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FEB. 29, 2008    IMAGE UPDATE

It's too cold to go outside, and our escape from February has been delayed for one more day, so I've been busying myself with finding some historical pictures and adding them to existing articles on this site.

At the right, that's me as a real estate mogul in 1952.  Click the picture for the full article, which first appeared last month.

Here is a photo I took in 1965 of a business continuing alongside its old home's ashes.  At the end of this page, I've inserted two additional shots of my 1974 woman-on-the-street interviews; apparently the subject was pineapples.  And this article about my hometown church now includes a panorama, assembled from a 2004 church videotape, of the sanctuary from the viewpoint of the piano bench.


FEB. 25, 2008    PREDICTA

Fifty years later, its shape still spells “television.”  However, I never knew anybody who owned one.  All the TV sets I encountered were rectangular pieces of furniture.

The Philco Predicta, with its futuristic space-age look, was produced only from 1958 through 1960.  The controls and electronics were enclosed in one box.  On top of that sat the CRT, a rounded picture tube enclosed in a streamlined housing that could tilt and turn to face the viewers.

One commentator noted that “despite the radical styling that endears it to collectors, the Predicta had an unhappy history in the field, causing some to dub it the ‘Edsel of televisions.’  Quality control was poor, leading to an excessive number of returns and warranty service calls.  Some people blame the Predicta for the demise of Philco, which declared bankruptcy in 1962.”

Yet even today, the Predicta lives on as an icon.  Telecasts about television use its profile, as seen at the left and below.  It remains more recognizable than the actual shape of a 21st-century TV — a flat rectangular screen.



WOBC-FM, our student-operated radio station at Oberlin College, sometimes took music requests over the phone.  We had an all-request classical music program on Saturday nights, just as WQED-FM in Pittsburgh has today.  The name of the WOBC program was our campus phone number, "3157."

Our pop music DJs also got requests.  Imitating what they'd heard on big-time Top 40 stations, they sometimes tape-recorded the calls.  Then they could rummage around to find the requested record, cue up the tape, and let the magic of radio happen.  "Um, could you play No Milk Today by Herman and the Hermits?"  "Your wish is my command!"  No Milk Today plays immediately.

That technique is commonplace now, but in 1968 it felt as though we were pushing the envelope of possibilities.

One night Marc Krass and Randy Bongarten took it a step further.  They arranged for the Rathskeller, a tavern in the basement of the Wilder Hall student union building, to play WOBC through its sound system.  At one end of the Rat they set up a microphone stand.  To raise its signal to line level, the mic was connected to a small amplifier — the same one that I took to basketball remotes.  The output of the amp was connected to a pair of wires in the stairwell that led to our control room up on the third floor.

A sign invited Rathskeller patrons to speak their requests into the microphone.  It almost looked like a prank.  The mic was not connected to a loudspeaker, and patrons got no confirmation that they were being heard.  The mic might not have even been on.  But a few brave souls risked looking foolish.  They dutifully walked up and spoke their requests.

Upstairs at the radio station, we had no idea when someone was approaching the mic, so Randy and I threaded a reel of tape onto a deck and started recording.  There would be long minutes of nothing but background noise.  Eventually we'd hear a request.  I'd mark it by inserting a scrap of paper between the layers of tape on the takeup reel while Randy scurried off to find the song.  After several requests, we'd start a second recording on another machine.  Then we rewound the first tape to the most recent request, while my scraps kept tabs on the older ones.  We cued the request up for Marc.

"Uh, hello?  Is anyone there?"  "Yes, indeed, this is Marc Knight, your WOBC disk jockey.  What would you like to hear?"  "Uh, can you play Tighten Up by Archie Bell and the Drells?"  "Sure can!  Here it is."

Off-duty DJ Dave Webster was in the Rat that night.  He made another request.  "Your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to play Takin' Care of Business.  This tape will self-destruct in five seconds!"


FEB. 14, 2008    MELANIE

Last weekend, someone on an on-line message board mentioned the song "Brand New Key."  I realized that I never knew much about the singer/songwriter, Melanie.  What to do?  Google her!

It turns out that Melanie Safka was born just 17 days before I was.  She grew up in New York and sang on the radio at the age of four.  By 1969, when we were both 22, she was performing at the rain-plagued Woodstock music festival.

I wasn't there.  I was on my way to graduate school 120 miles away at Syracuse, where I first became aware of Melanie the following spring when radio stations began playing her Woodstock-inspired single "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)."

Listening to AM radio, I got the message but didn't quite get all the words.  To me, the impassioned refrain sounded like this:

Lay down, lay it down,
  Lay it all down!
Let your white birds smile up
  And the one, stan, frown.

Now, thanks to YouTube, we can watch a classic long version by Melanie and the famed gospel group she asked to join her, the Edwin Hawkins Singers.  The audience tries to clap along, but they're from our parents' generation.  For the link, click the pictures on the left.

