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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website

Oberlin's Class of 1969 50th Reunion Website is now online!  If you're a member of our class, click the image on the left to go to the site, then click on “Join Here.”  We'll be adding much more information between now and May 24, 2019, and your input is welcome too!


OCT. 16, 2018    MOONSTRUCK

It's late in the afternoon.  A youngster hears honking overhead.  He looks to the southern sky and spots a goose, flying at an altitude of maybe 500 feet.  He also sees a first-quarter moon, and to his horror, the bird flies very close to it.

“Look out!” he cries, throwing up his hand, but the goose can't hear him.  Both the bird and the moon are far above.  They both appear about the size of his thumbnail.

He asks his grandfather about it, as in this “Pluggers” cartoon from June 9.  Are heavenly bodies really a hazard to migrating wildlife?

That's a naïve worry, of course.  The youngster has not yet read a science book, so he's still a flat-earther.

His common sense tells him the earth is level like a floor.  His common sense also tells him the sky above is a flattened dome.  This dome, or “firmament,” seems to be  about 500 feet over our heads.  Both the goose and the moon are up there on the ceiling (G).

When the goose flies to the western horizon (H), which is miles away, it will appear much smaller to us.  We naturally assume that by midnight, when the setting moon also reaches the horizon, it too will appear much smaller.

But our surprise, it still looks as big as our thumbnail!  Has someone blown up the moon?  It's no longer goose-size; it's now skyscraper-size!

The illusion is discussed in great detail by John Roderick and Jeopardy's Ken Jennings in this edition of their podcast.  (They also mention the belief that a full moon brings out the crazies.  I offered an explanation for that idea here.)

As educated people know, the earth is not flat.  The sky is not a flattened dome.  The moon is not on the ceiling, merely 500 feet up there.  It's much, much higher — 1.3 billion feet away!

And six hours later, when the rotation of the earth has apparently moved the moon from overhead X to horizon Y, it's still about the same distance from us.  It remains thumbnail-sized.

Our astonishment that it still appears so large leads to the sense that it must have grown.


OCT. 13, 2008 flashback   WE'RE NUMBER ONE

I remember attending some event in the 1950s in the basement of our church.  The speaker gave thanks for how blessed we were to be living in America, the greatest nation on Earth.  The audience applauded.

As I was just a humble young boy, this was the first time I had heard that concept expressed.  Life in the United States is certainly good, at least for most of us.  But on the planet there are more than a hundred nations, each with its own national customs and virtues.  The speaker was saying that this nation, the one where we happen to have been born, is the best of them all.

That might be true, I thought.  But surely it's a claim that could be debated.  In the meantime, it seems immodest for us as Christians, and impolitic for us as citizens of the world, to assert superiority over all other peoples and to look down upon our inferiors.

Moreover, if we're already #1, what incentive is there for us to improve?

However, since then I've learned not to object to the smug patriotic conceit that we're better than everyone else.  After all, if you doubt that America is the best, you hate America.

And statistics show that the U.S. is in fact the leader in a number of categories.  These include military might, carbon emissions, and divorce rate.  Among developed nations, the United States has the most preventable deaths per capita and the most prisoners per capita.  We couldn't be better.

Not only that, but our national debt topped $10 trillion last week.  In New York's Times Square, the National Debt Clock had to be reworked to squeeze in another digit.

Associated Press writer Marcus Franklin found a visiting couple from Switzerland, pilot Svet Stauber and his doctor wife Roberta, snapping a picture of the sign that had run out of space.

Svet said, “It's symbolic.  It's a very big symbol.  It's a complete failure of the system.  It's the most powerful country in the world with a conservative government for the last eight years, and it's running the biggest debt ever.”

Roberta hoped that the country's current predicament would deflate its “ego” and “arrogance.”  She said, “You think you are the best country in the world.  I hope America reflects about this.”

update — ten years later, another $11 trillion

At 8:00 EDT this morning (Oct. 13, 2018), the Debt Clock passed $21,624,600,636,281.
The smaller number on the sign, your share as a taxpayer, is now $177,284.


