Monthly Archives: February 2012

The QWERTY Keyboard

The idea for the typewriter had been around since the early 1700s, but people wondered, “Why would we want such a thing when we have perfectly good quill pens?”

In the years after the U.S. Civil War, though, a Milwaukee newspaper editor and printer named Christopher L. Sholes persisted, producing a working model in 1867.  “Working” may be giving it too much credit; the earliest typing machine devised by Sholes and a couple of his friends was not exactly a marvel of efficiency.  Specifically, the keys kept getting stuck.

The design, for those too young to remember typewriters, was a sort of internal basket of metal arms.  When a letter button was pushed, a lever was engaged, causing the metal arm with the corresponding letter to strike the page.  The problem was that those arms had an unfortunate tendency to snag each other.

It occurred to Sholes and one of his financial backers that a modification to the keyboard might solve that.  Instead of the alphabetical rows of characters Sholes’ first machine had (A-M on the bottom row, N-Z on top), the most-used letters would be separated from each other to avoid collisions.  Actually, it wasn’t just the most-used letters he isolated — it was the letter pairs that occur most frequently in the English language.

It so happened that Sholes’ investment partner had a brother named Amos Densmore who studied letter-pair frequency.  Back then, people had fascinating hobbies, like whittling and studying letter pairs.

OK,  just off the top of your head, since you probably haven’t devoted serious study to letter pairs, what do you think would come up often?  Right — TH is the most common pair, and there’s HE, AN, RE, ST… well, we could go on for hours like that, but the point is that Christopher Sholes took these into consideration and adjusted his keyboard accordingly:  “Let’s see… if we put the E up here and H over here…”

The manufacturing rights for the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer were sold to E. Remington & Sons in 1873.  (Demand for Remington’s main product — rifles — had waned when the Civil War ended, so they were looking for other stuff to manufacture.)  Mechanics at Remington tinkered with the letter arrangement a little more, but by 1878 the QWERTY keyboard, known for the first six letters on the top row, had become the standard.

There were other typing machines and other keyboard arrangements that came along, but the Remington No. 2 was the most popular.  This was due in part to people like Mrs. L.V. Longley of Cincinnati, who used it to teach stenographers to use all their fingers, not just hunt and peck.   Then there was a guy named Frank McGurrin, who won a widely publicized speed-typing contest in 1888 on a Remington with a QWERTY keyboard.

That letter arrangement — and having the keys set on the diagonal, rather than straight in line — has been the standard for keyboards ever since.  So now you know why the mechanical arms in our laptops and iPads don’t get all tangled up!

Ancient Nightmares

Laocoon Group, Vatican Museums

When you were a student, did you ever have a nightmare that the final test for some class was that day, and you hadn’t studied for it?  Yeah, me too.

  Friends who are actors have told me about a similar bad dream that is common to their profession:  they are about to go on stage and don’t know any of their lines.

There are other nightmares that are not occupation-specific, but are widespread.  There’s the one about feeling lost or trapped; there’s that awful one about falling; being chased or attacked is another common one.  And of course there is the nightmare in which you are naked in public.  (For all I know, strippers may have the opposite nightmare — a stuck zipper prevents them from getting naked in public.)

Any one of those is bad enough, but consider the multiple nightmares of the famous sculpture known as The Laocoön Group.

The central figure is a guy named Laocoön (pronounced Lay-AWK-oh-on), who, according to legend, was a Trojan priest.  He had already annoyed the gods with some misdeed, but then he suppposedly warned Troy against taking in that wooden horse left on the doorstep by the Greeks.  For that he was punished by either Apollo or Poseidon, depending on whose version of the story you accept.

Even a brief glance at this large marble sculpture makes clear what form the punishment took, and what constitutes the most obvious nightmare:  Laocoön and his sons were crushed by two giant sea serpents.  Yikes!

The sculpture group is attributed to three collaborators from the Greek island of Rhodes — Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus.  Most scholars date it to the first century B.C., but about a hundred years later it showed up in Pliny the Elder’s inventory of stuff at the palace of the Roman emperor Titus.

How did it get from Rhodes to Rome?  That’s unknown, but that was Laocoön nightmare #2:  “Huh?  Where am I?  How did I get here?”  And then… he disappeared until 1506, when the sculpture group was dug up in a vineyard, where it had apparently been buried for many centuries.  Tell me that’s not a nightmare.

Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo out to have a look at the statue as it was being unearthed; the artist reported back, “Wow!” (in Italian, of course).  So the pope said to the man who found Laocoön, “How much you want for it?”

Soon thereafter, the sculpture group was relocated to the Vatican; Laocoön and sons now find themselves naked in church — nightmare!  When they were discovered, each of the figures was missing arms or hands, and over the centuries since 1506, various artists have attached replacement parts (they’re-experimenting-with-me nightmare).

