Monthly Archives: May 2009

Radio days.

Wax on: This radio has a turntable for recording broadcasts.

Wax on: This radio has a turntable for recording broadcasts.

Once upon a time, the FM band was not where we now find it, but between 42 and 50 MHz. That was before the end of World War II. In 1945, the Federal Communications Commission moved the band to 88-108 MHz to accommodate the television spectrum.

I learned these facts during a family visit to the Radio and Television Museum, a little gem in a reconstructed farmhouse in Bowie, Maryland, about an hour from where we live.

Instead of wandering the two floors, we took the guided tour and were amazed at how much history the little house contains – from the earliest wireless sets that played only Morse code, to cabinet-sized black-and-white TVs like the kind we had when I was a kid.

But something struck me about that switch in the FM dial. Something that happens with such regularity now, but must have come out of the blue for radio owners. Obsolescence. FM was not the powerful medium it became in the 1970s. Still, there were 15,000 FM receivers in use in 1941, Brian Belanger, the museum’s executive director, writes in “The Rise of FM Broadcasting.” And those owners had paid for an expensive product – the equivalent of thousands of today’s dollars.

As America entered the war FM was on the rise — 50,000 FM sets were sold in January 1942, according to Belanger. Then production was halted. By the time FM radios were being built again, the FM band was not where it once was, and those radio owners, those early adopters – unlike today’s TV owners who have a box to unscramble the new digital broadcasts – were out of luck.

What change in technology was the biggest adjustment for you?  What has gotten lost in the rapid technological shifts?



Filed under communications, FM radio, popular culture

Fraught relations.

A 14-line poem called “Embrace,” by Michael Collier in the June Atlantic.  Please click over and tell me what you think of it.  I love the changing points of view, from “you” to “her” and from then to now.  Are the relations between children and adults always fraught?

Michael Collier is a former poet laureate of Maryland. You can read about him and his work here and here.

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Filed under poetry, reading

How much for that memory?



That’s how much a memory costs at Liberty High School, outside Dallas. Well, a package of memories. Pictures and words on paper and bound between two hard covers.

A yearbook. And last week, an article by Jessica Meyers in the Dallas Morning News pointed to the yearbook as another victim of the decline of print.  It hadn’t occurred to me that the yearbook has many of the same weaknesses as the newspaper — and some the newspaper doesn’t have — before my friend Sarah pointed out this article. But it makes perfect sense.

Add to the $60 price tag the fact that moments can now be captured and stored with such ease at such little cost — and multiply that by the fact that, unlike older Americans, high school students have no loyalty to print and, well, you do the math; it was never my specialty. Half of Liberty High’s students bought yearbooks this year, but according to the article, that’s way above average.

My favorite quote from the story, included to illustrate the mindset of today’s iPod-packin’ teens, is surreal:

“I don’t think memories should cost anything,” said Liberty senior Paul Tee.

(We know that memories don’t really cost anything. On the other hand, listen to Sinatra sing “One For My Baby.”)

My high school memories go back to the mid-’70s. I don’t remember how much our yearbooks cost, but recently they got a second life. In January, two schoolmates set up an alumni site on Ning. One of the first things my friend Giselle (we go back to 5th grade) did, was reach for the yearbooks. Then she scanned a mess of pictures and posted them on line.

If even we print-bound boomers are launching our school pictures into the cloud, how much more so those high schoolers who think in digital terms anyway.

[EDIT: I wondered what would happen if scanners disappeared. I checked with my friend Lori, a designer at a big Philadelphia newspaper. She believes that “any designer worth her salt needs to have a scanner for archival photos and certain other things. I don’t think we’ll see their complete extinction any time very soon.”]

So what it comes down to is the medium. Maybe it won’t always be a book. Schools are starting to  put yearbook content on DVDs. I read someplace that a DVD yearbook costs $10. Not sure how people would sign your yearbook, but there’s probably some ways to to that, too.

While I was surprised to learn that yearbooks are in decline, I’m not going into mourning for them.  Nor am I moved by the correlation between yearbook demand and the odd, virus-like thing called school spirit.

On that score, the article quotes Linda Drake, the Journalism Education Association’s yearbook adviser of the year who is also on the National Scholastic Press Association’s board of directors. “But I have issues with kids saying they can’t afford [a yearbook] and then buying a pair of $100 jeans. I don’t see the school spirit. I don’t see the school camaraderie. ” she said.

