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ArchiveJANUARY 2017



I wrote the following in a letter on December 20, 1993.

We like to believe we’re invulnerable.  We know better, of course, which is why we take precautions; but we can’t spend all our time worrying about the various parts of our bodies that might break or swell or otherwise malfunction.  So we believe that everything’s going to be just fine, although we know that there’s a chance something will go wrong.

An example:  Gerald Posner’s book on the JFK assassination, Case Closed.  After showing that the evidence still points to a disturbed Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, Posner explores why so many people still believe that there were other shots, other conspirators.

He quotes historian William Manchester:  “Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy.  I share their yearning.  ...If you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance.  You want to add something weightier to Oswald.  It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom.  He would have died for something.  A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever that there was one.”

And from another medium, the comics:  Doonesbury for December 9, 1993, has Duke on a computer bulletin board trying to sell “new evidence” to rabid conspiracy theorists.

That somehow reminds me of I Corinthians 15:14,19, for what it’s worth:  “If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so too is your faith.  We of all people are most to be pitied.”  The truth would destroy these people.

“His appeal,” according to an Alan Levinovitz article only two days ago, “lies in the salvific vision he has sold to his supporters — a compelling narrative of paradise past, the fallen present, and a glorious future.  For his followers, it is essential to reinterpret apparent facts so they fit this narrative.  Otherwise, they lose the hope it provides and the dignity they’ve invested in its truth.  And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea.”


JANUARY 27, 2017    APOLLO 1

On this evening 50 years ago, a flash fire erupted inside the Apollo 1 command module during a test on the pad at Cape Kennedy, killing the three astronauts trapped within.  As a college sophomore, I heard about it in the dining hall the next morning.

That summer my family visited Expo 67 in Montréal.  Inside the huge geodesic dome of the United States pavilion, one of the displays featured an earlier Apollo capsule that had parachuted back to earth from an unmanned test mission.  The scorches on the outside of this white spacecraft were the result of the heat of re-entry, but unfortunately they reminded me (and countless other visitors) of the fiery tragedy a few months before.

Manned flights were suspended for nearly two years while NASA engineers redesigned the spacecraft with better wiring insulation, a less oxygen-rich atmosphere, and non-flammable materials in the cabin and the astronauts’ suits.  The hatch on future vehicles could be opened outward in less than five seconds.  Apollo 7 flew in October 1968, and the project eventually met its goal of landing on the moon before the decade was out.



The Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer painted this panel in 1526, during the Reformation.  It depicts the wide-eyed evangelist Mark and the aging apostle Paul.

Bible scholars tell us that Mark was the first to write a gospel.  But where did he get his information?

I’ve only recently learned that some scholars believe his source was Paul.  To give a human dimension to Paul’s heavenly “Christ Jesus,” Mark wrote an allegorical biography of a person here on earth called “Jesus Christ.” [Romans 1:1, Mark 1:1]  Perhaps Mark's earthly Jesus never really existed!

How could this be?  After a great deal of studying and cross-referencing, I’ve written a two-part tale in which I imagine meeting with Mark and Paul in first-century Rome.

The first half is now online.  It’s the latest in my series of rewritten Bible stories, though this one is actually a rewritten story about how the Bible came to be.  I call it Fleshing Out Jesus.



When the science nerds on The Big Bang Theory debate whether theoreticians are “smarter” than engineers, they challenge each other with questions like “According to M-theory, how many dimensions are in a brane multiverse?” or “What is the melting point of praseodymium?”  However, the ability to recite facts merely shows that one is educated, not necessarily “smart” (or innately intelligent).

And when the characters on that show wonder whether something is true, one of them often suggests conducting an experiment to find out.

Of course, the writers are using a bit of dramatic license.  We nerds don’t actually claim to be smarter than non-nerds, nor do we propose small-scale experiments on a weekly basis.

But it has been known to happen.  When I was a junior in high school, I noticed that my moods varied from day to day, so I decided to experiment on myself by keeping a chart.

During the year 1964, I estimated my mood every evening on a scale of 1 (very grumpy) to 10 (perfect).  After writing down the Mood Estimates (MEs), I traced my “moodogram” on a long strip of paper.

I did anticipate finding one pattern in my data:  a seven-day cycle.  Moods should vary somewhat depending on the day of the week.  However, we’d expect much greater influences from events (pleasant or unpleasant) and from randomness (reasons unknown).

I recorded some “perfect days” with ME = 10.  One of them was Tuesday, February 10.  My parents took Terry Rockhold and Carl Martin and me to St. John Arena in Columbus to see an Ohio State basketball game.  And what a game it was!  The Buckeyes defeated Illinois 110-92 as Gary Bradds set an OSU record by scoring 49 points.

