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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website


AUGUST 16, 2008 flashback   SYNCHRONICITY   

Pittsburgh journalist Brian O'Neill wrote a column last week about visiting his wife's folks in northern Wisconsin, where live bait and fireworks are sold at a store called “And Linda's.”

Brian's father-in-law likes to watch Milwaukee Brewers games, but he “can't stand the TV announcers, and so he mutes the set and listens to Bob Uecker call the game on the radio.”  However, the radio is seven seconds ahead of the TV.  The seemingly precognitive Uecker describes the play, and afterwards it appears on the screen.  Brian found he couldn't stand this.  He had to turn his chair away from the TV.

Lots of folks like to watch games, especially football games, while listening to their home team's radio announcers.  But this out-of-sync situation has become a real problem.  On the TV side, there are different amounts of satellite delay and compression delay.  It depends on whether you're watching a local station or a national network, in standard definition or HD, from an antenna or from cable or from a satellite dish.  On the radio side, it also makes a difference how the signal is being transmitted back to the station.  And some broadcasters might intentionally delay the signal to edit out profanities.

A few gadgets have been invented to solve the problem.  DelayPlayRadio, SportSync Radio, and Radio Shark all claim to delay a radio broadcast to match what you're seeing on TV.  But what if the sync is off in the other direction and it's the video that needs to be delayed, maybe for many seconds, as it would be if you were listening to streaming audio from the Internet?

A simple modification to a DVR (digital video recorder) or TiVo could solve all the problems.  Am I the first to think of this?  Just add to the DVR an audio jack to accept an input from the radio, and a new operational mode:  a “simulcast” mode in which the DVR substitutes the radio audio for the regular TV audio.

These are only simulated buttons, silly!

You watch the “simulcast” live, but the DVR is prepared to record either the audio or the video and replay it moments later.  For each press of the first button, the DVR will delay the sound by, say, half a second.  If you go too far, pressing the other button will reduce the audio delay by half a second each time, until the delay reaches zero, at which point it will start delaying the picture by half a second each time.

A little trial and error will enable fathers-in-law to synchronize the audio and video, and their sons-in-law will be happy again  

update from 2018 

Here in Pittsburgh, the radio stations usually delay their audio by almost half a minute, so I use my DVR to delay the video to match.  It's not as easy as repeatedly pressing DELAY PICTURE, but I can eventually get the feeds synched by trial and error.

On the other hand, if the radio audio were actually ahead of the video, I guess I could run the audio through my computer and use software to adjust a variable delay.  That's not a particularly simple solution, either. 



I had already watched episode 16 of the eleventh season of The Big Bang Theory, and I didn't notice anything strange.  Then when the show aired a second time on August 9, I happened to DVR it.

Upon playing back the recording, I immediately did notice an anomaly.  The actors were mouthing their lines silently!

Nevertheless, the audience was laughing at the appropriate moments.  I felt like I was in a silent-movie theater.

The frequent chuckles clearly had not been recorded at the same time as the actors' lines.  It became obvious how few of the show's giggles actually emanate from a live studio audience.

A minute later, the picture blinked and now it was possible to hear the dialogue.  Seven minutes into the show, there was another blink followed by another dialogue outage, only 20 seconds this time.

During these outages, I heard only an “effects track” consisting of the fake canned laughter and the whooshes between scenes.  (Part of the time I could also hear the dialogue very faintly.)  Why does an effects track exist?  It comes in handy for dubbing, when the dialogue is replaced with another language.

One possible explanation:  CBS was playing video and audio from an improperly configured server that was providing the wrong audio output.  Discovering their error, after a minute they switched to a backup server.

Another less likely explanation:  Because Pittsburgh's CBS affiliate KDKA was airing a Steelers preseason game, The Big Bang Theory on August 9 was actually being broadcast on WPCW, which normally is a CW affiliate.  (This will also be the situation on August 16 and 30.)  Maybe the guys in the WPCW control room patched in the CBS feed incorrectly.

But this particular mistake would be impossible unless CBS was transmitting at least two audio streams, the correct one and the effects track.  And why would they be sending the effects track at all?

Unless...  maybe someone somewhere objected to the artificial laughter and requested it to be transmitted on a separate channel.  Then, if they reversed the phase of the effects track and added it to the normal track, the laughs would be canceled out and the show would sound as clean as Young Sheldon.


AUGUST 14, 2008 flashback   SCANDAL?   

Eleven years ago tonight, I was in Baltimore, working on a national telecast.  Fox Sports Net's "Baseball Thursday" was featuring the Seattle Mariners at the Baltimore Orioles.

