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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website


SEPT. 19, 2019    YOKAY?

The most common single line of dialogue in scripts seems to be the question “Are you okay?”  I hear it in every movie and TV program.  In the final season of The Big Bang Theory, I counted four times in Episode 14 when someone asked Leonard whether he was all right.  Usually it was because he had sneezed rather violently.  Allergies. 

Every show, whether comedy or drama, has at least one moment in which a character suffers an emotional or physical misfortune.  (If there were no problems, there would be no story.)  Another character sees the first character groaning in anguish and solicitously asks, “Are you okay?”

Despite the frequent appearance of that line in scripts, I don't remember hearing it often in real life.  Well, there was one time, if high school can be considered real life.

Richwood High School had no cafeteria.  My guess is that when the building was being designed in the late 1930s, someone pointed out that it didn't really need a cafeteria because there already was a kitchen and dining hall in the nearby elementary school and an additional half-hour could be scheduled.

Therefore, if we high school students wanted to eat lunch, at the start of fifth period we'd traipse a couple hundred yards through the rain or snow to the grade school (X).  Entering that building, we'd clatter down the stairs to the lower level, where the floor would be wet from what we were tracking in.

One day my feet slipped out from under me and I fell into a sitting position.  As I got up, someone asked me if I were all right.

I answered no.  I explained that the shock to my spinal column had momentarily stunned me and I was still seeing stars.  I was not quite all right.  The honest response to “Are you okay?” would almost always be “No, obviously I am not.”

But I suppose “Are you okay?” is preferable to the longer alternative:  “I have observed that you appear to be in some distress, and I wish to offer my sympathy and to inquire whether I can be of any assistance to your hopefully quick recovery, okay?”

It's also preferable to simply ignoring someone's suffering.  An Australian suicide-prevention organisation is called R U OK?


SEPT. 16, 2009 flashback   IS YOUR MIDDLE NAME JEROME?

I was just reviewing tomorrow night’s starting lineups for the Latrobe High School Wildcats.  According to the official roster, the defense includes nose guard Thomas Dovie and strong safety Donato Lonigro.  However, they’re better known as “T.J.” Dovie and “D.J.” Lonigro.

Many young men these days call themselves “something J.”  Can we assume J is their middle initial?  Does J stand for Joseph or Jefferson?  No, more likely J stands for Junior.

A couple of years ago, T.J. Beam pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  His formal name was Theodore Lester Beam, Jr., so he should have gone by T.L. instead of T.J.  But I suppose his father was known as Ted, so people called the new little boy Ted Junior.  That soon became T.J., and that stuck.

Among Juniors, this is still a fairly limited phenomenon.  Otherwise, we'd have celebrities like K.J. Griffey the baseball slugger, V.J. McMahon the wrestling entrepreneur, and D.J. Fairbanks and L.J. Chaney the late movie stars.  Famous racecar drivers would include D.J. Earnhardt, A.J. Unser, and A.J.J. Foyt.  In the Seventies, our President would have been J.J. Carter.  President J.J.?  That would have been dyno-MITE!



On this date 108 years ago, what was happening in western Kentucky?

Bill Monroe was born on September 13, 1911, on a farm near Rosine.  He learned to play the mandolin, and he went on to become the Father of Bluegrass.

Meanwhile, 22 miles away in the town of Livermore, Vernon Thomas was already a two-year-old.  He never played an instrument, but he did grow up to become the father of me.

Another town, just three miles from Livermore, has a puzzling name.  Now I can reveal its source.  My article is titled Marooned in the Bluegrass, and it's mostly about old bridges.


SEPT. 11, 2009 flashback   THAT'S NOT HOW IT WORKS

Many car keys come attached to a fob containing a little radio transmitter.  At the press of a button, you can remotely unlock your car’s doors.

Some people have gotten the idea that these devices work better if you hold them up to your chin.  They even have video evidence.  Allegedly, “the oral cavity in your skull amplifies the signal.”

That’s bogus.  Where would the electricity come from to operate this alleged amplifier?

The best you could hope for is an unpowered passive reflector.  Maybe the radio waves are reflected toward your car by the “oral cavity in your skull,” otherwise known as your mouth.

Shut your mouth.  Radio waves don’t behave like that.  They don't bounce off your body; they are absorbed by it.  They don’t reflect off anything inside your mouth (except your dental fillings, which only scatter them in random directions).  Instead, they soak into your head, as we've learned from the alarmist warnings about cell phone radiation.

Yet some people insist that their fobs work better at chin level.  Could this be?  If so, is there a non-bogus explanation?

To automobile stylists, the “beltline” is the base of the windows.  Above the beltline is the “greenhouse” — mostly glass, through which radio waves easily pass.  Below the beltline are fenders and door panels — mostly steel, which radio waves don’t penetrate.