After his conquest of Italy in 1799, Napoleon had The Laocoön Group carted off to Paris (that could be the nightmare about being chased or attacked).  The British removed it from the Louvre in 1816 and returned it to the Vatican.

That’s where we encountered Laocoön and sons some years ago.  Their tortured expressions are all the more memorable because of the contrast with other sculptures from antiquity, most of which have faces so serene, they look like they never had a nightmare.  Of course, even if those Hellenistic statues hadn’t studied, it was a lot easier to bluff your way through the Chemistry final back then because there were only, what, four elements:  earth, air, fire and — wait, give me a second, I know this…

In Defense of Bill Buckner

Umpire John Kibler calls the ball "fair"; what happened after that wasn't fair.

Yes, he should have had it.  The little dribbler that Mookie Wilson hit toward first base should have resulted in an out.  Bill Buckner should have scooped it up and hustled to first, stepping on the bag just ahead of Wilson.  That would have ended game 6, making the Boston Red Sox World Series champions in 1986.

Of course, that’s not what happened.  Somehow the ball managed to get through Buckner’s legs, the New York Mets scored the winning run and ultimately went on to win the World Series in Game 7.  Buckner was villified in the Boston media and fans turned on him.  “To Buckner” became a verb meaning “to make a critical mistake”.

It’s my view that Bill Buckner doesn’t deserve the blame for losing the World Series — certainly not all of it, anyway.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.

To begin with, the Red Sox were extremely fortunate to even be in the World Series that year.  In the American League Championship Series, Boston was down 3 games to 1, and one out away from oblivion.  But lightning struck — Dave Henderson hit a home run off Donnie Moore in the 9th inning of game 5, reviving Boston’s chances.  (Buckner had started that miraculous rally with a single, by the way.)  Two innings later, Henderson’s sacrifice fly off Moore won the game.  The Sox subsequently won the next two games and made it into the World  Series.

Luck is fickle, though, and it turned against them on October 25, in game 6 of the Series.  So who, besides Buckner, deserves blame?  Well, almost all of the Red Sox hitters, who left a total of 14 runners on base that night; future Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice was 0-for-5, striking out twice.

There are some who blame manager John McNamara.  He often put in a defensive replacement in the late innings since Buckner was playing on two bad ankles, but he didn’t on that fateful night.  

Another guilty party was pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who had a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the 10th with 2 out… and then gave up 3 straight hits, the last on an 0-2 count.  The Sox were 1 strike away from expensive rings, but didn’t close the deal.

Bob Stanley came on in relief of Schiraldi, with the Sox still clinging to a one-run lead.  Mookie Wilson was the Mets’ hitter.  During that 10-pitch at-bat, Stanley threw one too far inside; maybe Catcher Rich Gedman should have caught it, but it was ruled a wild pitch.  Whatever — it sailed past Gedman, allowing Kevin Mitchell to score from third base, and moving Ray Knight into scoring position at second base.

The count on Wilson was 3-2 when he hit the grounder with which Buckner is forever associated.  Knight raced around to score, winning the game for the Mets and tying the series.

The Mets won game 7, giving them the opportunity to dump champagne on each other.  By the way, Bill Buckner managed a respectable 2-for-4 night at the plate in the finale.  Others were to blame for that loss, notably hapless pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who yielded 3 runs in one-third of an inning.

My point is that on any team, responsibility for success or failure is shared.  And let’s face it, no one makes it through life error-free.  (Divorce statistics are but one example).  Buckner had a solid career — .289 average, over 2700 hits — so it doesn’t seem fair that he’s known for that one mistake.

And maybe that’s an important life lesson that we learn from the world of sports:  Make plenty of mistakes, so you won’t get blamed for just one.

What’s the Occasion?

Barcelona -- Festa de la Merce

Holidays were invented as an excuse to have parades.  Parades were invented by trombone players, who otherwise have no excuse.

Those statements may not bear up to the scrutiny of anthropologists (since I just made them up moments ago), but you have to admit, there does seem to be some connection between holidays and parades.  Can you think of any culture or nation that gets bands playing and people marching in honor of yet another *#&! workday?

Sometimes the reason for the holiday is pretty creative.  We were in London one year for Trooping the Colour, which is one of the grandest parades I’ve ever seen.  It turns out that the occasion marks the queen’s official birthday, which isn’t her real birthday. 

The actual date of Elizabeth II’s birth is in April when the weather can be a little iffy, so Great Britain celebrates the monarch’s birthday on a Saturday in June, when the parade participants are much less likely to get soggy.

