Spring Break

Had a weird interlude recently during which this entire blog vanished. Found some 404s and one of those ads offering the domain name for sale. That was unnerving. Then it came back, as if nothing had happened. (And what happened? I like to imagine some guy tripping over a cord at a server farm on Malta.) For all its faults in the end, Blogger never did that. Guess the lesson is, don’t run your mouth for years and years at any one site.

And do some backup. Also: if you’re look for this site and it’s gone, it isn’t because I pulled the plug.

But enough of the mechanics of Internet posting. That’s like telling someone else about your dreams: dull, unless they’re in them, and I’m not sure how someone else would be involved in my posting.

This year, spring break for the school-aged among us coincides with Holy Week, and I have much to do so that I don’t have to do as much as usual next week. Back again around April 1 — Easter Monday, which we ought to have as a holiday, as many other countries do. We could secularize the name, if that would make it more palatable.

Longitude John

I’ve been reading Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel (1995), which is about John Harrison, solver of the Longitude Problem, and I came across this passage: “Sometime around 1720… Sir Charles Pelham hired [Harrison] to build a tower clock above his new stable at the manor house in Brocklesby Park.

“The clock tower that Harrison completed about 1722 still tells time in Brocklesby Park. It has been running continuously for more than 270 years, except for a brief period in 1884 when workers stopped it for refurbishing.”

Wow. I had to find out if that was still the case, and it seems that it is. That’s a clock tower I would go look at, if I were in the neighborhood. I saw the Harrison chronometers at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich before I had much inkling of what they were or what he did, but finding out things sometimes works that way.

Naturally, specialists are busy revising the legend of John Harrison, including this fellow, who asserts that the clockmaker might have farmed out some of his brass parts. Could well be, though I’m in no position to pass judgment on the matter. But even if it were true, that hardly takes away from Harrison’s achievement.

There’s even a song about John Harrison. That’s what we need more of, songs about generally obscure but remarkably important people, places or events.

Hints of Spring

Despite the nearness of the equinox — which will inevitably be called ‘the first day of spring” when it arrives — winter grinds on here. Can’t call it spring. Large snowflakes came down much of this morning, though it wasn’t quite cold enough for them to last. Subfreezing temps expected at night for days and days to come.

The latest gas bill arrived the other day to drive home the fact that we’re still warming the house using natural gas. For the period February 12 through March 14 (30 days), 245.38 therms went for that purpose (including a few for cooking), or roughly 24.5M Btus. The bill also tells me that the average temp was 33 degrees F. for the period in question, compared with 54 degrees for roughly the same period last year. Natural gas prices are up, too, at least as reflected in the statement. Not sure what to make of that; last I heard, there was a glut.

I did see the tips of a few croci today, though not in my yard. And not long ago I heard a woodpecker, pecking at a tree in search of a meal. Only hints of spring, but better than nothing.

Bang, Zoom! Straight to Pluto!

Comet? What comet? Can’t see no stinkin’ comet. Of course, it’s been overcast for a while hereabouts, but maybe when things clear up, I’ll go look for it. Trouble is, suburban lights have a way of washing out the sky, including stray comets, unless they’re really bright. I was amazed to be able to see Hale-Bopp, but it managed to be visible even on the North Side of Chicago.

What’s up with that name, Pan-STARRS (which I’ve also seen as PANSTARRS)? I checked, and it was discovered using a telescope of that name. I was under the impression that comets are named after their discoverers, but perhaps an automated system uncovered this one, though you’d think whoever was directing the research would be honored with the name. Then again, if the scan were really automated, you could call the telescope a sort of discoverer.

Today’s odd bit of information (space related, because checking on Pan-STARRS took me on some tangents): the New Horizons spacecraft, now much closer to the planet Pluto than Earth — 6.76 AU v. 26 AU — carries a visible and infrared imager/spectrometer called Ralph, and an ultraviolent imaging spectrometer called Alice.

Time for Three

Lilly and I went to see the Elgin Symphony Orchestra play Tchaikovsky recently — Symphony No. 5 in E minor, part of the program called “Time for Spring” — and they did a fine job of it. But the astonishingly good part of the concert was the half-hour or so Time for Three was on stage. The trio, two violins and a double bass, set up in front of the orchestra and went to town, accompanying the orchestra on Concerto 4-3 by Jennifer Higdon, who apparently wrote the piece about five years ago with Time for Three in mind.

The trio – Zach De Pue, violin; Nick Kendall, violin; and Ranaan Meyer, double bass – were more than just energetic, technically adept young men, though they were certainly that. They went well beyond good musicianship, exuding their joy in working together, which wasn’t lost on the audience, who applauded frequently and stood for the three at the end (until they came out for an encore).

