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JUNE \ MAY 2008



I have an update to an article that I wrote five years ago about Covington, Kentucky, the town where my parents were married.  It turns out they weren't the only young couple heading south to tie the knot.  I've found references to at least half a dozen similar elopements that led to Covington weddings.

What's more, I've actually heard from the family of the man who married my parents in 1940!  His daughter tells her son that his grandfather, the minister, performed many such ceremonies on short notice.

Also, could a college demand that unless local taxpayers build them new sports facilities, they'll move the whole campus to a different city?  There may be a precedent.

It's all a part of Running Off to Covington.


JUNE 20, 2008    THE LATEST

The flowers were blooming in Oberlin, Ohio, when I was there four weeks ago.

What's New with Obie besides the lilacs?  Several things, including a new college president.  Click the title for the final article about my 40th reunion.



Why does the church play such a central role as a political institution for blacks?  That question was asked of Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor at Princeton, in the August 2008 issue of American History magazine.  Her answer:  Black ministers, because they're among the few blacks who don't work for white bosses, are autonomous — not dependent on a broader power structure for support but accountable only to the African-American community.  Therefore they're free to speak out against conditions that they see as wrong.

But she still marvels at the fact that blacks embraced the church when they were yet slaves.  "How is it possible that African Americans who were enslaved — who were unlikely, either themselves or their children, to ever be free, who were living in a context that we almost can't even imagine — how is it that they looked around and said, against all empirical evidence, 'Actually, God loves me'?"

Somehow, this doesn't surprise me at all.  Faith has nothing to do with empirical evidence.  On the contrary, it rejects evidence.  It flies in the face of evidence.  According to Hebrews 11:1 (NIV), faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Those who most despair of happiness in this life are those who most eagerly seize upon the dubious promise of a better life in heaven.  They have no evidence to support their hope, and it may all be a fairy tale, but they convince themselves it is true because they fervently want to believe that on the other side of Jordan is a sweet chariot coming for to carry them home.



Why is the pipe organ at the First Church in Oberlin like a television switcher with only two M/E's?  To find out, take The Organ Tour, my latest article about my college reunion.



Hi.  I'm the horse who won two-thirds of the 2008 Triple Crown.  I could have won the Belmont, too, but I didn't feel like it.

They'd eased off on my training lately, and I was starting to feel a little lazy.  But then Saturday I found myself being led into another starting gate in front of a big crowd, and the bell rang and we were off.

I wanted to take the lead, but we got into some early trouble going into the first turn, and my jockey Kent Desormeaux told me to go outside.  Down the backstretch, there were two horses ahead of us.  I wanted to put them away, but Kent held me back.  "Come on, let's go," I urged.  "It's hot out here.  Let's get this over with."  But Kent said it would be best to wait until we got to the final turn.

We'd covered a mile.  I tried again to make a move, but Kent held me back.  He said we still had another half mile to go.  The Belmont is a mile and a half?  Why wasn't I informed of this?

Finally other horses started to accelerate.  Kent urged me to do the same.  "Now you want me to make my move?" I demanded.  "No.  I'm sorry.  I'm hot, and I'm tired, and that's all I've got."  No stupid jockey is going to tell me when to run and when not to run.  I'm an American!

He asked me twice more, then relented and eased me up.  Maybe he was afraid that I had hurt myself.  But there's nothing wrong with Big Brown, I guarantee you that.

As I watched the other horses leave me behind in the stretch, I changed my mind and wanted to try to chase them down, but Kent said it was too late.  Oh, well.  No harm done.



In Saturday's horse race at Belmont, the heavy favorite to win the Triple Crown, Big Brown, did not win.  In fact, he finished last.  Nevertheless, 16 seconds after the finish, ABC-TV graphically identified a shot of Big Brown as the winner, using the name of the horse that actually did win.

How could network television make such an obvious error?

I wasn't there; I was working a baseball telecast in Pittsburgh.  But I can deduce what happened.  I myself have been involved in similar mistakes — more of them than I care to remember.

