AUGUST 27, 2008 FIVE MILES HIGH
Television broadcasting might have developed far differently in this country if a certain petition had been granted. I'm referring to the 1948 request of Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV to use a 25,000-foot "tower" to blanket several states with its signal. Local TV stations, unable to compete with regional superstations like KDKA, might never have made it onto the air.
I describe the Stratocasting proposal in a new article. (And, of course, there's a personal angle: though only a toddler when the first public demonstration was held, I was nearby.)
AUGUST 24, 2008 CLOSING CEREMONY
foreigners claim that the People's Republic of China represses
dissent, they are mistaken. It was 51 summers ago that Chairman
Mao famously proclaimed, "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a
hundred schools of thought contend." The dissidents
accepted Mao's poetic invitation to come out of hiding, whereupon he
demonstrate the openness of Chinese society, we have
Whenever the U.S. President speaks at an event, protesters are welcomed to a "free-speech zone," where the authorities do not interfere as long as the protesters stay inside the fence. Of course, decorum must be maintained. Those attending the event should not be subjected to having to see or hear disturbances. Therefore, the free-speech zone is located several blocks away.
We have made our own improvements upon this American idea, because the Olympic Games are very important to China. For this event, we have set up not one but three free-speech zones. We have prudently located them in public parks, many kilometers distant from the Olympic venues.
We have also taken the precaution of not allowing just anyone inside these special zones, lest ordinary hooligans enter and cause mayhem. To ensure that you, as a potential protester, have a legitimate grievance, we ask you to fill out this application.
In addition to a description of your complaint, we need proper identification, including your name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, next of kin, and funeral instructions. For verification, we also need you to supply similar identifying data for three other people who share your views. We apologize for the length of this form, but the Olympic Games are very important to China.
AUGUST 21, 2008 PI REVISITED
In school, we're taught that the value of pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) is about 3.14159. However, there's a passage in the Bible that can be interpreted to mean that the value of pi is exactly 3.00000. Will born-again students be required to amend their textbooks to insert this biblically correct value?
Five years ago, I pointed out that this was not necessary, as the object in question could have had its circumference measured not around its flared rim but at a lower point where it was slimmer.
Now I've run across another website that not only agrees with me but carries the calculations several steps further. H. Peter Aleff uses the five dimensions given in the Bible (outer diameter, circumference, height, thickness, and volume) to deduce the exact shape of the ancient cult object. I've added this new information as an update to King Solomon's Pi.
AUGUST 16, 2008 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.
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.
AUGUST 14, 2008 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.
AUGUST 11, 2008 NOT DISCOVERED BY CLOSED EYES
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.
AUGUST 6, 2008 LET THE SUN SHINE; LET THE SUNSHINE IN
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:
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 siad, "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.")
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."
AUGUST 3, 2008 TEARS OF GRATITUDE
Here are two thank-you notes. The first is fictional. The second is part of a real letter that we aired last weekend during a TV fund-raiser for a proposed Miracle League Field. That's a flat artificial surface with painted-on bases and pitcher's "mound," where disabled kids (some using wheelchairs) can play baseball.
Both letters express a family's thanks for projects, undertaken by others, that have improved the family's quality of life.
To me, these two notes are roughly equivalent. But I'm not a very emotional person, and I'm not a parent. When we actually aired the real letter, several parents on our production crew got choked up as they imagined one of their own sons in Luke's situation.
Are you more emotionally sensitive than I am? Did the real letter bring tears to your eyes?
Is that one reason why telethons are able to raise so much money for unfortunate children?
JULY 26, 2008 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.
JULY 20, 2008
Eleven Olympiads ago, in this week of the year 1964, Barry Goldwater was nominated as the Republican candidate for President. I recall his speech, and its defense of extremism, in a new article titled simply Barry.
16, 2008 NUMBERS
Yesterday my cable TV provider, Comcast, added more high-definition and digital channels. My current package includes the premium services HBO and Starz. In addition to On Demand, I can choose from about 159 different programs at any given time, including 34 programs in HD. That's a lot of choices!
I find it interesting that for the benefit of the majority of subscribers who are not yet HD-equipped, Comcast duplicates its signals. In fact, it usually triplicates its signals. Of my 34 high-def channels, 30 are also available in standard-definition digital. And of those 30 standard-def channels, 25 are also available in old-fashioned analog. For example, FSN Pittsburgh is located at channel 250 for HD, 029 for digital set-top boxes, and 029 for analog tuners. Maybe someday in the distant future, those lower-definition triplications will fade away.
To make room for the new additions, Comcast trimmed its analog offerings to 56 channels. That's still more than four times as many as the 12 analog channels offered by my cable employers in the 1970s.
