Friday, September 30, 2011

In Praise of Tacky

My dream in weak moments of overwork, looming deadlines and impatient clients? To open a tacky little gift shop in an out of the way place on Cape Cod – emphasis on tacky. That would be the perfect job. Work like crazy for July through August making your windfall and then take the rest of the year off. Perfect job. I’ve thought about this maybe a million times in the past 10 years.

And I think I have a flair for tackiness – a keen sense of what those Midwest tourists are looking for to bring home to Cousin Roy and Aunt Edna. Rubber lobsters, lobster baseball caps, and, get this, plastic lobster back scratchers – with glow in the dark lobster eyes! This last item I really have been thinking about for a long time, and not just thinking mind you, but conducting market research. I’ve got it all worked out. Design a beaut over here in the USA. Tim, my industrial engineering friend, could knock out a winning design in one evening. Then I’d farm out the manufacturing to China, or Bora Bora, or somewhere. If I wanted to ride this new Made in America trend (probably popular with those Midwesterners), I’m sure I could keep production here and find some plastics firm in Poughkeepsie or somewhere. Details. I was expounding excitedly on my plan to AVI the other day, but he was barely listening. “I think this could be big, AVI. Maybe go franchise on these tacky gift shops. Coast to coast on the lobster theme. I could end up as a big business typhoon!” I gushed. “Tycoon” AVI corrected. “Yeah, that too.” Now I was the one barely paying attention, fixated on my perfect future.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Odd Warbirds

I’m a bit of a history buff and one of my favorite topics is military aviation, especial the WWII era. Wars invariability lead to a massive acceleration in the development of technology, within compressed timeframes by necessity. Well-trimmed peacetime budgets are left in the dust as the race for survival takes over. The 1930’s designed aircraft the U.S. began WWII with were totally antiquated by the end of the war. In fact, the U.S. had let its military budget languish so much that most of our aircraft were pitifully outclassed when war broke out. The Brewster Buffalo is a great example of this. They were called Flying Barrels, or worse, Flying Coffins.

Germany had a number of superior aircraft when the initiated the conflict, especially in the realm of fighters. And the German innovative engineering and design never stopped throughout the war. The Allied forces were extremely fortunate that the bombing of Germany, however costly, was successful in disrupting production and manufacturing, otherwise the outcome could have been different. As it was, Germany got the first jet fighter into limited production and produced V-1 rockets (“Buzz bombs”) in numbers.

One brilliant German design that could have helped change the air war in their favor was the Dornier 335 “Pfeil” – “Arrow” – a very clever push-pull design. The Pfeil's performance was much better than other twin-engine designs due to its unique "push-pull" layout and the much lower drag of the in-line alignment of the two engines. The Luftwaffe was desperate to get the design into operational use, but delays in engine deliveries meant only a handful were delivered before the war ended.

There are many advantages to this design over the more traditional system of placing one engine on each wing, the most important being power from two engines with the frontal area (and thus drag) of a single-engine design, allowing for higher performance. It also keeps the weight of the twin powerplants near, or on, the aircraft centerline, increasing the roll rate compared to a traditional twin. In addition, a single engine failure does not lead to asymmetric thrust, and in normal flight there is no net torque so the plane is easy to handle. The choice of a full "four-surface" set of cruciform tail surfaces in the Do 335's design, allowed the ventral vertical fin–rudder assembly to project downwards from the extreme rear of the fuselage, in order to protect the rear propeller from an accidental ground strike on takeoff.

On 23 May 1944, Hitler, as part of the J√§gernotprogramm directive, ordered maximum priority to be given to Do 335 production. The main production line was intended to be at Manzel, but a bombing raid in March destroyed the tooling and forced Dornier to set up a new line at Oberpfaffenhofen. The decision was made to  rapidly shut-down many other military aircraft development programs and use the production facilities for the Do 335.

Delivery commenced in January 1945. When the United States Army overran the Oberpfaffenhofen factory in late April 1945, only 11 Do 335 A-1 single-seat fighter-bombers and two Do 335 A-12 trainers had been completed.