It had been nearly two years since Orioles infielder Cal Ripken, Jr., had broken Lou Gehrig's major league record for consecutive games played.  Ripken was still adding to his streak, which would continue for more than another year and eventually reach 2,632 straight games.

On that night, August 14, 1997, we went on the air as scheduled, but the game did not start as scheduled.  Some of the lights at Camden Yards were not working.  The electricians tinkered with this and with that, fixing part of the problem temporarily, but then the lights went out again.  Finally, after more than two hours, the people in charge gave up.  The game was postponed, to be played as part of a doubleheader the next day.  FSN did not have a "Baseball Friday" package, so our involvement was over, and I returned home.

Somewhat later, I began to hear rumors:  the electrical failure might have been deliberate.  Allegedly, Ripken had been involved in a domestic dispute, and the repercussions would have kept him out of that night's game and ended his streak on an embarrassing note — if the game had been played.  Orioles management put Ripken's name on the lineup card as usual, but, according to these rumors, they quietly made sure that the game would never start.

But there was no such domestic dispute and no such conspiracy to cover it up, according to Snopes.com.  So there.



Many an American wants to drive a big truck.  Sitting up high, he feels empowered.  He can look out over all those lesser vehicles and get a good view of the road ahead.  But he can't see all the road!  He mustn't neglect his immediate surroundings.

When I came out of the grocery store one day last month, I noticed that a Ram 1500 had parked next to my midsize Subaru, as in the illustrations on the right.  But he was getting ready to leave.

Then I heard a crunch.

The driver hadn't even noticed my insignificant little sedan.  All his windows were higher than my roof.  When he pulled out with a carelessly wide right turn, his running board dented my fender and ripped off part of my bumper, including the fog light.

He heard the crunch, too, so he stopped and got out to survey the damage.  He was apologetic, and we exchanged information.


When I got home, I contacted my insurance company, Liberty Mutual, and they connected me to the other driver's insurance company, Geico.

Geico very efficiently made arrangements for me to have my car repaired.  Coincidentally, they sent me to the body shop owned by the dealership where I had bought the car.

I've added a gecko to the photo below.  The company spokeslizard wasn't actually there to greet me, but I did find a Geico desk inside.

There was also an Enterprise desk, where I rented a temporary replacement vehicle.

The bill came to over $1,700, including $329 for the rental and $1,395 for the repairs.  All of it was covered by the other driver's insurance.

For four days plus a weekend, I drove a rented Kia Soul.  Despite the fact that this subcompact weighs 15% less than my Subaru and costs considerably less, it has a quiet cabin and is surprisingly pleasant to drive. 

The Kia is also better adapted for parking lots.  First, the steering is much lighter.  (When I got my repaired car back, I had forgotten how firmly I had to grip the steering wheel, and my hand slipped right off the rim at one point.)  Also, it's two feet shorter than the Subaru.  But most importantly, it's four inches taller — and therefore less likely to be overlooked by anybody parked alongside.



Today is the 175th birthday of Robert G. Ingersoll, the celebrated 19th-century orator.  In observance of Ingersoll Day, here's an excerpt from his "God in the Constitution," comparing the benefits of theology and science.

When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few.  To nearly all the children of men, reading and writing were unknown arts.  The poor were clad in rags and skins — they devoured crusts, and gnawed bones.

The day of Science dawned, and the luxuries of a century ago are the necessities of to-day.  Men in the middle ranks of life have more of the conveniences and elegancies than the princes and kings of the theological times.

But above and over all this, is the development of mind.  There is more of value in the brain of an average man of today — of a master-mechanic, of a chemist, of a naturalist, of an inventor — than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago.

These blessings did not fall from the skies.

These benefits did not drop from the outstretched hands of priests.  They were not found in cathedrals or behind altars — neither were they searched for with holy candles.

They were not discovered by the closed eyes of prayer, nor did they come in answer to superstitious supplication.

They are the children of freedom:  the gifts of reason, observation and experience.

And for them all, man is indebted to man.



I watch news and sports live, and I channel-surf.  But often I doze off in front of the television, so I set the DVR to record any prime-time programs I don't want to miss.  If I can stay awake, I'll watch some as they air; the rest, when I get around to it.  (Late-night political talk is better the next morning, anyway, when the resulting angst won't disturb sleep.)

Last week, according to my planning grid, I recorded 23 such shows.  They came from 14 different channels and totaled 14 hours.

Who needs the other 220 channels?


AUGUST 6, 2008 flashback   LET THE SUN SHINE;

The bit of wordplay in the title is, I think, the work of Galt MacDermot, who composed the music for the groundbreaking hippie rock musical Hair.  He took the line "Let the sunshine in" and broke it up thusly:

Let the Sun Shine!
Let the Sunshine In,
The Sun shine In!