For every horse, the graphics people had already prepared a "font" declaring him the Unofficial Winner of the 140th Belmont Stakes.  It's standard procedure to add the time of the race and insert such a font into the broadcast as soon as possible after the finish, as the winning horse and his jockey are celebrating.

As the horses galloped the final hundred yards, the graphics coordinator said something like this to his operator:  "Number 6 is going to be the winner!  Call up Da' Tara, number 6.  Got it?  He won.  Now what was the time?  Two-29-point-65!  Two-29-point-65.  Is the font ready?  Okay, FONT IS GOOD.  BLIND REVEAL."  This last phrase means that the graphic will be blind (invisible) at first, but on command it will animate onto the screen and reveal the text.

Meanwhile, as the horses galloped the final hundred yards, director Doug Holmes showed the finish.  He cut to a closeup of the winning horse Da' Tara, then to a wide shot of the field slowing down.  But the question on everybody's mind was "what happened to the favorite?"  So, quite properly, Doug cut away from the winner to a closeup of the losing horse, number 1, Big Brown.

The sequence above took only seven seconds to unfold.  Big Brown remained on the screen, unidentified, for another nine seconds.

Then, upon hearing FONT IS GOOD, the director said "Insert font.  Animate it."  And what appeared is shown at the right.

Immediately everyone screamed, "No!  Not that font!  Wrong horse!  Lose it!"  And the graphic animated off the screen after only a second and a half.

The director had assumed that FONT IS GOOD referred to the horse that was on the screen.  The graphics people had assumed that the horse on the screen would be the winner, as planned. 

There was another pitfall ahead for the ABC-TV graphics crew.  They had prepared an Official Results page to list the time of the race and the horses that finished first, second, and third, along with the results of wagers on these horses.  There were additional lines for combination bets:  exacta, trifecta, and superfecta.

Something like the chart in red almost always suffices for this purpose.

However, there was an oddity in Saturday's Belmont:  two horses (numbers 8 and 9) tied for third place.  After checking the photo finish, the judges declared a "dead heat" for third.  That's rare, but not unheard of.

Now there were not three horses "in the money" but four, and additional lines were required, like the chart in blue.

But this had not been foreseen in planning the television graphics package.  The TV crew had to omit the information highlighted in yellow.

Couldn't they insert additional lines into the Official Results graphic?  No, these things can't be redesigned on short notice.  So this was what the crew came up with, less than 14 minutes after the finish.

The SHOW line required somebody's colors, so they picked those of horse number 8.  Then there wasn't room to type the numbers "8 & 9," so they had to leave that space blank and type the information at the bottom, on the line that had been intended for the superfecta.

Unfortunately, in the confusion, they picked the wrong number from this list of split times.  The Belmont is a mile and a half, but they typed in the 1¼-mile time of 2:03.21 instead of the final time of 2:29.65.

In fast-paced live television production, it's surprising that crossed signals like this don't occur more often.



I spent a large part of my 40th college reunion Learning from the Achievers — a sampling of fellow Oberlin students, my age and older, who accomplish great things for the world.

Click to read all about it.



Different parts of our brain have different tasks.  At the bottom there's the "reptilian brain."  Inherited from our distant ancestors, it controls basic functions such as breathing and defending territory.  Other parts of the brain have evolved more recently to control higher functions such as speaking and solving crossword puzzles.

Somewhere in my reptilian brain there's a lobe I call Junior, after Red Skelton's juvenile character, the Mean Widdle Kid.  Junior still hasn't learned how to be patient.  He sometimes throws tantrums, and I have to scold him.  The function that Junior controls is the bathroom function.

There's no physical difficulty.  I have no prostate problems that I know of, and apparently I have a fairly large bladder.  As a teenager, I once restrained myself for more than 27 hours (not recommended) because a smelly outhouse was the only facility available.

