A Whiter Shade of Pale

In my previous post on my stint as a work/study student in France in 1967, I mentioned that I worked as a camp counselor for eight-year old French boys, and had previously attended a two-week training program for that position (which the French counselors also attended — it was not just for foreigners). 

A really bizarre thing happened to me during that training session. The song “A Whiter Shade of Pale” debuted on the radio, and was an instant hit in Europe and America. This song, now a classic in the musical repertoire, is known for, among other things, its difficult lyrics. Well, of course, all the French students were asking me, “What does it mean? What is it saying?” and I replied, helplessly, “I only wish I knew. Believe me, it’s not a translation problem. I can’t even tell you what the words are in English!”

To this day I still love the song along with millions of others, and will always remember it in association with that summer in France.

The Worst Month of My Life…or Not?

As a city boy (suburbs, actually), I have always felt the worst month of my life was working as a farmhand in France during August 1967 when they were doing hay baling. I was an international exchange student for a year in the Antioch College international work/study program. For the “work” part, I had already been a “do-it-all” in a vacation chateau (setting tables, washing dishes, helping the cleaning staff), and a camp counselor for 8-year old French boys (really helped in learning the language better), especially with a two-week training program for camp counselors.

I must admit, the chateau, Chateau de Charbonierre, was truly spectacular — and still is (see photo below): 

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The farm job was at a co-operative farm run by four farmers, each with a “quadrant” of about 10 acres. I was joined in the work by several teenage sons of the co-op farmers. A couple of us young guys stood on a small flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor, going around picking up large rectangular hay bales from the fields. Each bale was about two feet square by four feet long and weighed maybe 30 pounds each. The first layer of bales was a breeze, the 2nd one not so easy, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th layer of bales (each got smaller) was extremely tough work, reaching down with pitchforks and tossing the bales up. I was only 19, but I was totally exhausted by the time we were done. It certainly made me appreciate my morning chore, which was shoveling cow dung from the dairy farm barn into a wheelbarrow, taking it outside and pushing the wheelbarrow up a wooden plank on the side of an enormous dung pile (about 8 feet high) and dumping my load to make the pile bigger.

This was a dairy farm with about two dozen cows, and I had to get up every morning at 5 AM, seven days a week, to help with the milking machines, mostly by cleaning them up. It was the incessant everyday schedule that really got to me. If it had been six days, I might have felt better about it. But we had wonderful mid-day meals that the farmer’s wife prepared for us (plenty of meat and vegetables, with some fruit for good measure). And “du bon vin” [good wine] which certainly helped, and also prepared me completely for the mid-day siesta….

I did get to see the birthing of a calf, though, which was an amazing experience requiring a veterinarian and a large steel chain to complete. The calf, about two feet long, was encased in an amniotic sac with sticky amniotic fluid when it was born. I don’t recall having to clean that up, thank goodness! So on the whole, maybe it wasn’t such a bad month, after all. In fact, the whole month was exceptional, come to think of it….

"You and Me," Politicians, and the 1%

It is extremely unlikely you will ever see the 1938 movie “You and Me” starring George Raft and Sylvia Sidney. I don’t know if TCM shows it, but I saw it on a TCM 4-feature movie set I bought on sale recently called Dark Crimes (I very much enjoy film noir, which this is, more or less). So I will discuss it very briefly, spoilers and all, because it makes some noteworthy points. 

First of all, IMDB (where 500 users gave it a 7.0 out 10, which I agree with) summarizes this Fritz Lang film as follows: “An altruistic department-store owner hires ex-convicts in order to give them a second chance at life. Unfortunately, one of the convicts he hires recruits two of his fellow ex-convicts in a plan to rob the store.”

This is a bit misleading by omission, because the statements themselves are true. However, there is SOOO much more to the movie than this. First let’s deal with the supposedly turn-coat employee (played nicely by George Raft). It is too convoluted to detail all the reasons he sets up the robbery, but it is definitely not ingratitude, ill-will, or even greed or stupidity. There is a major sub-plot regarding his marriage to another employee (the Sylvia Sidney character) which is largely responsible for the unfolding of the drama (and also, alas, the weakest parts of the movie, which are laughably bad verging on the farcical). Nevertheless, the robbery is foiled by the department store owner, a Mr. Jerome Morris (well played by Harry Carey), who has arranged, in a climactic scene, to have Silvia Sidney (as Mrs. Helen Dennis) demonstrate mathematically why “crime does not pay” as her husband and “the gang” look on in stunned silence.

