It would be perfectly OK to compose a “sidebar” about, say, marshmallows if a marshmallow factory has just exploded. “Marshmallows Through the Ages”: a soft story for sure. But absent a catastrophe, who in the world would be curious enough about marshmallows to read a story about them? We’d need a peg, a hook, a grabby “lead” to draw people in.
Or a coupon for free samples.
Since I haven’t found that newsy peg to introduce today’s topic, you may already be gone.
But look what you’re missing: some thoughts about lighthouses.
|The Cape Hatteras Light, perhaps the nation’s best-known lighthouse, was moved more than 30 meters away from the shore on that barrier island|
I just love lighthouses so. Lots of people do.
|Lightkeeper Frank Schubert polished the lens once a week in the Seagate light station in New York Harbor|
|Here are the light tower and fog-signal building at Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota|
Romance attends lighthouses, the sentinels of the sea. “For my husband and myself, Lighthouses are symbols of Faith, Hope, and Love,” writes Debbie Dolphin on her “Lighthouse Songs” Web site. I don’t know if that’s her real name, but it’s a fitting one.
|Looking at Kilauea Lighthouse from a distance, you can see why a light station was needed at that dangerous turn of Hawaii’s Kauai Island shoreline in the Pacific|
In “The Lighthouse,” poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1850:
A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.
The god Prometheus was one of the Greek titans, and a naughty one. He stole fire from Zeus and shared it with humans. In ancient Greece and elsewhere, humans lit beacon fires on the shoreline to guide navigators. “GLEAM -- a gleam -- from Ida's height /By the Fire-god sent, it came,” the playwright Aeschylus wrote in Agamemnon, more than 2,000 years ago.
|In 1959, the Lightship Nantucket was wrenched from her moorings off Portland, Maine, and drifted 120 kilometers out to sea! She’s now owned by the National Lighthouse museum but lies rusting in a berth in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in New York|
Civilization’s first known lighthouse was a doozy. Instantly the world’s tallest building at what is thought to have been 40 modern stories high!
|This sketch of the great Pharos light was drawn by German archaeologist Hermann Thiersch in 1909|
Earthquakes toppled the great tower in the 14th century A.D.
|This is an early color postcard view of the Boston Light, which is our last officially staffed lighthouse. Others are occupied, but as museums or bed-and-breakfast inns|
This was also America’s first lighthouse, erected by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1716.
|Talk about distinctive markings. Mariners would not have trouble identifying West Quoddy Lighthouse on the Atlantic Ocean off Lubec, Maine|
And when mariners foundered nearby, the lightkeeper felt duty-bound to rescue them. Dozens died trying.
|You can see why a powerful light generated inside a Fresnel lens would scatter far and in many directions, especially if the lens rotated. Looks like an alien's head, doesn't it?|
In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about wartime readiness, placed light stations under Coast Guard control. It spelled an end to the Lighthouse Service and to the staffing of most towers.
|The New Canal Lighthouse, built in 1890 on a canal leading from Lake Pontchartrain to the city of New Orleans, was nearly demolished by the deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is being rebuilt|
During the heyday of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, when 1,462 light stations ringed
|The depot buildings envisioned for a new national lighthouse museum are beautiful but fragile, and the site is coveted by developers. Parts for lighthouses across the nation were once stored here|
(Hey, the National Lighthouse Museum’s precarious fate could be my “peg”! Rewrite!!)
|Alluring Point Vicente Light guides mariners past dangerous channel islands past busy San Pedro Harbor near Los Angeles. Check out more of Carol’s lighthouse photos in a special gallery in the right column|
The brilliant kernel of the night,
The flaming lightroom circles me:
I sit within a blaze of light
Held high above the dusky sea.
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Had this been 1974 instead of 2009, my editor, “Hawkeye Rob” Sivak, could have been, well, just an editor, vigilantly sprucing up my copy and others’.
|This is not our Inventory Control Officer, but it looks suspiciously like the kind of work he has in mind. Please tell us he’s not going to be recording the barcodes on stashes of BEER!|
The search is not so much for the equipment itself, but for the number on a sticker that someone had affixed to it when it was issued. For Inventory Control, remember.
On each sticker is a parade of 30 black and 29 white, thick and thin, machine-readable lines, all in a row.
|This all means something, if you’re an electric scanner|
The barcode’s groupings of lines — thick, thin, white, black — together form a computereze number, plus the number in the usual numeric form just below it. Electronic scanners can read the lines, and humans with really good eyesight can read the numerals.
If you’re keeping up with this, you’re a geek.