One of the comments on the YouTube page speculates that the lyrics allude not only to Woodstock (August 1969) but also to the Vietnam Moratorium Day (October 1969), when candle-carrying protesters marched through East Coast cities wearing dove buttons.  Heavy rain fell down upon them.  Supporters of the war disapprovingly looked down upon them.  This makes sense because the refrain, as I now know, really goes like this:

Lay down, lay down,
  Lay it all down!
Let your white birds smile up
  At the ones who stand and frown.

I found much more about Melanie on the Internet.  I had forgotten, for example, that she's done cover versions of songs that I remember playing as a '60s college radio DJ including "Ruby Tuesday" and "Lay Lady Lay."  She still performs, with her son Beau-Jarred on guitar.  [Click here for my 2015 notes linking to recent performances.]  A year ago on her 60th birthday, she blogged on her website about the passing of another year.

It used to be Guy Lombardo and couples dancing, grownups wearing silly hats cheek to cheek and Auld Lang Syne, blowing paper horns and shaking tin rattles.  My grandmother and me, we banged pots and pans at the stroke of midnight.  (My parents were out, maybe dancing with Guy Lombardo.)  Something comforting about seeing the same old Auld Lang Syne. . . .

Now I am in a different time zone and it is confusing because it's only the New Year officially when it happens in New York, even though it happens an hour later here.

And you could say I am 60 one hour earlier in New York when I am really still 50-something here.  Maybe I'll just keep traveling west for a while till it all blows over.

I enjoy watching high-definition television documentaries on the History Channel and National Geographic and Discovery and PBS.  But somehow I enjoy this kind of learning even more:  searching for the story online, discovering low-definition video clips and pictures, digging up facts and interesting details one by one, like my research last month on the Scharf.  It's more interactive and involving than just staring at a TV show.  I recommend it.

What subject have you always wondered about?



My fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, John Merriman, used repetition to drill into us the terminology of fractions.  For example, in the fraction 2/3, the 2 is the "numerator."  (What number tells us how many parts we have?  Two.)  The 3 is the "denominator."  (What denomination are those parts?  Thirds.)  One day Mr. Merriman had us go around the room with one student calling out "Numerator top!" and the next student responding "Denominator bottom!"  It seemed a little silly, but we had only to recall this experience to remember which was which.

When I got a tape recorder for Christmas 1961, I experimented to see whether it could aid memorization.  I spliced a foot of recording tape into an endless loop, so that the machine would replay the same three seconds of sound continually.

What three seconds?  The box of splicing tape was marked with an item number.  I'll say it was 7745, but in actuality it was something else.  (For security reasons, I'm not telling you the real number.)  The box also showed the length of the tape.  I'll say it was 200 inches.

I read that data into the microphone.  "Number seven seven four five.  One-quarter inch by two hundred."  Switching to playback, I listened to my voice repeat the data over and over.

It worked.  Forty-six years later, I still recall the sound — and the actual numbers.  When my bank wanted me to choose an account number for on-line transactions, I used the old splicing-tape data to come up with nine digits like 774514200.  It's a number that I can always remember.


FEB. 3, 2008    FISHBOWL

I watched the Super Bowl XLII upset from home this evening, but one of my Pittsburgh graphics colleagues was actually in Glendale, Arizona.  Mark Fissore (right), known as "Fish," operated the Duet for the Fox telecast.

He worked out of one of the five 53-foot trailers that make up Game Creek Video's "FX HD" mobile production unit.  Below are those trucks at Daytona, which happens to be Mark's next assignment.

Broadcasting & Cable magazine from Fox Sports

In addition to about 30 high-definition broadcast cameras, this mobile unit also includes small "point-of-view" cameras mounted inside the trucks themselves.

During the telecast, some of those views were streamed online.  Chris Dahl told me about this, so along with anyone else who knew, I was able to gawk at the production staff at work.

Three hours before kickoff, Mark was alone at his post (top).  Eventually his co-workers joined him as the B Unit filled up.

The producer, director, and technical director were over in the A Unit.  I listened to their urgent conversations for awhile.

Eventually it began to seem too much like being at work myself, and I turned away from the computer and watched the actual Super Bowl telecast.


JAN. 30, 2008    WHAT'S A SCHARF?

Who is this engraved lady?

Are those carousel horses?

Could a car run without gears?

You'll learn what all these have to do with each other, and with my hometown in Ohio, when I show you what came in Monday's mail.  Just click on the title of my new article, The Scharf.



When one writes a diary, one begins at the beginning and adds new entries to the end.  That seems normal to me.

But when one writes a blog (or a web page like this one), one adds new entries to the top of the page, so that the most recent posting is the one that visitors find first.  That seems a little odd.  If you haven't visited in a while, you'll find yourself reading the older posts in reverse chronological order.  And if you scroll down to the archives, you'll find that I've listed the months backwards as well.

The jury is still out on which method should be used for television graphics like the one below, showing the World Series winners since the Yankees last claimed the title.







 2007  AL  RED SOX

 2002  AL  ANGELS


 2003  NL  MARLINS

 2005  AL  WHITE SOX

 2004  AL  RED SOX

 2004  AL  RED SOX

 2005  AL  WHITE SOX

 2003  NL  MARLINS


 2002  AL  ANGELS

 2007  AL  RED SOX


My colleagues and I sometimes debate whether to use chronological order (left) or to put the most recent on top (right).  Any preferences?



