DECEMBER 31, 2009 THE DARK CURTAIN
Now, on the last day of the year, as our daylight hours have dwindled to a minimum, let us look at the earth at night, revealed in this well-known composite of satellite photographs.
Let us take a closer look at North America. In the Eastern and Central time zones, virtually all the land has been illuminated, in one form or another, by the electric light. But the same cannot be said for the western half.
As Winston Churchill almost said, in his famous 1946 Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri:
Tonight, let us imagine ourselves in one of those cold dark places, far from civilization, where one can still see the stars at night. Let us imagine ourselves looking up in solitude at the eternal night sky.
LET NOT MAN
Last night NBC rebroadcast the September 17 season premiere of Amy Poehlers sitcom, Parks and Recreation.
In this episode, her character Leslie Knope promoted the local zoo with cute faux ceremonies for the animals, such as birthday parties or graduations. There was a wedding for Tux and Flipper, a pair of newly acquired penguins. But then someone pointed out that both penguins were male.
(Some fundamentalists, convinced that homosexuality is a deliberate sin against God's law that only willful humans can commit, refuse to believe that God could have created gay penguins. But apparently He did. And penguins mate for life.)
The Society for Family Stability Foundation, accusing the zoo of endorsing gay marriage, demanded that Leslie separate the penguins, annul the marriage, reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the wedding, and then resign.
She did none of that; instead, she transferred the birds to a zoo in Iowa, where gay marriage is legal.
During the commercial breaks, the writer in me couldnt resist sketching out a serious speech for Leslie.
DECEMBER 29, 2009 PLAYOFFS?! ONE CHANCE IN SEVEN
Will the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers make the NFL playoffs this season? The odds are against it. Heres how I estimate the probability.
The regular season will end this Sunday. In their final game, the 8-7 Steelers must win at Miami. Lets assume they have a 50-50 chance of doing so.
But to earn an AFC wild card berth, they'll need help. There are four other 8-7 teams, and at least two and maybe three of them must not win on Sunday. Those teams are Houston, Baltimore, Denver, and the New York Jets. Each is favored by at least a touchdown. Lets assume each has a 60-40 chance of winning.
After Pittsburgh and Houston have played their 1:00 games, there are three possible situations leading into Sunday's later contests.
Under Scenario A, the Steelers have zero chance of making the playoffs.
Under Scenario B, the Steelers make the playoffs only if Baltimore and Denver both lose at 4:15 and the Jets lose at 8:20. The probability of any one of these favorites losing is .40, so the probability of all three losing is a slim .40 x .40 x .40 = .064. Multiplied by the 30% probability of Scenario B happening at all, this gives the Steelers a 1.92% chance of making the playoffs via this unlikely route.
Scenario C is more plausible. Here, the Steelers get in if either Baltimore loses at 4:15 or the Jets lose at 8:20. To calculate that probability, from 1 we subtract the probability of the opposite outcome (both winning), which is 1 minus .60 x .60, which is .640. Multiplied by the 20% probability of Scenario C happening, this gives the Steelers a 12.80% chance of making the playoffs this way.
Adding up the three possible scenarios (0% + 1.92% + 12.80%), we see that the Steelers probability of moving on to postseason play is only 14.72%.
So what about today's KDKA-TV report in which Carnegie Mellon University mathematics professor John Mackey comes up with a probability three times as big? He starts with different assumptions.
"One event is the Steelers win," he says. "Now, we know that this is fairly certain." So he gives them a 100% chance of winning and rephrases the question to this: After the Steelers win, what are their playoff chances? Then he gives each of the other four teams only a 50% chance of winning, instead of my more realistic estimate of 60%.
The "Pittsburgh will win" assumption doubles the probability that they'll make the playoffs. The "50% instead of 60%" assumption multiplies it by a factor of about 1½. If I had used those optimistic predictions, I too would have arrived at 43.75%.
DECEMBER 26, 2009 'TIS THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
On the second day before the holiday, our hockey announcers wanted to express the number 9 in the Twelve Days of Christmas format. But no one was sure what the ninth gift was supposed to be. Nine lords a-milking? Probably not. Two members of the production staff looked it up on the Internet. One found nine ladies dancing; the other found nine drummers drumming. I had not realized that there are different versions.
On the first day before Christmas, I went online myself and learned more about this song.
DECEMBER 22, 2009 SUNSET AT RICHWOOD LAKE
DECEMBER 20, 2009
Betty White understands what Nikita meant.
