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APRIL 28, 2007     REBOOT!

I appreciate the fact that every time I get in my car and turn the key, the engine starts and I can drive off immediately.

If cars were more like computers, the process would not always be so easy.  "Warning!" my car would announce.  "A critical update has been released for your anti-lock braking system (ABS).  As the matter is safety-related, we strongly recommend that you download this free software patch before operating your vehicle.  Estimated download time:  43 minutes 22 seconds.  After installing the new program, you must restart your car for the update to take effect."

An hour later, I would finally set off down the road with the windshield wipers going.  I'd decide to turn on the radio.  The increased demands on the car's CPU would slow the wipers down to half speed, and then the engine would begin making strange noises, and then the steering control system would crash, and then I would crash.  The last thing I'd see would be the Blue Screen of Death.

We can hope that someday our computers will be as simple and reliable as our cars.  Unfortunately, the trend seems to be in the other direction.  Some cars are becoming as complicated to operate as computers.

Consider Audi's MMI (Multi-Media Interface) driver interaction system, depicted here.  Consumer Reports says the MMI "is often slow to respond.  Its fussy menu-driven interface can needlessly distract the driver even on the simplest tasks.  Separate multifunction climate controllers also take several steps to adjust."

And the magazine also notes that the rear-view camera on the Audi Q7 "works only after the driver pushes a button to agree to an onscreen legal disclaimer."



George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah is a series of vocal settings of excerpts from the Bible, words that were chosen by librettist Charles Jennens.  Part III of Messiah, which deals with the resurrection, opens with a soprano aria:

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
and though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Where did Jennens find this Christian affirmation?  According to the notes to the text, it comes from Job 19:25-26.

Well, that's a surprise.  The book of Job is part of the Old Testament.  It was written several hundred years B.C.  Remarkably, even at that early date the writer knew enough science to understand the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation, for Job 36:27-28 says of God,

He draws up drops of water from the sea
and distills rain from the flood;
the rain-clouds pour down in torrents,
they descend in showers on the ground.

But this book was written before Christians developed their doctrine of a dying and rising Redeemer who would bring eternal life.  The people of the Bible hadn't yet begun to entertain the possibility of spiritual life after death, let alone the resurrection of the body.  Job 14:7-12, in fact, tells us:

If a tree is cut down,
there is hope that it will sprout again
and fresh shoots will not fail.
Though its root becomes old in the earth,
its stump dying in the ground,
yet when it scents water it may break into bud
and make new growth like a young plant.

But when a human being dies all his power vanishes;
he expires, and where is he then?
As the waters of a lake dwindle,
or as a river shrinks and runs dry,
so mortal man lies down, never to rise
until the very sky splits open.
If a man dies, can he live again?
He can never be roused from this sleep.

I looked up the verses that Jennens used in his libretto and compared them to a modern translation.  I found differences.


King James version

Revised English Bible

For I know that my Redeemer liveth,

But I know that my vindicator lives

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and that he will rise last to speak in court;

And though after my skin worms destroy this body,

I shall discern my witness standing at my side

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

and see my defending counsel, even God himself.

Admittedly, the Hebrew poetry is difficult to interpret.  But it seems that the King James translators must have consciously chosen words to fit later doctrines.

After all, they helpfully provided Christian chapter headings in an attempt to give an allegorical meaning to the Hebrew erotic poem The Song of Solomon.  In chapter 4, the poet praises his love's eyes, hair, teeth, lips, neck, and breasts, and she responds, "Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits."  King James' translators piously remark, "Christ setteth forth the graces of the church.  He sheweth his love to her.  The church prayeth to be made fit for his presence."

By the way, just for the record, after I wrote 26 days ago that "warm weather is back" it turned unseasonably cold.  I didn't use my air conditioner again until yesterday.



Popular radio personality:  “It's 2:30 PM.  Let's check the weather forecast for this afternoon, which was issued several hours ago.  There's a 20% chance of rain — well, that’s obviously wrong!  It's raining right now!  We'd better make that a 100% chance.”

The fallacy is that any forecasts of what will happen in the future (“this afternoon”) become irrelevant once the future becomes the present.  It is now afternoon.  It's time to stop reading forecasts for the present and move on to forecasts for the future, which is now “this evening.”