Typically the signals from your key fob are received by an antenna (shown here as a blue asterisk) at the top of the dashboard, essentially on the beltline.

If you hold the fob up high, as this man is doing with his right hand, the radio waves can avoid nearby parked cars and other obstacles, pass through the greenhouse, and reach the receiving antenna.

But if you hold the fob at your beltline, as the man is doing with his left hand, you’re holding it below the car’s beltline.  The radio waves don’t have a direct path to the receiver.  (Nevertheless, they’ll probably get there by a roundabout path if you’re not too far away.  Maybe they’ll first reflect off the underside of the car’s roof and then bounce around the interior for awhile.)

Take it from a physics major:  your mouth can redirect sound waves, but not radio waves.  Unless you're an android, of course.


SEPT. 7, 2019    HEAR, HEAR!

I'm watching a PBS documentary about Bakersfield country music (Merle Haggard, Buck Owens).  The backstory:  Okies packed up their cars to flee the Dust Bowl for California.

I hear a snippet of an old-timey song, “I have a little car and it's a Chevrolet.  It is better than a Dodge or a Ford coupé.”

I perk up.  In those days, my father sold Chevrolets!  He worked at a garage within a day's drive of Nashville.

I do some research, locate the song, and add a link on this page.  It's not about an old flivver; it's about a Chevver!



“You claim that people evolved from apes, millions of years ago,” says the creationist.  “But if the monkeys turned into humans, why are there still monkeys?  Huh?  Answer that one.  You don’t have an answer, do you?”

“No, I have another question.  If our family is descended from Scottish people who emigrated from Scotland to the New World two centuries ago, why are there still Scotsmen today?  Huh?  You see, some Scots became Americans, but not all of them.

“Some apes developed into humans, but not all of them.  Look up 'cladogenesis' in your biology textbook.  It's simple.”

Speaking of genesis, there’s a young-earth creationist group called “Answers in Genesis” that denies the facts of evolution.  They operate the Creation Museum in Kentucky and are trying to finance a replica of Noah’s Ark nearby.  AIG demands that all employees abide by their statement of faith, which among other things requires that employees believe:

The only legitimate marriage sanctioned by God is the joining of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union, as delineated in Scripture.  God intends sexual intimacy to only occur between a man and a woman who are married to each other, and has commanded that no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.

Clearly, not only have the people at “Answers in Genesis” not read their biology textbook.  The people at “Answers in Genesis” have not even read Genesis!  At least they haven’t read it beyond the story of Noah’s flood.

Scripture clearly does not delineate God’s insistence on a single, exclusive union.

•  Abram, later known as Abraham, was God’s choice to become the father of His chosen people.  But his wife Sarai was infertile, so he took her slave girl Hagar as an additional wife (Genesis 16:3).

•  Later, Abraham’s brother Lot impregnated both of his own daughters (Genesis 19:36).  In his defense, he was drunk.  Both times.

•  Abraham’s grandsons Esau and Jacob each married multiple wives.  First, Esau wed two Hittite women (Genesis 26:34).  His mother didn’t get along with them and said, “If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like those who live here, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:46).  So she sent her other son off to marry his cousin (Genesis 28:2).  Thereupon Esau took the hint and also married one of his cousins, Mahalath, who became his third wife (Genesis 28:9).

•  Jacob duly wed his mother’s niece Leah, but she wasn’t the pretty one, so he also married her sister Rachel (Genesis 29).  He eventually fathered twelve patriarchs:  six by his wife Leah, two by his wife Rachel, two by Leah’s slave girl, and two by Rachel’s slave girl (Genesis 35:23-26).

God did not condemn any of this.  He accepted these arrangements, and the men who made them were revered.

Therefore, “Answers in Genesis,” has God commanded his people to restrict their sexual activity according to the standards of 18th-century America?  The way you’d prefer?

No, he has not.  The answers are in Genesis.



An inverted pyramid is an eye-catching building.  But the term means something else in journalism. 

Reporters are taught to write stories in “inverted pyramid” form, so the reader first encounters the key facts.  Then he learns other details, and finally, if he's curious enough to read that far, the background.

However, if the tale of an athletic contest is written in this manner, I get confused.  I want to be led through the game step by step.  How did it begin, then what happened, then how did it finish?  That's hard to reconstruct if the story starts at the end.

Last week in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost 6-5 at Philadelphia in 11 innings.  Let's analyze the game story from the next morning's online edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It consists (after a two-paragraph introduction) of 16 disordered paragraphs which I've graphed as a descending progression of  blue dots.  The first paragraph tells how the winning run scored in the 11th inning; I'll allow that.

