FEBRUARY 24, 2009 THAT SOUNDS RIGHT TO ME
It appears that the word "that," when used as a conjunction, is sometimes optional. A writer may decide that it belongs in a sentence. Another writer may decide it doesn't belong.
One of my college friends used "that" every chance that she got. I thought that her style must be a more elegant one, so for a time I emulated the way that she wrote. More recently, one of my colleagues kept misidentifying a 1996 Tom Hanks movie with a four-syllable title as That Thing That You Do! But I've heard journalists, striving for brevity, insist that "that" should never be used in such a manner.
However, sometimes it's necessary, lest the writer inadvertently lead the reader down a blind path.
A hockey story in yesterday's newspaper asserted, "The Penguins must get the best blue-collar workers such as Max Talbot, Mark Eaton and Pascal Dupuis have to give." I had expected the sentence to turn out something like this: "The Penguins must get the best blue-collar workers such as Max Talbot, Mark Eaton and Pascal Dupuis, either by trading for more such players or by acquiring them on the free-agent market." But noooo. The sentence stopped making sense after Dupuis, and I had to go back to the beginning and mentally insert the missing "that" while reading it a second time: "The Penguins must get the best that blue-collar workers such as Max Talbot, Mark Eaton and Pascal Dupuis have to give."
FEBRUARY 22, 2009 LOWERING THE TRICOLOR
Jokes in a late-night comedians monologue typically refer, in their punch lines, to something the audience already knows. Because weve heard this fact lampooned before, we laugh on cue.
For example, from Jay Leno in 1990: You can't blame R.J. Reynolds for marketing their new cigarettes at minorities and young women. They're the only ones left. All the other groups they've targeted have died! This apparently macabre joke works only because weve already accepted that cigarette smoking is deadly.
Id like to suggest that it may be time to retire one of these much-used facts. As were constantly reminded, at the beginning of World War II Hitlers tanks stormed into France, and rather than risk the destruction of Paris by the overpowering force of the Germans, the French government surrendered. To that point all the other nations that Hitler had invaded had also given up. Nevertheless, ever since, jokes have been based on the stereotype that the French are cowardly.
In this months Funny Times, Dave Barry reviews the past year. He relates that in May 2008, Irans nuclear aspirations lead six nations to convene an emergency meeting, during which they manage, in heated negotiations, to talk France out of surrendering.
Then in July, Barack Obama ... flies to Germany without using an airplane and gives a major speech speaking English and German simultaneously to 200,000 mesmerized Germans, who immediately elect him chancellor, prompting France to surrender.
In the same issue, Will Durst asserts that Sen. John McCain ran the worst campaign ever. That includes New Coke, France in 39, and Cloris Leachman on Dancing With The Stars.
And then this week, Carbolic Smoke Ball ran this fake headline: British, French Submarines Collide in Atlantic French Sub Immediately Surrenders.
FEBRUARY 19, 2009 SCHEDULEBUSTERS?
I havent been paying attention in past years, but it seems were now approaching college basketballs seventh annual BracketBusters weekend.
Almost all the games will be played this Saturday. Each will feature teams from two different mid-major conferences. For example, Buffalo (of the Mid-American Conference) will be playing at Vermont (of the America East Conference). There will be 51 such games, of which 13 will be televised by one or another of ESPNs networks. With a good showing this weekend, a school could improve its résumé for the NCAA tournament selection committee that meets three weeks later. Also, this weekend fans get to see some of the unheralded teams that could bust their office pool brackets during the tournament in March.
However, I learned that the matchups were not announced until February 2. It was only then that Buffalo and Vermont learned that they would be playing each other this weekend.
Heres where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Did not every college basketball team in America already have an important conference game scheduled for this weekend? I expected to find dire reports like this:
Never fear. Some additional digging set me straight. The chosen teams did not have a February 21 conference game on their schedules.
Well before the season began, ESPN told each of the mid-major conferences how many of its teams would be invited to BracketBusters as home teams and how many as visitors. This year 17 leagues received 102 invitations, ranging from one to twelve teams each. If, for example, a conference received nine slots, it selected its nine best teams to participate. Each of those teams was instructed to draw up a season schedule that included a BracketBusters game on February 21. Home or away was specified, but time and opponent were to be determined later. ESPN then waited until the season was two-thirds complete before pairing up the 102 teams and choosing the best TV matchups.
FEBRUARY 17, 2009 ON THE OTHER HAND...
In the previous post, I predicted that if Aunt Minnie cant watch one of her TV stations after it shuts off its analog service tonight, maybe shell be motivated to get a digital converter. If she does, shell be ready when the rest of the stations shut off in June.