Nerdy radio personality:  “This morning, meteorologists predicted a 20% chance of rain for this afternoon.   In other words, it probably wouldn't rain, but there was a possibility that it might.  Afternoon has arrived, and rain is falling, so this morning's forecast was correct; the slight possibility did turn out to be the fact.  The forecast would also have been correct if rain were not falling.”

The forecast is correct whether or not it rains?  That sounds strange.  We prefer our prognostications to be precise and unequivocal.  Will it rain, or won't it?

In the December 2006 Skeptical Briefs, Benjamin Radford tells of the alleged feats of a teenaged Canadian psychic named Adam Dreamhealer.  “One woman, identified as Debbie, believes that Dreamhealer saved her fiancé's life.  Her fiancé Trevor was severely wounded in Afghanistan, and Debbie was told that Trevor probably would not recover from his comatose state.”

Note the word “probably.”  The doctors said that he might come out of the coma, but he probably would not.  They did not say that he was brain dead and that recovery was totally impossible, but rather held out a slight hope.

However, Debbie imagined that they simply told her, “He's never going to wake up.”  And she didn't want to believe that.  Radford continues, “Debbie says she was convinced the doctors were wrong, and when she heard about Dreamhealer's self-proclaimed powers, she asked him to heal Trevor from a distance.  Over the next few weeks, Trevor did indeed begin to gain consciousness, an improvement that Debbie took as proof of Dreamhealer's powers.  ‘The doctors said that he wouldn't recover, so to me, that's a miracle,’ Debbie said.”

Sorry, Debbie, but the doctors did not say that Trevor definitely wouldn't recover.  And Radford notes that his emergence from the coma “is hardly a miracle.  Although Dreamhealer claims (and Debbie believes) that he healed Trevor, it seems the ‘healing’ has been far less than miraculous.  Instead of a full recovery, Trevor remains gravely ill.

“This case illustrates a common logical error in thinking, one that even has a Latin name:  post hoc ergo propter hoc (‘after this, therefore because of this’).  Debbie assumed that because Trevor regained consciousness after Dreamhealer said he ‘healed’ him, Dreamhealer caused Trevor to come out of his coma.  But it is likely that Trevor would have emerged from the coma with or without Dreamhealer's efforts.”

Such awakenings happen all the time, among the seriously injured and even sometimes among those who had been hoping to delude themselves.


APRIL 12, 2007     RECYCLING

Characters in TV shows often flash back to earlier events in their lives, and sometimes the actors have to use elaborate makeup to appear years younger for those scenes.

But in many cases, footage of the actors exists from years before.  I've wondered why the old scenes couldn't sometimes be used as flashbacks.

Well, last week Boston Legal employed this technique in spectacular fashion, taking us all the way back to the Golden Age of Television.

William Shatner's character, attorney Denny Crane, recalled an intense conversation about the ethics of courtroom tactics, a conversation with his attorney father fifty years before.  Suddenly the image morphed, and there was Shatner from fifty years before!

The footage was from the kinescope of a two-part drama that aired live on the CBS series Studio One on February 25 and March 4, 1957.  I might have been watching, though I was only ten years old.  Ralph Bellamy played Shatner's father, although he was not credited in the April 3, 2007, Boston Legal episode that included four segments of their dialogue totalling two minutes.

(The 1957 drama was called "The Defender."  Later the concept became a filmed series called The Defenders, which I do remember watching in the early 1960s.  E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed played the father and son.)



This is a cold weekend in the Northeast.  But in this part of the country, we have known chilly Easters before.

From the front window of my grandmother Lydia Thomas's house in Livermore, Kentucky, I took the above photo on Easter morning, March 29, 1964.

Even that far south, there was snow on the ground.

But it melted within a few hours, and the daffodils once again enlivened the picket fence.



Last night, on ESPN2's coverage of the Tennessee vs Rutgers women's national championship game, I saw The Six-Box.  I didn't particularly like it, but as I point out in this article, two decades ago I was guilty of thinking in a similar direction.



A new month has arrived, and I've added a new article to this website.  It's a picture article this time, a Family Album consisting of 18 pages of old photos.

