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DECEMBER\NOVEMBER 2015

 

DEC. 28, 2015    ROW BRIDGE, LOW BRIDGE

Less than a mile from my apartment, there’s a Bridge Street without a bridge.  How come?  My explanation is in an article called Everybody Down!

 

DEC. 22, 2015    54 YEARS AGO

What did Christmas Day sound like at my house when I was a freshman in high school?  The answer is in this month’s 100 Moons article.  Among other highlights, I played the electronic organ, and my father tried to sing along.

 
DEC. 17, 2015    3D?  4K?  NO THANKS, I'M GOOD

Television manufacturers, having failed to convince enough of us to invest in three-dimensional TVs, have essentially given up on that idea.  They’ve moved on from 3D to 4K.

“Ultra HD,” or 4K, boasts over eight million pixels.  That's four times as many as HD.  To accommodate so many tiny dots, the screen has to be bigger — too large for my little one-person apartment.  Besides, as far as I'm concerned, ordinary HD usually offers enough detail.

One exception:  classic CinemaScope movies designed to fill huge theaters in a 16:6 aspect ratio, such as 1955’s Oklahoma!

When CinemaScope is letterboxed to fit a 16:9 TV screen, group scenes become too small to clearly show facial expressions.

I move closer to the screen, but I wish I had more pixels.

I also get along fine without 3D, both for TV and for movies.  Production techniques can be employed to depict the third dimension without requiring special glasses.

In this clip, notice how lighting, focus, and smooth camera movement clearly separate the King’s Singers from the choir in the background and from the flowers in the foreground.  It’s a beautiful feeling of depth.

(Also beautiful:  the final verse.  Are you listening, white Christians who so furiously rage against any and all Samaritans?  “Truly He taught us to love one another.  His law is love.  And His gospel is peace.”)

 

DEC. 13, 2015    WHAT IS IT, GIRL?

An episode earlier this year of ABC’s sitcom Last Man Standing began with a couple trying to sleep.  The neighbor’s dog was barking again.  The first 17 seconds of dialogue included three very dated jokes.

“Somebody’s got to muzzle that dog, or rescue Timmy from the well.”  (The character Timmy first appeared on the TV series Lassie in 1957.  He was played by Jon Provost, here on Cloris Leachman’s lap.)

“It’s Larabee’s German shepherd.  Every morning this week!  Damn dog’s giving Germans a bad name.”  (Germany was our enemy in 1917-18 and 1941-45.)

“I’m surprised the Shirazis’ French poodle hasn’t surrendered.”  (France surrendered to the invading Germans in 1940.)

Are comedy writers so lazy that they can’t come up with more recent references?  Perhaps to events that took place during the target audience’s lifetime?

Of course, I shouldn't be complaining.  They might fall back on even older allusions, such as “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

 

DEC. 8, 2015    ALARMED CLICHÉS

“Wake up, America!  Some people actually disagree with me!  They have attitudes they're trying to shove down our throats!”  That’s the frantic warning in many embittered letters to the editor and postings on social media.

For example, someone called dankies213 wrote:  “People are always complaining that they don't like religion shoved down their throat, when Hollywood shoves beauty and ‘looking good’ down our throats and no one complains about that really.”

And someone named David Nedlin posted last week:  “Maybe now some people will wake up & listen to me when I say we have to deport & eliminate ALL Muslims & Gather up ALL illegal firearms & execute their owners.  Think that’s too extreme?  Maybe someday a loved one of yours will be SHOT DEAD & then you may change your mind.  Wake up, people — or you will be next!”

(It’s far more likely that someday a loved one of yours will be killed in a highway accident.  Every day, 100 innocent Americans lose their lives that way!  I’ve had two co-workers who died driving to jobs.  Should we “wake up” before it's too late?  Should we get rid of all the cars?)

I’m tired of being told that I’m being duped, because others are somehow forcing me to swallow their ideas.  I’m tired of being told that I’m sleeping through reality, because I’m hesitant to “eliminate” all Muslims and kill gun owners.

At a minimum, we need new metaphors.

We need a lot else besides.

 

DEC. 2, 2015    REVERSE GROUNDHOG DAY

The Pittsburgh region experienced its warmest November since 1931, and it still hasn't snowed here.  Zelienople Zeke, a groundhog I just made up, predicts six more weeks of autumn before the really abominable weather arrives.  Let’s hope he’s right. 

At the end of last snow season, Scott Sturgis wrote a column on “lessons learned from winter driving.”  I’m happy to say that I followed all three of his insights (slow down, use an all-wheel-drive car, and respect the laws of physics), and I didn’t have any trouble.  When the frozen precipitation finally does arrive this time, let’s hope everything goes equally smoothly.

 

NOV. 26, 2015    HELLO, FTP?

The company hosting this website has changed its name, leading to minor difficulties in connecting with the newly-named server to upload my pages.

Therefore, there may be delays before you see my latest postings.  But I don’t have time right now to troubleshoot the issue.

You see, this week I’ve been preparing graphics for the big WPIAL football extravaganza.  Tomorrow is our “set day” to load them into the TV remote truck at Heinz Field.  Then on Saturday, for the ninth straight year, I’ll be behind the keyboard for our ROOT Sports telecasts of regional high school championship games in four different classes.  It’s a 17-hour work day with no meal breaks.

This will probably be the last year for the quadruple-header in its current format.  Pennsylvania is adding two more classes for high school football next season, and there’s no way we can televise six games in one day.  Four is hard enough.  But the WPIAL is considering alternate arrangements, so we’ll see what develops.

Meanwhile, by next week I should have recovered, and my website should be back to its normal schedule of no more than six days between updates.