Linda may not see it because the kids have a choice. Tarleton State College in Stephensville, Texas, isn’t making that mistake. To raise camaraderie, school spirit and yearbook sales,  it “imposed a mandatory $25 fee to all undergraduate students,” the article said.

Maybe it was because I went to a Quaker school that we weren’t harangued about school spirit. The Quaker way is to wait until the spirit moves you and, until then, please keep quiet. Besides, it was the ’70s and there were other things on our minds.

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Filed under books, communications, popular culture, print

Tongue twister.


Pity pretty.

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Oh, the brutality.

Before the Washington, D.C., planning commissioner ruled last week that local Christian Scientists can tear down their church near the White House, it looked as if form was going to win over function. Then the planning commissioner overturned the unanimous vote of  the City Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the church a historic site.

For me, the most exciting part about the battle  was that I was  introduced to an architectural genus that I wasn’t aware of, even though it’s been staring me in the face most of my life.


And for someone who didn’t know what Brutalism was, one look at the Third Church of Christ Scientist, Washington, D.C., said just about everything I needed to know.


It screams, "Preserve Me!!" doesn't it?

Brutalism. Like a concrete bunker, but with less charm.

A “stark architectural style” that “became synonymous with ’70s ugliness,” according to the Guardian.

Brutalism was a love affair with concrete. It was a response to glass curtain architecture of the 1950s and ’60s.

Interestingly, though, its name has nothing to do with “brutality” or “brutal.” “The term was derived from Le Corbusier’s Béton brut — French for ‘raw concrete,'” the Guardian writes.

Still what could brutalist architects have been thinking? Did they look at the Berlin Wall and decide that was the look they were after? I guess sometimes you just have to throw up a concrete slab and see how it turns out.

“Although many of the structures looked fresh and modern at first, it soon became apparent that the raw, bare concrete structures  lacked personality and promoted alienation,” according to Weburbanist.

That certainly seems to be what happened to the Christian Scientist Church — although nowhere in my reading did anyone say it looked fresh at anytime. Still, the church has its supporters. Washington Post columnist March Fisher quoted Richard Longstreth, a professor of American Civilization at George Washington University, who described the church as being “in a league of its own”  and a “distinctive and original work.”

I guess that can be read a couple of ways.

Concrete doesn’t necessarily mean death to beauty. Not completely. Not far from the church is the rather OK- looking FBI building:

FBI Building DC

And here’s one more example, the Weldon Library in London, Ontario:

Weldon Library, London Ont.

I think you’ll agree they’re OK. You just don’t want to pray in them.

The articles I read said Brutalism ran its course in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s something to be thankful for.

But what explains all the ugly buildings that went up since then?


Filed under architecture, Washington DC

Which technology would you like to disappear?

2484112082_cf4b78d9abThere’s both good and bad news in the realm of communications.

This week, voice mail came in for castigation from Slate’s Farhad Manjoo. Everyone should enjoy this one. He succinctly summarized voice mail’s every shortcoming and held out hope for a better, saner world —

“If the voice-mail leavers in your life are anything like those in mine, there’s often no great reward for getting through your messages, either. ‘Guess you’re not there. Call me back.’ That message might have made sense in the days of home answering machines, when the main function of voice mail was to let someone know who you were and that you’d called—both things our phones now tell automatically. On the rare chance that you do get an important voice mail, your first move is to transfer the information to some more permanent medium—say, ink and paper. Unlike just about every other mode of electronic communication today, after all, voice mail can’t be searched.”

Voice mail may get no mourners, but people are crowding around the issue of ailing newspapers like the guys who always gathered around the film projector trying to get the movie to work.

Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post weighs in, arguing that newspapers have been killing themselves and, like a stricken patient ordering that he be bled, are intensifying the hemorrhaging by firing more  journalists.

“The missed opportunities were endless. For the first time in half a century, newspapers could compete against television with real-time reporting, but didn’t. The Globe’s previous owners turned down a 1995 offer from the founder of to put Globe classifieds online, before his site became a smash hit. Why did no establishment media company create a Craigslist, a Huffington Post, a Google News, a Twitter, or other sites that have altered the boundaries of news and information?”