I finally got around to watching the October 29 episode of the NBC comedy 30 Rock, in which the much younger Tracy Jordan hopes he will outlive Betty. Nice try, Jordan! she retorts. But I am going to be at your funeral. I will bury you.
The allusion was to a famous remark by Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union. As a Communist, Khrushchev believed what Karl Marx taught: in the same way that feudalism was replaced by capitalism, eventually capitalism will be superseded by communism.
At a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956, Khrushchev spoke to Western diplomats about the idea of peaceful coexistence. Whether we exist doesn't depend on you. If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.
We will bury you! Paranoid Americans took this as a direct threat. I remember that politicians like Barry Goldwater exploited our fears. Time put a belligerent Khrushchev on its cover, a hydrogen bomb exploding behind him. He was depicted as dangerously aggressive, an arrogant bully who planned to utterly destroy America and bury us under the earth.
Even as a young boy at the time, I realized We will bury you meant We will attend your funeral, not We will cause your funeral. Khrushchev was predicting that America would collapse of its own accord, due to internal faults like class warfare and immorality, while the Soviet Union would survive. In Marxs view, the Western economic system inevitably dies a natural death, and the proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism. Khrushchev was merely saying, When you are dead and ready for the grave, the Soviet Union will be there to do the burying.
DECEMBER 14, 2009 JESUS TURNS ON HIS DISCIPLES
I've retold yet another Bible story in the first person. Perhaps Transfiguration is even more outrageous than my previous four tales, but it could well describe what really happened on that mountain.
DECEMBER 9, 2009 CHANNEL 4 ACTION NEWS
It used to be that WTAE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh, was Channel 4. No matter whether you used cable or an antenna, for ABC you tuned to Channel 4.
Nowadays its not that simple.
The first complication came when, to avoid interference between broadcast 4 and cable 4, Comcast Cable moved its version of the station to cable channel 8.
Then digital high-definition television came along. WTAE-DT began broadcasting on UHF channel 51. If you have an antenna and a DTV receiver, the HD signal appears as channel 4.1, but if you have Comcast and a cable box, it appears as channel 210.
Because much of Pittsburgh cant receive WTAE-DT on channel 51, the station fills the gaps with a repeater transmitter at a different location and on a different frequency, channel 22. If you have a DTV receiver, this shows up as channel 4.3.
Analog over-the-air broadcasts on channel 4 have now ended. But Comcast continues to use analog cable channel 8 for a standard-definition version of WTAE-TV.
The cable company also carries that same SD version as a digital channel. To view it, you tune your Comcast digital cable box to channel 008. Or you feed the cable (instead of an antenna) to the input of your DTV receiver and tune it to QAM channel 81-5.
These digital versions are gradually taking over. To record programs on tape or disk, I once used analog tuners almost exclusively, but many of the analog channels have been eliminated (to save bandwidth) in favor of digital. Im now starting to use a QAM tuner to feed my DVD recorder.
Ive tried to sort out these complexities by making a detailed list of what I have available on cable. Heres a small part of it. The HD channels are in the first column. The second column is the QAM channel. Finally comes the SD digital cable channel; if the number has fewer than three digits, its also available as an analog cable channel for my recorders and smaller TVs.
To recap: the local ABC affiliate is now on either 4.1 or 4.3 or 8 or 008 or 22 or 51 or 81-5 or 210, depending on your mode of reception. On satellite, it might have yet another designation. If you want to convert these channels to actual frequencies in megahertz, you get a different set of numbers. The old analog channel 4 is no longer among your choices.
You have the right to be confused.
But to minimize the confusion, the station still calls itself Channel 4. Most other stations likewise continue to identify themselves with time-honored digits that are no longer related to their actual frequencies. Is that clear?
DECEMBER 2, 2009 RAINLAND
Youve heard of the Viking explorer and real estate salesman known as Eric the Red. To entice settlers from Iceland to move to his new project, he named it Greenland. Later his son, Leif Ericsson, also became a famous explorer.
You may not know about the rest of Erics family. He had two daughters, Helga Ericsdottir and Freydis Ericsdottir. There was also another son, Rudy Ericsson, who was called Rudolph the Red because of his resemblance to his dad.
After Eric the Red and his family established a settlement on Greenland in the year 986, his son Rudy sent for his new wife to join him. However, when she arrived, she discovered she had been the victim of her father-in-laws false advertising. This land wasnt green. On the contrary, it was covered by a huge glacier. And the weather was even more inhospitable than it had been back home.
Rudy tried to convince his bride that Greenland wasnt as gloomy as she thought. Youll see, he said. Conditions will improve once the rainy season is over.