OCT. 11, 2018    FOR P.O.G., READ 3# AND PRESS FONT 3

I operated the Duet graphics machine for high school football telecasts from 2008 through 2016 on the regional channel once called Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh, later called Root Sports, and now called AT&T SportsNet.

Usually this job is truly a “duet,” with a Graphics Coordinator telling the operator what to do.  However, for these lower-budget shows I had to be my own coordinator.  Therefore I had to be organized.  Using mnemonic systems and abbreviations and other tricks, I managed to get all the important numbers I’d need during the game onto a single sheet of paper (plus another sheet listing the rosters’ key players).

I last updated my charts two years ago.  You probably won’t be interested in the details, but lest all that work fade into the mists of time, I’ve posted it here under the title Football Duet for a Soloist  


OCT. 9, 2018    WHAT I LEARNED

In my last post I showed you many of my college classmates with whom I shared the previous weekend.  Now it's time for some details including innovative buildings, pronouns, a strange poem, and eight million dollars.  From the class after mine, I also talked with a former WOBC DJ whose old family friend had helped found the NAACP in 1910.

My new article's all about A Summit at The Hotel.



Last weekend I returned to Oberlin College to join eighty other alumni on campus.  We were there to prepare for an event to be held May 24 through 27, 2019:  the reunions of graduating classes from 10, 30, 45, 50, and 60 years before.  The Class of 1970 was also represented to get an early start on their 50-year reunion, even though it won't happen until 2020.

The 50th is the big one, of course.  The chart shows that nearly half the attendees at our “summit” were from 1969 and 1970.  We all got together for socializing and dinners, such as the one above in the Tappan Room of the Hotel at Oberlin.  But the individual classes, including my Class of 1969, also held breakout sessions to plan their particular activities.

Below are some photos.  The ones with the crimson borders should be credited to John Kramer; those with the gold borders, to George Spencer-Green.

Left to right in the first group are Mr. Kramer, Biz Glenn Harralson, Mr. Spencer-Green, and the Class of 1969 officers:  vice-president Carol McLaughlin Fishwick and president Wayne Alpern.

Our reunion committee got down to business, led by chairman Walt Galloway (here flanked by Mike Jarvis and Bill Truehaft).

Walt was very organized, and we accomplished a lot.

David Eisner

Bonnie Wishne

Chip Hauss

Tom Thomas

Bob Weiner

Les Leopold, Wayne Alpern

Bill Truehaft

Mike Jarvis

John Bowman

Mimi Lam

Christie Seltzer Fountain

Carol McLaughlin Fishwick, Bob Shay

Debby Horn Roosevelt

Various classmates volunteered to coordinate such events as a panel on liberal activism (Bob Weiner points out that the term nowadays is “resistance”), a service project, and another panel on the ways Oberlin has changed us.

But the weekend won't be all seriousness; it will also be a time for fun and reconnections.  Our plans include a talent show, a story-telling session, and the traditional men's and women's breakfasts.  We might even get together as early as Wednesday, May 22, 2019, to enjoy the attractions of the big city of Cleveland!

Then the Commencement/Reunion Weekend will find us all gathering at Oberlin.  Stay tuned for further details.



I'm watching old TV.  In a documentary about a 1958 plane crash, the control tower notes the time as “three-one.”  Then, near the end of the 1936 movie The Great Ziegfeld, an actress arranges a phone call for “after the second act; that's right, about ten-five.”

Have I been wrong?

All my life I've written times like these as “3:01” and “10:05,” with a colon acting like a decimal point and a zero holding the tens-of-minutes place.  And I've pronounced them “three-oh-one” and “ten-oh-five.”

Should I have been writing “3:1” and “10:5” instead?