Later that year, the portion of the chart reproduced below shows that “Fantasia” on April 23 (the high school’s Mixed Chorus concert featuring the musical Pal Joey) was a high point for me.  So was the first Saturday in May, when students went to Westerville for the state scholarship test and then returned home for the annual Richwood Relays track event.

But that was followed by The Week.  I had the responsibility of chairing the Decoration Committee for the Junior-Senior Prom, so my moods were low during the busy days leading up to it.

Afterwards, my moods gradually recovered.  I have no record of why I was so elated on May 17.

On the part of the chart not shown, I recorded my ME on June 10 as a medium-high 7.  Surprisingly, that was the day my father's business burned.  Other days were lower, though I didn’t ascribe reasons to them until a “year-end letdown” on December 23.

So was there a weekly cycle?  Yes, but not an overpowering one.  I averaged my 52 MEs for Mondays, 52 MEs for Tuesdays, and so on.  Sundays turned out to have the highest average with ME = 5.08.  Wednesdays were lowest at 4.13.

I was happier on the weekend (4.84 Friday through Sunday) than during the week (4.33 Monday through Thursday).  That’s a rather small range.  But the qualitative result is not unexpected; we are often least happy on Wednesdays, when we have to console ourselves that it’s “Over-the-Hump Day.”

I’ve recently re-analyzed my data in relation to two hypotheses.  Each predicts a cycle of moods/emotions.  (I assert that moods and emotions are equivalent.) 

Hypothesis A is based on “biorhythm” theory, which would become a fad a few years later but has since been discredited.  In the 1970s, some people were tracking their cycles like astrologers.  You supposedly are controlled by three sine waves that begin oscillating at the moment of birth:  a 23-day physical cycle, a 28-day emotional cycle, and a 33-day intellectual cycle.  If all three are favorable, you’re going to have a good day.

That’s ridiculous, of course.  Over the course of your lifetime you would expect each cycle to slip a day or so occasionally, so the mere fact that you’ve counted precisely 13,505 days on earth doesn’t determine your present state.  Physiologist Gordon Stein called biorhythms a hoax, “just another pseudoscientific claim that people are willing to accept without required evidence.  Those pushing biorhythm calculators and books on a gullible public are guilty of making fraudulent claims.”

Be that as it may, Hypothesis A would predict a 28-day emotional cycle (the smooth gold curve) starting 6,160 days before New Year’s Day 1964, or exactly 220 cycles from the day I was born.  Each blue diamond represents the average of 13 MEs, four weeks apart.  But the chart shows no relationship between my scattered diamonds and the biorhythmic theory.

Hypothesis B predicts a day-of-the-week cycle.  The curve on the right has been aligned to start on Friday.  The blue days from my moodogram data tend to support the hypothesis.  (Exception: my 4.64 Saturday ME falls far below the curve, perhaps because I wasn’t very active socially.)

But this is certainly not scientific proof of anything.  There are only 366 data points, much too small a sample to draw any conclusions.  The points represent subjective estimates from only a single nerdish individual. Your moods may vary.


JANUARY 18, 2017    ROY G. BIV?  WYC G. MRB!

Way back in 1953, the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) published a protocol for color television that would be compatible with the black-and-white TVs already in use in the United States.

RCA engineers (right) had created a color TV picture tube, and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers designed a test pattern that could be used to calibrate color TV signals.  It consisted of vertical bars composed of 2 on/off states of each of the 3 primary colors of light, which can be combined in 23 = 8 ways to make 8 colors (seven hues plus black).































Why was this test pattern necessary?  NTSC signals, being analog, were seemingly Never Twice Same Color.  When the chroma information slipped out of phase, incorrect hues resulted.

The two examples on the left are about five degrees off in either direction.

Look at the second bar from the left, which is supposed to be yellow.  One example appears too green and the other too red, but how do we know what’s correct?  Try to split the difference?

At home, people would adjust their tint control until faces looked right.

In TV production trucks, I often worked with professional monitors that had a “blue” button to switch off the red and green channels, leaving only the blue.

If the monitor was incorrectly set up, the cyan and magenta bars would not have the same intensity of blue, as in the upper example of an extreme misadjustment.  So I’d turn the tint knob until they matched, as in the lower example.

Also, if the white and blue bars didn’t have the same intensity of blue, I’d turn the color knob.

Now that television has become digital, color-bar adjustments are no longer necessary.  However, the time-honored bars still show up occasionally.