Included are these two fine-looking people from a century ago.  I presume that they're among my ancestors, but their names are unfortunately unknown to me.  Anyone recognize them?



This year I can't complain about a long winter.  Here in the Pittsburgh area, El Niño gave us a mild and rainy holiday season, and we didn't have our first really wintry day until January 16.  Then today, just ten weeks later, I reactivated my air conditioner!


MARCH 26, 2007     SCI-FI TECH

Forty years ago, science fiction invented some futuristic products that, while obviously useful, have only recently become technologically possible.

One well-known example is the Star Trek communicator, which looked a lot like the cell phone of today.

I recently ran across another example in the 1966 movie Fahrenheit 451.

Here, the well-appointed suburban living room of the future features a wall-mounted 60-inch TV.  The aspect ratio is very close to today's wide-screen plasma HDTVs.

The future is now!



On Monday, I read about a high-definition service called GalleryPlayer.  The TV trade magazine said that Comcast On Demand had been carrying it since 2006.  Although Comcast is my cable provider, I'd never heard of GalleryPlayer.

I thought this might be a good time to discover what's hiding inside On Demand.  On Tuesday, I plunged into the menu structure and began entering what I found on a spreadsheet, in outline form.

I didn't realize that this exploration would take two days and the spreadsheet would reach 24 pages!  Along the way I learned some new words, like Gaiam, Gundam, Caillou, Sagwa, Pingu, Ziddio, Kabillion, and Winx.  And I catalogued only the names of the menus and lists.  I didn't enter the names of the actual movies and other videos; I merely counted them.

Here you see the top screen, which has icons for 18 menus (including HD on Demand).

These in turn lead you to 53 lists plus 125 sub-menus (including TV Entertainment, which is not the same as the TV Entertainment menu on the top screen).

The sub-menus lead to 536 lists (including GalleryPlayer, where there are 11 items) plus 76 sub-sub-menus.

The sub-sub-menus lead to 306 lists plus 31 sub-sub-sub-menus, and the sub-sub-subs lead to another 72 lists.

The totals: 250 menus and 967 lists.  On those 967 lists are 9,864 movies and other videos.  Often these appear on several different lists, giving you more than one way to find them.  That means that there are actually only a few thousand different movies or videos available, many of them only a few minutes long, most of them free of charge.

This menu structure is not at all easy to navigate, especially using a remote control instead of a mouse.  I wanted to figure out a better way, but it's not obvious how.  There's just an overwhelming amount of content.

And since I can play any of these items at any time (except those from premium services to which I don't subscribe), I can no longer complain that there's "nothing on TV."



None of us is in perfect health.  The human body is very complex, and by the laws of probability, the odds are overwhelming that some component is not functioning at peak efficiency.

The same applies to the human mind.  Back in high school, I famously remarked, "There's a little bit of insanity in everybody."

Scott Adams, who draws the Dilbert cartoon, agrees.  Four months ago in his Dilbert Blog, he wrote about the angry responses he'd received to a recent series of cartoons about a "mildly retarded consultant."  Excerpts:

First, "mild retardation" is the accepted medical term, and I used it that way, as a label and not as an insult.   Second, it's my observation that almost everyone has some sort of mental problem.  I'm dyslexic.  You have ADD.  The neighbor is clinically depressed.  Your uncle washes his hands four hundred times a day.  Your sister is an emotional basket case.  The guy in the next cubicle is on Prozac.  The woman behind him is on Xanax.  To her right is the guy on Paxil.  He's on the phone with the vendor who's on Valium.  And they all pray to invisible friends.

To put it another way, who doesn't have some sort of mental problem?  To me, it seemed like everyone was out of the closet on mental disorders, and that mentioning one in particular should be no big deal.  But as I said, I misjudged our collective readiness on this issue.  I'll be happy when society realizes that all humans are mentally messed up, just in different ways.


MARCH 13, 2007     IT'S SETTLED!

My fellow Pittsburghers, our long civic nightmare is over.

