Boston, the Hub of the Universe

Or so we were taught!

There’s a new movie out, Chappaquiddick. I don’t plan to see it, mostly because I prefer to hang on to whatever I think I know of the Kennedys. Reviews have called it out on historical facts, and also on the accents that are supposed to represent Boston.

So, it’s time to drag out my BostonSpeak piece.

I claimed Boston as my home for the first decades of my life. I was born in a suburb less than 8 miles away, went to college on the Fenway. Yes, THE Fenway—in certain classrooms on campus you could hear the crack of the bat. I also taught at that same college for many years. Is that enough Boston cred for you?

Besides hosting more than 53 institutions of higher learning, including MIT and Harvard, Boston has its own accent. Travel even 20 miles from Boston, and the accent is gone, indistinguishable from that of the network anchor in Grinnell, Iowa.

Everyone recognizes the accent; not everyone can imitate it. Even after many years in California, I can go back to it whenever I choose. Or, whenever I talk to my relatives and friends who still live there, says my husband.

“Hi, they-ah,” they say.

“Howahya?” I ask.

Even though I now speak like Californians, careful with my r’s, I’m very protective of Boston-speak.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when actors/actresses who are not natives try to take on the accent. It doesn’t work. Nothing can spoil a movie for me like a pretend Boston accent, which makes the actor sound like he’s rolling a hot potato around in his mouth. An old but good example is Rob Morrow in “Quiz Show.” In an attempt to sound out the broad a’s, his lips never met. Similarly, in “The Verdict,” set in Boston, no one got it right. Thank you, Paul Newman, for not trying. In newer movies, actors and their directors know enough not to try. They leave it to natives like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

JFK himself is often ridiculed for his accent. People laugh at his “Cuba(r) and Laos.” But Kennedy, and every other Bostonian, would pronounce Cuba as Cuba, unless the word is followed by another word that begins with a vowel. Thus:

“I went to Laos and Cuba,” but “I went to Cuba(r) and Laos.”

Similarly, a Bostonian would say “I obey the law,” but “I’m studying the law(r) of gravity.”

This is a common practice in many languages, where the letter used for the elision is actually written, as in Italian with e and ed, the words for and, depending on the first letter of the next word.

Back in the days of landlines, I called the San Jose Airport, seeking information (pre-Internet) about the layout of the airport before I drove there for a flight.

“Can you tell me where to park my car?” I asked.  ["Pahk my cah."]

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said. “We have no flights to Pakaka.”

At that moment I decided to learn to speak like a TV anchorwoman. Now, I do. Well, most of the time.

Hand me my lappet, please

It’s one of those weeks when I have to search for something to celebrate. April Fool has passed, and it’s 2 weeks till we can honor Paul Revere.

April 3 was Alec Baldwin’s birthday, but he’s getting enough attention lately. (Congratulations on that Emmy, Alec!) April 5, 1908 is Bette Davis’s birthday, but who remembers her?

It’s also National Caramel Day and National Dandelion Day. Ho hum.

Never mind those. Instead, I thought I’d learn a new word. I started with my favorite research spot: the public domain collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here it is, image and all: a lappet.

French, early 19th century

Dictionary definition:

Lappet: a small flap or fold, in particular.
  • a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals.
    noun: lappet; plural noun: lappets
  • a loose or overlapping part of a garment.

Clearly I’m going for the garment app.

Can you use lappet in a sentence? (Yes, this is 5th grade.)

Three Miles Downriver

That's me, on the left, in a cool but uncomfortable hat.

This week marks the 39th anniversary of Three Mile Island, forever the name of an accident, rather than the name of a nuclear reactor three miles downriver from Middletown, Pennsylvania. It’s the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.

The accident began in Unit 2, at about four in the morning on March 28, 1979. HERE is a complete backgrounder from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission site. Here’s my version of the aftermath.

Do you remember where you were on March 28, 1979? It was a Wednesday, and if you lived on the east coast, by the time you were getting ready for work, the news, if not a plume, would have spread. For those of us working in the nuclear power industry, the memory is sharp, as for the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and the day the towers fell.

Though it resulted in no fatalities or injuries, the accident at Three Mile Island changed the way we viewed nuclear power and was probably the chief reason we haven’t seen a new plant in decades.

For me, it meant donning a hardhat, clipboard in hand, and traveling the country to inspect reactor control rooms.

Problems with control room procedures were at the heart of the accident, so the government undertook a massive overhaul of reactor operator training and human factors engineering. Week after week, I landed in towns with top-notch accommodations—where “room service” meant having a vending machine down the hall, instead of across the parking lot.

In my experience, relations between the utilities that ran the plants and the government body that regulated them had always been adversarial, and grew more so after TMI.

Sorry, the stairs aren’t working.

Take the time our team arrived for an inspection of a second floor control room. We were told the stairs were being upgraded and the only way to get to the second floor was to go out of the building through the window, climb the scaffolding to the upper level, and enter through the window on that level. Even though I was more agile then, it was still a hassle, not to mention scary. At the end of our three-day inspection, and after many hair-raising trips along the outside of the building, a plant worker made the mistake of removing a temporary partition that was hiding a perfectly good set of stairs, right in front of us.

Words were exchanged.

Surprise!

Typically, we’d arrive in town after a long flight, plus a puddle-jumper, get a few hours sleep, and show up unannounced at the plant around 8 or 9 the next morning. Tip: the “unannounced” part doesn’t work if the population is 300 and the innkeeper is the plant manager’s uncle.

“Oh, shucks,” the manager would say, with a smile that fooled no one. “We’re doing a test right now. Can you come back later? Say, around midnight?”

