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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website

  Are you a member of the Oberlin College Class of 1969?
  Click the image at the left and then click on “Join Here.”
  You can reconnect with classmates and offer your own
  ideas for our 50th Reunion, coming up in May!

><>  You might be interested in some Oberlin articles recently posted here on my personal website:
><>  Our Reunion Planning Committee met last fall, and we learned a lot.
><>  An Olympic gold medalist was once our president; his cousin could have been everyone's president.
><>  Revisiting "My Favorite Year" concludes with recollections of December 1968.
><>  A stash of WOBC Program Guides recalls our campus radio station in the Sixties.
><>  More articles are still to come!

 


 

JAN. 15, 2019    LIVING ABOVE THE LINE

If I correctly understand the numbers from the World Data Lab, a person with an annual income of at least $40,000 is considered rich.  Below that, he's middle class — unless he has to survive on less than $4,000 a year.  Such a person is financially vulnerable, and a sixth of these vulnerable people are actually living in poverty.

The good news is that we're gradually overcoming poverty, and half of the world's people now earn more than $4,000.  Half of us are middle class or better!

In our especially fortunate nation, we assume the average American is a middle-class person.  But maybe he's even better off than that.  According to the Social Security Administration, the average worker earns $46,641 a year, as indicated by the blue bar next to this graph.  Does that make the average worker “rich”?

It does if he's like me:  single with no dependents.  (Another argument against children!)  He's also rich if he has a spouse who earns at least $33,359, so the two of them can split $80 grand.

Unfortunately, many of us have to share a single paycheck with multiple family members.  If that average worker supports an unemployed spouse and two kids, his $46,641 needs to be divided four ways.  His single-earner family of four people will each get $11,660 as their portion, which is indeed a middle-class income.

 

JAN. 12, 2019    TRANSISTOR ON A SHELF

Looking through unwanted old photos that I filed away long ago, I recently found an image of the first portable radio with which I listened to my college radio station.  Here it is!  Or 40% of it, anyway, on the lower shelf of a roll-around table in my freshman dorm room.

The bright line on the top is a telescoping FM antenna, folded down.  The radio sat atop an overexposed rectangle which I've retouched to reveal its true identity as a small stack of weekly WOBC Program Guides. 



I retouched another part of that photo as well, giving us a drone's-eye peek into the window of my room.  Those images have been added to this month's 100 Moons article.

 

JAN. 10, 2009 flashback   IT = IT

One day Moses was out shepherding his father-in-law's flock, and he saw a bush on fire, and he went over to investigate, and he found himself talking to God.  (Exodus 3:1-6)   Moses realized that people would never believe this story.  (4:1)   He asked God, “If they want to know which god I was talking to, what shall I say is your name?”  God cracked, “I am who I am.  Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  (3:13-14)

But in the next verse He got serious:  “Tell the Israelites that it is Yahweh — the God of their forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — who has sent you to them.  This is my name.  (3:15)   I am Yahweh [or Jehovah, or the LORD].  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as ‘God Almighty,’ but I did not let myself be known to them by my name, Yahweh.”  (6:2-3)

“I am who I am.”  That ancient riddle reminds me of the current sports cliché ... the 2005 and 2006 winner of the Trite Trophy and this year's first runner-up ... “the only two-time winner in the 25-year history of the Trite” ... ladies and gentlemen, the vacuous

It is what it is.

Gene Collier, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist who awards the trophy, says, “I'm beggin' ya people, what does this mean?”

It took some digging, but I finally came up with a translation.  I discovered that this apparent tautology does actually mean something, at least in the way it's generally used.  The cliché is generally used to imply

It is what it is, not what I'd prefer it to be.

Or, as Johnny Cash sang, “I don't like it, but I guess things happen that way.”

2019 update

In awarding the 35th annual Trite Trophy last month, Gene suggested that Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper may be responsible for “it is what it is.”  This would have been at Goldman Sachs in the mid-1980s.

“Am I the first one to say it?” Tepper asked.  “I don't know — the first one to say it was probably Popeye the Sailor Man, ‘I am what I am.’  You didn't hear it a lot on Wall Street before I said it.”