Rainy season?! she exclaimed. This stuff falling from the clouds isnt rain. Its frozen!
No, its rain, he reassured her.
Its sleet and snow!
But her husband was insistent. Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.
NOVEMBER 30, 2009 CROSSING WORDS
Having gone to the trouble of solving certain Sunday crossword puzzles from the New York Times, edited by Will Shortz, Ive saved some of the interesting results.
For example, one puzzle went nuts over these eight 15-letter phrases. Count the different letters in each phrase. What odd characteristic do they share?
Other puzzles contain humorous little verses, composed under very strict rules. Not only must they have four rhyming lines, each line must contain (not counting spaces or punctuation marks) exactly 21 letters. Here are four from the late Frances Hansen.
And finally there was this magnum opus, requiring eight lines, 23 letters per line, and two authors, Dave J. Kahn and Hillary B. Kahn.
NOVEMBER 25, 2009 EXTRA
News report: California growers are developing large-scale olive tree farms to undercut Europes domination of the oil market.
The story mentioned extra-virgin olive oil, a term that's always puzzled me. I tried to reason it out. If virgin olive oil has never gone all the way, has extra-virgin oil never even gone to second base? What would any of that mean, anyway?
And what would non-virgin oil be? In what way has it been sullied, its virtue defamed? Perhaps it's used cooking oil. The little bits of food have been skimmed off and filtered out, and the oil has been recycled.
Well, I finally decided to look it up. No, non-virgin oil has not been defiled by prior experience in the kitchen. However, I was partly right: it has, in fact, been filtered and refined to artificially reduce extraneous flavors and acidity. But virgin oil is all-natural, straight from the fruit. Extra-virgin applies to virgin oil that naturally happens to have less acidity and a better taste. And none of it has even reached first base.
NOVEMBER 19, 2009 OMG!
More than four decades later, I've decided that ESP is highly unlikely, in part because no one has repeated that secret story to me. So here it is.
NOVEMBER 17, 2009 SUNDAY DRIVING
Six years ago on this site, I wrote of my childhood as follows.
This fall, the Maine-based producers of the Discovery HD Theater series Sunrise Earth introduced a new morning series called SunRides Earth. In the first episode, a high-definition camera rides the roads of Maines Acadia National Park. Sometimes the vehicle moves at normal speeds; sometimes it slows to a walk for a better look. Theres no narration. The only story line is an occasional graphic that shows the remaining distance to the destination, which turns out to be a parking area at the top of Cadillac Mountain.
NOVEMBER 11, 2009 THE MONSTER OF THE ALLEGHENY
Sunday was a nice day in Pittsburgh, so I drove to the North Shore and took a walk to see some sights.
A helicopter was hovering over the Allegheny River, filming a River Rescue boat for a scene in the new Russell Crowe movie, The Next Three Days. Replicas of the Niña and the Pinta, two ships from the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, were tied up outside Jerome Bettis' Grille 36, where I ate lunch. A few hundred yards downstream, the new Rivers Casino was open. And in between, a pier from the 1915 Manchester Bridge once again has a purpose.
NOVEMBER 8, 2009 AS SEEN ON TV
Last weekend while surfing through the cable channels, I found myself watching a movie: the 1998 restoration of the 1958 film noir Touch of Evil, directed by and starring Orson Welles as a corrupt police captain.
NOVEMBER 2, 2009 WE ARE THE WORLD
Why is Major League Baseballs championship called the World Series, although teams from other countries like Japan arent invited?
According to snopes.com, since the beginning of professional baseball teams engaged in exhibitions and unofficial regional playoffs after the end of regular-season play. For example, in 1882 the new American Association's champion, Cincinnati, played a pair of exhibition games against the National League's champion, Chicago. Two years later, after the NL had acknowledged the legitmacy of the AA, the first official postseason interleague series was played.
But what should it be called? As Spaldings Base Ball Guide explained, both leagues entitle their championship contests each season as those for the base ball championship of the United States. Therefore, when the two United States champions met, they had to be playing for something even grander. A new name like Super Bowl had to be invented. Spaldings Guide called the 1886 series The Worlds Championship. The Reach Guide referred to it as The Great Worlds Series to decide the championship of the world.
Through 1890, the National League won four of these World Series and the American Association one, with two ties. But then the AA folded.
A decade later, a junior circuit called the American League began crowning champions. In 1903, the modern World Series between NL and AL pennant-winners began. Ive pointed out, elsewhere on this website, the location in Pittsburgh where that Series was contested.