates approximately $2 million a year in royalties!

How is that possible, you may wonder, and the answer is that whenever it is publicly performed, someone owes Warner, which splits profits with the Hill Foundation.  Does that mean that you’ll be led away in handcuffs if they catch you singing it to Uncle Tony in your living room?  No, that’s not considered public performance.

However, Marilyn Monroe’s hormonal tribute to President Kennedy probably violated copyright laws.  Even if she got away with not paying back then, any filmmaker who shows footage of it now certainly has to ante up.  If it’s used in a television show or at a concert or in a commercial — if it’s the soundtrack for one of those musical greeting cards — those all require royalty payments.

The copyright laws have changed a couple of times since 1935, resulting in an extended life for the original copyright.  Warner Music can keep collecting until the song becomes “public domain” — in 2030!

There are those, including Professor Brauneis,who believe the copyright is no longer legally valid, but rather than go to the time and expense of challenging it in court, companies that want to publicly use “Happy Birthday to You” just cough up the $5-10 thousand that Warner Music charges for its use.

By the way, I didn’t do extensive research on this little detail, but as far as I can tell, no copyright has been granted for the “and many more!” part.  I know what you’re thinking, and I say go for it — it could be worth a bundle if you can prove you created it.

The Rise and Fall of Edward Teach

Edward Teach Ignores the "No Smoking" Signs

Everyone who has ever found his or her calling realized at some point, “Hey, I might be good at this.”  That’s how some people are drawn to puppetry and others are drawn to proctology.  Or piracy, for that matter.

It is not known when Edward Teach noticed that he had a gift for terrorizing people, but he eventually became one of the most notorious pirates of the Caribbean.  He is known to history as Blackbeard.

In the early years of the 18th century, Teach developed his sailing skills and silenced his conscience while serving on a privateer during the so-called Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713).  Privateers were privately owned ships that were hired by governments to fight their enemies.  Crew members didn’t necessarily feel any loyalty to the country for which they were fighting, but they got to keep whatever they could steal.

It was only a small step from that into piracy, and that’s the path Edward Teach took.  A pirate named Benjamin Hornigold gave him his big break in 1716:  command of a small ship in the pirate’s fleet.  Teach showed a natual flair for it, and enhanced his fearsome reputation by allowing his black hair and beard to get quite long.  According to some historians, he braided pieces of rope and ribbon into his ’do; during battles he would set fire to these fuses so that his hair and beard were smoldering (see above).  That struck fear into Blackbeard’s opponents, or at least convinced them that he was seriously deranged.

Blackbeard captured a French merchant vessel in 1717 and converted it to his flagship by outfitting it with 40 guns.  He renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge, which the pirates probably all found delightfully ironic.

Over the next year Teach’s fleet of ships grew; he commanded over 300 pirates who captured and robbed vessels from Virginia to the West Indies.  When Blackbeard flaunted his power by blockading Charleston in May, 1718, the authorities decided that something had to be done.

Blackbeard and his men were hanging out in North Carolina playing horseshoes and sipping Cosmopolitans that November when a British naval force led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard trapped them at Ocracoke Island.  Teach was now on a ship called Adventure, since Queen Anne’s Revenge had run aground several months earlier.

Maynard’s sloop sustained heavy fire from Blackbeard’s cannons, but during the battle, Maynard ordered most of his men to go below deck in anticipation of being boarded.  Blackbeard eventually got close enough to use grappling hooks and led his men onto Maynard’s damaged ship.

It appeared to be almost empty; the pirates momentarily thought they had won.  Before they could high-five each other, though, the hiding British sailors came out firing.  Maynard and Teach shot at each other and then fought with swords.  Although wounded, Blackbeard seemed to have gained an advantage — but then a seaman jumped him from behind and slashed his throat.

A post-mortem revealed the extent of his injuries:  Teach had been shot 5 times and had at least 20 lacerations.  Taking no chances, Maynard had Blackbeard’s head cut off and tied to the bowsprit of the navy vessel.  Maynard probably turned to his men and said with a big grin, “That’ll teach him.  Huh?  TEACH.  Get it?”  But the sailors were too exhausted to throw Maynard overboard.

By the way, there is still some controversy among historians about whether Edward Teach was his real name.  Pirates, like strippers, tend to use pseudonyms.  Just because they’re good at what they do doesn’t mean they’re proud of themselves.

Space Junk

This might hurt if it fell on you.

It turns out that Chicken Little wasn’t entirely wrong.  Technically it’s not the sky that’s falling, but a lot of stuff in the sky is.  Some of it is quite a bit bigger than the acorn that landed on Chicken Little, too.

In case you missed it — and thank goodness, it missed you! — a German satellite weighing 2½ tons fell out of orbit in late October.  It seems to have crashed into the Indian Ocean.

The month before that (September, 2011), an even larger piece of hardware tumbled from the sky.  That one, a dead NASA satellite, was the size of a bus and weighed 6 tons.  According to the news agency Reuters, it was torn apart during re-entry, but more than 20 pieces didn’t burn up during the fall — the largest was estimated to have weighed 330 pounds.

