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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website

NOV. 20, 2019    CAN YOU STILL HEAR ME?

Mobile phones have a speaker near the top and a microphone on the bottom, so they can be held like a traditional telephone receiver.  But what's the deal with the guy on the right?

Josh Fruhlinger tweets, “I see people out in public who are sort of talking into the bottom of their phones but holding the top away from themselves, and the volume of the person on the other end is playing full blast, and I always wonder: why?  Who does this?”

He retweets a description of an overheard Presidential phone call.  “Holmes says he heard Trump ask Sondland, ‘So, he's gonna do the investigation?’  Sondland wasn't on speakerphone, but held the phone out because it was so loud.”  So maybe you move the phone away from you lest its excessive volume blow out your ear.

Another possible explanation:  If you want to see the screen, it can't be plastered up against your cheek.  You have to reposition it in front of your eyes.

Even the keypads of some old-timey phones presented a similar difficulty.

 

NOV. 18, 2019    LOW-TECH SOLUTION FAILS

NASCAR teams can regulate the temperature of their engines by controlling how much air comes in through the grille.

During yesterday's championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the track cooled off after sundown.

Denny Hamlin's team reduced the airflow by sticking small pieces of tape over the grille.

But that wasn't enough, so they slapped on a big ol' foot-long chunk.

 
The predictable result:  a geyser of steam.  Hamlin's emergency pit stop dropped him from third to 19th.

My question:  why is tape the preferred airflow-modulating method?  Couldn't there be adjustable louvers controlled by the driver?

 

NOV. 16, 2019    MASCOT TALK

Thomas Jefferson admired “yeomen,” the small landowners who worked individual farms to feed their families.  He considered them ideal American citizens.

When I was a college student, I broadcast the feats of a different sort of “Yeomen.” Oberlin's athletes were known as “ye O men.”

Recently a costumed student has begun appearing at games to inspire the Yeomen and Yeowomen.  Does this new mascot strike fear into the hearts of Oberlin's opponents?  Does it depict a Jeffersonian farmer with a spade?  No, that would be silly.

Instead, Obies have chosen a rodent with a striking genetic abnormality.

I tell the story in a new article, Respect the Crimson Eye.

 

NOV. 15, 2019    AN OUT-OF-SEASON BLIZZARD

While watching Steelers-Browns last night, I put Pittsburgh's local CBS and NBC affiliates on my auxiliary TVs.  Both stations devoted the entire last half of their 11:00 PM newscasts to winter weather!  Archived scenes of sliding cars and snowplows; interviews about school-closing and runway-clearing procedures; predictions of monthly snow totals; “freezing rain” vs “sleet.”  Possible reasons for this highly unusual programming?

• Newscasts normally end with sports coverage, but the Steelers game couldn't be recapped before its conclusion at 11:40.

• We had a little snow earlier in the week, leading to the usual panic.  Gotta get bread and milk!

 
NOV. 13, 2019    THE IMPORTANCE OF TELEVISION NEWS

Fifty years ago tonight, Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke to a group of Iowa Republicans.

President Richard Nixon's administration, not yet 10 months in office, was fuming at the lack of deference they were receiving from the media — particularly broadcast media, especially following a recent Presidential address.  Agnew had been dispatched to launch a counterattack.

Because he was representing the executive branch of the Federal government, newsmen felt threatened.  His criticisms caused quite a kerfuffle in the broadcast community.  This included my Syracuse University graduate class in Television and Radio, which met the very next day.

I revisit the incident in a new article titled This Little Group of Men, which was Agnew's description of TV news executives and commentators.

 

 

NOV. 11, 2009 flashback   THE MONSTER OF THE ALLEGHENY

Sunday was a nice day in Pittsburgh, so I drove to the North Shore and took a walk to see some sights.

A helicopter was hovering over the Allegheny River, filming a River Rescue boat for a scene in the new Russell Crowe movie, The Next Three Days.  Replicas of the Niña and the Pinta, two ships from the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, were tied up outside Jerome Bettis' Grille 36, where I ate lunch.  A few hundred yards downstream, the new Rivers Casino was open.  And in between, a pier from the 1915 Manchester Bridge once again has a purpose.