French ace Pierre Clostermann claimed the first Allied combat encounter with a Pfeil in April 1945. In his book The Big Show he describes leading a flight of four Hawker Tempests over northern Germany, when he intercepted a lone Do 335 flying at maximum speed at treetop level. Detecting the British aircraft, the German pilot reversed course to evade. Despite the Tempest's considerable low altitude speed, the RAF fighters were not able to catch up or even get into firing position. In its single-seat version it was one of the fastest piston-engined fighters ever built, with a claimed top speed of around 475 mph.

Flying the Pfeil was an experience, thanks to its high performance and unusual configuration. While the performance provided an exhilarating ride for the pilot, the configuration prompted some doubts. His main concern was the ejection seat, the Do 335 being only the second production type to feature this. Before firing the seat, explosive bolts which held the upper vertical tail surface and rear propeller were fired to clear a way for the egressing pilot. Despite the ejection seat, he had to jettison the canopy manually.

Only one Do 335 survives today. It was captured by Allied forces at the plant on 22 April 1945. The aircraft was test flown from a grass runway at Oberwiesenfeld, near Munich, to Cherbourg, France while escorted by two P-51s. The Do 335 was easily able to out distance the escorting Mustangs and arrived at Cherbourg 45 minutes before the P-51s.

Brought to the U.S. for testing, it then sat in storage in Maryland until the 1970s when it was restored (for static display, not air worthy). Dornier’s 335 Arrow can be seen today in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport alongside other unique late-war German aircraft.

Rags and Bones

During graduate school in the 1970s, my wife and I had a number of albums (yes, vinyl LPs) that were part of a series of easy listening music – probably produced by Living Strings or 101 Strings or some such record series. We used them mostly for background music at suppertime as I recall. One album consisted of instrumentals of popular British pop tunes, probably including some songs of Petula Clark – AVI’s favorite! A few of the tracks had sound effects woven into the tracks, or maybe separating musical tracks, and in one place you heard the clip-clopping of horse hoofs on cobble stones and a British bloke calling out like a town crier. But with such a thick British accent you couldn’t understand his words. And that was after 10 years of learning to decipher Mick Jagger.

At that time we were friends with a couple who had recently emigrated to Newfoundland from the UK for the better jobs that Canada had to offer – she British, he a Scot. So on one occasion when we had them over to our apartment for dinner or just drinks, I played that part of the album with the “town crier” and asked them to interpret. They couldn’t understand the guy’s words either! But they offered that it sounded very much like the call of a rags-and-bone man. I of course said, “Say what?” Our friends explained that a rags and bone man went from neighborhood to neighborhood in a horse drawn cart (traditionally) purchasing used materials from people for recycling – a junk man that came to your door.

Here’s Wikipedia’s take on rags-and-bone men:

Historically the phrase referred to an individual who would travel the streets of a city with a horsedrawn cart, and would collect old rags (for converting into fabric and paper), bones for making glue, scrap iron and other items, often trading them for other items of limited value.

They would use a distinctive call to alert householders to their presence, sometimes also ringing a hand bell. The call was something similar to "rag-and-bone", delivered in a sing-song fashion. Long usage tended to simplify the words, for instance down to "any raa-boh", even to the point of incomprehensibility, although the locals could easily identify who was making the call.

The rag-and-bone men were an important component of society before automotive transport. Householders had limited ability to travel to collection points, so the various customers for rags, bones, and such materials relied on the rag-and-bone men to supply some of their materials. The increasingly widespread use of cars made these dealers unneeded in many areas.

Once the world became more mechanized, some rag-and-bone men traded their horses for a lorry or pickup truck. Other social changes, such as the tendency for all members of a household to work outside the house, not to mention higher levels of traffic, made casual street-by-street pickup unworkable.

Focusing predominantly on scrap metal, these men still appear almost on a weekly basis in many parts of the Black Country as well as other parts of the West Midlands. They also often make heavy use of telephones being called on a case-by-case basis to collect an old appliance such as a fridge, sometimes for a small charge.

In the UK a popular comedy television series centered around a family-run rag and bone business. The show was called Steptoe and Son. Of course when Hollywood Americanized it for TV here it became Sanford and Son.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Speaking of Instrumentals

Did you really think the Beatles were the vaguard of the "British Invasion" into American music in 1964? Then you'd be wrong.

