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OCTOBER \ SEPTEMBER 2008

 

OCTOBER 27, 2008    SOMEBODY TOLD ME

Jim Krenn was late for work again this morning at WDVE-FM's Morning Show, but he had a new excuse.  He explained, "Somebody told me this is the week that we set our clocks back."  This is in fact the week, although daylight time won't end until Sunday, November 2.  The switch used to happen on the last Sunday in October, and some clocks are still programmed to reset themselves on that date.  When Krenn saw such a timepiece, he thought that the changeover had already happened.  Therefore, he set the rest of his clocks back, and this morning he slept in.  Somebody told him, and he wanted to believe, so he accepted the idea without further confirmation.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interviewed people at a coffee shop in Greensburg, PA.  One said he's voting for John McCain "'because he's a Christian.  Obama is not.  I heard he's a Muslim and that he took the oath of office on the Koran.'  Told that was untrue, he shook his head in disbelief.  'It's what I've heard and what my whole family has heard.'"  Somebody told him, and he wanted to believe, so he accepted what he'd "heard" as true without checking further.

The newspaper found another man who said he wouldn't vote for Obama "because he'd raise capital gains taxes.  I'd have to go on assistance."  Does this man even know what capital gains are?  He certainly must not be aware that Obama's proposal to increase the maximum tax rate on them from 15% to 20% applies only to families earning more than a quarter million dollars a year.  Such families need not worry about having to go on welfare.  But he heard "tax increase" and thought it applied to him, so that was all he needed to know.

Can such misapprehensions be corrected, or have the people hardened their hearts and their heads?

In this article, Robert Burton relates how he "jokingly asked a health club acquaintance whether he would change his mind about his choice for president if presented with sufficient facts that contradicted his present beliefs.  He responded with utter confidence.  'Absolutely not,' he said.  'No new facts will change my mind because I know that these facts are correct.'

"In the current presidential election, a major percentage of voters are already committed to 'their candidate'; new arguments and evidence fall on deaf ears.  And yet, if we, as a country, truly want change, we must be open-minded, flexible and willing to revise our opinions when new evidence warrants it.  Most important, we must be able to recognize and acknowledge when we are wrong.  Unfortunately, cognitive science offers some fairly sobering observations about our ability to judge ourselves and others."

Have Americans begun to treat their political beliefs like their religious beliefs, sacred and immutable, so that those who disagree must be crazy or evil and their Satanic arguments must be ignored?

In another article, Jonathan M. Gitlin notes, "We like to think that people will be well informed before making important decisions, such as who to vote for, but the truth is that's not always the case.  Being uninformed is one thing, but having a population that's actively misinformed presents problems when it comes to participating in the national debate, or the democratic process.  If the findings of some political scientists are right, attempting to correct misinformation might do nothing more than reinforce the false belief."

It's disturbing to think that people believe what they want to believe, and any attempt to convince them otherwise is counterproductive.

 

OCTOBER 22, 2008    JANE'S CHURCH

In 1981, I was working for a local cable TV channel when a woman from across the river in Creighton phoned in a public service announcement for Janes United Methodist Church.

I was curious.  I asked the woman where the name "Janes" came from.  She had no idea.

Over the years, I continued to wonder.  Who was this Jane, and how did she get a church named after her?  Or perhaps, with the large Eastern European population around here, the name was really something like Jáneš and should be pronounced something like Yonnesh.

Driving past the church the other day, I resolved to settle the question.  I turned to the Internet.

At first I failed.  The church does have an online history, but it never explains how the name was chosen.  However, I found websites for other churches of the same name.  I've concluded that they all must memorialize Edmund Storer Janes, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in mid-19th century America.

My mind is no longer troubled.

 

OCTOBER 19, 2008    VIET NAM REVISITED

Elsewhere on this website, I've transcribed a nine-minute extemporaneous speech that was captured by my cassette recorder at Oberlin College in 1969.  The speaker was one Howard Emmer, an "outside agitator" visiting from Kent State University to encourage opposition to the ongoing war in Viet Nam.