 

For nearly four decades, since the structure was replaced by the Fort Duquesne Bridge and demolished in 1970, this abandoned stone eyesore loomed over the riverbank.  But now workers have cleaned it up and cut an archway through it.

As shown in the artist’s rendering below, it frames a new statue honoring the late host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers is depicted twice as large as life.  He’s sitting down and tying his shoe, as he did to open each episode of the long-running children’s program he produced at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh.

Approaching the memorial from the direction of Heinz Field, as depicted in the drawing, I saw only the back of the figure.

Unfortunately, the sculptor was Robert Berks.  He prefers a very rough texture, as on his memorials to Albert Einstein and the late Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri.  From the rear, this statue looks like a giant hairy gorilla, slumped on a stump, brooding over the river.

In front of the figure, I could recognize Mr. Rogers’ smiling face, sort of.  But his huge teeth are enough to frighten little kids.

The statue “doesn’t resemble him at all,” according to the director of the nearby Warhol Museum.  “It doesn’t look beckoning and warm.”

And Jimmy Kimmel told his TV audience the statue “made the nicest man in the world look like a mud monster.”

 

NOV. 8, 2019    “CASUAL FRIDAY”?  WHAT'S THAT?

For about the first 15 years of my career, beginning in 1970, I dressed like a proper professional.  I wore a jacket and tie to the office.

But then my workplace began to change.  I was less often in an office or studio.  More often I was working inside a truck, a TV mobile unit where most folks dressed in “work clothes.”

The final break came when my salaried position went away with a 1987 corporate bankruptcy.  Now a freelancer, I never again had to wear a necktie.  (Exception: when traveling on a sports team's plane, ties are generally required for everyone.  We can't have star athletes looking like slobs.)

For more than three decades now, I've dressed casually.  I can't imagine what Eric D. Snider has been going through this week.

I've never met Eric in person, but I've been following him since 2001.  Back then I was preparing to spend a month in Salt Lake City televising the Winter Olympics.  I had visited there only once, in 1959, and I wondered what it was like now.

I searched online for a local newspaper columnist, and I found the Provo Daily Herald and its humorous “Snide Remarks,” written by Mr. Snider.  He was a Brigham Young University graduate whose accomplishments included a song parody celebrating the 1847 migration to Utah.

I kept on reading Eric, even after the Olympics were over.  By 2005 he had become a freelance movie critic, and he relocated to the considerably more liberal Portland, Oregon.  There he partnered with Jeff Bayer for an amusing weekly podcast (left).  I think I've listened to all 462 episodes, and their friendly voices have become quite familiar.

Eric thought he'd never want to move back to Utah, and “every time I visited I was reminded of why I was glad I no longer lived there.” 

However, about four years ago, he began to miss his relatives and Utah friends more than before.  He loved “extreme uncling,” as in this photo.

Because freelancing could be done from “anywhere that had movies and the internet, and these had both recently come to Utah,” he moved back to Provo in early September.  Through the magic of the internet, he and Jeff continued to record their podcast every other week.

“A few days after I arrived,” he writes, “an old friend reminded me about a full-time writing job that had been posted two weeks earlier. It was the last day applications were being accepted, so I quickly slapped together a résumé and cover letter and applied.” 

Guess what:  he got the job!  “It's a full-time salary with benefits, such as a grown-up would have.”

He started this past Monday, writing content for the Mormon Church — whoops, now they want to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — at the CoJCoLDS headquarters in downtown Salt Lake.

Compared to freelance income, his pay will be significantly greater and more predictable.  However, it is an office job that requires a suit and tie.  He had to acquire a second suit.  And a third one as well.

He now needs to get up much earlier than your typical movie critic in order to catch the 6:48 a.m. FrontRunner.  His cat, Dogcat, has to stay home, sadly meowing the Sheena Easton song.  Eric asked his Twitter friends about toys for lonely felines.  Is there a laser pointer that doesn't require a human to point it?