I made the same prediction on a local media message board. A couple of the responses, excerpted below, suggest I might be too optimistic.
Bull3964 wrote, Actually, the scenario will likely play out this way. Aunt Minnie can no longer watch American Idol this week. She calls WPGH repeatedly, wondering what happened despite the months upon months of warnings and the current message. She leaves several half-coherent ranting messages, berating WPGH for taking her programming away, calling up several conspiracy theories as to why she now needs to spend $45 (one time) to watch what she has before. She continues to do nothing, half-hoping that things will just resolve themselves. June rolls around and now she can't watch any TV. She's calling all the stations now, ranting and raving. If people were ignoring the warnings before, they are beyond hope.
Soon2Bdark described his father-in-law, who hasn't moved a thing in his home since his wife died in 1989. The same candy is still in her old candy dish on the coffee table. His 1971 Sylvania floor model still works, although it could use some new tubes. I ordered DTV coupons for him, and when I hooked up the converter box, I had to move the antenna around for about an hour before I got any signal. As I was leaving, I turned to see my father-in-law moving the antenna back to the top of the TV, where it belongs. It won't get anything there. He refuses to get cable, so his TV will be going totally dark in a few months. That, my friends, is the real scenario for some of these older people.
The good news, according to bull3964, is that the uncomprehending Minnie and the change-resistant father-in-law are not typical. According to Nielsen, seniors 55+ are actually the age demographic in Pittsburgh that are the most prepared. Only 1.73% of those households are not ready for the switchover. Mostly, that's because they have cable.
FEBRUARY 13, 2009 SILVER LINING IN STAGGERED SHUTDOWN
Each TV station has always used a set of assigned frequencies called a "channel" to broadcast its analog signal. Twelve years ago, the Federal Communications Commission assigned each station a second channel. Here they could transmit a new and improved digital signal, including high definition.
Once digital TV was established, the plan was for each station to shut down its analog transmitter and give back the extra channel. Several years ago, a date was set for this to happen: Tuesday, February 17, 2009.
The change won't affect viewers who subscribe to cable TV. But there are viewers, including many with lower incomes, who do not subscribe. As the date approached, it became clear that some of these consumers are not yet prepared to receive digital TV, so the President and Congress delayed the analog shutdown. According to this last-minute legislation (signed only this Wednesday, postponing the transition that had long been scheduled for only six days later), the new date will be June 12.
However, many smaller stations can't afford to change their plans. On February 2, Broadcasting & Cable noted that an analog transmitter uses as much as $25,000 per month in electricity. Del Parks, the vice president of engineering and operations for Sinclair Broadcast Group, told the magazine that regardless of what Washington says, his stations were still planning to cease analog operations on February 17. We've all been working toward that date, and everything has been placed and ordered. It's a gigantic exercise, and it's all interrelated. We haven't budgeted any maintenance for analog transmitters, knowing they're going off in February. If you have to spend more money in electricity and maintenance, where does the money come from? Do you not hire somebody, or lay somebody off?
Forty per cent of the nation's TV stations, some 681 of them, have notified the FCC that despite the new legislation, they will not be broadcasting in analog after February 17.
Nevertheless, most major stations will continue to operate normally until June. Also, the FCC might insist that some of the 681 also continue, especially if a shutoff would leave a given city with no analog TV at all.
Here in Pittsburgh, only two stations will shut down next Tuesday. Both are owned by Sinclair. They are WPGH and WPMY, affiliates of the Fox network and My Network TV respectively.
There's a similar situation in the Columbus, Ohio, market, where the two stations planning to end analog transmission Tuesday are WTTE and WWHO, affiliates of Fox and CW.
All four of these stations are expected to employ a night light shutdown. As I understand it, their analog transmitters will actually continue to function for another week or so, but only to tell viewers what they have to do to find the station now that its no longer broadcasting in analog.
So although most stations will continue until June to operate as usual, some will not. If the government had tried to mandate this kind of a staggered shutdown, it would have been patently unfair. Why should Fox be required to turn off its analog transmitter, and some of its viewers, four months earlier than the other stations have to? But in this case, it's a voluntary decision by the Fox affiliate.
Already-confused consumers may be further baffled by this staggered shutdown. On Wednesday, a local blogger posted:
Consider technologically unsophisticated Aunt Minnie, contentedly watching TV in her rural home each evening. Next Wednesday when she tunes in American Idol, it's not there, only a message that the station has gone off the air. She phones her nephew for help. Something's wrong with her TV! All the other channels work fine, but she can't find Fox. He helps her figure out what she needs to do to get the digital signal. It takes a couple of months and costs some money, but by April, she has a digital converter box and a new outdoor antenna tower. By June, she's learned to watch not only Fox but all the other stations in digital. When the other stations shut down their analog transmitters, she doesn't even notice.