More about Time for Three is at the PBS Newshour web site, and while this YouTube video doesn’t really do them sonic justice – I’m not sure anything but seeing them live could – it still shows their range, and how they approached working together, and how enthusiastic the audience was. And of course it was filmed in the same hall as we saw them. In fact, it’s from roughly the same vantage point, except we were to their left, rather than their right, on the second row (which are the cheap seats at the ESO, but acoustically just fine).

The Slow Decline of the Yellow Pages

A book of yellow pages showed up at our door the other day. Fewer of those arrive with each passing year, but arrive they do. It’s a little hard to remember when they were essential reference works for the house, but so they were.

And like any good reference work, it was good to browse through them occasionally. Almost 30 years ago, in Nashville, I remember thumbing through one edition – it must have been an “official” one by one of the Baby Bells – and coming across a quarter-page ad for a roofing contractor that promised DEATH TO ROOF LEAKS, complete with skull-and-cross illustrations. Who knows, maybe the Republican Guard was getting into the roofing business in those days.

The edition we just got covers a big chunk of the Northwest suburbs. It has some standard reference information in the front, including a map of North American area codes. The metro New York and Los Angeles insets are very crowded with numbers, and metro Chicago could probably stand its own inset, too, but doesn’t get one. Are there still any states with one area code? Yes. Quite a few, actually: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

Next are “City, County, State and U.S. government offices” pages, which were blue in some yellow pages, but white in this one. These are always good for finding some oddities, such as a toll-free number for information on adopting wild horses and burros, a number of the inspector general of the Peace Corps, and a general information number for St. Lawrence Seaway Lock Operations.

My packratish nature won’t let me throw it away for a while. But I doubt that I’ll need it to use it to call the St. Lawrence Seaway or anywhere else.

Come May, We’ll be in Clover

Winter refuses to go quietly. Today was windy and raw, and just before dark, snowy. Not a vast amount, just enough to re-whiten the ground. But even so, winter is losing its grip. Before the snow started, I walked by a front yard that had the remains of a snowman: a lump of unmelted snow, a hat on top of that, and a carrot and some apples on the ground nearby. (Ann told me the apples were the snowman’s “buttons.”)

Got a note from a friendly yard-care company rubber-banded to my front doorknob the other day, offering its services in the spring. The note featured a checklist of “undesired weeds” in our yard, and according to the checklist we have chickweed, henbit, dandelions, and clover. How did this company know what I have in my yard? Yard spies wandering down the sidewalks last summer, making notes? It’s too soon yet for drones to do that, but someday no doubt they will.

Never mind. Those last two are easy enough, but I had to look up the others. Chickweed refers to a lot of different plants, so it’s one of those unhelpful common names that spurred Carolus Linnaeus to do what he did. Henbit is Lamium amplexicaule. I’m pretty sure we do in fact have henbit, dandelions, and clover in the yard. But they missed our pockets of mint, maybe because most of those are in the back yard, and yard spies who go there are trespassing.

But why are those three weeds? I’ve written about dandelions. As for clover, it’s clover. We’re not talking kudzu here. Clover is good. The expression “in clover,” though a bit old-fashioned, reflects that.  The OED puts it this way: “to live (or be) in clover: ‘to live luxuriously; clover being extremely delicious and fattening to cattle.’ ” We don’t have cattle, but who can look down on those little green plants mixed in with other grasses, with their three leaves and hardy constitutions, and think weed?

Moonlight Saving Time

Today’s the first day of DST, and the nation is vexed by tired workers and dangerous motorists. To hear the opponents of the change tell it (and they’re never are quite as vocal in the fall). Maybe there’s something to their charges, but I’ve lived in a temperate-zone country where the time does not change, namely Japan. At the height of summer, the morning sun would wake me up at around 4 a.m. and my non-air conditioned apartment would be hot already by the time I had to get up for work.

It’s then, when you’re lying in bed feeling the sweat rising at 5 a.m., that you think: maybe taking this useless hour of daylight and dropping it into the evening is good idea. That is to say, I’m not persuaded that getting rid of DST would cure much of what ails us.

On the other hand, early March to early November isn’t quite right either. Better the way it was before Congress tinkered with it in 2005 – first Sunday in April to the last one in October, or even the way it was from 1967 to 1986, when it was the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October.

I looked at this map today because of the change, but also because it’s always a good day to look at a map. I wondered, what’s up with that corner of British Columbia that doesn’t change their clocks? Wiki says: “Part of the Peace River Regional District of BC (including the communities of Chetwynd, Dawson Creek, Hudson’s Hope, Fort St. John, Taylor and Tumbler Ridge) is on Mountain Time and does not observe DST. This means that the region would be on the same time as Mountain Standard Time (MST) in the winter, and Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) in the summer.” Hm.