In 1959, when I was 12 years old, I discovered Gilbert & Sullivan.  My introduction came by means of two classic television adaptations that featured two unlikely actors in the role of Ko-Ko.  I explain in the article Ernie and the Marxkado.


JAN. 15, 2008    REVENUE BILLS

When I studied the Constitution in high school, I was puzzled by the first sentence of Article I, Section 7:

Representatives and Senators alike can introduce all kinds of legislation, with only this one exception:  a Senator isn't allowed to introduce a tax bill.  I never really understood why not.

But now I've found the answer.  I shouldn't be surprised to learn that it all goes back to Benjamin Franklin.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates could not agree on voting representation in the new Congress.  Populous states like Virginia felt that they should have more votes than smaller states, because they had more people.  One man, one vote.  But small states like Delaware felt that they were just as important as their bigger brothers and should have an equal voice.  One state, one vote.

Excerpt from an 1864 book by James Parton,
Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Mr. Dickenson, always an unmanageable man, who now represented the State of Delaware, went so far as to say, that rather than be deprived of an equality of representation in the legislature of the nation, he would prefer to become the subject of a foreign power.  Another member said, and truly, "We are now come to a full stop."

In this extremity, Dr. Franklin suggested a compromise.  "The diversity of opinion," said he, in his homely, familiar manner, "turns on two points.

"If a proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger.

"If an equality of votes is to be put into its place, the large States say, their money will be in danger.

"When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint."  He proceeded to propose:

1, that all the States should send an equal number of delegates;

2, that on all questions affecting the authority or sovereignty of a State, every State should have an equal vote;

3, that in acting upon appointments and confirmations, every State should have an equal vote; but,

4, on all bills to raise or expend money, every State should have a vote proportioned to its population.

This ingenious plan was amply debated.  The small States, however, led by Mr. Dickenson, still contended, and with a vehemence worthy of a wrong cause, for an equality absolute and entire.  Virginia and Pennsylvania were equally resolute against their preposterous demand, and the Convention seemed again on the point of breaking up.

A committee was at length appointed to consider the subject apart from the excitements of the main body, and to report a compromise.  As a member of that committee, Dr. Franklin proposed the simple, the admirable expedient, which was adopted, and which has ever since satisfied the largest and the smallest States.

It evolved from his earlier "ingenious plan."  That plan had proposed that most legislation should be subject to voting rules friendly to small states, to protect their liberty, while financial legislation should follow rules friendly to large states, to protect their money.  The new expedient was to establish a Congress not of one house (which Franklin would have preferred) but of two houses with slightly different powers.

He proposed, that in the Senate, every State should have an equal representation; but in the other House, every State should have a representation proportioned to its population; and in that House all bills to raise or to expend money should originate.

The small states would have, in the Senate, the equal status that they demanded, along with the sole power to confirm appointments.  But they couldn't use that power to raid the wealth of the large states, because in the Senate they couldn't introduce any revenue bills.  The large states would have, in the other House, the proportional representation they demanded. 

This suggestion, it is said by men conversant with the state of feeling in the Convention, saved the Constitution; and to it we owe the wonderful fact, that no ill feeling has ever existed in a State growing out of its superiority or inferiority in population and importance.  Rhode Island and Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, were thus made equal members of the same confederacy, without peril to the smaller, and without injustice to the larger.

Of political expedients this was, perhaps, the happiest ever devised.  Its success in gaining the objects aimed at has been simply perfect — so perfect that scarcely any one has remarked it.  We have all been as unconscious of the working of this system as a healthy man is of the process of digestion.



When I woke up this morning, it seemed darker than usual.  I discovered that my electricity was off.

"That's not surprising," I thought to myself.  "A cold front is moving in, and we're under a Wind Advisory from midnight to noon.  High winds have probably knocked down a power line somewhere.  My neighbors are dark too, so it's not my power line that's down, but people on the other side of the river do have lights, so the outage isn't a major regional disaster.  The electric company undoubtedly knows about it, and they'll probably get it fixed by the time the winds subside.  It's nothing to worry about."

I went back to bed until there was enough daylight to sit by the window and read.  Eventually, the lights came on for one second, then went off again.

"That's not surprising," I thought to myself.  "They've probably fixed the downed line, but when they re-energized it, the power surge tripped some circuit breakers.  Now they have to go around and reset the breakers."

An hour and a half later, I glimpsed an electric company vehicle, a bucket truck, heading down my street.

"That's not surprising," I thought to myself.  "The transformer for this neighborhood is around the corner.  They're going to reset the breaker, and the lights will be back on in five minutes."

In five minutes, the lights came back on.

I'm beginning to understand these matters too well.



Do you think it's tough to sell your house in today's real estate market?  You should have tried it my way, as a student just beginning the academic year — in kindergarten.  See my new article with pictures from Newark 1952.