If, on the other hand, all the stations had switched off at the same time, Aunt Minnie would have found herself not merely missing a channel or two. She would have suddenly been without any TV at all.
FEBRUARY 8, 2009 MEETING OF THE MINDS
Thursday will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most important personages of their century. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on February 12, 1809.
I've colorized two photographs, from 1863 and 1860 respectively, to seat them at the same table, Lincoln with the Sunday Morning Chronicle and Darwin with The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
FEBRUARY 5, 2009 HOLOGRAPHIC TV
Imagine a basketball arena reduced to 1/20 scale, with a court the size of a Foosball table and the players four inches high. You and your friends gather around the table and watch the action from any angle you choose. Or maybe instead of little athletes, you could see little actors performing a play. I actually wrote up my idea as an essay, now long lost, for my eighth-grade English class.
How would it work? I guessed that the positions of the players on the court could be detected with some sort of radar beam, or perhaps with one of those newly-invented "lasers." That would constitute the camera.
In your living room would be the receiver, a transparent rectangular cube about four feet on a side. Inside the cube, electronic circuits would precisely schedule the firing of millions of little guns, shooting tiny particles from one side of the interior to the other. The guns would be timed so that 30 times a second, the particles would have reached positions in space corresponding to the surfaces of the real players. At that instant, a strobe light would fire, illuminating the particles and forming ghostly images of miniature players. A thirtieth of a second later, the next firing of the strobe would reveal a new set of particles in slightly different positions, and your eye would fill in the gaps. Of course the expended particles would fall to the bottom of the box, and eventually you'd have to empty the litter tray like a birdcage.
My English teacher Mrs. Endsley said that she had no idea what I was trying to describe, but it certainly sounded clever.
Half a century later, in the January issue of Broadcast Engineering, Anthony R. Gargano muses about the state of television technology. He seems to share my vision from long ago.
FEBRUARY 2, 2009 STREAMLINED JAVA
Twenty years ago, I began taking advantage of the coffee-making machines provided in most hotel rooms. The procedure: Open a foil package. Remove the portion of ground coffee sealed between two pieces of filter paper. Put this filter pack inside the machine's slide-out plastic basket. Fill a glass pot (called a carafe) with a quart of tap water and pour it into the machine's reservoir. Place the empty carafe on a hotplate below the basket and turn on the power. Wait several minutes for the water to heat up and flow through the filter pack and into the carafe. Pour a cup of coffee. The carafe still holds three more cups, so set it back on the hotplate for later.
At one hotel last year, I noticed that the carafe was missing. A housekeeping error, I thought, until the experience was repeated at the next hotel. Then I looked more closely. The machines have been downsized!
JANUARY 29, 2009 NOT NOBODY
Quotes from Yogi Berra are funny because their imprecise language makes them seem nonsensical. Yogi once claimed that not all his alleged sayings were authentic. But his claim got another laugh from its unpolished phrasing: "I didn't really say everything I said."
Another Yogi-ism: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." What he meant, of course, is that now that the place has become popular with the masses, nobody among his acquaintances goes there anymore.
We often say "nobody" when we mean "nobody I know."
Thirty years ago when I worked in Washington, PA, we avoided scheduling TV programs after 9 pm on Mondays in the fall. Who would watch our local channel when they could be watching Monday Night Football? We knew that we were certainly going to tune in to the NFL game, as did 33% of the nation when the highly-rated series premiered on ABC in 1970. But two-thirds of the nation was not watching. Two-thirds is not "nobody."
Small-town Americans sometimes assume that because all their friends attend the local Baptist church, nobody could possibly object to having the Baptist preacher invoke the blessings of Jesus before the high school football game. But there are some non-Christians in town, and they are not "nobody."
JANUARY 23, 2009 PULL BACK FOR A WIDESHOT!
The television networks covering the Presidential inauguration on Tuesday probably wished they had this angle to show. A very long lens would have been required, as the vantage point is from 423 miles up farther away than Detroit.
Pittsburgh Steelers fans from around the world are making travel plans for Super Bowl XLIII next weekend. Many are headed to the stadium in sunny Tampa, where they're expected to easily outnumber Arizona Cardinals fans. But others are headed to frigid Pittsburgh! Here they'll soak up the hometown atmosphere while watching the game on TV.
Tim McNulty reports on this unexpected development in this morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But how did he do it? How did he identify all these scattered out-of-town fans, their stories and their travel plans a week before they're going to arrive? Once this would have been next to impossible, but that was before the invention of our friend the Internet. The newspaper simply asked on its website if anyone was coming to town for the Super Bowl.
