Friday, March 29, 2013


Sometimes, I hear it in the afternoon, when I’m standing in the kitchen and the house is quiet. A deep rumbling in the distance and maybe a long, low whistle. I hear it more clearly when I’m working in the yard or laying by the pool. It enters my consciousness so gradually that I’m not really sure how long I’ve been hearing it.

And then it’s there.

If there’s any noise around me, a lawn mower, or traffic, or if I’m distracted, I don’t notice it at all.

A train track runs about a mile from my home in Chapel Hill. It was built around the time of the Civil War and, in fact, its construction was delayed by the war.

Most mornings, my wife and I drive to neighboring Carrboro for breakfast at Weaver Street Market or Open Eye, Caffé Driade’s sister coffee shop, and we cross the tracks just a few yards before the entrance to The Weave’s parking lot. 

Occasionally, we have to wait while an engine barely crosses the road and then backs up, disappearing in the same direction it came from until the gate lifts slowly back away from the street, as if it's only real purpose was to disrupt traffic for a few minutes while looking for all the world like a 200-ton prairie dog momentarily sticking its head out of its burrow.

For a few weeks last year, the crossing was under construction to make driving across the tracks less bumpy. It tied up traffic at the busiest spot in Carrboro.

From The Weave, the spur continues on another half mile to UNC’s power plant so trains can deliver product there. The Libba Cotton Bikeway was built alongside this portion of the track bed so students can bike safely from Carrboro to the UNC campus.

“Libba” was the nickname of blues and folk musiciansinger, and songwriter, Elizabeth Cotten. Elizabeth was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5, 1893. She died June 29, 1987.

Local restaurateur, Bill Smith walks along this railroad track spur in the heat of Carolina summers to pick blackberries for Crook’s Corner. If you’ve ever picked blackberries, you know that picking enough to serve in a busy restaurant is quite an accomplishment. Heck, picking enough for one blackberry cobbler is a challenge.

When I drive the “back way” to Carrboro from Chapel Hill along Estes Drive, I cross the railroad at a point where it vanishes in a straight line in both directions. I love to look down the track as I cross, through the woods at the converging rails. On rare occasions, I see a solitary person walking slowly along the track bed. I envy them and imagine that one day I will take that walk.

In February of 1861, the North Carolina legislature created a corporate charter for the University Railroad Company to establish a rail connection from Chapel Hill to some unspecified point on the North Carolina Railroad. The State University Railroad began service in 1882, more than 130 years ago. It is currently part of Norfolk Southern Corporation.

The legislature specified that the railroad could be built no closer than one mile from the university. Some claim this was so the noise wouldn’t disturb the university, but others claim they wanted it far enough from campus that students couldn’t readily leave town on weekends and spend their money elsewhere. For decades, UNC students arrived in Carrboro by train and walked the mile to campus over a dirt road.

"The Whooper" ran from University Station to Carrboro for over 40 years. From PiedmontWandering's blog. 

For whatever reason the train station’s location was determined, the town of Carrboro sprang up and thrived around the train station. The track runs by the old cotton mill, whose refurbished brick building now houses the Carr-Mill Shopping Center and Weaver Street Market. Abandoned tracks still run through the parking lot across the street at Fitch Lumber Company, where trains once delivered lumber.

Today, the border between Chapel Hill and Carrboro is barely discernible, though they are distinct municipalities. Once you’ve lived here for a while, you know when you have crossed the line between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but it isn’t obvious even then.

I bought a book about the history of Chapel Hill not long after we moved here. The town has a long and interesting history because it is the home of the first public university, the University of North Carolina, founded in 1789. Many students left campus to fight in the Civil War and most of them died. There is a statue in their honor on campus.

A lot of history there.

I opened that book the other night and randomly landed on a page with a photo of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. Elizabeth wrote many songs, but perhaps her most famous is “Freight Train”, a classic that most budding guitarists know and want to learn to play. It was then that I learned she was born in Chapel Hill and lived on Church Street, within walking distance of my home.

I still didn’t tie her to the Libba Cotton Bikeway until a few days later when I discovered her nickname.

Libba was left-handed and played the guitar basically upside down and backwards. You can watch videos of Neil Young or James Taylor (also a Chapel Hill-ian) and figure out how to play their songs, but I dare you to learn from watching video of Elizabeth Cotten. She plays the bass notes with her fingers and the high notes with her thumb. People who learn to play guitar the traditional way are completely dumbfounded by watching.

