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OCT. 28, 2007    THE FRONT PAGE

Sometimes I can't resist misconstruing items in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

For example, the top story on October 17 revealed that in this country, the number of deaths from Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus infections (MRSA) has surpassed the number of deaths from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).


My reaction:  Of course, the MRSA germ's lobbyist will claim just the opposite, that it aids more than it kills.


My reaction:  All right, what else does it kill besides AIDS?

And then there's this detail from Steve Mellon's front-page photo yesterday.  I've never understood why the Pennsylvania State Police can't afford adult-sized chinstraps for their hats.

These troopers have found the straps too short, so they've anchored their headgear not to their chins but to their mouths.  A lipstrap can't be of much help in preventing the loss of a hat in the event of a sudden gust of wind from behind.  And I'd think a trooper would have a hard time questioning a subject while keeping a stiff lower lip.

If a state policeman must attach his hat to his some part of his face, wouldn't the nose afford a more substantial anchorage? 


OCT. 24, 2007    SCARY PICTURE

I've found, hidden in the basement, the Halloween costume that I wore more than 20 years ago.  No, it's not a lampshade.

The party was at Tami Rippy's place.  A gorilla crouched in front of me, stared, scratched his head, shrugged, and shuffled away, unable to figure out what I was supposed to be.  (I think the guy in the gorilla suit turned out to be Mike Kobik.)

So what did my costume represent?  Why, I had come as my favorite Platonic solid, the dodecahedron!

Dodeca means 2+10, or 12.  Hedron means face.  On this page, you can get a better look at the polyhedron made from twelve regular pentagons, this time without my face.  Happy Halloween!



When I see the name of musician Peter Cetera, I can't say it immediately.  My first impulse is to pronounce it like et cetera, which is the only other occurrence of cetera that I can think of.  Then I remember that his name isn't SETT-uh-ruh, it's suh-TERR-uh.

British actor Ralph Fiennes presents a similar problem.  I guess we're supposed to say "Rafe Fines."  We Americans have to remember to translate Ralph's name before we speak it.

And I have trouble with "real quick."  When we're preparing for a TV production, sometimes the director will use that phrase in making small requests, as in "Let me see those starting lineups real quick."

What it sounds like to me:  "Urgent!  Drop whatever you're doing and give me those lineups right now!  You must bestow your highest priority upon my every whim, for I am your director."

What he really means:  "Pardon me; this will only take a moment, and then you can go back to what you were doing."

I don't always respond to such a request real quick.  First I have to decipher it.



In a promotional clip I heard the other day, a conservative talk radio host proclaimed, “Anybody who thinks America is an imperialist nation is deranged!”  I've heard another talker describe liberals as “crazy” and “insane.”  So now the right-wingers claim that everyone of sound mind obviously is on their side, and everyone who differs should be in a mental hospital.

Whatever became of the concept of “reasonable people might disagree”?  When I was growing up, political discourse was usually somewhat more polite.  “I beg the gentleman's pardon, but, with all due respect, I fear that his characterization of America as ‘imperialist’ might be mistaken.  My understanding of ‘imperialism’ is....”

In discussions of traffic delays, frustrated motorists often blame rubberneckers, drivers who slow down to get a better look at accidents and stopped vehicles.  “You idiots, haven't you ever seen someone get a speeding ticket?  Keep moving!”

Actually, though, those who slow down usually aren't sightseeing.  They're simply obeying common sense and the law.  According to AAA, 40 states have “move-over” laws that require motorists, when they encounter a law enforcement, fire, or rescue vehicle on the side of the road, to “move over into a lane away from a ... vehicle working at the roadside, or to slow down significantly below highway speeds if they are unable to merge into another lane.”  The law also applies also to tow trucks in 19 states, a number AAA wants increased.  “Roadside problem solvers, police, paramedics, and other first-responders who work along the side of our country's highways are faced with the danger of passing vehicles swerving into them each day.  ...Not enough motorists are aware of ... the danger they put roadside workers and other motorists in when they do not slow down or move over.”