 

JAN. 8, 2009 flashback   AUTOMATION SPARES HARRIED CLERKS

Item in yesterday's newspaper:  CALLING IN JOBLESS CLAIM ISN'T EASY, STATE ADMITS.

Ron Daly knows the drill of applying for unemployment compensation benefits.  Mr. Daly said he's been trying for days to get through to the Department of Labor and Industry hot line for jobless claims, with no response but repeated busy signals.

The state doesn't take jobless claims in person anymore.  "Getting through on the phone has been a problem," said David Smith, a spokesman for the department.  "We've had an unusually high call volume."

Mr. Smith said the department was in the process of adding personnel to address the problem, which, he said, has not affected the state's Internet sign-up service.

Item in yesterday's newspaper:  SOCIAL SECURITY GOING ONLINE AS BOOM LOOMS IN APPLICATIONS.

The Social Security Administration, bracing for the coming eligibility of 80 million baby boomers, is introducing an online application that will allow people to apply for retirement benefits in as little as 15 minutes.  Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said, "We just don't have the infrastructure to handle that workload in the traditional fashion."

Those are just two more examples of how robotic applications, particularly on the Internet, can provide many services better — or at least cheaper — than humans.  Earlier examples include dial telephones (more efficient than human operators), voice mail (more efficient than answering services or those pink memos scribbled by receptionists), and ATMs (more efficient than human tellers).

For many products, shopping online has advantages to dealing with a human salesperson in an actual store.  You can still "kick the tires" online, because sometimes for books, the site lets you flip through the pages; for CDs, it lets you listen to snippets of the songs; for electronic gear, it lets you study the instruction manual.  The website is more knowledgeable than the average salesperson about the products and their specifications, shows you everything that's available whether in stock or not, and even allows you to consult with previous purchasers for recommendations or criticisms.

And my home library has been supplanted by Google.  So has the human librarian at her reference desk.  I used to keep a complete encyclopedia handy, along with a thesaurus and a dictionary of musical terms and the latest editions of World Almanac and Broadcasting Yearbook.  No more.  For almost all questions, online search engines lead me to the answers much faster.

Robots rule!

 

JAN. 6, 2019    ADDING PLANS TO THE GOSPEL

During this week's episode, the CBS comedy Young Sheldon depicted an in-home Bible study group.  Mary begins, “Now we're reading from Matthew 4.  Georgie, why don't you get us started on verse 17?”

After fumbling through pages, he reads, “From that time, Jesus began to preach and say Repent.”  So far, so good, except the verse actually continues, “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” followed by the story of disciples being recruited.  But as Georgie continues, he reads words Jesus didn't say.  He's reading words in brackets:  the commentary in Mrs. Frances Siewert's The Amplified Bible, first published in 1958 and endorsed by Billy Graham.  “Change your inner self, your old way of thinking.  Regret past sins; live your life in a way that proves repentance.  Seek God's purpose for your life!”  Georgie looks up from the book with a smile.  “Powerful stuff.  Can I get an Amen?”

“Inner self”?  “Way of thinking”?  That isn't Biblical language.  That's modern-day evangelical preaching!

And what's this about “God's purpose for your life”?  It may be comforting for you to imagine Almighty God up in Heaven checking his list of who's naughty and nice, thinking about you and what you've asked him for, and drawing up a detailed script for your future — you special little one, you.  But the real Bible doesn't tell each of us to expect an individualized divine plan meant just for us personally.  Instead, we're invited to join those who believe in God's universal Kingdom.

The Bible does claim that God has a plan, but not a separate scenario for everyone.  He strategizes on a much larger scale.

For example, in Jeremiah 29:10-11 the prophet tells his exiled nation not to worry; the Lord is going to bring all his people home — 70 years from now!  “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord.”

I have a problem with that TV episode in addition to its endorsement of the rewriting of Scripture.

Sheldon is teaching Missy about fractions.  For example, if you have a pie sliced into eight slices (denominator) and you remove two (numerator), that amounts to one fourth.

She asks if they could use a McDonald's “pie” instead, and he says yes.

I disagree!  Obviously, a rectangular pastry would be much less useful for demonstrating equal slicing.