I've recently unearthed some additional information online.  It turns out that that  two months after his Oberlin talk, Emmer was arrested at Kent State and jailed for a year.  Five days after his release in 1970, the Kent State shootings took place.  The newly discovered details are in a red box at the end of the transcript.

I myself was not a demonstrator, either for or against the war.  My feelings about it were so ambiguous that I even found my opinions changing from one side to the other according to my environment.  At home in conservative rural Ohio, I tended to agree with everyone around me that we should support our President and our troops in the battle against Communism.  But on Oberlin's liberal campus, I tended to agree with everyone around me that we should pull our troops out of a conflict where thousands on both sides were dying for no good reason.

A recent UCLA study indicates that my flip-flops are not unusual among college students.  Excerpts from an article by the AP's Justin Pope:

"College students shift noticeably to the left from the time they arrive on campus through their junior year.  The reason, according to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, isn't indoctrination by left-leaning faculty but rather the more powerful influence of fellow students.  And at most colleges, left-leaning peer groups are more common than conservative ones.  After college, students — particularly women — move somewhat back to the right politically."

Why do most colleges have more liberal students that conservative ones?  The right-leaning students tend to go elsewhere and concentrate in a smaller number of schools, including Bible colleges and other religiously-oriented institutions.  "So at most colleges," explains Pope, "there are more left-leaning peer groups, and students on balance move leftward."  He quotes a researcher:  "If you find yourself in a peer group where on balance the attitudes lean left, you'll tend to move in that direction."

And if later you find yourself in a small town where on balance the attitudes lean right, you'll tend to move in that direction.

 

OCTOBER 13, 2008    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.”

America’s preeminence in the world is more a matter of faith than reality.   — Dave Juliette, "One Man's Tofu"

America is not the greatest.  But it can be.   — Aaron Sorkin, "The Newsroom"

 

OCTOBER 9, 2008    FUN WITH GOOGLE EARTH

This image, of a spot across the Allegheny River from my home, implies that a bridge approach is emulating a roller coaster.

The roadway is actually elevated above the riverbank, but it doesn't show up in the height-of-terrain data, so Google Earth thinks that it and the surrounding treetops are plastered to the landscape.

 

OCTOBER 3, 2008    YOUR VOTE DOESN'T MATTER

Your vote, even times 100, doesn't matter.

Meet John Q. Pennsylvanian, a conscientious model citizen.  John was originally undecided about this Presidential election.  But the right to vote is precious to him, and he takes his civic responsibility seriously.  Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes will go to the winner of the popular vote within the state.  Over the past six months, John has studied the candidates, read about the issues, watched the conventions and the debates, endured the political ads, and listened to what the pundits have to say.

He has finally made his decision:  His vote will go to Candidate X, the candidate who's trailing in the polls.  Net gain of one vote for Candidate X.

John, now a true believer in X and his cause, wants to become more involved.  He decides to help X win by converting everyone he knows.  He argues politics with the clerk at the store and the waitress at the restaurant.  He makes a pest of himself at work.  He browbeats his family and his in-laws into seeing things his way.  And he is remarkably successful.  A hundred people, originally evenly split between X and Y, now decide to vote unanimously for X.  From a dead heat within this group, X has surged to a 100-0 lead.  Net gain of 100 votes for Candidate X.

Will John Q. Pennsylvanian's exemplary efforts be enough to make a difference?

No.

Historically, in the 15 Presidential elections in Pennsylvania during my lifetime, the average margin of victory has been 386,897 votes.  The smallest was 105,143, when the first George Bush narrowly defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.

If this turns out to be a very tight race — equaling the closest election in my lifetime — and Candidate X would otherwise have lost the state by only 105,143 votes, John's exertions would reduce X's margin of defeat by less than a tenth of one per cent.