Little details sometimes catch my attention.  Playing around with Google Earth this morning, I was reminded of Meridian Road in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh.  I know that the 80th meridian (of longitude west of Greenwich) passes through downtown Pittsburgh, at the intersection of Liberty and Sixth Avenues.  Did Meridian Road get its name because it's also on this same imaginary line?

Alas, no, according to Google.  The road would need to be 2.4 miles farther west.  It does have a couple of sections that run directly north and south (which is unusual in the hilly country around here), but their west longitudes are only 79.9547° and 79.9550°.

I was actually using the program to find the viewpoint you see below.  The hills in the foreground used to slope down to the Allegheny River, but they've been cut back to make room for Pennsylvania Route 28, the expressway that I use to get into the city.  Unfortunately, these huge steep-sided piles of stone aren't very cohesive, and chunks of rock fall onto the expressway every few months.  In one episode last week, some 40-ton boulders as big as cars tumbled down.

The engineers can't repeal the law of gravity.  They can't stop the ground from trying to seek its own level.  So they've taken a step back from the problem.  The inbound lanes are being rebuilt in the area formerly occupied by the grassy median.  That should give the falling rocks a larger fenced-off ditch to land in without bouncing into traffic.

My question is, how long will the rocks continue to fall?  I've heard that some cliffs in Panama, cut back for the canal a century ago, are still sliding today.  In another few decades, will the residents of Shadow Lane find themselves not in the right foreground of this picture but in the river?


OCT. 4, 2007    Sputnik & DIES IRAE

"In 1955, it was said that America soon would launch into space an artificial satellite of the earth," I wrote on this site a couple of years ago.  "As an eight-year-old boy, I read with interest the predictions of this great scientific feat.  But on Friday, October 4, 1957, the Soviets beat us to it with their Sputnik.

"Around noon the next day, CBS television aired a special report about the satellite, which I watched with even greater interest.  To my disappointment, the report ended and a hockey game came on.  After that, for some reason I never really learned to like hockey very much."

Today, of course, is the 50th anniversary of that launch.  But I've recently run across a picture I hadn't seen before, a picture from a subsequent Soviet space achievement.

I was actually looking for something else.

I'd recently seen an image of the Death Star (top) from the 1977 movie Star Wars, and that reminded me of Mimas (bottom), one of the moons of Saturn first photographed at close range by Voyager I in 1980.  Did George Lucas have some advance knowledge of what would be found three years later at Saturn?

A little Googling revealed that I was not the first to notice the resemblance.  In particular, I found a reference on wanderingspace.net.

And further down the same page is a scene from another planet.

Venera-13, a Soviet spacecraft, took the picture below in 1982; it has been reprocessed recently.  We're looking at the desolate surface of Venus.

This is a planet named for the Roman goddess of beauty — a planet that, when it was born, was virtually a twin of Earth.  However, the atmosphere of Venus is now 97% carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid.  The dense greenhouse gases and the resultant global warming have raised the surface temperature to nearly 900° F.  The Venera lander survived those hellish conditions for only a couple of hours.

Will greenhouse gases ultimately drive our similar-sized planet to the same fate?  Sooner than we think, according to the prophet Zephaniah.


The great day of the Lord is near, near and coming fast;


A day of destruction and devastation,


A day of darkness and gloom,


A day of cloud and dense fog.


I shall destroy human beings and animals,


The birds of the air and the fish in the sea.



This is the city that exulted in her security.


She heeded no warning voice, took no rebuke to heart.


I have wiped out this arrogant people; their bastions are demolished.


I have destroyed their streets; no one walks along them.


Their cities are laid waste, abandoned and unpeopled.


The whole earth will be consumed by the fire.


SEPT. 30, 2007     SHILOH STORY

I've retold another Bible narrative from my own idiosyncratic first-person point of view.  This time, you'll meet the old priest Eli and hear about his sons in the year 1080 B.C.



