Thursday, March 31, 2011

American Idle

. . . with a big "thank you" to Rolls-Royce.

Gets my vote on a Thursday night or any night. Once you hear that music from a hot pass you never forget it. OTR will post a video when he finds a good one.

Cuba Was An Exciting And Pompous Place Then

OTR's interest in Cuba goes back a long, long way. In his youth, there was always Hemingway and The Old Man and the Sea. Around 1954, Great Uncle Charlie gave OTR a shoe box filled with postage stamps from Central and South America, and the Caribbean, but mostly from Cuba. Then came the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It was hard to ignore all those military aircraft flying over the Eastern Shore on there way south. At the same time, waves of Cuban refugees moved north to find work. One of them was a college professor from Havana who became OTR's Spanish teacher. She went on to become a well-known poet and writer in the expatriate community of Miami where she still resides. And there was OTR's infatuation with tropical Florida, the adopted home of the Cuban culture. During his college years, it was satisfied with many semester breaks south of the Tamiami Trail. Work only added to the fever. Hardy a year went by from 1988 to 2007 without several projects on the Florida mainland or in the Keys. Every trip was an opportunity to explore Cuban cuisine. Today the Florida-Cuba curiosity continues through careful attention to Babalu, an essential news blog for the Cuban experience. OTR has followed Babalu for more than six years.

It has been over fifty years since the existence of the free exchange of people and ideas between the U.S. and Cuba. When the last liner left Manhattan for Havana, the U.S. was concluding its most spectacular decade as the world's most powerful economic engine. Cuba, in spite of a strong tourist economy and long-standing middle class was about to feel the power of collectivist revolution among its hard-working, neglected poor. Few of us experienced both of these worlds on the cusp of change, but we can look back at them through the eyes of historians and photographers. In today's Der Spiegel, we have a chance to see the people of Manhattan and Cuba through the eyes of the "legendary" German photographer, Heinrich Heidersberger. In 1954, as a ship photographer on several cruises from the Big Apple to Havana, he shows us what was, and what may be, life and industry for these neighbor nations.

OTR hopes readers enjoy Heidersberger's photo essay as much as he did. Like our experience in Cuba, the photos disappeared for many decades. They were rediscovered by viewers in 2001. Makes one wonder when American tourists will rediscover Cuba with their own eyes.

Illustrations: Arbuckle Coffee cards (1880s) from the family archives.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gandhi: The Mortal Side Of A Demi-God

As readers know, OTR enjoys exploring perceptions and realities of the world around us. He realizes more often than not, that Lewis Carroll was on to something when he wrote about life on the other side of the looking glass. In the words of Alice speaking from Wonderland:

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary-wise; what it is wouldn't be, and what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?

"If I had a world of my own. . . ." OTR thinks most of us do have worlds of our own. And most of those worlds are small, manageable for the most part, likely quite satisfactory, and just what their owners want. But some seek much larger worlds. Others have larger worlds thrust upon them. Some worlds grow so large and universal that they approach the divine. There is even a term, hagiography, for the study of the "saints" among us. In time the term, as defined by Wikipedia, has come to "refer to the works of contemporary biographers and historians whom critics perceive to be uncritical and even 'reverential'".

For early Baby Boomers, there is probably no better person elevated to "sainthood" by the hagiographers than Mohandas Gandhi. The man had his critics, but OTR cannot recall them or what they said. Today, there is a new Gandhi biography (Great Soul) by Joseph Lelyveld, and it has been reviewed in The Wall Street Journal by the British historian and biographer Andrew Roberts. Roberts writes that Lelyveld has promoted a generally positive view of Gandhi, but neither has he shied away from the remarkable dark side of the Great Soul. Roberts's assault on the hagiographic image of Gandhi elaborates on many of the mortal realities most of us know little or nothing about. It will leave some readers astounded in addition to selling Lelyveld's books.

OTR , news junkie that he is, thinks the world would be such a bore if the personal worlds of our saints really matched those of their hagiographers. Thankfully, there are those who explore the mortal sides of our demi-gods. After all, it is the flaws and foibles we recognize. That divine status is a bit more difficult for us mortals to discern.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ralph Mooney: Sound Shaper On The Pedal Steel Guitar

Several high profile deaths in the past week have overshadowed the passing of other influential, but lesser-known, individuals who have contributed to the American Experience. Ralph Mooney was one of them. As a master of the pedal steel guitar, he helped shape country music's Bakersfield sound in the '50s and early '60s. Mooney's style influenced bands from the Beatles to the Byrds, in addition to the Flying Burrito Brothers and later iterations of the sound of Cosmic American Music.

As a boy, OTR remembered that wailing, bluesy pedal steel guitar while listening to several small daytime AM radio stations during his summers in the mountains in West Virginia's panhandle. He didn't need a radio at dusk when the wind was right--the family could enjoy the same sound from scores of speakers at a nearby drive-in theater. The distant sound would drift in through open windows and doors providing background music for reading or quiet evening conversations at the cottage. Unforgettable.

Several memorial tributes to Mooney have been posted on Youtube in the last week. Here are two two of them. The first illustrates the Bakersfield sound. Be sure to expand the biography posted above the comments. The second features Mooney playing his composition, Crazy Arms (1956), ranked #4 on country music's list of all time hits.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

More Questions on "Who's On First?" In North America

For a long time, the diggers and bone pickers told us the Clovis People were the first inhabitants in the Americas. Well, so much for that news. The Los Angeles Times reports that a cache of thousands of artifacts from a site near Austin, Texas, predates Clovis materials by 2500 years. That finding moves the settlement of the Americas back to around 16,000 years ago. OTR wonders how long that date will hold. The Clovis conclusion dominated most of the last century.