However, the next one flashes back to reveal that the Pirates held a 4-2 lead in the 8th inning.  But apparently the score became tied later, because the next paragraph jumps forward to compliment the relief pitcher who kept it tied into extra innings.  The following paragraph explains that a different reliever entered in the 11th and gave up the winning homer.

Then the story flashes back to the 8th again.  It spends four paragraphs explaining how the Pirates lost that 4-2 lead, followed by a paragraph for the top of the 9th when they scored another run to tie.  Next we flash back further to the 7th inning for a couple of paragraphs about how the Pirates achieved that 4-2 lead.

Then the story flashes back-back-back all the way to the starting pitcher.  From there it moves forward to the 4th when he lost his shutout, then to the 5th when the Pirates cut the deficit to one run.

Now we've accounted for all the scoring, so there, in the middle of the game, the story ends!  Wouldn't it be better to tell the tale in chronological order, as indicated by the gold line?  Ah, what do I know?


AUG. 29, 2019    LESS IS BETTER

I follow a pair of critics who enjoy watching movies, but not forever.  Apparently they think a good length for a motion picture would be about 80 minutes.  One was planning to attend a revival of Gone with the Wind until he realized that the film runs 221 minutes, or four hours including the overture and intermission.

On television, I don't understand why documentaries need to consist of 690 minutes spread over five nights.  The Civil War by Ken Burns was worth it, but most aren't.

Most of us in TV sports feel the same way.  Although the director and the sponsors are hoping for an exciting nail-biter that goes into triple overtime with a lot of strategic time-outs, the production crew is rooting for a laugher.  We want the game to end quickly so we can all go home.

Three weeks ago, Mark Vidonic posted, “Today I had the shortest event I've ever worked.  A six-inning Little League game:  1 hour, 6 minutes.  In layman's terms, that's one inning of a Yankees/Red Sox game.”

Other expeditious competitions?  Matt Wolff commented, “Bowling is the short sport of champions.”  (A two-person bowling match takes only about half an hour per game — only 24 balls if they roll nothing but strikes.)

“That's why I loved working volleyball,” added Troy Wright.  (A women's match decided in a lopsided two sets might require only 60 points and scarcely more than half an hour.) 

I've happily worked both of sorts of telecasts myself.  Even when I'm merely watching from home, I get bored with baseball halfway through.  For auto racing, I much prefer a two-hour Formula 1 race to an endurance test like NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, which took almost five hours to complete this past May.  Cut to the final chase!


AUG. 26, 2019    CROSSING OVER

Where two major highways intersect, there ought to be no red lights.  Traffic shouldn't have to be halted on one and then on the other.  After all, these are expressways, and “express” implies no stopping.  Instead, one highway is elevated on a bridge so the two can cross unimpeded, one over the other.

But if a trucker on the lower roadway wants to turn onto the upper one, how does he get up there?  And when he does, will he have to stop and wait for the cross traffic to clear?

To solve this problem, “cloverleaf” ramps were invented a century ago.  Nobody has to stop.  Nobody even has to turn left, so traffic can flow continuously.  And unlike a roundabout, traffic going straight through doesn't even have to slow down.

A northbound trucker, entering from the bottom of this cloverleaf, must get into the right-hand lane if he plans to exit.  At 1 he can bear right onto a ramp and go east.  Or if he wants to go west, he can continue on under the bridge, bear right at 2, and curve up that 270° ramp.  It's tight, with a radius of as little as 150 feet, so the trucker has to watch his speed lest he hit the outer wall. 

Another hazard is the conflict point at X, where a motorist may cut off our trucker.  She's descending a different ramp, and after merging she needs to switch to the left lane because she doesn't want to exit.  Meanwhile our trucker does want to exit, so he must reclaim the right lane.  These maneuvers have to be accomplished within a short “weave zone,” the hundred yards from X to 2.  There's a non-zero probability of sideswipes at the bridge.

A better solution has recently been introduced, the Diverging Diamond Interchange.  The first DDI in this country opened only ten years ago.  At last count, there are now 140 finished or under construction, with an equal number in the planning stages.

The primary road is for high-speed straight-ahead traffic; in the diagram below, we've colored it tan (eastbound and westbound).  On the other road, slight curves and traffic lights may be allowed; we've colored it yellow (northbound) and blue (southbound).

Before the secondary road crosses over the primary, northbound lanes and southbound lanes switch sides.  How British of them!  This arrangement allows their ramps (gray) to turn right and left without encountering oncoming traffic.

For example, consider the yellow parts of this diagram.  Starting from the bottom, a yellow lane is subtracted at 1, added at 3, subtracted at 5, and added at 7.

1  The right lane exits to the east.

2  While the blue lanes are stopped at a red light, all the remaining yellow lanes have a green light to continue through the gray diamond.