OCT. 1, 2018    FALL FOLIAGE

Serious conversations and comical gift-giving were part of the scene in October 1968.  But there was also a soprano folk singer.  There were athletes protesting during the National Anthem.  And there was my football broadcast partner, who wouldn't stop talking.

Click here for the latest installment in the 14-month series recalling my life 50 years ago.



The Center for Inquiry sued the giant drug retailer CVS this summer, alleging consumer fraud for its marketing of useless medicines.

Harriet Hall reveals the manufacturing process:  “The liver is long gone but the quack is still evident.”  “Remedies must be vigorously shaken (not stirred).”

What's she describing?  James Bond's snake oil?  No, the same fake cures I wrote about in this month's 100 Moons Article, from ten years ago.

On the other hand, taking an ineffective pill can actually make us feel better — if we think it can.  If we have faith.  How can that be?  Well, 179 months ago I suggested a possible mechanism.


SEPT. 25, 2008 flashback   EIGHT DAYS A WEEK

I've started to schedule events for 2009.  That means it's time to invest in a new pocket calendar to keep track of them, lest I accidentally "double-book" myself by promising to show up to televise sporting events at two different venues on the same date.

Many people switched to electronic Personal Digital Assistants years ago, but I still prefer to jot down my appointments on actual paper.  For the past couple of decades, I've used the preprinted 70-035 weekly pocket planner from At-A-Glance®. 

I have only one small quibble with the 70-035.  Like most weekly planners, it divides the left and right pages into a total of only six equal boxes, as shown here in blue.  However, people are nearly unanimous in their opinion that a week consists not of six days but of seven.  Therefore, not every day gets its own box.  The weekend days of Saturday and Sunday have to share.

That's fine for most folks, whose appointments tend to fall into the normal Monday-to-Friday workweek.  But, of course, I'm not most folks.  The heaviest-booked single day of my week is Saturday, and this format allots less than half as much empty space to Saturday as to a weekday.

I've seen a few QuickNotes® planners divided into eight equal boxes:  Mon-Tue-Wed-Thu on the left page and Blank-Fri-Sat-Sun on the right.  That would work better for me, if I could find a wirebound unruled three-by-five-inch model.

Even more flexible would be the layout I've shown here in green.  I could choose to enter my Sunday appointments either in the upper left box (Sunday has been "the first day of the week" since Biblical times) or in the lower right box (nowadays the first day of the commercial week is Monday).  The box not used for Sunday would remain available for general notations, or even extra details about Saturday.

For now, however, I'll continue squeezing my Saturday notes into a little half-box or borrowing some space from Friday.  It's really an inconsequential complaint.



Well, the Pittsburgh Pirates have done it again.  For the third year in a row, they've failed to make the Major League Baseball playoffs, and for the third year in a row, their attendance has dropped.

The Pirates closed out their home season yesterday (except for a makeup game scheduled for October 1).  Through 80 home games, the total attendance has been 1,465,316.  The final number will be the lowest in PNC Park's 18-year history, more than a million less than the record 2,498,596 who came through the turnstiles in 2015.

I've plotted the game-by-game numbers, which were very irregular.

PNC Park seats 38,362 (blue line).  There were no sellouts, and only four times did the ballpark exceed 79% of capacity:  the return of popular former Pirate Andrew McCutchen on May 11, plus three straight Saturday dates beginning July 28.

On-field success helps.  The Pirates didn't have a winning record between June 6 and the All-Star break, but coming into that July 28 game they had been over .500 for a week and had managed to reach 54-51.  On that summer night, with the help of an Italian Fest promotion, 94% of the seats were filled.  The 35,900 fans watched the Bucs shut out the Mets and stayed for a post-game fireworks show.

The weather also makes a big difference.   In chilly April the average attendance had been only 11,905 (not counting the two games that opened the season), and September's average turned out to be 15,070.  Seven times during those months, the turnstile count failed to reach five figures.