One more thing: the change brings to mind this charming song, which is mostly lost to time.

I like the video that bsgs98 made. Where do you get so many pictures of people and paper moons? Google images, of course. But I also wondered, how exactly did the custom of sitting for a photo with a paper moon start, how long did it last, and why did it die out? A simple search doesn’t tell me, and I’m too lazy to dig around more (for now).

A quick check does reveal that there were many covers of the “Moonlight Saving Time,” but among those I’ve heard, I prefer Guy Lombardo’s version. The song was written by Irving Kahal and Harry Richman in the early ’30s, and it’s amazing the things you can find with a little creative Googling.

The Milwaukee Sentinel, in a squib published on June 17, 1934, said: “It was in the spring, three years ago, on the night that New York went on daylight saving time that he [Richman] thought up the title. There was a beautiful moon and the idea occurred to Harry that ‘Moonlight Saving Time’ would be a good title. Next day, he and Irving Kahal wrote the song.”

Item from the Past: Cronkite’s Last Broadcast

Memory is unreliable, so keep a diary. Or so I read once in an article about planning and executing a months-long trip. Memory is unreliable, of course, but written accounts aren’t always much help either.

On March 6, 1981, I was in Durham, NC, on spring break and wrote: “We all went to a North Carolina Mexican restaurant, which wasn’t bad. Better than El Sol in Logan [Logan, Utah, where I’d been the year before, and which featured cinnamon in its enchiladas, if I remember right]. The place was divided into the Cosmopolitan Room and the Fiesta Room, or something like that, and one was mainly a bar, though you can eat there, which we did. It had a television on the wall.

“Since we were there from roughly 6:15 to 7:15, Walter Cronkite’s last news program was on. During his final words, the whole place was watching, maybe a dozen people. I’ve never watched his broadcasts that much, but I think he wrapped it up with style.”

I don’t remember a thing about that nameless Mexican restaurant, what I ate, or what my friends – Neal and Stewart – and I might have talked about. So much for the efficacy of diaries as a memory aid, at least in this case. I vaguely remember the quiet of the place, with everyone watching a communal television event that would never happen now (who cares about network news anymore?). But if I had to cite any of Cronkite’s words, I couldn’t, except for “that’s the way it is,” because he always said that.

It was a fluke that I saw it. I didn’t have a TV in my dorm room, didn’t know anyone who did, and probably won’t have ventured down to the common room — which had a TV — to watch it there, had I been on campus that day. We were staying with Neal’s parents during that trip, and I don’t remember watching much TV there, either (though I did read most of Helter Skelter there).

Naturally, in the age of YouTube, you can see it again if you want. I agree with my original assessment of the sign off.

I thought of Cronkite’s last sign off on Saturday when I spotted a small error in the pilot episode of The Americans, which I started watching because I saw it described as “a period piece about Russian spies in America.” The period turned out not to be the height of the Cold War, but the late Cold War setting of 1981. No, I thought, it can’t be a period piece if I remember the period as more or less an adult. But I guess that isn’t true anymore.

Anyway, it’s a pretty good spy yarn, more interesting because the spies in question are sleeper Soviet agents who pass as middle-class Americans (with convenient orders to converse only in English, even among themselves). The small error was in passing. The scene showed a television, and Walter Cronkite was delivering the news. The show is clearly set in the spring of 1981, April at least and probably May. Cronkite was gone after March 6.

Thursday Debris

Sure enough, the snow started to melt today, when it was above freezing during the daylight hours. But there’s still a lot of ground covered, so this is going to take a while. It brings to mind the preternaturally warm March we had last year. Which was a prelude to drought, so I don’t think we want that again.

During the snow day on Tuesday, Lilly and Ann went out to build a structure in the back yard. They called it a snow couch, which they said was easier than a snowman.

Yuriko got a package of Curly’s Meaty Barbecue Baby Back Pork Ribs from a warehouse store recently, and we ate them even more recently. At least I think that was the name. I’m not going to dig the wrapping out of the trash now. Precooked, so all you do is heat them. Meaty, all right. But the sauce was too sweet, we concluded. Not enough tang. I’m sure it can be a difficult balance, but they erred on the side of sweetness. Maybe they were misled by focus groups.

Pictured on the right, fruit on custard. Yuriko didn’t bring that home, but made it not long ago, and we liked it a lot. The kiwi on it, I happened to find out, was imported from Italy. That was my new fact for the day: Italy has a kiwi crop. That’s been true for a while now, it seems. A 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times tells us: “Somewhat improbably, Italy has grown to become the world’s largest producer of the odd furry fruit, according to the National Institute of Agricultural Economics, surpassing even New Zealand, which coined the name for the fruit once known as the Chinese gooseberry.”