Fortunately, those chunks of UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite) didn’t hit a populated area.  They splashed into the Pacific Ocean, probably causing a lot of fish to exclaim, “What the hell was that!?”

Until its sudden descent, it was one of over 20,000 hunks of space debris that are large enough to be monitored from earth.  When you include screws and bolts and chips of paint and other objects floating around up there that can’t be seen on a tracking screen, the pieces of debris are estimated by NASA to number in the tens of millions.

The International Space Station is equipped with shields that protect it from the inevitable impacts with small objects.  According to The Week magazine, however, the crew has had to maneuver the station 5 times since 2008 to avoid large, potentially damaging objects.  In June, the crew was prepared to abandon ship when a piece of junk was headed toward the space station; it missed impact by less than a quarter mile.

There are occasional collisions in space; in 2009 a Russian communications satellite that was no longer in service smacked into an American satellite that was.  That caused the abrupt end of some phone conversations on earth:  “Dude, I was thinking we could hang out, have a coupla brews, and… hello?  Hello?”  The collision also created, as The Week reported, “another 2,000 chunks of orbiting scrap.”

That stuff will probably be joining us one of these days, through the process NASA calls “natural orbital decay”.  The space agency estimates that at least one piece of trash hits our planet every day.  The good news is that the odds of it hitting you (yes, you personally) are, well, astronomical — at least a billion to one.

In fact, since the space age began in the 1950s, only one person on earth has been hit by falling space junk.  In 1977, Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was in a local park around 3:30 a.m. when she saw a ball of fire in the sky.

A little while later she felt something tap her on the shoulder.  The thing bounced off and made a metallic clank when it hit the ground.  It was about the size of her hand, Ms. Williams told ABC News, but very light; she wasn’t injured.  Eventually it was determined to have been part of a Delta II rocket body.

Even if the chances of being hit by space junk are slim, I’m going to take precautions.  For starters, I intend to stay out of public parks at 3:30 in the morning.

What’s That Supposed to Mean?

The Roman Forum: Devastated or Decimated?

It was horrible, one TV commentator said, and another agreed that it was horrid.  In the newspaper it was called horrendous, while someone else thought it was horrific.  Yet another sage characterized it as horrifying.

What provoked all this revulsion was… um… I forget what it was exactly, but it was some sort of rude behavior by a celebrity.  What I do remember clearly is that the thought struck me, “All of these words derived from the noun ‘horror’ can’t mean the same thing — there must be distinctions between them.”

So I got my trusty dictionary off the shelf and looked them up.  As happens with depressing frequency, I was proven wrong:  They essentially all do mean the same thing.

Horror, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something shocking, terrifying or revolting; a shuddering fear.”  Horrible is defined as “causing horror; shockingly dreadful.”  That’s pretty similar to the definition of horrendous, which is “shockingly dreadful; horrible.”

Horrid means “such as to cause horror,” while horrific is “causing horror”.  Want to take a guess at the definition of the verb horrify?  That’s correct:  “To cause to feel horror.”  The English language seems to have almost as many words for the concept “shockingly dreadful” as the Inuits have for snow.  (That thing about them having a hundred is a myth, by the way.)

OK, so I’ll admit I was wrong about all those horror derivatives — but there are some similar-sounding words that are not synonyms.  Many of those same TV newscasters think that devastate and decimate mean the same thing.  They’ll tell you, for instance, that “the freak storm decimated over fifty percent of the apple trees in the area.”

Here’s the thing:  decimate shares the same Latin root as decimal, meaning one-tenth.  Back when the Romans were conquering the world, they had a post-battle ritual.  They would line up the surviving enemy soldiers, then they would count off and kill one out of ten.  A tenth of the vanquished army was decimated.  (I’ve wondered if guys toward the end of the line figured out what was happening and said to the guy next to them, “Hey, Jürgen, would you mind trading places with me?”)

Technically, then, to decimate means to destroy a significant portion, but that portion is roughly a tenth.  That figurative orchard of apple trees was devastated (“to lay waste, render desolate”), not decimated.

While we’re at it, let’s clear up the difference between reticent and reluctant.  You might hear that “Congressman So-and-so is reticent to act, for fear of antagonizing his core constituents.”  Sorry, but there is no such thing as a reticent politician.  That word means “disposed to be silent or not to speak freely; reserved.”

Reluctant, on the other hand describes lots of politicians:  “unwilling; disinclined… marked by hesitation or slowness because of unwillingness.”

Oh, and just to backtrack a moment… if you ever hear someone use the word horripilation, don’t assume it’s a synonym for horrendous and horrific and all those others.  Horripilation means “goose bumps”.  Which, come to think of it, could possibly be caused by something horrifying.

The Terra Cotta Army

Pit No. 1, Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors -- Xi'an, China

Every once in a while you’ll see a story about an art discovery.  Someone found a medieval tapestry in her grandma’s attic, for instance, or someone else paid 15 bucks at a yard sale for a painting that turned out to be a Renoir.

Something like that creates a brief flurry of excitement, but those finds pale in comparison to the lost art that was literally unearthed at Xi’an, China, in 1974:  an army of life-sized statues had been hiding underground for two millennia.