You've probably heard of the alleged Sports Illustrated cover jinx.  The week before a big game, an athlete's picture appears on the magazine's cover.  Then his team loses.

It's perfectly natural that such things occur from time to time.  Nobody, no matter how good, wins every week.  Nevertheless, fans who fear jinxes pray that no photo from their favorite team ever makes the cursed cover of SI.

When did this belief in the cover jinx start?   The publisher of Time and Life began printing Sports Illustrated  in 1954.  But the belief is older than the magazine.

I know this because, while driving home last night, I heard an old radio program on Pittsburgh's KQV.  It was a 1949 edition of Bill Stern's Colgate Sports Newsreel.  To the accompaniment of scary organ music, Stern breathlessly described a dozen events dating back to 1931 that he attributed to a Time magazine cover jinx.  Joe DiMaggio had a bad day in an All-Star game, Joe Louis had a fight postponed, Ben Hogan had an auto accident, a champion racehorse never won again — all after their pictures appeared on the cover of Time!

Now the Radio Hall of Fame admits that Stern, a vaudeville stage director who first broadcast a football game at the age of 18, liked to tell stories that sometimes "stretched the limits of credibility."  I have no doubt that he overdramatized some of the misfortunes that followed such appearances.  But the fact that he was talking about it in 1949 shows that the concept of the cover jinx antedated Sports Illustrated by at least five years, if not twenty.



In the days of Jules Verne, science fiction imagined future technological advances and described how we might react to them.

In my high school days, before space probes disproved speculation about ancient Martian canals, I remember reading a Robert Heinlein novel about human colonists on Mars.  Frozen canals are their highways.  Their iceboats have open fronts to catch and compress the thin atmosphere.  For long-distance communication, they bounce signals off Phobos and Deimos, using the moons of Mars as natural relay satellites.  All of these are technically possible, and the story is about ordinary young people in this setting.

In the present day, apparently we're running out of plausible situations.  Science fiction is gradually giving way to fantasy.

The other night I watched the 2006 movie Stranger Than Fiction.  Emma Thompson plays a novelist whose protagonists always die in the end.  She's currently writing about a character named Harold Crick.  Unfortunately, it turns out there's a real Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell.  He starts hearing her voice in his head, narrating his life.  As the situation unfolds, the baffled author is warned that if she kills off the fictional Harold, it might kill the real one.  She exclaims in exasperation, "I don't know the rules!"

That was my feeling exactly.  Those who devise these fantastic stories are making up their own rules, which don't have to correspond to the way the real world works.  And I have trouble suspending disbelief and accepting these artificial premises.

Television gives us stories about people who are angels, or Supermen, or conduits for the thoughts of dead people.  Can they turn back time?  Can they stop a speeding bullet?  No real person can, but these characters can if the plot requires it.

Here are some of this season's new TV series, as described in TV Guide.

Pushing Daisies:  Ned can bring the dead back to life with a touch.  However, if he touches them a second time they're dead again, this time permanently.

Journeyman:  Dan travels back in time and meets his presumed-dead fiancé.  However, to get back to the present he must alter the events of a stranger's life.

Reaper:  Sam has to capture escapees from Hell and send them back to Satan.

Cavemen:  three Cro-Magnons find themselves in today's racist world.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles:  a woman and her teenage son try to avoid alien cyborgs from the future.

Chuck:  the title character can access all sorts of secret government data that has been downloaded into his brain.

Eli Stone:  a lawyer might be a prophet.

And then there's Bionic Woman.

Give me outlandish premises like these, and it's easy to write a story.  Can I tweak the rules just a little more?  


SEPT. 22, 2007     FACE SHOTS

Another decade has rolled around, and it will soon be time to renew the passport that I first obtained to travel to the 1988 Olympics in South Korea.  So yesterday I visited the local photo studio, and they provided me with an up-to-date mug shot, which I shall now inflict upon you.   (For passports, I understand that smiling is frowned upon.)