In 1970, one of my fellow students in graduate school was Su Morris, who said she had performed in a production of Hair.  Its original staging on Broadway was then in the middle of its four-year run.  Su did look the type; she was a redhead with "long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming."  But she was rather shy.  I didn't ask whether the famous nude scene was included in her production.

(Of the Broadway show, Groucho Marx said, "I was going to go buy a ticket, but I went back to my hotel room, took off my clothes, looked at myself in the mirror and saved eight dollars.")

This year marks the musical's 40th anniversary, and it's being revived.  The official opening is tomorrow night at the open-air Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.

A Playbill article includes this sentence:  "Originally born in 1967 under the auspices of Joseph Papp at the Public Theater (then known as the New York Shakespeare Festival), Hair was substantially reconceived by its creators for its 1968 Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre."

The Biltmore Theatre?  Where have I heard that name before?  I know!  It was in one of my own articles, one that I updated just last month.

Ten years before Hair, the Biltmore Theatre — then known as CBS Television Studio No. 62 — was the very place where I attended the telecast of the short-lived game show Dotto.

Built in 1925, the Biltmore was leased by CBS from 1952 to 1961 before going back to being a 900-seat Broadway theater.  Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park ran here from 1963 to 1967, and Hair opened on April 29, 1968.

I just keep on learning more and more peripheral trivia about that one experience I had 50 years ago.  Give me another half a century, and I'll be a real expert.



Back in 1988, NBC flew me and more than a thousand others to South Korea, from whence we telecast the Seoul Olympics.

I also traveled to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, where I worked not for NBC but for the international feed.  NBC was able to send a somewhat smaller crew to the site this time because Georgia is part of the U.S., which meant they could easily transmit multiple video streams to New York.  There the “remote” feed from Atlanta could be “integrated” with graphics and replays and other elements from NBC's existing production facilities at 30 Rock.

It's called REMote Integration.  REMI (but not this kid) has slowly found its way into routine TV sports production over the past two decades.

Two years ago I noted that ESPN was saving money by using it for some college basketball telecasts.  Graphics operators like me are traveling to fewer remote locations.

A week ago today, another operator, Linda P, tweeted from her Tennessee home where she was watching NBCSN.  I've added a couple of images.


In my den, watching the first NASCAR Xfinity Racing "REMI" race where 80% of the TV crew is not on location in Iowa.

Of course I'm not doing the race at all ... cuz why would you want your main standalone race operator to do your first-ever?

It's definitely the end of an era.



In August of 1968, I visited Massachusetts and Kentucky and a Cleveland Orchestra concert, and I checked in on the WOBC-FM engineering department.  Meanwhile my lab partner joined the Methodist Church.  But our summer vacation was drawing to a close, and our senior year in college would soon begin.

Click here for the latest installment recalling my life 50 years ago.



JULY 29, 2018    FOUR MEN IN A TUB

When spring rains pour down or hurricanes come ashore, people must be saved from the rising floods.  Their rescue may require the use of watercraft.

I've rewritten an ancient tale of a boat like the one in the carving on the right.

During a particularly destructive flood, this boat stayed afloat for two whole weeks.  Four men were saved, along with their wives and their crates of livestock.

Afterwards their leader told a fish story, claiming that they had drifted out there on the water not for two weeks but for twenty.


In my narrative he repeats this tale to his grandson, with grandiose embellishments.  But there's a happy ending:  A Promise in the Clouds


JULY 26, 2008 flashback   DELAYED OBJECTIONS  

I don't often take offense at things people say.  But two comments from the past have always bothered me, and now is as good a day as any to grumble about them.

• On August 11, 1984, before recording a radio program during his reelection campaign, President Ronald Reagan tested the microphone by intoning:  "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.  We begin bombing in five minutes."

He was obviously playing around.  Perhaps he was poking fun at his own image (opponents had accused him of being a reckless cowboy).  And outsiders weren't supposed to hear what he said.  But it did leak out, and some voters were unnerved.  According to PBS, Reagan lost seven points of his lead in the polls over challenger Walter Mondale.

Jokes are fine, but no sitting president should have made this joke.  For one thing, it's very bad diplomacy for our head of state to threaten, even in jest, to blow away another nation.  Worse than that, the one person we least want to talk lightheartedly about starting World War III and destroying the world is the person who has the authority to do that, the man who has his finger on the nuclear button.  Careless thoughts should never even enter the mind of a leader who takes such an awesome responsibility seriously.

• On September 17, 2001, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Dan Rather appeared on the David Letterman show.  This was six days after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.  The question was how America should respond, and no one seemed to have a clear answer.  Rather deferred to "my commander in chief," President George W. Bush.  He said, "George Bush is the president.  He makes the decisions, and ... wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where, and he'll make the call."