For TV executive Fred Silverman’s 2009 presentation at his alma mater (and mine), Syracuse University, this poster depicted a network television schedule using the seven colors for the seven days of the week.

At my apartment, I’ve honored the tradition by using the same scheme to label the dry-erase board on which I keep my to-do calendar.  Sunday is white, Monday is yellow, and so on.

And to help remind me which day it is today, there’s a pole light accenting a magnifier and a bobblehead in one corner of my living room.

When Sunday becomes Monday, I switch off the blue bulb, and so on.  The primary colors still live!



On its high-definition channel, PBS is still occasionally running (at odd hours) a 1998 explanation of digital television by Robert Cringely.  He promotes the wonders of this new technical advance while talking with various folks, including two PBS personalities who are no longer with us, Fred Rogers and Julia Child.

One digital advantage is the much-touted concept of interactive TV.  Using your remote control, you could click on icons on your screen to bring up other, more detailed information, such as the chef's recipe or the manufacturer's specifications.

Advertisers have shown mild interest in the idea.  It might entice viewers to click away from the show they're watching and instead see an ad for their product.  Techno-geeks rhapsodize over other applications like the possibility of choosing alternate camera angles.

But on Cringely's program, documentarian Ken Burns raises some objections.  Television professionals work hard to select the best images and arrange them to tell a story.  Are we now going to encourage the viewer to click away from this story to look at other images or to wander aimlessly through a database?

Fortunately, nine years later, interactive television still hasn't caught on in America.  We watch a TV program straight through, as its creators intended.  (Well, maybe we use TiVo to pause it or rewind it, but we're still watching just the program.)  Then after it's over, if we want more details we can use our computer to find them on the Internet.



The editor of the Richwood Gazette published this opinion 126 years ago, warning about permissive parenting in “these modern days.”

January 15, 1891

If you want to ruin an impulsive boy, give him plenty of pocket money.  The recipe is infallible.  It has often been tried and always with the same unhappy results.

By the time a boy is eight years old, the little solon on wealth has found the soft side of Pa and Ma.  By age ten, they will carry bank bills in their pockets; and by age 14, they are content with nothing less than well-stuffed pocketbooks.

Every father and mother knows this is wrong.  Say what they may about the harsh, austere, uncompromising old Puritans, their stern family discipline was better than the indulgence by which children are “spoiled” in these modern days.

Fifteen years later, my hometown weekly newspaper again ventured to offer its editorial observations about adolescent economics.

November 2, 1916

Few young men care to have their father as the boss.  The sons of several farmers in the vicinity are working for contractors thereabouts at a lower rate of wages than their own father is paying farm laborers on the homestead.

In their younger days, they had enough of dictation from that source, and they yearn for change, just as the Prodigal Son may have done in his day.

A more mighty reason:  Working for a contractor, he knows that his day will consist of a specific number of hours.  At the end of the day, he will have nothing to do until tomorrow.  Working for his father, the day begins at sunrise and lasts until dad is ready to quit for the night.



There’s a full moon tonight!

In the wee hours of yesterday morning, Tracey Moody posted the photo on the left, remarking “My, you are proud tonight, my radiant idol.”  On a previous occasion she had written:

The Moon showed up to my doorstep this weekend, the brightest I’d seen him in a while.  The visit wasn’t an anomaly, but neither was it written in my schedule.

As I rushed out onto the lawn, I lost my footing, trusting the grass was still where I last saw it.  I blushingly told him, “Pardon my excitement, but I didn’t know you were coming,” fearing I appeared to be lacking grace.  I gazed at him, he gazed back, both unbroken, and baring our skin.

The thing about the Moon is, he has work to do.  He has tides to pull, forests to gently light, and travels to guide.  He bears the burden of the world, even on those nights I feel he’s just shining on me.

Best not get too whimsical, there’s no rope that can lasso the Moon.  Nor should the Moon compromise all of the harmony of the world so that he can have me.

A science skeptic prepared a graphic posing the question on the right.  His “gotcha” tone implies he doesn’t believe what he’s been told.

Scientists tell us the Moon glows because it’s illuminated by the Sun.  However, some people say the experts can’t be trusted.  Perhaps the glow of “the lesser light to rule the night” comes from the halo of the angel who dwells inside.

First off, I haven’t seen the skeptic’s evidence that moonlit areas are colder than shaded areas.  But if that’s true, here’s my explanation.

Apparently the measurements are being made on a winter night.  It must be a clear night, because otherwise there would be no shadows — no difference between moonlight and moonshade.