I got into a conversation about Elizabeth Cotten with the regulars at Caffé Driade this afternoon (a fine place to enjoy the distant sound of trains while sipping on a latté) with people who have lived here much longer than I have. It was only then that I made the most obvious connection of all.

That train I hear when I’m working in the yard? The one that sometimes stops traffic at the crossing on the way to breakfast in Carrboro? The low whistle I hear from my kitchen in the middle of the afternoon? The train that runs by Bill Smith’s favorite wild blackberry patch?

That’s Elizabeth Cotten’s freight train.

Friday, March 22, 2013

How to Hide Your FaceBook Friends

My last post, Who Hid My FaceBook Friends, discussed ways to see more of your favorite friends in your News Feed. Now, let’s look at a few ways to see less of one.

The obvious though unsubtle step is to unfriend the person, but that involves a lot of social trauma. FaceBook won’t inform them that they’ve been dumped, but if they look for you on their friends list, you’ll be conspicuously absent.

After they discover they’ve been jilted comes the inevitable conversation. You’re amazing, but I’m just not ready to be in a relationship right now. It isn’t you; it’s me. I just need a little space. You know, some private time. We've grown apart. It's like we don't even know each other anymore. Maybe looks are everything.

Since they can no longer reach you directly on FaceBook, some will contact mutual FaceBook friends and ask them to get involved to determine the chances for reconciliation.

(FaceBook isn’t like high school. It is high school.)

There has to be a better way. Some way to stop seeing them without their knowing that you’re not seeing them.

As I mentioned in the previous post, you can mark a person as an acquaintance and they will appear less often in your News Feed.

I also mentioned that you can create and look at Lists instead of the News Feed, and you could just leave this person off the lists. Their posts will still appear on your News Feed, but you won’t be looking at them. Out of sight, out of mind.

You can also hide their posts, but only after the fact. Hovering your mouse over their post will make a drop-down arrow appear at the upper right of the post. Click it and you can check “Hide”. That post will disappear, but you’ll still see future posts. I don’t find this option that useful, but maybe there are instances where it fits.

Maybe 99% of their updates are perfectly normal, but they slip up just this once with, “That Sarah Palin is a freakin’ genius, don’t you think?” or, “Here’s my favorite Justin Bieber song on YouTube”.

Maybe hiding the one post does the trick for you.

The absolute worst thing you can do is to provide negative comments on their posts, because FaceBook assumes that if you comment on someone’s update, you want to see more of them on your News Feed. The infamous FaceBook algorithms, one would assume, don’t try to distinguish between comments like “Brilliant!” and “How did you get your head all the way up there?”

For a brief period, FaceBook offered an Unsubscribe option that would allow you to block all of a person’s posts from your News Feed without unfriending them. That has since been replaced by an option in the “Friends” box.

Hover over the person’s name in any of their posts that appear in your News Feed and a box will pop up containing their profile photo. Click the Friend box in that pop-up and you will see a “Show in News Feed” option. De-select that option and all future posts from that person will be banished from your News Feed.

The latter is an excellent way to stealthily elude nearly all of a person’s posts, as opposed to slapping them in the face by Unfriending them. (Unless, of course, you want to slap them in the face.)

I say “nearly all”, because you can’t completely elude obnoxious people on FaceBook. You can de-select “Show in News Feed”, hide their posts, report them to the Better Business Bureau, file a restraining order, and attach a lock of their hair to a voodoo doll and bind its typing fingers together (yep, tried ‘em all) and they can still rear their pointed little heads from time to time.

Here’s an example.

Sam, Tom and Larry are all friends on FaceBook. Sam went to college at UK and learns through FaceBook that Tom went to IU. Sam suddenly feels intense distaste and aversion toward Tom and takes the nuclear option of unfriending him (a perfectly rational response, IMHO).

Tom’s Hoosier trash talk no longer shows up on Sam’s News Feed until one day Larry, with whom Sam and Tom are still both FaceBook friends, posts an update about the NCAA tournament. Sam sees Larry’s update on his News Feed because, after all, Sam didn’t unfriend Larry.

Then Tom comments on Larry’s update and his comment shows up on Sam’s News Feed, too, even though Sam had unfriended Tom.

“Curses! Foiled again,” as Dick Dastardly used to say.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who Hid My FaceBook Friends?

I have a friend, Alisa, who lives on the west coast. I like to keep in touch, but lately I’ve seen fewer and fewer of her FaceBook updates. I decided to go looking for her updates, and those of other friends whose updates I used to see more often.

I discovered two things.

No, she hadn’t unfriended me, nor had anyone else I checked, though that’s always a nagging concern, right? 