The demonstration is a straightforward math tabulation that Silvia executes briskly in chalk on a blackboard, starting with the projected value of the “take” the thieves would have started with in store merchandise, then subtracting all the expenses in cashing in, from a pre-payment made to a lawyer (“they always get a thousand dollars” she says from experience, since she, too, is an ex-con employee at the department store) to the fence, who gets another big slice, with the ringleader getting a full third). That leaves a paltry sum for each of the “gang,” which appears to be an eye-opener to them (although why experience hasn’t already taught them that lesson is never explained). 

Also left unexplained is why the thieves would have taken merchandise rather than cash from the safe, although presumably that would have been more time-consuming and posed a bigger risk. There is a safe-cracker on the payroll of the department store and participating in the robbery, though; that’s established in the first five minutes of the movie. 

The Hard-Knock Life
In Little Orphan Annie, there’s a famous song called “It’s a Hark-Knock Life,” and one of the most fascinating themes of “You and Me” and is the effect of prison life on the criminal persona. I won’t go into detail on this because you’re already familiar with it in detail, if you’ve seen any movies featuring prisons or read any books on the same theme. At least, you’re familiar with how it’s portrayed in books and movies, and “You and Me” doesn’t deviate from that script. 

But what was most interesting to me about this is that all of the characters in the gang are white. There are only two black characters portrayed pushing brooms in a sanitation scene that lasts about five seconds. There is absolutely no way that prison life would be portrayed as all white in the last forty or fifty years. If made today, those scenes would feature predominantly black and Hispanic actors/inmates, with a small minority of white criminals. 

It’s not just that “times have changed” along with the prison population. Most of the people I know who have a racial bias (whether they are “racist” or pretend not to be with various degrees of success) base their racism on a presumed judgment of inherent character and a sense of sociological fatalism. At it’s most generous, this could be paraphrased as “of course that’s the prison population! They grow up in a dead-end drug culture drowning in a sea of gang-imposed militancy that is impossible to ever fully escape or overcome. What do you expect?”

Well, regardless of whatever grains of truth may lie in such statements (which are more class-based and economic than racial in character), nevertheless the prison population shown in “You and Me” is devoid of those supposed “victims.

You and Me!
And one of the main reasons I suspect this is so is that the writer, Norman Krasner (who wrote the “book” or screenplay for “White Christmas,” ironically enough!), intended to make the point that the prisoners are “just like you and me” except they don’t have the socialization and incentive to be “honest, upright citizens.” There is no implied possibility of redemption here, but there is certainly a presumption of common humanity, which is signally absent from the present-day racially biased portrayal of prison populations, who are never presented as “just like you and me,” whatever other allowances might be made for them.

Finally, there is a completely different but equally dramatic “you and me” element in “You and Me.” At the very beginning of the movie there is a short tour of the department store that focuses on the merchandise (you’re not even aware it’s in Morris’s at that point). The theme of this brief tour is how much fun it is to enjoy the finer things in life, but how impossible it is for many/most/nearly-all people because they can’t afford to buy any of them. Each time a cameo of luxury items is displayed, the film cuts to a shot of the big brass cash register with it’s huge array of keys for ringing up values up to $99,999.99 (when the average income was $1,700 per year, a new car averaged $860, and a good home went for $3,900). As this video ballet unfolds, Krasner’s script presents us with a voice-over prose/poem about the lure of luxurious consumption, and how tempting it is to be drawn into that vortex. He is a Pied Piper of Pampering and pulls it off quite effectively. Even if you are a penny-pinching miser who watches every cent, you can’t help but be drawn into the mystique that Krasner sets up. 