 

“My baby takes the morning train,
He works from nine till five, and then
He takes another home again
To find me waitin' for him.”

Eric, sporting his three different suits, tweeted these selfies from his first three commutes.  “I have immediately identified a problem with wearing a suit on a train,” he reports.  “People think you're trustworthy and aren't afraid to sit next to you.”

Monday:  On my way to new employee orientation. Boy will they be surprised when they find out mine!


Tuesday:  Missed my train.


Wednesday:  After work.

Personally, I don't think I could go back to wearing a suit from nine till five.   But Eric seems happy to do so, and after hours he still gets to watch movies and play with his niecephews.

 

NOV. 5, 2019    CUTTING REMARKS

My mother did most of the cooking in our family.  We used to have a big old “butcher knife” that once belonged to my mother's aunt Lizzie Buckingham, who died in 1932.  She had carved LB into the wooden handle.  But I never learned to wield it properly.

When I moved away from home in 1974, my parents set me up with a set of steak knives.  They could be used for paring, but their lightweight 4½” blades limited their potential, and I never became skilled at slicing.  However, a couple of years ago in a store, I noticed a nice hefty 6” chef's knife with a manly red handle.  That's what you need, I told myself!

And across the aisle I saw a German gadget, a V-Prep by Swissmar, that promised to “achieve the perfect slice ... every time.”  It's called a mandoline. 

(That was a new word to me.  My computer insists on auto-correcting it into a musical instrument.)


These are stock photos.   I don't use my mandoline to slice tomatoes.  My father loved tomatoes, especially the vine-ripened kind that he picked fresh in our back yard, but for some reason I never cared for the taste.  If tomato slices came with my meal, I used to give them to my father.

I do like to add a slice of onion to a sandwich.  So now I occasionally buy an onion.  I cut it in two with the chef's knife and place one half, flat side down, on the mandoline's ramp.  The ramp includes a crosswise blade a little above the surface, and sliding the onion down the surface strips off a nice slice each time.

I used to wrap the remaining half in plastic film to keep the air away from the cut face.  Then I realized I could just place it face-down on a 6” glass pie plate until I next crave a slice — two or three days later.

(I don't spend a lot of time in the kitchen.)

 

NOV. 2, 2019    LOOK QUICK

I saw a groundbreaking student film project when it aired on CBS-TV in 1968.  Dan McLaughlin at UCLA had used a technique now called kinestasis.  Three thousand works of art flashed on the screen very briefly, accompanied by instrumental music that became a hit record on its own. 

Film is projected at 24 frames per second.  During each second McLaughlin showed us a dozen artworks, each of them for a mere two frames.

Television, however, runs at 30 frames per second.  Therefore only half of the artworks appeared for two TV frames ( for example, RR) and the other half for three TV frames (for example, SSS).

 

Twenty years later, I recalled the 1968 project when I learned about the latest thing, digital television.  HDTV broadcasts won't fit into the old analog bandwidth without some kind of video compression.  I wondered whether the MPEG compression algorithm would be able to handle rapid changes like “3000 Years of Art.”  If I understood it correctly, one second of MPEG typically includes only five full-definition “I-frames,” not 30.

As explained here, the intervening P-frames and B-frames are reconstructed from their neighboring I-frames.  This is accomplished by predicting the motion of objects within the frame.

This algorithm couldn't handle kinestasis, I reasoned.  Every second or third frame of the 1968 video (those marked with dots in the first diagram above) was completely different from its predecessor, so it would have to be encoded as an I-frame.  Each second would require twelve I-frames (one for each artwork), not just five.  To sufficiently compress the data, additional tricks would be required, such as reducing the resolution.

  

In the early days of HDTV on my cable TV system, I did notice pixilation (like this extreme example) on live-to-tape programs like Jay Leno's Tonight Show.   Immediately after a camera cut, the new angle was blocky for a fraction of a second until the next I-frame came along, at which point it seemed to snap into focus.

But I guess the engineers have now figured out better methods.  The opening title for The Big Bang Theory shuffled through 120 images at an accelerating pace.  Even in hi-def, CBS-TV did not explode.

 

TBT


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