In such a close election, it would take 1052 John Q. Pennsylvanians, all pulling for the trailing candidate, to affect the statewide result.  In an average year, make that 3869 of them.  And we must increase that number by any citizens committed to the other side who are swinging votes to the leading candidate.

(Even if John were to succeed in winning his state for Candidate X, that's still only 21 electoral votes, a fraction of the 270 required to win in the Electoral College.  And if Presidential elections were decided not by electoral votes but by the popular vote, the ballots of John and his friends would be even more diluted in a vast nationwide sea.)

As citizens of a democracy, we like to think that we decide who governs us.  But do you as an individual have any say?  If you want to pretend you do, go ahead and take an active role in electoral politics.  Otherwise, just enjoy the show, because all is futility and a chasing of the wind.

 

OCTOBER 1, 2008    COSMOLOGY UPDATE

If our present universe began with a Big Bang, what preceded that beginning?  I've always found it more esthetically pleasing, as I wrote more than 30 years ago, to picture the universe in a state of oscillation.  After the Bang, the expanding universe eventually will slow down and collapse back into itself, which will set off another Bang and so on.

A cover story this month suggests that this may really be the case.  (Click the picture for a link.)  The author is studying the implications of space-time that is quantized on a very small scale.  At the "singularity" of the Big Bang, the size of the universe would not be the impossible "zero" but rather the smallest quantum.  That gives the theoreticians something to work with, and they can hypothesize about the Big Crunch that preceded the Bang, "an implosion that triggered an explosion, all driven by exotic quantum-gravitational effects."

 

SEPTEMBER 28, 2008    PEAS, NOT WITH US!

A new little article for you:  I've imagined a living room conversation — the larger half of it, anyway.  The topic is When Peas Fly.

 

SEPTEMBER 25, 2008    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.

 

SEPTEMBER 21, 2008    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.


SEPTEMBER 15, 2008    TAKE A PILL?

There's a slim chance that this tiny round sugar pill might contain one molecule obtained from a location where, long ago, someone with a microscope thought he had found an "oscillating" type of bacterium that might somehow relieve symptoms of the cold and flu.  But the pill almost certainly contains nothing but sugar.  Nevertheless, people eagerly buy this useless remedy for a dollar a dose — another triumph of faith and wishful thinking over reason.  More details are in my article Inoculated. 

 

SEPTEMBER 10, 2008    END OF ÆSTIVATION   

This is much better!

For the past month or so, I was even more sedentary than usual.  It was a sunny 85° outside and a solar-heated 89° in much of my apartment.  I was sweating all day and all night, and I hate to perspire.  I didn't want to move any more than necessary.  I sat in front of a fan to try to get some relief from the oppressive heat.  The only place I could sleep was on the floor directly in front of the air conditioner.  I gained several pounds.

Then, about three days ago, the weather broke, and with it my torpor.  The temperatures are now down to about 70°, and yesterday was actually cloudy.  My blood pressure, always higher in the winter than in the summer, temporarily jumped a dozen points.  I feel much better.  There's a tingling in my limbs, an antsy restlessness that wants to get up and pace and walk.  My body keeps reminding my diaphragm, "Enough of these shallow breaths!  We've turned up the metabolism, and we need more oxygen!  Breathe deeper!"  I can move again.

Needless to say, I am not one of those people who's sorry to see summer go.

 

SEPTEMBER 7, 2008    WE ARE OBERLIN   

My alma mater's football team — the Division III "Yeomen" of Oberlin College, once coached by John Heisman of trophy fame — can still claim a unique distinction.

That distinction was in peril yesterday.  In the third quarter, the Ohio University Bobcats led the No. 3 Buckeyes of The Ohio State University by a score of 14-6.  But Ohio State averted the upset and eventually won 26-14.

The victory was OSU's 36th straight win over an in-state opponent.  What was the last Ohio school to defeat Ohio State in football?  Oberlin!