I may be turning into a bit of a Sheldon Cooper myself.


 

JAN. 3, 2019    WELCOME TO DELAZON'S FORTNIGHTLY CLUB

Oberlin College, my future alma mater, had been in operation for only 19 months when a new student, Delazon Smith, arrived in the summer of 1835.

Delazon didn't make it to graduation.  A racist scandalized by Oberlin's “amalgamation” (integration of blacks with whites), outraged by enthusiastic welcomes for escaping fugitives, and disgusted by the faculty's religious hypocrisy, he was expelled less than two years later.  He didn't like the food, either.

Smith promptly published a gossipy exposé called Oberlin Unmasked.  His pamphlet is an interesting artifact of a long-gone era, including an account of how the Underground Railroad for fleeing slaves reached Oberlin in the autumn of 1836.

I've found it reproduced on the Internet.  However, it's quite wordy, so I've condensed it and edited it into ten manageable chapters.  I'll post one on this website fortnightly — i.e., every other Thursday — through May. 

My mother attended the “Fortnightly Club” when I was growing up.  These literary organizations had begun in the 19th century as a place for women to have an intellectual life even though they weren't allowed to attend college (except for Oberlin and a few others).  During the winter they met every two weeks to discuss a book.

The first meeting of our book club is today, as I unveil my Preface.

 

JAN. 1, 2009 flashback   HAPPY 1959!

New Year's revelry has never been the Thomas family's style.  My parents and I rang in 1959 in our usual low-key way, and I still observe the event in much the same way half a century later.

Back then on New Year's Eve, we stayed up late to watch Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, live from New York.  One year we had listened to this band on the radio, but now we had television and could see the dance floor at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel crowded with mostly middle-aged people in funny cardboard hats, bobbing around and grinning at the camera.  For them (and my father), Guy Lombardo had been a tradition for thirty years.  At midnight, Guy counted down the seconds while we watched the scene in Times Square.  My father called out “Happy New Year!”  Soon afterwards, we switched off the TV and went to bed.

New Year's Day began with the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.  Because my father was a General Motors dealer, in December we had received a copy of the official program for the parade, describing all the floats in order (including the GM entries) with a designer's sketch of each.  Following along in this booklet made our viewing of the parade on TV a more interactive experience, and we paid close attention.

All three networks telecast this photogenic tradition, and for the sixth year NBC had it in color.  Of course, like most of America, we were watching in black and white.  A few days later, one of my classmates mentioned that she had been somewhere where she saw part of the color telecast.  “Really?  Gee, I would have liked to have seen that.  Color TV!  What was it like?”  “Oh, it was okay, I guess.”

(Fifty years later, I watch in glorious HD.  Although CBS dropped the parade a couple of years ago, it's still televised by ABC and NBC, along with Univision and Travel Channel and others.  Last year, I particularly liked the coverage of local Los Angeles station KTLA — with Stephanie Edwards and Bob Eubanks, I believe — as carried on the HGTV cable channel.)

Back in 1959, the parade was followed by the bowl games.  Each had a traditional early-afternoon kickoff in its respective time zone.  First were the Orange Bowl on ABC, the Sugar Bowl on NBC, and the Cotton Bowl on CBS.  Those would be followed by “the granddaddy of them all” when NBC returned to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl later in the day.

Because we lived in Big Ten country, specifically Ohio State, we weren't particularly interested in the early matchups.  One of them was on the TV while we performed the ritual of taking down the Christmas tree, carefully packing away all the ornaments and lights before dragging the bare tree (still trailing a little bit of tinsel) out the front door for a proper disposal.  Mother vacuumed any remaining pine needles from the carpet, and the holidays were over for another year.

Except, of course, for the Rose Bowl.  This would be the final football game of the season, as the NFL had decided its championship four days earlier with the Colts defeating the Giants in overtime in “the greatest game ever played.”  As evening darkness fell in Ohio, we turned our attention once again to the TV where, in sunny California, the Cal band performed (right) and the Iowa Hawkeyes took the field.  And we dreamed that maybe someday we'd be able to see the Rose Bowl in color.