Telstar is a 1962 instrumental record performed by The Tornados. It was the first single by a British band to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and was also a number one hit in the UK. The record was named after the AT&T communications satellite Telstar, which went into orbit in July 1962. The song was released five weeks later on 17 August 1962. It was written and produced by Joe Meek, and featured a clavioline, a keyboard instrument with a distinctive electronic sound.

This novelty record was intended to evoke the dawn of the space age, complete with sound effects that were meant to sound "space-like". A popular story at the time of the record's release was that the weird distortions and background noise came from sending the signal up to the Telstar satellite and re-recording it back on Earth. It is more likely that the effects were created in Meek's recording studio, which was a small flat above a shop in London. It has been claimed that the sounds intended to symbolize radio signals were produced by Meek running a pen around the rim of an ashtray, and that the "rocket blastoff" at the start of the record was actually a flushing toilet, with the recordings made to sound exotic by playing the tape in reverse at various speeds.

The record was an immediate hit after its release on August 17, 1962, remaining in the UK pop charts for 25 weeks, five of them at number one, and in the American charts for 16 weeks.

Credit: 45rpmsingles on You Tube

Leave Well Enough Alone

Back in the heydays of Top 40 radio, you’d hear a wide variety of music styles. It wasn’t all Beatles, or even all rock & roll for that matter. Older crooners, like Frank Sinatra, or younger crooners, like Tom Jones, often cracked the Top 10 on the charts. Not to mention gooey bubble gum songs and the like. In the 1960s and into the 70s there seemed to be room for instruments to also reach the Top 40. My pet peeve back then was with the music industry turning a successful Top 40 instrumental into a vocal by the bolting on of cheesy, often force-fitted lyrics. I think this happened to Love is Blue and many others, including a couple of my favorites, these two gems from 1963:

Cast Your Fate to the Wind by a pre-Charlie Brown specials, Vince Guaraldi and Washington Square by the Village Stompers (billed as a folk song because of its era, but actually they were a Dixieland style group). No matter, both were superior in their original instrumental versions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What's a Retirement?

Several colleagues at work will probably retire within a year or so.  When people ask me about my retirement plans, my response is: after paying college tuition for two daughters, and then two weddings, "Retirement?? I'm still saving up for my mid-life crisis!"

If you care to help me reach my mid-life crisis, I accept cash, checks, money orders, gold coins, and most rare soda bottle caps.

1967 E-type Jaguar, don't you know.

Happy Coffee Day

How did they know?  National Coffee Day is September 29th - my birthday.  It can't be just a coincidence.

Anyway, have a cup on me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Was Faith Helped or Hurt by 9/11?

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upon us and getting plenty of focus in the media, I was thinking about the spiritual impacts of such an event, especially for those of the Christian faith. In 2003 the website ran an article by Steven Waldman and the staff titled The Real Spiritual Impact of 9/11. It was far from a full treatise on the topic, but did contain some interesting observations less than two years after the events of 9/11, especially from the Christian pollsters at the Barna Research Group. Excerpts from the Beliefnet article:

"At first, it looked like 9/11 was having an enormous spiritual impact. Atheists, ‘seekers,’ lapsed Catholics, secular Jews and seemingly everyone else poured into churches and synagogues. Evangelist Franklin Graham predicted that Americans were committing themselves to God in an ‘enduring’ way and Pat Robertson predicted ‘one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America.’

Then the flood of new worshipers receded. Church attendance went back to normal, and polls began to indicate that people were no more likely to pray, read the Bible or attend worship services than before. Nine out of ten Americans reported that 9/11 had ‘no lasting impact on their faith,’ according to a study released this week by Barna Research.

What's more, according to Barna Associates, the percentage of people who said ‘moral truth is absolute’ actually dropped from 38% in January 2000 to 22% in the fall of 2001. This was surprising since President Bush and others have talked of the attacks as a war between good and evil, a clash of absolute moral principles.

There were other signs that come 2002, Americans didn't view organized religion as much help. Only 11.2% of Americans sought advice from a minister, priest or religious leader, according to a study by the University of Chicago. Indeed, while the pews were emptying out, psychologists' offices were filling up. Drinking and pill use increased, Beliefnet found, at the same time formal worship declined.