When Mr. Dennis tries to woo and impress Mrs. Dennis (the actual state of their marriage is a major but complicated theme of the movie), he rings up a sale of $16.34 (the 34 cents is tax) for a bottle of the perfume that Helen has told him is her unaffordable favorite and puts his own money from his own pocket into the till, and even writes up a bill of sale in the sales person’s receipt book. This is done in the empty Morris’s after the thieving gang, Mr. Morris, and Helen have all left and Joe Dennis is there by himself with only his conscience to account for. He could have pocketed the boxed perfume and no one would have been the wiser (until stock-taking time…), but he chose not to. He did “the right thing.” So Krasner ends on the theme of “if you can’t have it all, enjoy what you can afford, and be happy.” 

You and I can’t be like the top 1%, but we can be the happy part of the 99% if we do it sensibly. The top 1% aren’t like “you and me,” Krasner implies, but that doesn’t matter, because Krasner feels he’s like you and me, and he wants us to identify with Helen and Joe as just like us, too. Somewhat ungrammatically, “You and Me” are in this together, so enjoy it, and deny the green giant of envy any oxygen!

Finally, in the last ten seconds of the movie, Joe asks Helen, if we’re just pikers in this business of thievery (which I don’t need to explain, it’s obvious), who are the Big Guns in this line of work? “Politicians!” she exclaims with an exuberant chuckle. Some things NEVER change….

P.S. I didn’t emphasize this above because it would sidetrack the flow, but the Jerome Morris character is extremely dedicated to his mission of employing ex-cons (exclusively) because he believes they deserve a second-chance, and if no one will hire them, it will be impossible for them to break out of their vicious circle of desperation, crime, and incarceration. He says his wife urged him to take up stamp collecting instead, but he sticks to his guns, so to speak. His principle-driven mission is a baseline theme of the movie that is mentioned only a few times but permeates the film, which would be impossible without it. And it is the major ingredient that is lacking in real life in virtually all the social-work approaches to contemporary problems dealing with today’s vicious circles of crime and poverty. In the end, who suffers the consequences? Is it “You and Me?” The movie “You and Me” could be the basis of an entire social studies curriculum, and I always feel that when a book or movie achieves that standard, it’s a real treasure, indeed!

Tape Recording in the 50s and 60s

When I was about 12, I became obsessed with having a reel-to-reel tape recorder (the only kind available at the time). The Wollensak was the most popular, but I preferred a larger, bulker unit from Voice of Music, shown here: image

Instead of having a meter needle to track volume level, it had a green vacuum-tube display that operated on either side of a vertical line like butterfly wings. This was in the arched control unit just to the right of the pushbuttons in the photo above. The idea was to set the volume so that the loudest parts of the music would have the wings come together from horizontal to vertical so they were just touching. The two plastic disk-type knobs to the left of the buttons kept track of minutes and hours of elapsed time. And yes, it came with the microphone shown in the rear compartment, which was of pretty decent quality.

I got a lot of mileage out of my machine. One of the main uses I applied it to was recording dozens of reels of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, which broadcast from Philadelphia in those days on my local Philadelphia ABC affliate (WPVI, Channel 6). I did this because (a) I was really into Rock’N’Roll, like about 98% of the other kids my age, and more importantly, because (b) “everyone” who was supposed to be an authority on this kind of thing was absolutely certain that this “junk” music would never last, and that in fact it would fade away and be forgotten, discarded like old newspapers. I tended to doubt that, but at 12 years old, I was willing to give those authority figures the benefit of a very big doubt. Besides, I had a ball doing the recordings, and was glad to have an extensive music collection without having to pay for it [I had no idea I’d be able to do that again 50 years later….]

I kept those tapes, and still have them along with the VoM tape recorder, although I’ve never gone back to play them. I’ve been too busy, I have CDs full of DooWop and 60s music that are more accessible, and plenty of other things to do. But I am still pleased I put in the time and effort to make that historical record, even if it is now more of an “archive.”

Technical and Other Details
One of the things I most recall about creating this archive is the unmistakable acetone smell or odor of the mylar or acetate quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape itself. I assume most of you have handled and used tape cassettes from the 1970s and later. These also had that smell to a certain extent, but reel-to-reel tape had a much more pungent aroma. image

imageBoth mylar and acetate substrates were commonly available. The mylar was just a tad thinner, but stronger, although it had a tendency to stretch a bit (not good!). This was the tape of choice for the longest length reels. But there were other considerations. A one-hour tape (at the faster speed for better recording quality) was more durable and easier to mount, wind/rewind, and to splice than a two-hour double-length tape. Mylar, being a bit stronger, was the choice for the longer, and acetate — much cheaper — was my choice for the shorter length. 