 

DEC. 31, 2008 flashback   NOT ENOUGH HOURS IN THE DAY

A "day" is one rotation of the Earth.  But that's not precise enough for atomic clocks that track Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).  For them, a "day" is 794,243,384,928,000 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom.

However, there's a problem:  The Earth takes just a bit longer than this to rotate, the amount varying with global weather conditions and the like.  So every few years, a "leap second" has to be added to UTC to keep it from getting too far ahead of the slowing planet.

One of those seconds will be added tonight, between 11:59:59 pm and midnight.  But don't expect to see the lighted ball in Times Square pause just before completing its descent.  The leap second will have already been added five hours before, at midnight UTC = midnight in London = 7:00 pm in New York.

Back in April, someone named “ShaunL” posted a note on the Internet suggesting that we could get more accomplished if there were 926,617,282,461,000 periods between one midnight and the next.

Maybe we should slow down the rotation of the Earth, giving us 28-hour days. We just need to get everyone in the world to grab something solid and all yank to the left at the same time.

And someone named “Robin” replied:

When I was little, I knew a computer programmer at my dad's work who operated on a week of six 28-hour days instead of seven 24-hour ones. His week synchronized with other people's at midnight on Friday, so he was roughly in phase with other people for weekend socializing but had the office to himself on his (four) weekdays.

I've toyed with concepts like this myself.  Flying across the Pacific Ocean in 1988, I tried to minimize the effects of jet lag by briefly putting myself on a 32-hour day.

Therefore, I had to check out Robin's dad's colleague's schedule.  How does it mesh with the schedule that we ordinary 24-hour people use?

Let's refer to ourselves as Sols, and let's call the 28-hour guy the Programmer.  Let's use "military time" in which 00:00 means midnight, the start of a new day.  For Sols, one minute before midnight is 23:59.  For the Programmer, it's 27:59.

Everybody gets Saturday and Sunday off, denoted by a tan background in the charts below.  Let's assume the other days are divided like this:

SOLS

PROGRAMMER

Sleep starting at midnight

8 hours, 00:00 to 07:59

8 hours, 00:00 to 07:59

Arise, commute

2 hours, 08:00 to 09:59

2 hours, 08:00 to 09:59

Work (40-hour week)

8 hours, 10:00 to 17:59

10 hours, 10:00 to 19:59

Commute, supper

2 hours, 18:00 to 19:59

2 hours, 20:00 to 21:59

Free time until midnight

4 hours, 20:00 to 23:59

6 hours, 22:00 to 27:59

The standard for sleep is eight hours per night.  On a weekly basis, this totals 56 hours for Sols but only 48 hours for the Programmer, so he may need to catch up by using an hour or so of his daily free time for a nap.

On the charts below, the Sols' seven 24-hour days are on the left.  On the right are the corresponding days and times in the Programmer's six-day week.

Sun

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thu

Fri

Sat

24:

20:

16:

12:

08:

04:

Sat

02:

02:

02:

02:

02:

02:

02:

26:

22:

18:

14:

10:

06:

02:

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04:

Sun

24:

20:

16:

12:

08:

04:

06:

06:

06:

06:

06:

06:

06:

02:

26:

22:

18:

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10:

06:

08:

08:

08:

08:

08:

08:

08:

04:

Mon

24:

20:

16:

12:

08:

10:

10:

10:

10:

10:

10:

10:

06:

02:

26:

22:

18:

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10:

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12:

12:

12:

12:

12:

08:

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Tue

24:

20:

16:

12:

14:

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14:

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14:

14:

10:

06:

02:

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22:

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08:

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Thu

24:

20:

16:

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18:

18:

14:

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06:

02:

26:

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18:

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20:

16:

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08:

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Fri

24:

20:

22:

22:

22:

22:

22:

22:

22:

18:

14:

10:

06:

02:

26:

22:

The Sols and the Programmer are in sync at midnight Friday night.  At that point, their clocks all turn over to 00:00 Saturday morning, represented by the blue upper right corner of each chart.  The clocks continue in agreement down the "Sat" column for 24 hours.  Then we jump back to the upper left corner of each chart.  At that point, the Sols' clocks turn over from 23:59 Saturday to 00:00 Sunday morning (in blue).  However, the Programmer's clock gives him another four hours of free time (in pink) to play before bedtime.  Only then does it turn over from 27:59 Saturday to 00:00 Sunday (in blue).