 

NOV. 20, 2015    THE MINSTREL OF THE DAWN

I was a morning radio disk jockey, briefly, back in 1968.  One day a week on campus radio station WOBC near Cleveland, I played Top 40 hits on Sunrise! from 6:00 to 8:00 AM.

The station had been silent for several hours when I fired up the transmitter at 5:59, read the sign-on continuity, and played my first record.  Almost all of my fellow students were still in bed, upstairs in their various dormitories, and I was theoretically waking them up.  I imagined myself as their alarm clock.

What was that first record?  It varied from week to week, of course.  But when Gordon Lightfoot released a certain album a couple of years later, the thought occurred to me:  Had this been in the record library when I was a DJ, the first song on it would have been a good opening theme.

It begins quietly, without introduction.  Gordon Lightfoot breaks the morning silence by proclaiming:

The minstrel of the dawn is here
To make you laugh and bend your ear.
Up the steps you'll hear him climb,
All full of thoughts, all full of rhyme.
Listen to the pictures flow.
Across the room, into your mind they go.
Listen to the strings;
They jangle and dangle
While the old guitar rings.

“He’s trying to get into things more happy than blue,” Lightfoot explains.  Then his 12-string guitar picks up the tempo, leading toward the happier, more energetic rock tunes I would play on Sunrise!

But I worried about the mention in the lyrics of Stepin Fetchit, "The Laziest Man in the World," a shambling black character portrayed in old movies by Will Rogers’s friend Lincoln Perry.  Should we be celebrating this racist stereotype?  It wasn't until recently, more than four decades later, that I did a little research on Stepin Fetchit.

By the 1960s, Perry had left that character behind.  Now, he said, “I do stand-up comedy.  No takes from the old movies.  That age is gone.”

Once he was performing in Cleveland.  “My wife and I were just voted the good-neighbor award.  We even went out and burned our own cross.  My grandfather was one of the first politicians in Mississippi.  Yeah, he ran for the borders.”   (Quotes from Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit, by Champ Clark.)  Lightfoot was singing in another club across the street.  He caught Perry’s act several times.  Knowing this allows us a poignant perspective on the lyrics, which I’ve rearranged somewhat.   

A minstrel of the dawn is near,
Just like a Step'n Fetchit here.
He's like an old-time troubadour,
Just wanting life and nothing more.
A minstrel of the changin' tide,
He'll ask for nothing but his pride.
Like me and you,
He's tryin' to get into things
More happy than blue.

The minstrel of the dawn is he.
Not too wise, but oh so free.
He'll talk of life out on the street.
He'll play it sad and say it sweet.
Look into his shining face;
Of loneliness you'll always find a trace.
Just like me and you,
He's tryin' to get into things
More happy than blue.

The minstrel of the dawn is gone.
I hope he'll call before too long.
And if you meet him, you must be
The victim of his minstrelsy.
He'll sing for you a song,
The minstrel of the dawn.

  

     

NOV. 14, 2015    A CAMERA ON A WALL?

Preparing for this year’s visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis, a technician adjusts a remote-controlled high-definition television camera inside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

You know, when I was in high school I “invented” a wall-mounted TV camera like this.  Our compact incommodious gymnasium would have had no room for anything larger.

The story, one of the first I wrote specifically for this website, is this month’s 100 Moons article.


 

NOV. 8, 2015    RED STATES, GREEN STATES

As an eighth-grade student in 1960, I followed the unusually close Presidential election campaign.  From school I had obtained the map you see below.  I added little rectangles for the states of Alaska and Hawaii, which were too new to have outlines of their own.  For each state I wrote in its number of electoral votes.

Then, 55 years ago tonight, I was glued to the TV as the returns came in.  Whenever Walter Cronkite and his colleagues called a state for Republican Richard Nixon, I colored in that state with a red pencil.  And when they declared that Democrat John F. Kennedy had won a state, I used a green pencil.  (Had I been aware of 21st-century coloring rules, these would have been blue states, not green.)

When I had to go to bed — we did have school the next day, you know — the results of some far western states were still uncertain.  Alaska hadn’t been called at all, and California and Hawaii had been called incorrectly, as it turned out.

What about that area in Mississippi and Alabama that I colored chartreuse?  Most people there had sworn never to vote for a hated Yankee from the Republican party, “the party of Lincoln.”  But they didn’t like the liberal Democratic nominee either.  Their uncommitted electoral votes eventually went to a conservative Democrat, Harry Byrd of Virginia.  Nevertheless, Kennedy was elected, in large part because the key state of Illinois narrowly remained green.

The liberal Democrats subsequently passed civil rights legislation.  That provoked Southern bigots to abandon the party and actually vote Republican.  Eight years later, when Nixon ran again, only two states south of West Virginia went to Democrat Hubert Humphrey.  Even today the South consists mostly of red states.

 

NOV. 2, 2015    TUBES

Construct an empty tube from here to there.  Insert a cylinder containing documents, or even people.  Use compressed air to push the cylinder from one end to the other.

It’s a simple concept that powered New York City’s first subway.  It also powered New York's pneumatic tube mail, which carried letters from downtown to Harlem in only 20 minutes under the streets.  The early subway closed in 1873 and the mail system in 1953, but when I was a boy, an Ohio department store still used pneumatic tubes to whoosh customers’ money upstairs to the office and return with their change.

Many bank branches employ this technology even today.  We used to drive up to a bank branch's window and pass things back and forth to the teller using a sliding drawer.  Nowadays tubes and intercoms allow us to interact with a teller who can be somewhere else inside the building.

This bank in nearby Russellton, PA, needed a drive-through like that, but the only available land was across the river.  Excuse me, across Little Deer Creek.  Solution: bridge the creek with an 80-foot tube.  Mega-pneumatics in action.


 

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