To begin the experiment, a thermometer is exposed to the night sky, into which the day’s heat is escaping by radiation.  It’s chilly out there in the moonlight.  Clear nights, when we’re not insulated beneath a blanket of clouds, are the coldest.

However, under a nearby tree, another thermometer is in a sheltered area.  There, as any gardener knows, it’s less likely to freeze, being protected from losing so much heat.  It reads a slightly higher temperature.

But wouldn’t the first thermometer be warmed by the moonlight striking it?  Not enough to notice.  Moonlight is much weaker than sunlight. 

The lunar surface is dark gray.  In this view from the DSCOVR spacecraft that’s stationed a million miles closer to the Sun, the Moon is passing in front of the Earth, possibly eclipsing the Sun for some Earthlings.  From this angle we can see what Earthlings call the “far side” of the Moon.  It’s illuminated by the Sun, but it nevertheless appears very dark.

At best (that is, during a full moon like tonight, when the Moon is on the opposite end of its orbit from this picture), only 12% of the sunlight that hits the Moon gets reflected back toward Earth.  There’s not enough infrared energy in that faint light to raise the thermometer’s reading appreciably.



You may have seen one of these low-tech calendars. 

The two digits of the date are displayed on the faces of two cubes, which can be rearranged to form all the dates from 01 through 31.

At first, you might think that the first cube has digits up to 3, while the other cube has all ten digits from 0 through 9, as shown in the table at the right. 

But that can't be, because a cube has only six faces, not ten.  Some of those ten digits that we need to see on the right must be hiding on the left cube, awaiting a swap to the other side.

How exactly are the digits distributed on the cube faces?  Click here for the answer.

Cube A

Cube B























In an average 24-hour day, we now can choose from 29.7 nationally televised sports events.

Last week, Michael Mulvihill tweeted the numbers that I've graphed at the right.  The annual number of telecasts more than tripled in twelve years, from 3,144 in 2004 to 10,869 in 2016.  Last year's total was up 7.9% from the year before.

And in a possibly related statistic, Darren Rovell tweeted that the average viewership for 2016 Sunday Night Football was 20.3 million viewers.  That’s down 9.7% from the year before.


It's a winter afternoon.

Low in the southwestern sky, a pale sun casts long shadows across the gray landscape.  The day is almost over.

I check my watch.  It's 2:00 pm.


about these flashbacks 

For its first six years, this website emulated a magazine.  Each month I'd publish a new “edition” with several featured articles.

Then, ten years ago, it became more of a blog, with a new post every few days.

Now, with a decade of posts in the Archive, I'm starting to flash back to some of them.  They're articles “of enduring significance,” as Readers Digest used to claim, and will be reprised here on their tenth birthday.



I found this picture of a Lego construction.  The design inspired me to return once again to a problem in Biblical geometry and to come up with another solution, which I've called Configuration 2.

I’ve inserted that new suggestion into my 2003 discussion of King Solomon’s Pi.

That updated essay thereby becomes this month's 100 Moons article.



Welcome to Cold & Flu Season.  When you get a tickle in your nose, you'll sniffle and then snort violently.

To people in the Middle Ages, these rude noises sounded like “f-f-f-f-knees!”  They desired to write down a word that might describe this involuntary expulsion of air.

Ignoring the cat’s polite suggestion, they decided to call the event a “fnese.”

But then printing was invented.  If somebody's fnese was to be mentioned in a book, the word had to be set in type.

Alas, typesetting at the time had a peculiar requirement.  When a printer needed an “s,” except at the end of a word, he reached into his lower case and pulled out a “long s.”  That medieval letter was supposed to resemble an “s” in the handwriting of the time, but it's very similar to an “f.”

Can you detect the difference between these two words?  Look closely.  Only the first of the tall letters has a crossbar that goes all the way across the vertical stroke.  It’s an “f.”  Each of the other three is a “long s.”

Modern readers expect characters like this to have a full-width crossbar, so all four characters look like “f” to us.  But they aren’t; the two words (in modern typography) are “fnese” and “snese.”

The original printing of the Declaration of Independence appears to promote the Purfuit of Happinefs while caftigating George III for his perfiftent refufals.  That’s our modern mifunderftanding.

The oppofite mifunderftanding occurred earlier, when early printers set in type.

Early readers failed to notice the tiny little crossbar on the first letter.  The combination “fn” seemed unlikely, so this word must surely begin with “sn.”  They mispronounced the word as “snese.”  In due time the spelling became “sneeze.”

That's the explanation that Paul Anthony Jones gives on Mental Floss, anyway.  He also says “a nickname” used to be “an eke-name,” meaning “an also-name.”  And he learned all this from Oxford scholars, so it must be true.