Hole in the Clouds

December 2010

Neighborhood Contralto

Dec 3, 2010


The best singer from my neighborhood here in Philadelphia might be the best singer ever from any neighborhood anywhere: Marian Anderson. A future Good Morning will look at her in the neighborhood; for now, let's get straight to the singing.

We remember Marian Anderson as the artist-entertainer who first broke through the color line in 1930s America. We do not remember her the way she appears in this Richard Avedon photo from much later in her life; she was not the sort of woman who let her hair down in public, literally or figuratively.

Maybe she looked a little like this sometimes down in the basement of the South Philadelphia rowhouse she bought with the earnings from her European concert tours, a basement in which she installed a piano and a champagne cooler and extra soundproofing in the walls. But even in her private music-making, it is hard to imagine her settling for anything less than, or straying very far from, the highest standards of Western highbrow music. Her training had been hard to come by, but she had mastered her art like nobody before or since. That's what Arturo Toscanini said after listening to her in Vienna, and it's what Jean Sibelius said when he begged her to let him write a song for her.

Seventy-five thousand Americans, white and black, gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial on a cold April morning in 1939 to hear Marian Anderson sing for them. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had arranged the concert after the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let her perform in their hall, which like all accommodations in Washington back then was completely segregated. She would go on to sing at the inaugurations of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and in 1963 she returned to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to sing for hundreds of thousands of Americans at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, march on Washington.

You can hear her sing at these and other events, from the 1920s through the 1960s, on YouTube. Even though the quality of the recordings is sometimes disappointing and the highbrow diction characteristic of the era's artists can be distracting, you'll hear a voice so silky and deep and glowing that it hurts.

She performed classical recital songs and operatic arias, and her rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" was particularly beloved, even though she was an alto, not a soprano. Her concerts also included "Negro spirituals," to which she applied her professional training; she didn't let loose with them but stayed cleanly loyal to the melody, performing them just as carefully and elegantly as she did her European art music. Nobody sings those songs that way any more, but Marian Anderson could pull it off.

Here she is singing "You hear de lambs a-cryin."

Philadelphia   Marian Anderson   Stanton School   Daughters of the American Revolution   Union Baptist Church   racism   Jean Sibelius   Eleanor Roosevelt   Arturo Toscanini   (Image credit: Richard Avedon)  


Dec 8, 2010


In August 1939, this unemployed lumberjack and his wife showed up in the bean fields of eastern Oregon, hoping for a few weeks' work picking beans. Even though New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange was not expected--and in fact was not permitted--to note the names of the people she portrayed, we actually know a fair amount about this couple, thanks to the tattoo on the man's right arm. It's his Social Security number.

He is Thomas Urs Cave, 535-07-5248, and he must have been among the first Americans covered by Social Security, which started up for many workers--including lumberjacks but not farmworkers--in 1937. Tattooing Social Security numbers was not uncommon among people who may have feared that paperwork would disappear, or that they themselves might wind up in a ditch without identification. Mr. Cave's tattoo is a bit unusual, however, because it's right side up; usually, Social Security numbers were tattooed upside down, for easy reading by their owners.

He was born in July 1912, making him 31 when this picture was taken. He must have lost his logging job sometime after January 1937, when Social Security started up, so he was fairly new to the life of migrant farm labor. Three years after picking beans in eastern Oregon, he was drafted into the army, where he served till early 1946. He died in 1980 in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 68.

His army enlistment records identify him as "divorced," but his death records list a wife named Annie. The woman shown here may be the first wife; she might also be Annie, a girlfriend in the bean field days but eventually a second wife. 

Thomas Urs Cave did eventually collect on his Social Security.

migrant farmworker   Oregon   Social Security   New Deal   Depression   (Image credit: Dorothea Lange, via Shorpy)  


Dec 14, 2010


In the 1850s, John Brown announced to trusted friends and family that he'd been chosen by God to end slavery in the United States. He traveled first to Kansas, where abolitionists and slave-holding settlers were battling for control of the territory. Then he went to Canada to raise money, gather supporters, and lay plans for an uprising.

In October 1859 Brown returned to the United States with a couple of dozen men, white and black, and a plan to organize slave revolts in the mountainous regions of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. From mountain hideouts, abolitionist bands would help slaves attack their masters and conduct guerilla-style warfare against slaveholders and their civilization.

Brown's first target was the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. The men were already well armed, thanks to donations from abolitionists, but additional weapons would be needed to arm the hundreds or thousands of slaves that were expected to join the revolt. Brown's raiders cut the telegraph line, took hostages including George Washington's nephew, captured a train on the B&O railroad line that passed through town, and took the armory.