If Rather were in the military, the President would indeed be his commander in chief, and orders passed down the chain of command would have to be obeyed.  But a newsman has a different job.  In fact, his position should be completely the opposite.  It's a journalist's responsibility not to blindly accept government declarations but to bring them into the light, raising questions, exploring alternative possibilities, so that the people can decide.  As a private citizen, you can choose to fall into line with whatever the President or the governor or the mayor tells you, especially if you happen to be of the same political party.  But a journalist must not take government handouts from either party at face value.  A journalist must be ready to ask the hard questions.



While driving up and down hills on my way to Penn State, I extrapolated the experience into an imagined disaster which I described in this month's little 100 Moons article.  (The title refers to a myth.)


JULY 20, 2018    “MY” TRUSTEES

The Board of Trustees at Oberlin College includes alumni representatives.  This month, we learned the two winners of four-year terms in our 2018 Alumni Trustee Election.  As candidates, each of them received my vote.

One is Francisco X. Dominguez of the class of 1989, a judge in El Paso.  In applying for the position, he wrote in part:

I was first attracted to Oberlin by its rich intellectual legacy.  As a kid from the U.S.-Mexico border who had extremely limited knowledge about liberal arts colleges, Oberlin stood out from the other schools.  Its commitment to diversity and social change was more than hollow recruitment marketing.

After visiting the campus, I had more than an attraction — I had a purpose.  The visit revealed the passion that students have for life, for intellectual honesty, and for a better world.  I knew instantly that this was the place for me.

Oberlin is still relevant.  During a campus visit to Oberlin about a year ago, my daughter attended a well-organized student activity on the struggle of undocumented immigrants.

One of the important challenges this generation faces is the task of protecting immigrants.  While Oberlin has served as a refuge for people facing hate and discrimination throughout our history, its most important role has been to serve as an institution that educates and empowers students to become agents of change.

We must continue to lead in meaningful ways against the growing attack on human and civil rights in our nation.  Oberlin still nurtures the kind of leaders that espouse the values our world needs.

The other is Jay Whitacre of the class of 1989, a scientist in Pittsburgh.  He worked at Cal Tech's famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory until 2007, when he became a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.  He's currently the director of CMU's Energy Institute.

It's not surprising that he got my vote.  That's because, like him, I majored in physics at Oberlin and now live in the Pittsburgh area.  Here's some of what Dr. Whitacre wrote:


One of the few pieces of advice my father gave me was “get a good liberal arts education and it will be with you the rest of your life” — which, it turns out, is true.  I took this advice to heart.

My non-conformist tendencies, love of music (and desire to keep performing), and my desire to major in the sciences led me to shortlist Oberlin early in my college selection process.  Once I visited, I was sure that this was the place for me.  It felt like home.

Today, I focus on work that has a real- and near-term possibility of improving the quality of life for others.

A future that uses drastically less carbon-intensive fuels is necessary.  Renewable energy is a true passion — not only the technologies but also the policy hurdles and economic challenges that must be addressed before meaningful full-scale progress can be made.

The mentorship and guidance I received from an Oberlin physics professor, John Scofield, helped define my career.  I watched him work with a range of people from other disciplines and learned that thinking holistically — even considering economics and policy — matters greatly, even when conducting basic research. I came to see that there were many different ways to approach a problem.

Oberlin helped me come into my own, and so of course I'm eager to return the favor.  Most of the alumni pool (and the Board as well) have a background in the humanities, social sciences, or performing arts.  A smaller fraction of us hold degrees in the sciences.  A new member with this background increases board diversity while providing deeper support for issues and opportunities that involve the natural sciences.

I recently had a long car ride with someone with a very different political perspective than myself.  There were initial barriers based on “liberal” versus “conservative.”  I explained that, to me, “liberal” is not a set of static beliefs or political dogma but is rather a state of mind that values openness to all possible aspects of a topic.  Most issues are nuanced/not absolute, and common ground can often be found.  We started by agreeing on some basic facts; this helped greatly, and we ended up realizing we agreed on much more than one would have imagined.

The core values Oberlin has perpetuated are deeply needed in today's culture.  The one value that stands out is the concept that things can be different depending on from what perspective they are viewed.  Before judging/acting on anything, one must seek out multiple angles to understand how someone else may be feeling.

Professor Whitacre tells me that while writing the previous paragraph, he was thinking of this stela, seen here from two different angles.  It was erected on campus during his commencement weekend in 1994, and “it's stayed with me all my adult life.”

John Frederick Oberlin, the pastor for whom the college was named, used a similar fanfold picture for counseling.  His message was that people with diverse perspectives can nevertheless live in friendship with one another.