All this century, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been pointing out that they need a new hockey arena.  Various schemes were proposed to help the team pay for the building without burdening taxpayers directly.  For a year, we kept hearing about the Isle of Capri.  If this firm won the license to build a local slot machine parlor, they promised to build an arena next door.  Media and politicians joined with Penguins officials to urge that the slots license should therefore be awarded to the Isle of Capri.  The campaigning was so public and so prolonged that it seemed as though the voters were being asked to make the decision.  But it wasn't their choice to make.  In December, an independent state board gave the license to a different applicant.  Disappointed team officials threatened that the Penguins might move to Kansas City, which caused much angst in Pittsburgh.

But late this afternoon, it was formally announced that a Plan B has been worked out and a new local arena will be built after all.

I'm glad that the team is staying in town.  I work something like 40 hockey telecasts a year.  That not only gives me something to do during through the long winters but also represents a significant chunk of my annual income.

I have to admit, though, that I don't particularly like hockey as a sport.

I grew up watching baseball, football, and basketball.  The patterns of those sports were etched into my young brain.  But I encountered the patterns of hockey later in life, and there has been no etching.

When I watch a football game, infractions like offside and intentional grounding are obvious.  When hockey fans watch their sport, infractions like offside and icing are obvious to them — but not to me.  Also, the cultures are different.  When football announcers refer to Grambling or the frozen tundra, I know what they're talking about.  During this hockey season, I've felt like an outsider when our Canada-centric announcers have referred familiarly to Rimouski and the RCMP.

And then there's fighting.  In any other sport — even college hockey — if two players square off and put up their fists, an official will jump between them to prevent punches from being thrown.  But in professional hockey, peacemaking is not part of the tradition.  The officials stand back and watch the two players circle each other.  They watch the players clutch and grab and slug each other in the face with their bare knuckles.  The fans love it; the players love it; everybody loves to see a fight.  Only when the two combatants fall to the ice do the officials step in to pull them apart and send them each off to serve a five-minute penalty.

If fighting is against the rules, if it's punishable by a major penalty, why do the officials allow it to happen?  And afterwards, why aren't the rule-breakers ejected from the game, as they would be in any other sport?  Apparently fisticuffs are condoned because they can energize your teammates and protect them from certain nefarious tactics that the opposing team might otherwise employ against them.  It's the code of the schoolyard brawl.

But I guess I'll never really understand.  I've never even been to Rimouski.



So why do we have to go through this nonsense of resetting our clocks every spring and fall?  Couldn't we accomplish the same result if we all simply got up an hour earlier in the summertime?

Well, yes, but we probably wouldn't obtain the necessary unanimity.

Suppose your boss gets with the program and, for March through October, changes your 9-to-5 office hours to 8-to-4.  Although your late-afternoon clients are inconvenienced, you get an extra hour of evening daylight.  Then your spouse's business also changes its hours, but only for April through September.  Your local school board, not wanting children to have to go to school before dawn, doesn't change anything.  The family schedule is repeatedly disrupted.

It all works much more smoothly if a central authority mandates that everybody will start the day an hour sooner, and the easiest way to do that is to change the clocks.

It would work even more smoothly if the central authority were an international one.  As the situation stands now, Europe goes on "summer time" on different dates than the United States and Canada, so the trans-Atlantic schedule is repeatedly disrupted.



Three years ago, when I put together the photo album Vern's Chevys, I didn't know why there would have been a parade in front of my father's new place of employment on Good Friday of 1938.

Now I've found additional pictures, like the one at the right, with handwritten notations that resolve this minor historical issue.  Click here for the answer.

Incidentally, 15 years after the pictured parade, there was another one down the same avenue in Cambridge, Ohio, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Ohio statehood.  By that time, I was around to witness the parade in person.  I recall that people on the float sponsored by the local Coca-Cola bottling plant were tossing not beads but miniature plastic Coke bottles, half an inch tall.



'Tis the season for conference tournaments in college basketball.  I'm not scheduled to work the telecasts of any of these playoffs this year.

However, I do have some commemorative pins.  Remember the Metro Conference? 

Twenty years ago, we were in Louisville, home of the spires of Churchill Downs.  Four years later, the event was played in Roanoke with Virginia Tech as the host school.

Four years after that, in 1995, the Metro became part of the new Conference USA.



Remember the original Corvette?  The Nomad?  The 1928 National AB Coach?  As described in a new article, I remember all of them — particularly The Twenty-Eight.