Here’s more, not that you’ve asked for it, but something to bring smiles to the faces of M.I.T. engineering students and Inventory Control Officers: Some of the digits, diabolically, are read right-to-left and others left-to-right. Not only that, but some of the stripes align black-white-black, and others white-black-white.
Or something like that. It’s a Control thing.
The whole 12-digit number is called a Universal Product Code or UPC number. It’s what Hawkeye Rob is looking for, high and low, throughout the corridor.
Thirty-five years ago, Rob the Much Younger Inventory Control Officer would have had to write or type a list of our broadcasting gadgets, describing them, stating who possessed them, and assigning each a “control number.” There must be control, I remind you, in the Inventory Control business. Now he just needs the UPC Code. It knows all about each device and an awful lot about the person who possesses it.
|Barcodes first appeared on grocery products, and their applications have come a ways there since. Here, you can weigh your peppers, and a scanner will spit out a barcode and a price, ready for self-checkout|
Today’s UPC Codes tell all, or at least a lot. Shih points out that “they are used to board airplanes and track packages. Bar codes help people with diabetes calibrate glucose meters and researchers study the pollination habits of bees. They inspired a hand-held video game, Barcode Battler, in 1991.”
Barcodes brawling. That would have been something to see!
The barcode was developed at I.B.M., which for some reason never patented the idea. So now they’re everywhere.
|Barcodes run amok! I see the initials “UK.” What are those wily Brits up to now?|
No, every code and every UPC number is controlled — yes indeed, controlled — and unique. That should make that pack of radishes at the supermarket really proud.
When barcode scanners do their thing, they’re actually performing a calculation. (Most of you who have hung in this long will be leaving us now.) According to Marshall Brain — and what a perfect name for this — on the “How Stuff Works” Web site, the scanner adds the value of all the digits in odd positions, multiplies that number by 3, adds the value of the digits in even positions, adds that sum to the values in step 2, then somehow creates a “check digit” that tells it whether it did all that correctly.
|What have we here? Two barcodes: one on the painting and one on the girl?|
Barcodes are used for much more than Inventory Control, however. You betcha! Stores don’t just want to know how many boxes of spaghetti remain on a shelf, and scan in new shipments as they arrive. They also want to know what brand of spaghetti each customer prefers, and what other ingredients we buy on the same shopping trip. So don’t be surprised if, at the end of check-out, the scanning device prints out discount coupons for precisely the products you’ve just purchased, and for similar products that competitors make as well.
The store might even send you a note at home that begins, “We know you love Mama Randonzo’s Spaghetti, so we thought you’d like to know that Mama Randonzo has come out with three new flavors.” All because the barcode scanner ratted on you to the store manager.
No wonder we’re all fearful that the Inventory Control Officer’s maraudings are but the first step down a slippery slope. Next he’ll be barcoding our stories, substituting the white and black lines for bylines so that viewers, listeners, and readers can instantly scan our life stories, our previous writings, and our product preferences at the grocery store.
|Yes, at future cocktail parties, we may not be wearing “name tags” like "Hello, I'm Ted," but rather “barcode tags” that tell a lot more about us than our first names|
Finally, in a blaze of glory before he retires, Hawkeye Rob can tattoo all of us with barcodes, discretely on the hand or nape of the neck. It would be the ultimate tool for tracking VOA assets, assuming we’re still regarded as such. The Federal Government conducts an annual “Human Capital Survey” for which burned-in barcodes could come in handy.
Back in 1974, a fellow named George Laurer, who’s now 84, led the team that developed the first barcode. See what you wrought, George?
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Abscond. To run away quickly, usually with someone or something. Escaping prisoners are absconding, but they are really absconding if they take, say, the jailer’s keys with them.
Doozy. A doozy is something that is really difficult, or something that’s extraordinary or extreme.
Dragoon. To obligate or bully one to do something, perhaps by force. Dragoons were French soldiers who sometimes compelled peasants to leave the farm and join the military.
Pyromaniac. One who compulsively starts fires; a firebug. The word derives from the word “pyre,” which refers to a roaring fire.
Rat on. To turn you in or inform on you. Sometimes communities try to encourage citizens to tell authorities about lawbreakers, but those who do can be regarded as “dirty rats,” or worse, on the street.
Refractive. Reflection bounces back light. Refraction bends it or changes its direction by passing it through a medium like glass.
Widow Walk (or Widow's Walk). An observation platform above the roof of a house near the sea. It's called "widow's walk" because many a seafarer's wife has paced on this platform, watching in vain for her sailor to return from a voyage.
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