Then last night I noticed that NBC had made available for free, on my cable system's On Demand service, the pilots for several new series that will debut next week.  So I watched one of them, Chuck.  The series doesn't premiere until Monday, which made me feel like a privileged TV critic.  I was being allowed to watch this show three days before the rest of the American public could see it.

I don't think that obligates me to write a review.  However, I will mention this Australian actress, who plays a CIA agent on Chuck.  I gather that her real name is Yvonne Strzechowski, which few people who are not Polish are able to pronounce.  Therefore, she's changed to a phonetic spelling so that people will say her name correctly.  She's now billed as Yvonne Strahovski.

Yvonne is obviously an attractive young woman.  But watching in HD, I kept focusing for some reason on her two front teeth.  Those may be the most prominent upper central incisors I've ever seen.  They easily overshadow the lateral incisors beside them.  There's nothing wrong with that; it's a pretty smile, in a cute Bugs Bunny kind of way.  It's just that in HD, details like this are much more noticeable.

For example, Tiki Barber on NBC's Football Night in America last Sunday must have gotten a rush job in the makeup chair.  His face looked preternaturally smooth, but his neck showed five o'clock stubble.

Toothy blondes, heavy-bearded commentators:  I'm keeping a sharp eye on you! 



In a new article, I recall a couple of small roles that I played way back in 1970 as a comic "scientist," which leads to the question Can You Repeat That?  And that leads to some examples of possibly unique performances by female vocalists.



Having just this morning discovered a clever new wrinkle in the ongoing struggle to make high-definition and standard-definition televised sports compatible with each other, I had to add it to the end of this article.



I've added some professional musical performances to flesh out a couple of this website's stories about my attempts at creativity.

In a major motion picture, Perry Como performed a ballad that — for a few weeks — I thought I had written.  It turned out to be by Richard Rodgers.  Perry's scene is linked from the end of this article, which also includes a low-quality audio clip from a 1963 rehearsal of my version.

And you might think, from a music video that I edited in 1986, that Stevie Nicks wrote a song for Joe Paterno.  Click here to listen to that one.



As I mentioned last month, I'm copying my videotapes of some baseball telecasts on which I worked.  Among those recordings, there was a TV hour from 21 years ago featuring Steve Guttenberg and Rebecca DeMornay.

Even though it's not sports-related, I've posted a few frames of Pecos Bill for our mutual apprecation.



I returned yesterday from Michigan, where I was part of the Big Ten Network football telecast (Appalachian State upset the #5 Wolverines).

After my plane landed, the last leg of my trip involved driving Pennsylvania Route 28 from Pittsburgh to my suburban home.  The state calls it "northbound" Route 28.  Around here, however, the road parallels the Allegheny River and actually goes more east than north.  To avoid confusion, traffic reporters usually call it "outbound" Route 28.

That got me thinking.  Sometimes our situation is better suited to coordinate systems other than the standard directions of north, south, east, and west.

Inside a shopping mall, if someone asks us how to get to the Hologram Hut, we don't say "walk west and it's on your left."  We say "walk toward Sears and it's on your left."

In my neighborhood, where streets are oriented to the river, it isn't quite correct to say "go north, then turn right and go east."  It would be more accurate to say "go north-northwest, then turn right and go east-northeast," but that's as difficult to visualize as it is to pronounce.  So I prefer to say "go away from the river, then turn right and go upstream."

And in the state of Hawaii, where the typical island is an extinct volcano surrounded by a ring of habitable land sloping down to the shore, the locals avoid the usual Cartesian coordinates (north, south, east, and west).  Instead, they use the radial coordinate system (in, out, clockwise, and counterclockwise).  "In" is mauka, toward the mountains.  "Out" is makai, toward the sea.  At Honolulu, "clockwise" is ewa, toward Ewa Plantation, and "counterclockwise" is waikiki, toward Waikiki Beach.