No, the first thing I discovered by going directly to their Walls is that some people whose posts I used to see a lot had just stopped posting on FaceBook, or had slowed their activity dramatically. 

Good for them I thought. Get a life.

But Alisa had several recent posts. I just wasn’t seeing them.

Why not? I’m not certain, but logic tells me that FaceBook is to blame. Most people seem to think that whatever their friends post will show up on their News Feed, but that isn’t correct. FaceBook decides what shows up on your News Feed using algorithms they don’t fully disclose, so I can’t be sure, but here’s what I think is happening.

FaceBook algorithms apparently use your “Likes” and your comments on your friends’ posts, among other undisclosed criteria, to determine who FaceBook thinks you’d like to see more of on your News Feed. That gives them space to insert sponsored links (paid advertisements) into your News Feed and make money.

(No, FaceBook’s ultimate goal isn’t good karma for keeping you connected with your high school classmates. If you believe theirs is other than a profit motive, check under one of your status updates where it says Like and Comment and you will see a "Promote" option. Click on that and you can pay FaceBook $7 to place your status update higher on your friends' News Feeds.)

Now, if FaceBook shows the friends that draw your comments and “Likes” more often than others, then you will see the others far less often and therefor have fewer opportunities to comment and/or like their posts, making them show up even less often on your News Feed.  

A downward spiral into oblivion. An internet version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That, I suspect, is why some of our friends are disappearing.

There are some things you can do to stop this downward spiral, short of going to your vanishing friends’ Walls and liking all their updates (though, that would presumably work).

Close Friend and Acquaintances

If you hover over a friend’s status update, two boxes will appear. One says “Friends” and one says “Messages”. Click on “Friends” and you will see a number of options, including “Close Friends” and “Acquaintances”.

Click on “Close Friends” to see more of that person’s updates and “Acquaintances” to see less. (I’ll link to a video shortly to show you how.)


I prefer to solve the problem with lists. Lists, in this case, refer to lists of your friends with which you have something in common. I have a list, for example, of friends that went to high school at EHS, friends that went to college at UK, and friends I worked with at AOL. I didn’t even have to create them — FaceBook did it for me. They’re called Smart Lists.

Your News Feed is also a list, but it’s a special list. It’s a list of everyone you’ve friended. It is also special in that FaceBook decides what updates go on it. Your other lists show every update your friends post, as best I can tell.

And that’s how I got around my Alisa problem. I now click on the lists that FaceBook made for me, the lists of high school, college, work, family, etc. friends and check those instead of News Feed.

As a result of seeing them on these lists I will no doubt like and comment more and they will probably start showing up more on my News Feed as a result, by the way, where I will no longer be looking for them. 

You will find these smart lists on your FaceBook “Home” page at the top left under the heading “Friends”.

You can use the Smart Lists that FaceBook has created for you there, or you can edit those Smart Lists, or create your own by hovering over one of the list names and clicking “More” when it appears.

You can even use lists to post updates to certain groups of people. After you enter a status update and before clicking on “POST”, click on the “Friends” box. Use the drop-down list to select the list name that you want to post to. You might want an update to only be seen by your Family list or your High School Classmates list, for example.

You can also use a couple of these tricks to pretty much avoid people you would prefer not to see without the social trauma of unfriending them, but that will be in my next post. This one is about seeing more of people on FaceBook that you’d like to see.

There’s a video below to show you how this works.

One final note: FaceBook moves stuff around so often and renames the features that this will probably work a bit differently in the not-distant future. The short-lived “Subscribe” feature, for example, was renamed “Follow” not long ago, and “Unsubscribe” is still available, but it’s now a check-box item called “Show in News Feed” under the “Friends” drop-down box.

I rarely use News Feed, anymore. I check my lists, instead.

I missed Alisa and the others. She's interesting and she plays the  banjo. Maybe I'll make a list of my FaceBook friends who play banjo. You might be surprised by how many do.

Then again, I'm from Kentucky, so maybe you won't be.

(Click the box at the bottom right of the viewer for a larger screen.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Great Cotton Explosion of 1684: So Many Kids, So Few Names

When John “Bertie” Cotten (c. 1650 to 1728) married Martha Godwin in Virginia around 1684, they set off a population explosion in North Carolina that left its mark throughout the 1700s. Later in life, Bertie moved to what is now Bertie County in North Carolina (on the Albemarle Sound west of Nags Head), but several of his grown children had already made the move to the Tar Heel State by then.