It was way back in 1921, the final season for the Buckeyes' Ohio Field at High Street and Woodruff Avenue in Columbus.  (The "Horseshoe," Ohio Stadium, would open the following year.)  The final score:  Oberlin 7, Ohio State 6. 

This picture comes from a 1916 volume, Songs of Ohio State University.  (Where's the The?)  The book originally belonged to Ruth M. Ford; later, when she was my mother's friend Ruth Miller, she gave it to me, and I've now colorized the photo.  It appears above the words and music to "Across the Field," Ohio State's then-new fight song, written in 1915 by sophomore W.A. Dougherty Jr.

The song apparently was not enough when the Buckeyes faced the fearless Yeomen in 1921.

 

SEPTEMBER 6, 2008    FROM THE DESOLATION OF ALIQUIPPA   

A couple of weeks ago, I pointed you to my article on Stratocasting, a 1948 proposal to broadcast Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV not from a tower but from an airplane that could cover a wider area.

This was important in the television business because Pittsburgh was then one of the largest markets in the country, as measured by the Nielsen Company's Designated Market Areas.  But the steel industry had already started to fade, and with it went the population.  Once a proud Top Ten market, by 1998 Pittsburgh had declined to DMA No. 19.  Recently we've learned that at the end of 2008, we'll drop to No. 23.

Parts of the area are improving.  Technology and health care are growing industries, and a major new mall opened a couple of years ago just five miles from where I live.  But many other parts are slowly dying.

Next week, I'll be working on the telecast of a local high school football rivalry between two of the many towns that surround Pittsburgh:  Beaver Falls at Aliquippa.  My preparation includes checking for press clippings.  I was led to this August 20 quote — about politics, not football — from an article in nothing less than the New York Times:

But this economically ravaged region, once so solidly Democratic, poses a particular hurdle for Senator Obama.

From the desolation of Aliquippa — where the Jones & Laughlin steel mill loomed at the foot of the main boulevard — to the fading beauty of Beaver Falls to the neatly tended homes of retired steel workers in Hopewell, one hears much hesitating talk ....

It's almost enough to inspire a song for the seventh-inning hesitation.

From the desolation
To the fading
To the Rust Belt's sad syndrome,
God bless this region here,
My economically ravaged home.

 

SEPTEMBER 1, 2008    “ONE OF THE TOUGHEST MONTHS”   

Ah, the pathetic Pittsburgh Pirates, whose home games I spend my summers televising.  The pitching staff has a 5.23 earned run average, by far the worst in the National League.

There used to be bright spots.  For example, earlier this season, the Pirates boasted the best-hitting outfield in the majors.  However, at the end of July they traded away two-thirds of that outfield, mostly for pitching prospects.  They then proceeded to lose 21 of the 28 games they played in August.

Yesterday afternoon, in the final game of the month, Bucco hitting sank to a new low.  It would have been the first time I've been part of the telecast of a no-hitter, had not the official scorer declared an apparent error in the fifth inning to be a hit — as it turned out, the Pirates' only hit of the game.  (More details are here.)

When I grew up watching baseball, I thought a fielder who fumbles a ball (gets his hand or glove on it but fails to control it) should be charged with an error.  But now I find that's usually not the case.  Why?  Even if the fielder had come up with the ball, he would not have had time to throw the runner out.  Or perhaps the fielder made an extraordinary effort just to reach the ball, and he shouldn't be faulted for failing to complete a difficult play.  Both excuses were used yesterday to rule out any error and award a hit.  (More thoughts from me are here.)

But it's just as well.  If the scoreboard had shown zero hits as the game moved into the seventh inning, the tension in the truck would have begun to mount with every batter.

We would have started to get frantic phone calls alerting us that our TV feed was being patched into nationwide networks.  We would have scrambled to dig up statistics as well as 37-year-old footage of the last time the Pirates failed to get a hit.

However, with one hit on the scoreboard, we merely had to document another depressingly familiar Pirates defeat, the tenth loss in a row.

 

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