But the ultimate success of the plan depended on sparking a general rebellion of slaves throughout the area, which never happened. After a few hours, U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart arrived from Washington; Stuart attempted to negotiate a surrender but when Brown refused, the raid was put down in literally three minutes.

During those three minutes, Brown was severely wounded by a sword blow, from which he never recovered. At his trial for treason he lay on a stretcher and barely participated in the proceedings. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Slaves did not join him in revolt, but they sang about his body, mouldering in the dust, and about his soul, marching on. Less than two years later, civil war engulfed the whole country, and less than two years after the war began, Lincoln proclaimed that slaves were free.

The military commanders who had quashed Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Lee and Stuart, resigned their commissions in the U.S. Army and fought for the Confederacy.

This image of Brown's warriors approaching the Harpers Ferry arsenal is from a 1941 series of twenty-two paintings by Harlem artist Jacob Lawrence that illustrate the life and legend of John Brown.

West Virginia   John Brown   abolition   terrorism   Harper's Ferry   slavery   (Painting by Jacob Lawrence)  

The Land of Counterpane

Dec 16, 2010


Ian Hundley sewed the quilt, doubtless inspired by views of the world from airplanes and satellites. But a full century earlier, before there were any airplanes or satellites, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the rhyme for this vision, for an imagination embracing the whole world without ever getting up from bed. His verse concludes:

I was the giant great and still 
That sits upon the pillow-hill, 
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane.

quilt   Robert Louis Stevenson   map   (Art by Ian Hundley)  

First Snow

Dec 17, 2010


This being Philadelphia and all, we might have a winter this year, but then again we might not. So far, we've had about half an inch of snow and half a week or so of ridiculously cold weather. This is the evening rush hour Thursday on 21st Street.

streetscape   winter   Philadelphia  

Dick and Jane See Spot Run

Dec 18, 2010


This first grade class in East Meadow, on Long Island, New York, had 32 students in 1957, which was probably a typical class size. Schools just couldn't be built fast enough in the 1950s to hold all us baby boomers coming of (school) age in thousands of new GI subdivisions springing up around cities all over America.

The boy standing second from left, wearing a turtleneck, is Norman.

New York   Long Island   school   Norman   Meadow Lawn Elementary School  

Heads Up

Dec 19, 2010


Young Hanky got himself into this pose all by himself, with no help from Photoshop. The flexible back and seriously sturdy neck would serve him well athletically when he became a high school wrestler, but back in 1998, when this photo was probably taken, he had other interests, notably Beanie Babies. Rumor has it that as of this weekend, he's finished his first semester of college and shipped his snowboard back to Maine for some serious semester break.

Tuscaloosa   Alabama   kids   Hank Stein   yard   contortion  

What part of this sign don't you understand?

Dec 20, 2010

Back in the mists of time, very shortly after construction of the first low bridge, they must have installed the first device warning boats or wagons or SUVs with roof racks about that low bridge. Over the centuries, some of these warnings have made it into song, as on the Erie Canal: "Low bridge, everybody down. . . ." Many warnings have made it into video; check out "Low Bridge" on YouTube, or for the less high-minded among you, check out "Low bridge crashes" on YouTube. 

One high-tech warning device uses light sensors to detect vehicles too tall to clear an underpass. When the sensors are tripped, bright lights start flashing on a warning sign. In Durham, North Carolina, this sort of setup also includes two video cameras that start rolling whenever the lights start flashing, to record from multiple angles what drivers do in response to the warning. Many of them kept right on driving; on YouTube, you can join the 382,000 viewers who have "enjoyed" "Thirteen crashes in thirteen months" (11 feet 8 inches).

Keeping that bridge in good repair must have gotten expensive, so the railroad decided to armor the trestle with steel beams mounted at bridge-height a few feet in front of the actual bridge. It's much cheaper and quicker to put up a new beam than to fix a damaged trestle. As of 2009, the beam had been replaced once.

Why do people keep hitting the bridges? If you look at the crash videos, you'll notice that most of the vehicles involved are rental moving vans--in other words, fairly tall trucks being driven by people who are used to driving cars that can fit anywhere. I once drove 1,200 miles in a rented truck, and I definitely could have been a statistic--low bridges, gas station canopies, drive-thru bank tellers, etc., were just not on my regular radar.

Why do we have so many low bridges? Apparently, most are railroad trestles which cannot be raised without major track realignments to avoid steep grades. The alternative of lowering the auto road is also impractical in most cases, especially where it might threaten the foundation of the railroad bridge.