And the opponent matters, too. Let's consider only the 38 home dates during the warm months of June, July, and August, when the visiting teams were evenly divided between five nearby National League rivals and five more distant opponents.  Against the first group, average attendance was 58% greater.


















Do Pirate fans prefer to see games against familiar opponents?  Perhaps, but maybe there's another explanation.  Maybe there are only 15,000 supporters of the home team, but when those neighbors come to town, nearly 10,000 of their fans travel in to support them.

That would mean 40% of those in the stands are wearing the opponent's colors.  Observation supports this hypothesis.  The picture below is from the 2015 Wild Card game, the last time that Pittsburgh hosted postseason action.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a ZIP code tabulation for 2017 showed that of those who bought Pirates tickets, only 65% were from Pennsylvania, while 12% came from neighboring Ohio and West Virginia and 23% were from farther away.

Spokesman Brian Warecki says the visitors like “coming into Pittsburgh, staying in our hotels and enjoying our beautiful ballpark.  ...We also offer a tremendous entertainment value ... a more affordable option for fans of visiting teams than they might be accustomed to in their home ballpark.” 

For me, this season's low point came on a Friday night, the sixth of July, when the Phillies brought 9,846 phanatics to join our 15,000 Pirates diehards.  I had the misfortune of being on the crew televising that game back to Philadelphia.  The home team lost for the 11th time in 15 games, this time by the lopsided score of 17-5.  Moreover, the pace was excruciatingly slow:  an average interval of 4¼ minutes between balls in play.  The game lasted four hours and 30 minutes, which equaled the record for the longest nine-inning game in the entire 143-year history of the National League!

Less than four weeks later, it seemed we might be on pace to shatter even that record.  The first pitch was at 7:06 PM, and by 8:48 we had completed only three innings.  At that rate, the ninth inning wouldn't end until 12:12 AM.  But then the pace picked up.  The game was over in 3½ hours, and we actually got to go home before midnight.



Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew struck the small South Carolina farming community of Nichols.  According to Mayor Lawson Battle, about 230 of the town's 261 homes were destroyed.

Nichols recovered, and about 150 homes were rebuilt.  But now those rebuilt homes have been wiped out by new flooding, as Hurricane Florence caused rivers to overflow again.

“I feel like I'm having a nightmare,” Randy Bryan told the Raleigh News & Observer for this article.

One neighbor just had finished building his new house. “Now, it's gone,” Bryant said.

Another neighbor, 79-year-old Robbie White, had spent two years rebuilding her home after Matthew. She was set to return later this month. But Wednesday, her home was filled again with flood water.

“It's just a shame because everybody was just now getting their place back together, you know, and now they're getting hit again,” [Frank] Oliver said. “This is way worse than any of us thought it was going to be. Hundred-year flood every two years, I mean, come on.”

Is this the new normal, as hurricanes become more intense due to global warming?

“Let's get it fixed,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster urged local residents.  He said the state is surveying all options to help rebuild the areas affected by the flooding.

But should residents rebuild?

Which would be less wasteful?  Keep on rebuilding every two years, or abandon the flood-prone site and rebuild once in a better location?

Should Nichols move to higher ground? 


SEPT. 21, 2008 flashback   TUÇSON

The University of Arizona is located in Tuson.  However, that's not how the city's name is spelled.  Local residents insist on adding a “c” next to the “s.”

Now this extraneous “c” does not affect the pronunciation.  Either it's silent or it's pronounced like another “s.”  Since the “c” is pointless, I can never remember whether it should come before or after the real “s.”  Is the city spelled Tucson or Tuscon?  Either way seems equally nonsensical.

Here's a mnemonic device:  Replace the soft “c” with a hard “k.”  Then ask yourself which is better, Tukson or Tuskon?

Would you rather see Jackie Chan with a Tux On or with a Tusk On?

Let's go with Option 1.