Perhaps Americans experienced 9/11 much in the same way as a death in the family. For many, worship services provide powerful, comforting rituals that help them get through short-term crises but don't aid in the long run."

This reminded me of some research I had come across regarding early earthquakes in New England and the effects on the population in “the colonies” way back then. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) website has this historical excerpt from Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley related to the great earthquake of 1727:

"The people of New England were affected by this earthquake as they had never been before, being fearful of divine judgments for their sins and lax responsiveness to the call to religious duties. The clergy taught them that it was 'a loud call to the whole land to repent and fear and give glory to God.' The next morning great numbers of the inhabitants of Boston gathered at the old North church for prayer and other religious services. The old South was then opened, and those who failed of admission to the Brick church flocked thither, and that was also filled. Rev. Thomas Paine of Weymouth, Mass., and some other ministers, tried to prove to their congregations that the earthquake had not a natural cause, but was a supernatural token of God's anger to the sinful world.

The clergy improved the opportunity of leading the public mind toward the choice of a better portion than this earth can afford. The people were willing to be taught, and ready to believe, for the event they had just passed through convinced them of the uncertainty of temporal things, and a needed preparation for the life to come. Many who had before cared nothing for a religious life became penitent and devout. Seriousness was the expression on the faces of most of the people, and in some towns, large numbers were added to the church. In the parish of Chebacco in Ipswich, Mass., for instance seventy-six persons became church members. The earthquake had its effect upon some licentious characters, who became truly reformed, and afterward led honorable and moral lives. But, in too many cases, when their fears were gone, the religious thoughts and habits of the people lost their hold upon them."

Then these two pieces about two very different events set about 275 years apart reminded me of the Old Testament verse:

What has been will be again,
What has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wimpy Jaws/Hollywood Jaws

In 1974, writer Peter Benchley published Jaws, a novel about a rogue Great White shark that terrorizes the fictional coastal community of Amity Island. The left pic is the cover of the hardback first edition. Not so scary. But then Benchley’s novel was adapted into that 1975 Stephen Spielberg film that scares us (at least me) to death after 35 years. And we got the right hand pic to go along with the film. “My, what big teeth you have, Hollywood Shark.” Rapid evolution at work, I guess.

As soon as I heard about Benchley’s book I knew where he got the idea for the story line. In a very warm 1916 summer, five people were attacked and four killed along the New Jersey shoreline in the space of just 13 days. I knew this because when I took up SCUBA diving in my high school years I was also developing a professional interest in oceanography. And, like most any teenage boy, gruesome stories were appealing, so I read everything I could get my hands on about shark attacks, including the 1916 event. While they never proved the NJ attacks were the work of a single shark, or that it was a Great White, we knew – and Benchley knew. It had to be.

The U.S. Navy put a lot of research into the subject of shark behavior in WWII with so many downed pilots and aircrews and sunken vessels to deal with, especially in the warm South Pacific waters. Copper sulfate mixed with dye was the best repellent those wartime scientists could come up with. It was of dubious value as in actual tests some feeding sharks would wolf down the containers for a snack. I did not read Benchley’s book when it came out and my wife and I were still active SCUBA divers when Jaws became a summer blockbuster hit. We waited almost two years before we saw Hollywood Jaws.

In the film, Chief of police Martin Brody, biologist Matt Hooper, and fisherman Quint hunt the shark after it kills four people. Spielberg's film makes reference to the NJ attacks: Brody (Roy Scheider) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) urge Amity's Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) to close the beaches on the Fourth of July after the deaths of two swimmers and a fisherman. Hooper explains to the mayor, "Look, the situation is that apparently a great white shark has staked a claim in the waters off Amity Island. And he's going to continue to feed here as long as there is food in the water." Brody adds, "And there's no limit to what he's gonna do! I mean we've already had three incidents, two people killed inside of a week. And it's gonna happen again, it happened before! The Jersey beach! ... 1916! Five people chewed up on the surf!"