JANUARY 22, 2009 CHURCH AIN'T OUT; STOP GIGGLING
True story, as far as I know...
In 1893, James M. Black was a Methodist Sunday school teacher in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. One day he was taking attendance. Bessie, the daughter of a drunk, had failed to show up. Black thought to himself: if our names were called from the Book of Life in heaven and we were absent, how sad it would be! He grumbled something like, "I trust that when the roll is called up yonder, she'll be there." He searched the songbook for a hymn to that effect, but there was none. When he got home, he sat down at the piano and wrote one himself.
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
A few years later, in a church in Kentucky, Lydia Morton (my future Grandmother Thomas) joined in the singing of "When the Roll Is Called up Yonder." She later described how the song leader stood before the congregation, holding a hymnal in one hand, conducting with the other, index finger outstretched. Usually his swinging finger pointed upward. But when he reached the final note of "I'll be there," he pointed down. Apparently, at the time of the heavenly roll call, he himself would be in the lower regions. My grandma and her friends giggled.
Fictional story that could well have happened...
In 1953, the Sunday services at a small Texas church always followed the same pattern. After forty minutes of preliminaries, the pastor would preach a long-winded sermon. Then there would be a prayer. The congregation would sing a psalm. Next the offering plates would be brought forward; there'd be another prayer; the plates would be passed around and returned to the altar for yet more praying. Finally, the preacher's plump wife would sit down at the piano and accompany herself as she sang an inspiring hymn. Then the preacher would recite the benediction and the service would finally be over.
One Sunday, little Ernie got restless as the plates were being passed. "When is this gonna end?" he whined. "I wanna go home!" His older brother shushed him, reminding him that "Church ain't out till the fat lady sings."
That struck the kinfolk as comical. People weren't supposed to mention the preacher's wife's corpulence. The story was whispered around town to much giggling.
Another true story, thanks to Michael Quinion...
A 1976 booklet called Southern Words and Sayings actually printed the line "Church ain't out till the fat lady sings."
That same year, a Texan named Ralph Carpenter, "one of the world's funniest guys," came up with a variation. He was the sports information director at Texas Tech. In the finals of the Southwest Conference basketball tournament, his team seemed to be on its way to an easy victory. However, Texas A&M came from behind to tie the score at 72-72. Bill Morgan of the SWC said, "Hey, Ralph, this is going to be a tight one after all." Ralph replied, "Right! The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings."
Perhaps Ralph revised the saying because it didn't seem right to joke about "church" in a press box. At any rate, his comment caused an uproar among his colleagues. Two years later another Texan repeated it on national TV, and it became a proverb.
The meaning, of course, is that we shouldn't assume that the outcome has already been determined just because one team is ahead. Until the game is actually finished, the losing team always has a chance to come back and win.
However, there's a website called "World Wide Words." In one entry, Michael Quinion explains how the term "dry run" for a rehearsal may have arisen from certain competitions. (I helped televise such contests back in 1970.)
And in another, he documents the story of "the opera ain't over until the fat lady sings" the one that I've outlined above.
JANUARY 16, 2009 TRANSFER TYPE
JANUARY 10, 2009 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.
JANUARY 8, 2009 AUTOMATION SPARES HARRIED CLERKS
Item in yesterday's newspaper: CALLING IN JOBLESS CLAIM ISN'T EASY, STATE ADMITS.
Item in yesterday's newspaper: SOCIAL SECURITY GOING ONLINE AS BOOM LOOMS IN APPLICATIONS.
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.
JANUARY 6, 2009 HOW'S YOUR NOGGIN?
Pittsburgh Steelers fans appreciate a radio commentator who is verbally inventive. For many years that role was filled by the late Myron Cope, with his interjections (hoom-hah, yoi!) and his intentional mangling of the names of opposing teams (Cincinnati Bungles, Cleve Brownies).
Now the sideline reporter is former Steelers lineman Craig Wolfley, seen here in his younger days. Wolf is also the analyst in the booth for our FSN high school football telecasts. This Syracuse alumnus jokes about his appetite and his memory lapses, and on his way to a high school stadium he always seems to get lost. But what most characterizes him is his colorful language.
He emulates Cope sometimes by using the definite article with a player's last name: "That's beautiful stuff by the Nunley." He uses made-up terms like slobberknock, begoggle, smackeroosky, bounceroosky, and trickeration. He's been known to call fireworks "pyroglyphics." And a couple of weeks ago he referred to a hypothetical concussion as "getting disgortelized in the noggin." We all can relate.
JANUARY 1, 2009 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.