3  A ramp from the west merges on the left.

4  The entire length of the overpass constitutes a weave zone, though weaving is necessary only while the light at 2 is green.

5  The left lane exits to the west.

6  When the second light is green, all the remaining yellow lanes continue through the gray diamond.

7  A ramp from the east merges on the right.

At the diamonds, northbound and southbound do need to time-share the pavement by stopping for red lights.  But each signal is red no more than 50% of the time, because there's no waiting for left-turn-on-green traffic to get out of the way.

At first glance, this diagram appears to depict a lot of confusing options, but really you have only two (other than continuing straight through).  If you're on the expressway, you can first choose the right-hand exit ramp, then choose whether to turn north or south.  If you're on the yellow/blue road, you can either choose the right-hand lane to turn right onto the expressway, or later choose the left-hand lane to turn left onto the expressway.

I've recently learned of an improvement to the DDI.  Provided that enough land is available, simply raise the yellow lanes higher than the blue ones to make a Double Crossover Merging Interchange!  Northbound traffic can cross over southbound traffic at each diamond, so no traffic lights are required.

As far as I know, no DCMI has yet been constructed — except for simulations built by highway hobbyists on their computers, such as this one from Steam Community.

What design could be more beautiful?


AUG. 23, 2014   I'LL TAKE SPORTS FOR $200, ALEX

(Lights flash)

Tom: “What is Korinna?”

Alex: “That is correct!”

Early in 1984, Betsy Overly and I were planning the graphics for Pittsburgh Pirates cablecasts.  We needed a fresh look and a new font style.

Chyron, the company that manufactured the character generator, provided a “font library” for their machine on 8-inch floppy disks.  A few dozen styles were available.  Some were offered in only one size, but there were several that came in five different sizes, providing flexibility.

One of those, called Korinna Bold, caught our eye.  It was a fresh, relatively new font; the modern version had been introduced only ten years before.  It had some flair, with the distinctive shapes of the P and the N and especially the U, yet it was sufficiently bold for sports television.  So we chose it to build the full screens and lower thirds that we’d need for baseball.  Our new look premiered on a road game on April 6.

Unfortunately, by the time the team returned to Pittsburgh, the network was out of business, and our graphics package was never seen again.  More details are here.

That same year, however, a long-running game show was being updated with a new host and a new look for syndication.  And the producers made the same Chyron choice that Betsy and I had made.

Thirty years ago next month, Alex Trebek introduced Jeopardy! with the clues given in Korinna.  The font’s still there three decades later.  You can’t keep a good idea down.

Here are some other notes.

• Korinna was also used for the intertitles and closing credits on the 1993-2004 comedy Frasier.

• Ken Jennings claims that when he had his winning run 10 years ago, the name of the show was still pronounced “jee-OP-ur-dee.”

• And why is it called Jeopardy anyway?  Alex could say, “I told you that on the very first program, when I explained how the game is played.  Weren’t you listening?  Do I have to repeat the rules every 30 years?”  (You're in danger of losing some of your winnings if you give an incorrect response, and Jeopardy was considered a more intriguing title than the original What's the Question?)


AUG. 21, 2009 flashback   DO NOT WANT

The other day, I was dining in a restaurant when a man with three young sons was shown to the table next to me.  One of the boys was an infant dozing in a car seat; the other two were ambulatory.

The middle child considered himself too grownup for a highchair.  His father helped him up onto a regular chair, but he warned the boy he'd have to sit still.  Of course, he didn't.  Within seconds he was trying to climb over the back.  Then he fell off.  He wasn't hurt, but he began crying for his mommy.

To my surprise, the father stood up, picked up the sleeping basket case, and led the other two boys back to the restaurant's entrance.

Now I've often heard parents in public places admonish their unruly kids, “If you don't behave, we're going home!”  But this was the first time I'd seen the threat actually carried out.  And so promptly, too!  No second warning.  No “this is is last time I'm going to tell you.”

Alas, Dad didn't leave.  He had just gone to fetch a highchair, as well as his wife, who apparently had been parking the SUV.

When the family reconvened at the table, the mother tried to insert the middle boy into the highchair.  Predictably, he resisted.  “No!  Don't want to!”

You see, that's the problem with kids today.  We try to make them happy by catering to their every whim.  “What do you want to drink?  Do you want orange juice?  Apple juice?  How about some chocolate milk?”  The kids begin to feel entitled to have their desires always accommodated.

Why give them a choice?  Can you always get what you want?  You can't always get what you want.

Just tell them, “We're serving orange juice, and that's it, whether you like it or not.  If you don't like it, you can just go thirsty.  What's that?  You don't want orange juice?  You don't want to sit in a highchair?  WHO CARES?  Listen, kid, we're in charge of this family, not you.”

End of rant from childless old codger.