But there was another consideration: while you could get more bang for the buck with a two-hour tape, since it was thinner you also had to be aware of the possibility of the recorded signal “bleeding through” the tape onto the next wrap of the reel, which created an unacceptable (to me) delayed slight-echo effect. It was delayed nearly two seconds, so it was hardly an echo. It was simply bleed-through interference. It helped not to have the tape too tightly wound, but you couldn’t always control that. And having it too loose was even worse. It took practice, but I did manage to get rather good at handling these reels. Over time, though, if the tape is not played, or at least wound-rewound at high speed, it tends to bleed through anyway. I’m beginning to remember why I didn’t really ever play this archive much after it was filed (I played it a lot in the period I was recording it, of course!). 

I also annotated what I was recording on the back of the reel box, which was wide-lined just for that purpose. I could also put the start and end date on the spine of the box for easy reference.

Finally, there were occasions when I wanted to edit something out. I got pretty good at manually manipulating the start/stop of the recording to eliminate dead air, peripheral noise, and irrelevant content (like a TV commercial in real-time [pun intended, I guess!] although there would have been archival value in those commercials, too!). When I needed to edit something, though, I would take the tape out of the recording/playback head path and loop it down onto a “splicing block” (shown below) which would allow me to make diagonal splicing

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cuts, remove the offending segment, and then tape the two ends of the reeled tape together with special splicing tape. I got pretty good at that, too. 

It was certainly possible to do the recording with some degree of discretion and precision. Specifically, on the VoM recorder, you could play the tape to the point you wanted to start recording, hit the “hold” button, and have the recorder primed to start the recording process immediately upon release of the holding status. Otherwise, if you just stopped the tape, then hit “record” when you wanted to start recording (which involved pressing the red Record button AND the Play button together (see photo at top) it was much harder to get a precise start, and you were likely to loose a second or two, which is annoying. Practice makes perfect!

A lot of the recording I did was “over the air,” i.e. with microphone placed near the TV speaker. That worked better than you might suppose, because most of the recording was done when no one else was around, and the phone didn’t ring much in those days. When I was perhaps 14, I started doing the recording via a direct hook-up between the TV’s audio-out jacks and audio-in sockets on the tape recorder. Obviously, this was preferable. The quality was certainly better, but the over-the-air sound quality was not really that bad. 

I mentioned the “bleed through” problem above for completed tapes left unplayed for long periods. In getting material for this blog post, I read that there is a method to actually "bake" an old tape (in the oven!) for a short period before playing it, which helps to restore its freshness. For mylar that’s fine; for acetate, not so much, because it’s flammable! Which reminds me of when I was a movie projectionist in college running a professional 35 mm movie projector powered by a carbon arc light generated from small sticks of carbon that had to be “ignited” before each reel was run (there were always at least two projectors, sometimes three; while one was playing you set the next one up, and rewound what just played from the other projector once you started the second one - projectionists don’t get to “watch the movie!”). Now that I thought of it, I’m going to have to do a separate blog post on that experience (and “post” is the word, since the guy who taught me how to do all that was Mark Post)! The point here, though, is that 35 mm acetate movie film was common until the late ’50s, and had to be handled with great care because the carbon arc that created the powerful projector light was extremely hot  To take out a “used” carbon stick, which you had to do at least once a film, often more frequently, you used heavy gloves like fireplace mits, and even then, handled the carbon stick itself with small tongs. If it sounds like a blacksmith shop, that’s not too far from the truth!

An Irony in American History

This never gets old, as they say. One of the major ironies in American history is the coincidental death of Founders John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the very same day: July 14, 1826, fifty years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, that they both fought so hard to bring to fruition.