I can easily work a seven-hour baseball doubleheader without taking a restroom break.  In fact, the first time I feel any urge to relieve myself is afterwards, when I've located my car in the ballpark parking garage.  That's when Junior wakes up.  "Gotta go!" he yelps.  "Wanna go right now!"  I shush him and promise that we'll take care of business as soon as we get home.  He won't shut up until I've fastened my seat belt and put the car in gear, but then the motion of the car seems to lull the widdle kid to sleep.  Or maybe it's the familiar task of driving.  Anyway, there are no further urges until I've parked at my apartment.  "We're home!" he cries.  "Gotta go right now!"  Just wait one more minute, I plead, quickly unlocking the door and hurrying straight to the toilet.

Junior feels at home in my apartment, and he's less inhibited.  During the day, he can pipe up suddenly and insistently, because he knows that the bathroom is only a few steps away.  (This never happens when we're away from home.)  In the middle of the night, I usually wake up around 3:00 and indulge him.  But I realize it's all in my head.

Yesterday morning, I had just started checking my blood pressure when Junior decided he wanted to go.  "This will only take a moment," I told him.  But he didn't want to be put off.  He never does.  He started throwing a fit, screaming, kicking his feet, turning red in the face.  I clenched my crossed legs.  The BP reading appeared on the monitor:  153 over 91.  I scribbled it down and hurried off to quiet Junior.  Then I came back and took another reading, just a couple of minutes after the first one.  This time the numbers were much more healthy:  123 over 75.  My pulse rate was now only 60; it had been 72 before.  Numerical proof of what that mean widdle kid can do to me!


MAY 29, 2008    WIDE SHOTS

I've added some recent pictures to my Panoramas.  The last three in the "gallery" include an unusual view of the home of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, a much wider version of the commencement photo you see below, and an overview of the TV compound before last night's hockey game in Pittsburgh.



Variously-garbed Oberlin College seniors are shown here on the damp Professor Street sidewalk, as they waited this morning for the start of their academic procession.  I was on hand for the commencement ceremony because it was the 40th anniversary, more or less, of my own graduation.

Click for more pictures of today's Gathering on Tappan Square.  Over the next couple of weeks I'll add several other articles about what I learned at my college reunion.


MAY 23, 2008    THIS END UP?

I generally like to keep things well organized.  In my billfold, I have separate places for $1 and $5 and $10 and $20 bills.

But I don't care whether those bills are front side forward and top edge up.  After all, each piece of currency has its value printed in all eight corners.  It's easily identifiable no matter what its orientation.

Many people are obsessive about stacking all their money the same way, but to me that seems like an unnecessary waste of time.

2014 update:  I've changed my policy.


MAY 17, 2008    I FELL ASLEEP AT 9:23:40

I was relaxing on the couch last night, eyes closed, listening to a TV program on BBC America.  I fell asleep.  Nearly three hours later I awakened, and because many cable networks repeat their shows more than once, the same program was playing.

In a skit, Chip wanted to quit the comedy team of Fish & Chip.  I clearly remembered having heard this before.  Then came 20 or 30 seconds of dialogue that I partly remembered; I'd heard most of the words, but I hadn't gotten their meaning.  On second hearing, it turned out that Chip wanted to form a new partnership with Pin, from the team of Pin & Cushion, on the theory that PIN & Chip go together because they're both security measures for ATM cards.  After that, the dialogue was totally new to me.  The successful team to emerge from this shakeup turned out to be the nonsensical pairing of Fish & Cushion.

Using this technique, it's theoretically possible to determine, almost to the second, the time when I started to doze off and the time when I became fully unconscious.  Is that data in any way useful?


MAY 14, 2008    ODDS ARE...

The four-games-out-of-seven NBA playoff series between the Celtics and the Cavaliers is tied at two games apiece.  Game 5 will be tonight, and either the Celts or the Cavs could win.  However, a radio commentator today referred to league history, and he said that the outcome of Game 5 is critical.  For some reason, whoever wins Game 5 goes on to win the series 85% of the time!

Are incomprehensible forces at work?  Is there something magic about Game 5 that makes it the key to victory?