That, in turn, was four times as many as my family could receive in the 1950s: ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Programs that were broadcast only once a week way back then, like "Wild Kingdom," are now entire 24/7 channels, like "Animal Planet." Even program segments have become entire channels. The weather forecast used to be a small part of the local news; now I can choose from four round-the-clock weather services, two from The Weather Channel and two from local stations.
It's no wonder that ABC, CBS, and NBC have a smaller share of the audience than they did 50 years ago.
12, 2008 COED
I once played a small role in a live CBS Television Network broadcast from New York. What role? I contributed to the audio effects by being a member of the studio audience. And this took place 50 years ago this month!
But wait, there's more. In that same studio, maybe a couple of weeks later, questions were answered and prizes won by the sweet-faced college student who's pictured below. (I've combined four frames from her TV appearance.) However, she didn't abide by the honor code. When it was discovered that she had received help with her answers, the revelation triggered the greatest scandal in the history of television!
But wait, there's more. The cheating coed was able to put this youthful indiscretion behind her. She went on to become a successful author!
This week, the July 8 blog entry from Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings tipped me off to the young lady's identity. I've confirmed a few other details and added them to my earlier article about the TV show that originated from that studio: Dotto.
10, 2008 QUESTIONS
4, 2008 NATIONAL
Please rise for the Anthem.
We open today's Independence Day services with a hymn by Lloyd Stone, to the tune of Finlandia by Jean Sibelius.
I'm proud to be an American citizen. Americans can express pretty much any opinion without having to worry about being taken away by the government. We can criticize ourselves and adapt to a changing world. We are entrepreneurial and optimistic.
On the other hand, as Americans we run the danger of being too full of ourselves.
This country song from the Charlie Daniels Band, "In America," enjoys some popularity in the redneck states. It also gets played here in Pittsburgh because it praises our fierce loyalty to our football team.
Now the people in the Bible Belt may disagree with me, but I don't think that supposedly God-fearing Americans should strut arrogantly around the world, loudly claiming to be better than everyone else.
Are not Christians taught that our neighbors include even the despised Samaritans? And are we not taught the Golden Rule, to love our neighbors as much as ourselves?
I wasn't brought up to be a boastful loudmouth, or an impatient aggressive driver, or a member of a drunken mob of fans eager to avenge any insult. I wasn't brought up to mistrust everyone outside my city or nation or religion or ethnic group.
1, 2008 TURN
IT ALL AROUND
It didn't result in a win, but Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell last night flouted National League tradition by having his pitcher bat eighth in the order instead of ninth.
In the "typical" order, Jack Wilson would be guaranteed a first-inning plate appearance, and Jason Bay would not. Last night, those guarantees were reversed. (Nevertheless, the Pirates failed to score in the first inning; Sanchez, Michaels, and Bay all struck out swinging.)
However, once you get past that point, these two batting orders are, for practical purposes, identical. In later innings, Doug Mientkiewicz bats before the pitcher and Jack Wilson after. It doesn't make a bit of difference whether you call those hitters 8-9-1 (traditional) or 7-8-9 (last night).
Here's another way of looking at it. The nine batting spots are in a rotation. Traditionally, a team begins the first inning at point "A" and proceeds clockwise around the wheel, thereby delaying the appearance of the weak-hitting pitcher as long as possible. However, last night the Pirates began the first inning at point "B." After that, everything proceeded normally.
If you're a traditional "leadoff hitter," you have two roles.
In one, you're the first batter in the game. Last night Sanchez filled that role, and he led off the first inning only.
In the other, you hit after the pitcher; when the pitcher makes the last out of an inning (as he often does), that means you bat first in the next inning. Last night Wilson filled that role, and he led off the third and the seventh innings.
There is precedent in the National League Central. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has batted his pitcher eighth for the past few years, and at the beginning of this season the Milwaukee Brewers did likewise.
"I can understand why the Cardinals do it," Russell told Paul Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "because they have Albert Pujols batting third and it gets another guy on base in front of him." So why, I wonder, don't they simply move Pujols to fourth?
"There are a lot of different ways to look at it," Russell continued. "Doug [Mientkiewicz] is our most patient, work-the-count, get-on-base guy. . . . We put him in front of our pitcher, and if they want to pitch around him, he'll take the walk. If Doug gets on, Paul [the pitcher] can bunt him over. Or if he gets on with two outs and Paul makes the third out, Jack [Wilson] leads off the next inning; then we have the top of the order coming up. It's mainly just to add a little more offense, maybe get a few more guys on base and help turn the lineup around."
Poppycock. I say again, Mientkiewicz bats before the pitcher and Wilson after, and aside from the first inning, it doesn't matter whether you call them 8-9-1 or 7-8-9. The only purpose is to confuse the rest of us as we fill out our scorecards.