They were not close friends, and men of very different temperaments. Adams was a buttoned-down New Englander from Massachusetts, while Jefferson was a bon vivant slave-holding citizen scientist from Virginia, interested in experimentation of all kinds. Jefferson was one of the principle writers of The Declaration of Independence and founder of the University of Virginia, while Adams was a learned lawyer and one of the most effective politicians who helped get the Continental Congress to approve the written Declaration.

The two were sent to France by the Continental Congress during the War for Independence to seek financial aid from the French government. To save money, they roomed together, with Adams preferring their lodging to be kept on the cool side while Jefferson preferred it to be warm. A perfect example of the two strange bedfellows.

Though neither was overly friendly to the other during their presidencies (Adams, 1796 - 1800 and Jefferson, 1801 - 1812), since they were members of opposing political parties, once both were out of office they carried on a prolific correspondence, with each preserving the letters of the other (158 in total). It was Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, also a Signer and friend to both men, who initiated the correspondence, now ranked among one of the most significant legacies of American history and available in well-annotated editions, always in print.

When Jefferson died shortly after midnight on July 4, 1826, his last words were “Is it the fourth yet?” partly as a tribute to Adams, whom he had been discussing before he passed away. When Adams died on the very same day, his last words were “Jefferson survives.” Word of Jefferson’s death did not reach Boston until several days later.

A Bicycle Built for Two

According to Wikipedia, “In 1961 an IBM 704 became the first computer to sing, in a demonstration of Bell Labs’ newly invented speech synthesis – and the song was ‘Daisy Bell,’ which has the refrain of ‘on a bicycle built for two.’ In a famous scene in the 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the intelligent HAL 9000 computer during its deactivation loses its mind and degenerates to singing ‘Daisy Bell,’ which was one of the first things HAL learned when it was originally programmed. The author of the story, Arthur C. Clarke, had seen the 1961 demo.”

So there you go: that was not a random choice on the part of Arthur Clarke, but rather an “inside baseball” reference that would please those in the know and amuse those who weren’t. 

The Neubauer Family Foundation

If you attend the Live in HD performances of the Metropolitan Opera at any of hundreds of simulcast digital movie theaters around the country (and the world), you have undoubtedly heard of the Neubauer Family Foundation, which underwrites part of the cost. They also support some PBS broadcasts, and many colleges and universities, as well. 

I finally decided to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Neubauer is remarkably close to home. The foundation is located in Huntingdon Valley, PA, north of Philadelphia, just a couple of miles away from the location of my office from 1993 to 2013. Joseph Neubauer, the head of the family, was the CEO of Aramark Corp., one of the country’s largest food services and uniform management companies, which is headquartered in Philadelphia in the prominent Aramark Tower in Center City (downtown). 

The Aramark story is an interesting one, which you can read about HERE.

"Things of Science"

The other day I tried to subscribe online to a new service, Bespoke Post, that sends items of potential interest to male subscribers each month for their consideration, or perhaps sends a notification with photos about the item which you can accept or decline for shipment. I’m not sure, because in order to get detailed information about the offer, you had to provide your email address. I refused to do this (and I saw others posting notices on social media about similar abstentions). As a follow up, a Google search on “sent every month” shows there are a half dozen such programs currently out there. 

One of the classic pioneers in monthly subscription items was Things of Science, an educational program started by the nonprofit news syndicate Science Service in November 1940 (discontinued in 1989). I was one of about 4,000 subscribers in the 1950s, and each month I would receive a small blue cardboard box in the mail, most often the “thin” version, which was 3 x 5 inches and 3/4 of an inch thick (the “thick” version was double the height), with a lid that lifted off. The box mailer

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(shown here) had a nice yellow label, and inside was a a yellow booklet explaining the topic for that month, along with small items and supplies needed to conduct the suggested experiments or create or construct a demonstration. These ranged far and wide, covering such things as optical illusions, polarized light, textiles, tea, crystals, electrical circuits, seeds, specialized paper, aerodynamics, salt, types of wire, prisms and refraction, astronomy, and even butterflies. 

The booklet provided background information on the general subject as well as the specifics for interactive exploration. There was usually a half dozen or more individual projects for each unit, each of which could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, or even a few days, if there was a slow chemical reaction or transformation involved.