In Australia we experienced ANZAC Day on April 25.  Bands and marching are involved, but it is a solemn holiday that commemorates the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps — soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in World War I.  ANZAC Day is similar to Memorial Day in the U.S.

While visiting the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a genial man invited us to come and see a Bon Dance.  These events are held during the summer months in Hawaii, and are quite colorful; the dancers we saw were illuminated by paper lanterns.  The Bon Dance is a Buddhist custom that, if I understood correctly, is a way of honoring ancestors and welcoming their spirits back.

Distilled spirits — specifically rum — were a big part of the Goombay Festival we attended in the Bahamas.  It was never clear to me what we were all celebrating, but I remember people in feathered costumes, marching bands… and a dull headache the following morning.

Barcelona is a great place to be in late September, when the city spends several days celebrating its patron saint in what is known as Festa de la Mercè.  There are events all over Barcelona, including concerts, traditional dances and fireworks.  We’re talking aggressive, street-level fireworks; if you go, wear clothing that isn’t flammable. 

There are groups called Castellers who stand on each other’s shoulders to build human pyramids, some that rise several tiers from ground level.

One of the highlights of the Festa de la Mercè is a parade down La Rambla that features gegantes and capgrossos (giants and big heads).  The giants are costumes that are 10-15 feet tall, carried along the route by someone inside.

Occasionally the more athletic “operators” spin or bow slightly or make sudden moves that get the crowd roaring.  The costumes represent figures from Catalan history or culture — there are kings and queens and knights and, judging from the catcalls, villains.

The big-head figures are also representations of popular (or reviled) characters.  Between groups of these enormous papier-maché heads and the towering giants come — what else? — marching bands.  They are unusual because the bands consist almost entirely of drums and some reed instruments I’d never seen before; they must be of Catalan origin.  Oh, and there were no trombones, either.

Those are some of the holidays we’ve gotten to share with the locals in various places; what about you?  Where were you, and what was the occasion for the celebration?

How the Mountain Got Its Name

Mister Rushmore's face is not among the sculptures.

Mount Everest was identified as the highest point on our planet’s surface in 1852.  Of course, it wasn’t called Mount Everest then; it has probably occurred to you that the name doesn’t sound particularly Asian.

For centuries, the locals had called it Chomolungma, which in Tibetan means something like “Goddess Mother of the World”.  The team of British scientists who were surveying the area in the 19th century somehow overlooked that detail, so for a while the mountain was simply known to them as Peak XV.

Then one of the scientists had the peculiar idea of naming it for Sir George Everest, who had been Surveyor General of India several years before.

He really didn’t have a whole lot to do with the mountain that bears his name, and to his credit, Sir George said at the time, “Really chaps, I’d rather you didn’t,” but the Royal Geographic Society officially adopted the name in 1865.  Everest died the following year, just one of several historical figures who had their names given to mountains without good reason.

Another is Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet.  The locals called it Denali — still do, in fact — but it got named for an obscure U.S. president, thanks to a gold prospector named William Dickey.

The context was the election of 1896, in which a major issue was the American monetary system.  McKinley was a proponent of the gold standard; Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan favored silver.

Dickey managed to get the New York Sun to publish an account of his Alaskan travels in January, 1897.  In the article, Dickey made the preposterous claim, “We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency…”  It was a political retort to the free-silver supporters with whom this gold panner had bickered, but the name caught on.

A number of attempts have been made to get the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the mountain’s designation back to Denali.  For over 30 years those efforts have been blocked by legislators from Ohio — William McKinley’s home state.   That’s why a majestic mountain still bears the name of a president who is mainly remembered for the Spanish-American War, and for being suddenly succeeded in office by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.

As you know, Roosevelt’s likeness is among those on Mount Rushmore, which was also not its real name.  In the language of the Lakota Sioux, it had been called “Six Grandfathers” for its craggy peaks.  American settlers subsequently gave it various names, including Cougar Mountain, Keystone Cliffs, and Slaughterhouse Mountain.

A New York lawyer named Charles E. Rushmore visited the area on business in the mid-1880s; he was checking out the legal status of prospectors’ claims.  In a letter dated December 14, 1925, Rushmore gave this version of how the mountain got his name:

“I was deeply impressed with the Hills, and particularly with a mountain of granite rock that rose above the neighboring peaks… I asked of the men who were with me for its name.  They said it had no name, but one of them spoke up and said, ‘We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak.'”

That supposedly happened in 1885, but it leaves me wondering how a joking remark along the trail turned into a name that was officially adopted in 1930 by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.  The fact that in 1927,  Charles E. Rushmore gave the largest individual donation to finance the carving of presidential sculptures on that mountain was probably just a coincidence, don’t you think?