I’m not one for nosing around dusty old courthouse files for hints to my ancestry, but my wife, Vicki, and my sister, Jolie, do enjoy that sort of thing, as did my mother and grandfather, and I’m intrigued by the results as long as someone else does the work.

The Cotton Baby Boom (often spelled “Cotten”) started with Bertie’s fourteen children (that we know of), eight of whom were males. By the first Federal census of 1790, there were 34 Cotton families in the state, consisting of 97 males and 76 females. It can be shown that most of these families were descendant from Bertie.

The 1810 Federal census showed that many of those families had already begun migrating to the south and west.

And that turns out to be a good thing for me, because there were practically no white families living in North Carolina before the Cottons came along, so if you can trace a relative back to Carolina in the 1700s — and we can — then there is an extremely high probability that you are related to Bertie and, of course, all of his well-researched ancestors.

We don’t know how we are related to Bertie exactly, only that we most likely are. We’re still working on that and may never know for certain. Two of Bertie’s sons (James and Thomas) left no record but the other six have been well documented. Though we have a few unidentified generations back to Bertie, the line back to Cheshire, England is well established from there.

My family’s link to North Carolina is William (no surprise there) Cotton, Sr. (c. 1770 - c. 1848) and his wife Elizabeth who came to Kentucky in 1813, undoubtedly through the Cumberland Gap and across 300 miles of unbroken wilderness to Christian County in western Kentucky, near where I grew up in Dawson Springs. He was probably given some land there.

I hope Bertie, may he rest in well-deserved peace, will forgive my familiarity in using his nickname, but its tough to keep track of a dozen generations of men mostly named William or John or James right down to my grandfather, William, and my Dad and I, both James.

It reminds me of Larry, Darryl and Darryl, the backwoods brothers on the Bob Newhart Show whose parents were so dull they could only come up with two names for three kids. 

John’s father was named John and John’s first son was named John. And that son eventually had a son named John. John (Bertie) also had a son named James and one named William. No Darryl’s found, so far.

As I read these stories, I keep imagining conversations that might have taken place. When Martha Godwin wanted to call the entire family to dinner at Thanksgiving, did she stick her head out the back door and yell, “John!”

When John had house guests, did he introduce them by saying, “Hi, I’m John. This is my grandfather, John, and my son, John. Oh, and that’s his little boy, John, crawling next to the fireplace. My brother William and my other brother, William, will be along d’rectly.”

Why did you set out west, I want to ask William Sr. and Elizabeth, with three children in a covered wagon and how did you know to stop when you got to Christian County? 

Ah, the conversations in my head.

William Sr.: “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s head west over the mountains and through Indian Territory. I’ve been given title to some land in Christian County, Kentucky and we can be there in a couple of years.”

Elizabeth: “What’s it like?”

William Sr.: “We’ll know when we get there.”

Elizabeth: “Whatever." 

Elizabeth: “Frances! Put your belonging in the covered wagon, and load up the little ‘uns. Wheels up in twenty." 

My ancestors were serious pioneers. But why stop in Christian County, Kentucky? I’ve driven through that county a hundred times and it’s a nice area with beautiful farms but nothing ever screamed at me, “This is it! This what you’ve waited for your entire life!”

Elizabeth: “William, why are we stopping here?”

William Sr.: “Because in 135 years, Bob Creekmur will open a gas station and barbecue joint over in the next county.”

Elizabeth: “Well, that’d be nice, I suppose. What’s gas?”

There is another Cotton family that left North Carolina for Kentucky and then Indiana about the same time. His name was, shockingly, William Cotton, Sr. and his wife was, wait for it. . . Elizabeth (Atherton) Cotton. They ended up in Shelby, Indiana. I don’t know if or how we are related, yet.

Now, I totally get why they stopped in Indiana after Kentucky.

Elizabeth of Indiana: “I’m bored with Indiana. Wanna move further west?”

William Sr. of Indiana: “West again? Are you serious? It ain’t exactly getting better when we move west now, is it? The only thing west of here is corn, as far as I can tell. Nope, I'm staying right here.

My sister joked this weekend that if my maternal grandfather was still alive we could tell him about how the Cottons are actually descendant from wealthy English families and important colonial leaders. Maybe that would've changed his attitude toward his future son-in-law.

We’re pretty sure what his response would have been when Mom came home in 1950 and said, “I’m gonna marry one of those Cotton brothers from over in Caldwell County.”

Without looking up from his paper, and with much sarcasm because he spoke with sarcasm or not at all, he would’ve said, 

William Cotton’s boy? Oh, yeah. That’s every father’s dream.”

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