By the way, Spielberg’s screenplay was/is much superior to Benchely’s book. In the book, novice author Benchley decides that he just HAS to insert sex into a perfectly good terror story. So he sets up a super awkward affair between the Woods Hole scientist Hooper and Chief Brody’s wife. Awful, awkward and amateurish dialog and scenes are the result. A young but wise Spielberg knew better than to have his film go down that literary dead end. He showed early promise, that Spielberg.

The trivia and backstories about the filming of Jaws abound and could fill several posts. But I am drawn to the mechanical shark, Bruce (named after Spielberg’s lawyer). Created back in the shops at Hollywood, they (there were several partial shark bodies so the filming could occur at different angles while crews worked the fish’s mechanical levers and internal gears) had guts made of pipes, levers, and battery powered servo motors. But I guess they don’t have salt water back in California because the fabricators never took into account what the Martha’s Vineyard water would do to all those iron innards. Bruce was a major pain in the butt and here’s where Spielberg caught a lucky break. While waiting for his crews to get the various Bruces to work correctly, Spielberg went ahead and filmed as much ahead as he could. So fortuitously you don’t see the Great White in all his glory until well into the movie. The tense soundtrack and a surfacing fin now and again fill in very well and build the suspense up and up until when Bruce does raise his head above water, in all his toothy splendor, we film-goers are ready to leap out of our seats. And I do – every time. It never gets old.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Clear As A Bell?

I borrowed the new Rob Bell book, Love Wins (Rob Bell 2011), from a friend a few weeks ago and found it super frustrating. Bell is a Michigan pastor and one of the leaders of the Emergent Church movement – a movement that I have a lot of interest in and feel strongly that the traditional 20th century American Evangelical church needs to be challenged by some new thinking and even new
“movements.” Maybe I’m most frustrated because I expected more – a better written book – out of a leader of a major spiritual movement.

But some of my complaint is stylistic, I’ll admit. First of all, this is a 200 page book, exactly 200 pages, as if Bell’s contract specified that length and so he had to stretch things to make them fit. And the book’s use of lots of white space on the pages and Bell’s grouping of prose as if it were poetry is part of that conspiracy. See this Chapter 1 excerpt:

“Does this mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

Isn’t that Christians have always claimed set their religion apart – that it wasn’t, in the end, a religion at all – that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?”

Bell uses this short, stacked question format over and over. Very much 5th grade-boy-needing-to-stretch-his-composition-to-fit-teacher’s-assignment if you ask me.

But also note Bell’s style – barrage them with questions – that will fill up space!  In the early chapters just about every line is a question. Now, a book with the subject of questioning tradition should have a lot of questions. But Bell’s extremes leave the text unfocused and in many chapters it is hard to follow his thesis, even though I think I know what he’s getting at – and I may even agree with him, by golly. I just expect more of a spiritual leader purportedly on the vanguard of new Christian thought.

Rob, baby, work on that next book, ditch your current editor, clear your head - and write more like a scientist.  My advice anyway.

These Are Anxious Days

“These are anxious days. The battle is on for the minds and hearts of our young. Enemies of religion and morality are trying to lure our children away from God …their parents…decent living. Unfortunately, it is not enough for conscientious parents merely to forbid objectionable comics, sordid magazines, immoral movies and TV shows. Priests, teachers and psychologists all agree that we must replace these dangerous pastimes with something wholesome – and every bit as interesting to alert young minds.”  The source:

A) Sarah Palin to Tea Party activists, Des Moines, Iowa, August 2011
B) Pat Buchannan, speech during the 2000 Presidential primary, Concord, NH
C) Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, speech to the Virginia State Senate, Fall 1984

Give up? To be fair, I should have listed “none of the above.” The narrative comes from a rear dust jacket pitch for reasons to subscribe to the Catholic Youth Book Club, 1957. Hmmm, not much changes with human nature, heh? Same concerns, different decades.

The book this text came from is one I picked up for $.25 at our local swap shop: Giants of the Faith, by John A. O’Brien. The book profiles five “giants” including St. Paul and St. Augustine – the ones I was most interested in. How is the apostle Paul portrayed? And I had to admit that even though I grew up Catholic up to the age of 20, I knew relatively little about Augustine and most of his writings. I’ll have more to say about Augustine in a future post, but even part way through that chapter I’ve certainly learned that the dust jacket scenario above could have been written with Augustine’s early years in mind!