By Monday, when the Programmer reports to work (in green) at 10:00 (in bold type on the right-hand chart, second column), his clock is eight hours behind the Sols.  They consider the time to be 18:00 (6 pm), and they're just leaving for home when he arrives.  Therefore he has the office to himself all night.  He's alone on his "Tuesday" as well.  On the next day, his "Thursday," the Sols arrive two hours before his quitting time, so he has to put up with a few distractions.  On the final day, Friday, they show up six hours before he leaves.  But he wraps up his work week two hours before they do, so he gets a head start on his weekend socializing.

For a workaholic with no weeknight social activities, and with sufficient discipline to delay his Monday-night bedtime to a time that all his friends consider noon on Tuesday, this might actually work.

 

DEC. 29, 2018    LISTEN TO THE PEN

A classic way of examining people to determine whether they possess Extra-Sensory Perception is to set up a table in a quiet room.  One person, the sender, draws a card and writes down its symbol.  The other person, the receiver, can't see the card.  He writes down what he telepathically “perceives” the symbol to be.  This procedure is repeated 25 times.  If the receiver's list is then found to match most of the entries on the sender's list, at least one person must have ESP!

The cards are not ordinary playing cards.  Most often they're “Zener” cards, designed in the early 1930s by Karl Zener for experiments with his parapsychologist colleague J. B. Rhine.

Rhine's experiments identified some subjects who could score significantly better than chance, but his results have been discredited for various weaknesses in the experimental design.

There are innumerable ways the subjects can cheat, but I realized one of those tricks only recently when I pondered the design of the cards.  Mr. Zener could have simply imprinted them with letters or numbers, but for some reason he chose mystic geometric symbols.  Wooo!

But why?

There are 25 cards in a Zener deck, five each of five different symbols.  The traditional signs are shown in the top row here.  The bottom row depicts James Randi's variation.

Massimo Polidoro has noted that, conveniently enough, the first symbol (the circle) can be drawn with a single stroke of the pen.  The second requires two separate strokes, the third three, the fourth four, and the fifth at least five.

This makes possible a technique called “sound reading.”

When the sender writes down a symbol, the receiver needs only to listen to the pen — or, if possible, watch the sender's arm muscles — and count the strokes, perhaps without realizing he's doing so.  If he sees her shoulder move once or hears scrrrrritch, it's a circle.  If he sees four little movements or hears scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch, it's a square.

(For Randi's fifth, he avoided the six-pointed asterisk that most people would draw, because that requires only three scritches.  He stayed with a five-pointed star.)

Besides this, there are many other ways that the receiver can form an informed guess about a symbol.  For example, maybe he can see the sender's face.  If her mouth or eyes widen slightly, she may well be looking at a big round O, but if her features scrunch up, it may be that she has to draw a complicated star.

According to the conveniently designed rules of the game, the receiver doesn't have to get all 25 cards right to prove that ESP exists.  Probability tells us that by chance alone, he ought to get five right.  He only has to score slightly better than that, so he needs only a couple of inadvertent clues.  And if he doesn't succeed, we can run the experiment again and simply ignore the first result.

(That's bad science, by the way.  And there's no such thing as ESP.)

 

DEC. 26, 2018    AS THIRSTY AS SIX PEOPLE

It's said that we should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.  It's also said that indoor humidity levels should be 40%-50%.

This winter I have an evaporative humidifier discharging moist air at 70%, with another humidifier in the bedroom.  When the outside temperature is around freezing, the two of them keep my apartment at about 36% humidity.  Close enough.

But I have to keep refilling them, because they dump roughly three gallons of water a day into the air that I breathe.  That's the equivalent of forty-eight glasses of water.  I'm getting eight hours per gallon.

 

DEC. 23, 2018    BRING NGJOY TO THE WORLD!

Down in Nashville, Tennessee, one of Tracey Moody's neighbors posted this all-inclusive reminder.



 

TBT


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