Finally, Doonesbury gives us some Tweet with meat in today’s “Tweets of Roland Hedley,” which I read in my Washington Post. This is the content against which all Twitterers should be judged:

“Woke up in strange apartment, so running late. Thank God for iPhone GPS.”

“Bumped into an old stalker of mine at Borders…”

Follow him.


Filed under internet, print, reading, writing

Naming names.


Miley's #127, up from #279 in 2007... Cyrus #512... Hannah #17... Montana #943

Emma’s up. Hannah’s down. When it comes to naming babies, there’s always a tussle between trad and fad.

To what degree are new parents guided by tradition, and to what degree by the creative impulse? How powerfully are people pulled along by the wave? How many are even aware that they’re riding a baby-naming trend?

The release last week by the Social Security Administration of the top baby names of 2008 is a reminder that every name is also a time capsule.

This year’s top boy’s name, Jacob, has held that spot since 1999. Top girl Emma replaced Emily, which had been No. 1 since 1996.  (The Top 10 list is below.)

The reasons for the ebb and flow of popularity are complex. In the United States, we’re witnessing the ascent of Delilah and the descent — perhaps even the demise — of Gary. There’s even a trend toward the name Cohen,  for the last 3,000 years the marker of Judaism’s priestly class, but in 2008 the 356th most popular boys’ first name in the United States.

Celebrity influence is the easiest to trace in baby naming fads. But the deeper trends are fascinating.  Two researchers found that the slower a name gains popularity, the longer it is likely to retain popularity, and the greater impact it has  (Charlene vs. Kristi, in their study).

Another trend: There appears to be a  general decline of consonant names like Brad and Toni in favor of vowel names like Ethan and Olivia.  Wired looked at the psychology and sociology behind baby naming. It concluded there are forces that bring even those who are looking for a unique name back toward the center.

“People may think they named a child after great, great grandma Olivia, but they have a lot of great, great grandmas, and they picked Olivia because it fits the popular sounds,” the article quotes Laura Wattenberg,who built The Baby Name Wizard.

And yet most new parents resist the pull to the most popular names, which today claim a smaller percentage of babies than in previous decades. “In the 1950s, the top 10 names for boys and girls accounted for a quarter of all babies. Today, it’s less than a tenth,” Wattenberg writes.

But since few can resist a Top 10 list, here goes. The top 10 baby names of 2008 are:


1. Jacob—Hebrew: “supplanter”
2. Michael—Hebrew: “who is like God”
3. Ethan—Hebrew: “strong, firm”
4. Joshua—Hebrew: “the Lord is salvation”
5. Daniel—Hebrew: “God is my judge”
6. Alexander—Greek: “defending warrior”
7. Anthony—Latin: “priceless one” “priceless”
8. William—English from German: “resolute protection”
9. Christopher—Greek and Latin: “one who carries Christ”
10. Matthew—Hebrew: “gift of God”


1. Emma—German: “healer of the universe”
2. Isabella—the Spanish and Italian variation of the Hebrew Elizabeth, which means “pledged to God”
3. Emily—Latin: “energetic”
4. Madison—English: “son of the mighty warrior”
5. Ava—Latin: “like a bird”
6. Olivia—Latin: “olive tree”
7. Sophia—Greek: “wisdom”
8. Abigail—Hebrew: “my father is joyful”
9. Elizabeth—Hebrew: “pledged to God”
10. Chloe—Greek: “young Greek shoot”

You may be wondering what folks in, say, Iceland, are naming their children. As of 2007, and providing this source is correct, here’s the answer:


1. Jón
2. Daníel
3. Aron
4. Viktor
5. Alexander


1. Sara
2. Anna
3. Emilía
4. Katrín
5. Eva

France? You got it.


1. Enzo
2. Mathis
3. Lucas
4. Hugo
5. Matheo


1. Emma
2. Lea
3. Manon
4. Clara
5. Chloe

And how about Brazil?


1. João
2. Pedro
3. Gabriel
4. Lucas
5. Matheus


2. Ana
3. Julia
4. Yasmin
5. Vitória

Where does your name (and your kids’ names) place?  I checked, and David was No. 2 the year I was born, and was a respectable No. 14 in 2008.

(I’ve written more about baby names here and here.)


Filed under popular culture