Some local farmers were digging a well when they started finding pottery and bronze weapons… and then fragments of warriors that had been sculpted from terra cotta.  (That’s an Italian term that means “baked earth” — fired clay, in other words.)  The farmers told the authorities what they had found; soon the site was swarming with archeologists and technicians who took over the excavation with their own fancy shovels.

It was determined that this brigade of statues dated back to 240 B.C. or thereabouts.  The experts realized that the terra cotta warriors were part of the burial site of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.  Qin (pronounced “chin”) had ordered up these foot soldiers and archers and horses to protect him in the afterlife.  When he died in 210 B.C., they were sealed underground with him.

There are thousands of them, and most of them are still hiding in the soil.  Experts estimate that there could be 8,000 soldiers when all have been found — maybe more.  That will take a long time, because even though excavation still continues, the archeologists have some obstacles to overcome, like the hordes of tourists who show up by mid-morning every day.

Scientists are also trying to figure out how to resurrect the soldiers without damaging the delicate paint on them.  When it’s exposed to air, 2000-year-old pigment doesn’t hold up very well — it rapidly fades or peels.

That brings up another incredible thing about these warriors:  every one is unique.  This was no assembly-line job; each was hand-painted and the facial features are different on all of them.

Back in the day, an estimated 700,000 people from all over the empire were put to work creating Qin’s Mausoleum.  Craftsmen who weren’t involved in that project were pressed into service on another of his grandiose schemes:  He began construction of what eventually became known as the Great Wall of China.  Emperor Qin did not lack for big plans.

Today the site where the discovery was made has become a sort of campus; there are several buildings, the largest of which encloses Pit Number One, where over a thousand warriors have emerged so far.  It has a domed roof that reminded me of an aircraft hangar (see photo).

In another building there is a display of terra-cotta chariots and horses and armor, found in other pits.  There is also a 360° movie theater that runs a short film.  It’s about highlights of Qin’s reign, I think — the film was seriously out of sync and appeared to have been run through a paper shredder.  Maybe they’ve fixed it since we were there, but if not, close your eyes during the screening so you don’t get queasy.

There is also a nice gift shop on the grounds; you can buy reproductions of warriors, or of coins and other stuff found during the excavations.  There are also books for sale about the Terra Cotta Army, and if you buy one, an old man at a table will autograph it for you.  He’s sort of a local celebrity — he’s one of the farmers who made this fantastic find.

The Toughest Position in Football

The Umpire Does Have a Great View of the Game

Quarterbacks get slammed from their blind side.  Receivers get belted at full speed.  Linemen get elbowed and clawed and stomped on.  Running backs get caught in the middle of pileups.  All of that stuff happens to umpires.

Fans tend to call all football officials “referees”, or sometimes they call them “you stupid #%*&*!”  Technically, only one official is the referee; the other 6 have other titles, one of which is umpire.

None of the officials has it easy.  For starters, they suffer the humiliation of having to wear uniforms that appear to be costumes for a skit about prison life.  And unlike the players, they don’t have the protection of helmets or pads.  That vulnerability has a lot to do with why the umpire’s job is so tough.

Look at his position on the field (click to enlarge photo).  The umpire lines up 5 yards off the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball.  That’s always the case in college football; it is sometimes true in the National Football League, for reasons we’ll go into momentarily.

By contrast, here are the positions the other officials take at the start of each play.  The referee (the only guy wearing a white hat) is 10 yards behind the quarterback, and to his right if the QB is right-handed.  The head linesman is on one sideline, straddling the line of scrimmage.  The line judge takes a similar position on the opposite side of the field.

The back judge and side judge are both 20 yards deep in the defensive backfield, with the former standing on the same side of the field as the wide receiver(s).  The field judge is 25 yards deep, on the tight end side.

Take a look at the photo again.  Of the 7 officials, only 3 are visible:  the referee, standing in the end zone; the back judge, who sort of blends in with the reserves on the sideline; and the umpire, who is standing where the play is about to engulf him.  The others are all more or less out of harm’s way.  The umpire is in harm’s focal point.

Football uses the term “incidental contact”, which means “no harm done”.  As far as I’m concerned, incidental contact is what happens in a crowded elevator, not what happens on a football field.  Even though a player didn’t mean to hit you in the Adam’s apple or kick you in the shin, it still hurts.  That’s why umpires need to have a high pain threshold and good medical insurance.

National Football League executives were made aware that during the 2009 season, umpires had been knocked down by players more than a hundred times.  At least 2 of those collisions resulted in serious concussions and  3 required surgery for orthopedic damage.  That doesn’t include numerous stitches for other wounds.

As a result, the NFL changed the positioning of umpires at the start of the 2010 season, placing him next to the referee.  In some crucial situations, however — when the offense is inside the 5-yard line, for instance — the umpire goes back to his traditional post, right in the thick of things.

Why anyone wants that job is beyond me.  The pay is OK, but not spectacular, your name only gets mentioned if you make a questionable call, and you sure wouldn’t do it for your health.  Maybe the attraction is this basic — it must be satisfying for umpires to know that they’re as tough as anyone else on the field.  Maybe tougher.