In addition to the fascination of the subjects themselves, engaging with the Things of Science nurtured not only an appreciation of the scientific method but also encouraged methodical exploration, careful note-taking, meticulous record-keeping, keen observation, patience, and satisfaction in completing the assignments. In short, they were fun and educational. And they were challenging. At least one of the activities would require some mental or manipulative exercise that you had not done before, or not enough to have mastered it. These were confidence-builders along with everything else. 

Fortunately, Things of Science have been archived in the Smithsonian Institution, which contains a large collection of Science Service records (Designated Record Unit 7091). I don’t believe these are open to the public, but at least they’re safe for posterity in “the nation’s attic.” 

 

Inhabiting Synesthesia

That’s not a typo: “Inhabiting,” not “inhibiting.” Synesthesida is defined in a number of ways, most often to explain how metaphors or similes work, as in “the rosy fingered dawn,” which suggests that sunlight is embodied with arms and hands, to embrace and warm the day. 

The derivation of the word is from ancient Greek for “senses [linked] together.” This points to another, equally important definition of synesthesia in the realm of human perception, where one sense triggers another automatically. For some, this can be color-based, so that the word or concept of “lassitude” or “laziness,” for instance, can wash the synesthete’s mind with the color yellow whenever it comes up in conversation or in reading.

Experts differ on what percentage of the population experience synesthesia, ranging from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 30. From what I have gathered over years of reading about this, the 1 in 30 ratio seems about right.

Wikipedia lumps the various types of synesthesia into eight different categories. I myself (as you may have suspected) experience two of them: spatial sequence synesthesia and number form synesthesia. Numbers (both positive and negative) always appear to me to be arranged in a looping fashion, somewhat like they appear on a clock face, except that the numbers from 13 to 19 extend straight out “to the right” before starting to loop again for each sequence of 10 numbers up to 100, where the sequence starts again. 

But the centenary ranges from 100 to 1,000 seem to climb a hill to the left and recede, then from 1,000 to 10,000 loops again, and the entire sequence repeats up to 1,000,000, and so on. 

This is superficial description, and not that remarkable, But the experience of it is actually stronger and difficult to describe. It’s as if I can “walk the path” that the numbers describe, or experience them like a work or art, or that they represent physical places I can see and almost feel. 

The alphabet, too
As a child, I had an easel blackboard about three feet tall, at the top which was a panel that featured the alphabet in letters about half an inch high arranged in three rows. Based on the imprint in my mind from that exposure, I always see the alphabet in three rows, modified somewhat (I’m not sure why), with the first row going from A -F, the second from G to P, and the last from Q to Z. 

Quite a few famous people in all walks of life have synesthesia of one sort or another, which is neither here nor there (synesthesically speaking!), and a logical factoid (why wouldn’t they?). It really has no impact on ability or creativity: one can be highly creative and not be synesthetic, or one can be highly synesthetic and have no creative abilities at all. Scientific studies conclude that there is no link at all between synesthesia and virtually any behavior or attitudes. 

So it is more of an “intellectual curiosity” than anything with a practical application. Perhaps my fascination with it, other than having it myself, is that it gives a glimpse “inside another person’s mind” that is difficult to experience any other way. It’s not a huge reveal, but a pervasive one. Whether it’s calendar months (which I experience in a chain from January to June, then to the right of that chain the July - December chain) or the hours of the day (envisioned quite literally as on an analog clock), synesthesia organizes the basic elements of time for me, at all scales in which it is measured (centuries following the same pattern). 

With time comes place, and I have always been very map- and geography-oriented. I can’t identify every place on a blank globe, but a very large number of them, And I have always been fascinated by how maps are created. (See my post on Maps, Andrea Mitchell, and Me.) I wonder if there is any specific link between cartographia (love of maps) and synesthesia? I can’t believe there is not. 

P.S. Google Maps now has 3D ambient sound you can play while looking at Street View, which has been described as a “playful digital synesthesia.”

 

Common Words People Don’t Often Use

bedraggled
cavalcade
conflagration
conundrum
crucible
effervescent
ghastly
harangue
hasty
impish
listless
omnipresent
panoply
sage
transfigured
waif
yarn (as in story)
xenophobic