For all the lack of cooperation on inspection days, I was still impressed by the amazing technology and the possibilities of nuclear energy.

There’s a rumor going around that the US is starting up its nuclear energy program again.

I say this with the bias that comes from wanting to keep my electric blanket and LAN going.

The resurgence of nuclear power might also give new life to my first book ever: Nuclear Waste Management Abstracts. It was released in 1982, but you can be the first to review it on amazon.

Left Coast Crime

If things go as planned, I’ll be in Reno at Left Coast Crime this week.

On Friday, March 23, at 2:45, look for me on a panel about crafts mysteries. Otherwise, I’ll be hanging out at the (coffee) bar!

The most fun part of preparing for the conference: making a mini scene for the auction. Here are some raw materials:

Mini slot machines -- the arms work! Click to enlarge.

March: Women’s Month. Why?

Yes, it’s that time of year.

Mary Cassatt's "The Cup of Tea." From the Collection of James Stillman, Gift of Dr. Ernest G. Stillman, 1922

MARCH – Women’s History Month.

I have mixed feelings about women’s anything, unless it’s the feminine care aisle in the supermarket or the OB/GYN specialist.

I remember being in Washington DC many years ago, during the opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the self-proclaimed “gender specific” museum. I saw a wonderful exhibit of the works of French sculptor, Camille Claudel, as well as works by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot.

Who thought we needed to build a special museum for the work of these and other female artists? Didn’t they deserve to be shown at the National Gallery of Art, only 20 minutes away by foot.

I almost regretted buying a ticket, seeing it as supporting continuing sexism in art and culture.

Yes, this is another of my rants against separating women’s achievements, singling them out, as if they can’t compete in the real, co-ed world.

Years ago, I was part of a program I’ll call XYZ, to give girls an extra push by having a day of science, for girls only, taught by female scientists. Sounds good, right?

Wrong.

First, there was the giggle factor—boys, young and old, giggling over the fact that girls had to be taken aside and given special attention to learn science. They obviously weren’t good enough to be taught science with the boys.

The guys were right—that’s exactly how it looked.

That should have been enough to kill the program, but it didn’t. I tried several times to change the course of the program, simply by inviting boys to the classes. Let the boys experience female science teachers, too (see above for why that’s important!) I continued to volunteer in the program, constantly petitioning for a change of philosophy and was shot down each time, until I finally quit. I realized that sexism was still rampant, and the powers that be would always consider that girls need special TLC to learn the hard stuff.

The program, started in the 1970’s, is alive and running, and still girls only. I know personally two of the Board members, and I know they “mean well.” But — When I ask, “Why is there still such a thing as the XYZ program?” the answer I get is “Because girls and women are still underrepresented in science and technology fields.”

If after 40 years of XYZ, that’s still true, here’s another possibility:

Girls and women are still underrepresented in science and technology fields because programs like XYZ exist, and encourage people to think girls can’t cut it in the normal learning environment. Because boys who are left out will still go on to be the CEOs and Research Directors and giggle as they look at women applicants and remember those special girls who got together to play scientist.

Call me

Sheet music: From The New York Public Library

A big week for the telephone:

•  On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell receives a patent for his invention.

• On March 10, 1876, Bell makes the first telephone call, in his Boston lab, summoning his assistant, Thomas Watson, from the next room.

Interesting — 23 years later, almost to the day (March 6, 1899), the aspirin was invented.

CASTRO VALLEY READS

The program called One City One Book, or a variation, begun in the nineties, has come to Castro Valley, California.

Here is the history of the program.

Castro Valley Library

Castro Valley readers will be discussing Lab Girl.

The reading group I belong to will discuss this book on Tuesday, March 6, at 6:30 pm — join us if you can! Email camille@minichino.com for details.

A President’s Words

February 22, 1732, the birthday of George Washington, our first president.

Here are a few quotes from him:

A good moral character is the first essential in a man. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.

I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is the best policy.

Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a Freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.

I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.

Imagine if these were the tweets we hear today.

The Jig is up

I borrowed the title and content for this blog from my engineer husband. One of his passions is doing puzzles — acrostics, cryptoquotes, anagrams, and the ones requiring some amount of real estate in our family room: jigsaw puzzles.

He has his own blog that features all the puzzles he and his family and friends have done over the last couple of years. But high-level security concerns make him wary of posting his blog publicly. Potential readers and contributors are required to submit an application to his editor at camille@minichino.com. I’d post his URL here, but he’d only delete it.

Being an engineer, he looks for problems to solve.

The latest, in his own words:

Have you ever wondered if a puzzle maker uses the same cutting process for all the puzzles of the same size and number of pieces?  I have. The next puzzles to be solved are going to be that kind of 500 piecers.  After one of them is solved, I’m going to keep it assembled and compare it to the second one, to see if the pieces are related to each other.

Fortunately for us, the project has been completed and we have the answer: yes! The bottom left-hand corner of two 500-piece (brand name here) puzzles are shown here, as evidence.

If you have any other crucual puzzle-related problems you need solved, submit to the email address above.

Super Books!

I hope you enjoyed Super Bowl as much as I did. Here’s how I spent it: at Mrs. Dalloway’s Book Shop on College Avenue in Berkeley. It has been a while since I’ve browsed in a brick-and-mortar book shop. I highly recommend this one.

Me and Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

There’s no lack of analysis of this quote, the line that opens Virginia Wolff’s novel, but here’s one that I like. The site provides a “pretentious factor” — if you were to drop this quote at a party would your friends be impressed or roll their eyes and never invite you back? What do you think?