For more on this fascinating debate on settlement and cultural diffusion, readers can start with the Wikipedia entry on the Clovis culture. And here is a link to OTR's earlier thoughts on "who's on first?" For a technical report on the Buttermilk Creek Complex near Austin, link here.

Hat tip to Michael Yon.

Friday, March 18, 2011

News From The Ghost Of AutoWorld

Two unsettling stories appeared today that reflect on the precarious condition of the American auto industry. At we have a commentary on the Chevy Volt that may tell us why barely 1000 units sold over the past four months. And from the Wall Street Journal, we hear of a trashing of the new Chrysler 200 that earned the wrath of a local dealer who advertised in the Detroit News. The editors responded by softening the review and earning the wrath and resignation of the paper's auto critic, thus calling the paper's integrity into serious question.

Who knows, both the Volt and the Chrysler 200 could match the hype surrounding them. Then again, we are dealing with people who make a living reviewing the industry. As for the Detroit News and its integrity, OTR will leave that decision up to his readers.

What extraordinary risk we have at AutoWorld. Is it reality or a vision? There was a real AutoWorld once, built with the highest of expectations in Flint, Michigan, the birthplace a General Motors. If you want to learn why the ghost of AutoWorld fits this post, watch Michael Moore's Roger and Me or consult the Internet.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


The OTR House entertains dinner guests about a half a dozen times a year. Early last year, we began to notice that our glassware was coming out of the dishwasher with far less than its usual sparkle. In fact, it was vaguely opaque reminding us of the antique bottles we collected along the bank of the Savannah River a generation ago. At first we suspected our aging dishwasher, but it was performing as expected. By January, the scaling was so bad, our glassware was no longer suitable for a formal table setting. This week, thanks to some consumer news, we found the answer to our problem. It's phosphate. It's not too much phosphate, rather, it is the total lack of phosphate in dish washing detergents.

New water quality standards have required detergent makers to remove phosphates from their products due to decidedly negative impacts on water quality and biological processes. OTR supports this action to restore and preserve healthy aquatic systems. There is a dilemma though. The detergent industry does not have a suitable substitute, not even a close one. There's nothing like phosphate to clean your dishes and make those glasses sparkle. To be honest, given the long and growing list of problems facing the world, scaly glasses simply don't rate. Still, what is to be done?

Some folks will accept their scaly glasses as a badge of environmental honor. Others may go plastic. Some may go paper. Some may buy new glasses on an annual basis. Enterprising hosts and hostesses have found another solution. They go to the local pharmacy, buy phosphate, return home, and "reformulate" their Cascade. This was not the intention of the new environmental regulations.

Today, Moonbattery's Van Helsing points readers to a Wall Street Journal article about what they call another nanny state threat, the front-loading washer. The prognosis is not good:

Front-loaders meet federal standards more easily than top-loaders. Because they don't fully immerse their laundry loads, they use less hot water and therefore less energy. But, as Americans are increasingly learning, front-loaders are expensive, often have mold problems, and don't let you toss in a wayward sock after they've started.

Readers can learn more at the Moonbattery post which includes a link to the original article. The frightening conclusion here stresses a new technology that does not clean clothes as well as washing machines built in 1996. Some new washers hardly clean clothes at all. Manufacturers are working to solve these new issues. OTR hopes the family's old top-loading washer stays alive long enough to see those solutions proven in the marketplace.

This regulatory trifecta is completed by an object most of us already know: the compact fluorescent bulb or CFL. At the outset, all of us know these bulbs are more expensive than traditional bulbs and the mercury content renders them significantly toxic if broken. From a performance perspective, OTR is reluctant to put them in any recessed fixtures, even when recommended, because some bulbs have malfunctioned and burned along with the attached houses. Furthermore, CFLs burn out quickly if turned off and on frequently. For example, a bathroom with multi-light vanity lighting is a poor application for CFLs. And we have yet to find a satisfactory CFL for our reading lamps. The light quality is inconsistent from one manufacturer to another. We all know the days of the incandescent light bulb are limited. Should OTR stock up? And what's going to replace his patio and garden spot lights?

All of these attempts at correcting an issue have resulted in creating unintended consequences, so far all at the expense of the consumer. Who among us wants poor water quality. Who among us wants higher electric or gas bills. What we need is some serious American innovation here. OTR has every confidence that we can build a better washing machine and lighting device, and restore the sparkle to his glassware. But pragmatism has its limits. Just because the drum spins, the bulb lights, or the formula soaps doesn't mean the consumer will be happy. Our regulators and manufacturers need to spend more time thinking before acting if they want to ensure compliance as well as mitigate environmental issues without creating new ones.

Illustration: Structural formula for the phosphoric acid functional group.

St. Patrick's Day 2011

In 1911, my great uncle received this greeting from a friend who lived about a hundred miles away. A hundred years later, the same card expresses OTR's wish that his readers, like him, have enjoyed their day to be Irish. The rest of the year, OTR can only look upon being Irish from his Welsh ancestry and the Celtic connection. Close, but no shamrock.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Progressivism: 1912 And 2012

Steven Hayward is the new regular at Power Line and he has just begun what should be an exceptional series on what it means to be a Progressive in the United States. The first post is brief and outlines what is to follow. As Hayward points out, the Progressives of the early part of the last century were fiercely opposed to socialism and wrapped in spirit filled evangelical Christianity of the Protestant variety. Though some of their goals may have survived over the century, today's Progressives are quite different from those in 1912 in terms of identity and methodology. OTR thinks his readers will find this series both entertaining and informative.