But in Griffin, Georgia, they seem to have come up with a low-tech solution that might grab the attention even of a typically distracted driver like me. If the words on the sign didn't stop me, I suspect that the thwack of hitting the sign might make my day.



streetscape   bridge   Griffin, Georgia   (h/t: Aunt A)  

Not Rudolph

Dec 21, 2010

His nose isn't red, and he's not really a reindeer--I understand that. But that's not the problem. I have met this deer, this near-reindeer, and he is no Rudolph; in fact, he's probably one of those "other reindeer" who mocked poor Rudolph, who used to laugh and call him names.

This deer bully--an ordinary mule deer--spent the summer of 1997 in the campground of northeastern Oregon's Wallowa Lake State Park, stealing food from off the picnic tables. He didn't wait for people to leave a table unattended; he just bullied his way in to where a family was setting up for dinner, shoved the family aside, and stole their dinner.

He got a loaf of bread from us before I grabbed a pint of ketchup and chased him away, yelling and swinging my ketchup, hoping that the bottle looked like a weapon to a deer. I'm sure I looked like an idiot to the campers, and I knew even then that it's not smart to act so aggressively around unusually aggressive wildlife. But I remember the thrill of playing the hero, running him off into the woods, protecting my family from the beast.

Something else I knew even then: this animal's bad behavior had been caused by humans and would certainly shorten its life span.

I don't know the details of what happened next. In fact, for all I know, this picture might record an unfortunate deer's very last supper.

Oregon   reindeer   mule deer   Wallowa Lake State Park  

South Street, #1

Dec 23, 2010


Last Saturday, they closed off a block of South Street around the corner from our house so a crane could pull old equipment up through a hole in the roof of a long-abandoned building. Some people must know why this job required such a tall crane, but I'm not among them.

The rumor is that the building is being refurbished to house a restaurant called Honey Sit n Eat.

streetscape   Philadelphia   crane   Center City   South Street  

Friends Across the Waters

Dec 27, 2010

Five hundred million people have Facebook accounts. They have Facebook friends. Some Facebook friends live in the same city as one another; others may be separated by thousands of miles. Here we see the world as reflected in pairs of Facebook friends: brightly lit where many friends are linked via Facebook, and dark--as in Russia and China--where people use other social media or rely on pre-digital forms of friendship.

Two things I like about this picture: one, it's a map of much of the world made without drawing any coastlines or national boundaries or any other geographic features. Instead, all the lines we see here portray human relationships. "Each line," notes Paul Butler, who created the image while working as a Facebook intern, "might represent a friendship made while traveling, a family member abroad, or an old college friend pulled away by the various forces of life."

A second cool thing about this map: it was rendered in a very clever way. From all the friend data in Facebook's repository, Butler selected a random sample of 10 million "friend pairs." He noted the latitude and longitude of the current city location of both members of each friend pair. Each pair was to be represented by a line connecting the two friends--not a straight line, but a "great circle" curve, trigonometrically adjusted to account for the roundness of the earth.

Those of us who've fiddled with mapping large datasets can easily predict what happened next, when Butler told the computer to plot his 10 million friendship lines: he got a big, incomprehensible shaggy-looking blob. There is too much overlapping data. Butler reduced the number of lines in his diagram by adding together all the friend pairs in the same cities--for example, all the friend pairs with one member in Honolulu and another in Los Angeles. All the Honolulu-Los Angeles friend pairs would be represented by a single line--a very faint line if there were very few such pairs, or a bright, bold line if there were many.

A second factor used to weight the friend-lines was distance. Friend pairs within a single city or in nearby cities are obviously numerous and would tend to clog up the map. So short lines were set to be relatively more transparent than long lines. The result is a dramatic display, easily understandable, of millions of data points--an exercise in statistical visualization that became, of course, a Facebook page.

In Facebook, 2,097 users gave Butler's map a thumbs-up, and hundreds submitted comments. The most common comment was: I want a map like that showing me and my friends.

It can't be long before there's an app for that.

data visualization   geographic projections   R   great circles   Facebook   (Image credit Paul Butler; h/t Tanja Baker)  

Faraway Sunsets, #1

Dec 29, 2010

On December 29, 2010, sunrise in Reykjavik, Iceland, will be at 11:23 a.m., and sunset will come just a little over four hours later, at 3:36 p.m.  So if this road into the mountains outside of town is the route recommended by the GPS . . . well, maybe try again in a few months, when the daylight last a little longer?

The Icelandic word on the warning sign translates into English as unable, more or less.

landscape   sunset   yellow signs   Iceland   (Image credit: Trey Ratliffe)