No, that 85% figure seems perfectly reasonable to me.  Let's look at the probabilities going into Game 5.  With four games played so far, the series standings could be either 4-0, 3-1, or 2-2.

Scenario A:  Your team is ahead 4-0 or behind 0-4.  There's no need to play Game 5, because one team already has four wins and the series is over.  So Scenario A is irrelevant.

Scenario B1:  Your team is ahead 3-1 and then wins Game 5.  Now you're ahead 4-1, the series is over, and you have a 100% chance of winning it.

Scenario B2:  Your team is behind 1-3 but then wins Game 5 in an upset.  Now you're behind 2-3.  To win the series, you still have to win both Game 6 and Game 7.  All else being equal, the chance of winning each game is 50%.  The chance of winning both is 50% x 50%, or 25%.  You have only a 25% chance of winning the series.

Scenario C:  The series is tied 2-2.  The team that wins Game 5 will be ahead 3-2.  That means they have a 75% chance of taking the series.  (Why?  From Scenario B2, we know that the other team, behind 2-3, has only a 25% chance.)

Suppose a dozen different series reach Game 5.  In roughly six of them, one team will be leading 3-1 (Scenario B1 or B2), while the other six will be tied (Scenario C).  If Scenarios B1 and B2 are equally likely (3 times each), we can average the probabilities to (3x100% + 3x25% + 6x75%) / 12 = 69%.

But Scenarios B1 and B2 are not equally likely.  When a series stands at 3-1, which team is more likely to win Game 5?  The superior team, the one that already has three wins, correct?  So the series-clinching Scenario B1 occurs more often than the delaying-the-inevitable Scenario B2.  If it occurs five times out of six, the averages are now (5x100% + 1x25% + 6x75%) / 12 =  81%.

Now consider other subtle effects such as morale and momentum, plus the fact that the winner of Game 5 gets to return to that same favorable arena for the decisive Game 7, and we can easily justify the 85% result that was obtained experimentally.


MAY 12, 2008    POSTAGE DUE

The cost of sending an ounce of first-class mail went up by a penny today, but for the first time I didn't have to worry about coping with the increase.  The Post Office finally figured out an efficient way to sell stamps, 160 years after the first stamps were issued in 1847.

“Until then,” wrote John Ross in Smithsonian ten years ago, “the federal postal system had operated without stamps.  Mail usually traveled postage due.  To claim a letter, the addressee, rather than the addressor, paid its postage.  (A prepaid letter might have suggested an insult, that the recipient was too poor to pay for it himself.  But ‘paying for a letter was like receiving a collect call from China.’  In the 1830s one disgruntled individual harassed an enemy by sending him letters stuffed with blank pages.  Many people who received mail simply refused to pay, rejecting the letter outright.)  Stamps promised to flip this tradition on its head by shifting responsibility for paying postage from the recipient to the letter writer.”

However, a problem arose when inflation required an increase in postal rates.  Your five-cent stamps were no longer sufficient.  You had to add a one-cent stamp, as on this 1968 letter, and buy six-cent stamps for future mailings.

Last year, the Post Office at last introduced the Forever Stamp.  You buy it at whatever rate is current, and it can be used on first-class mail at any time, regardless of any price increases in the interim.  The fee that long ago was collected when the mail was delivered, and later was collected when the mail was sent, is now collected when the stamp is purchased.  It seems like a good idea to me.

I had another idea around 1970, inspired by the IBM computer cards of that era with which we fed Fortran programs and data into a mainframe computer.  The cards all had one corner shaved off so that they could be mechanically sorted to face the same direction.

My idea was that the Post Office should give a discount to standard-sized envelopes if they were shaped like trapezoids so they could all be mechanically sorted to face the same direction.  But optical recognition techniques have made these non-rectangular envelopes unnecessary, I guess.


MAY 10, 2008    PAULUS

I switched on the radio the other day and heard an orchestra playing a sophisticated fugue.  That's unusual, I thought.  Perhaps the composer is imitating J.S. Bach.  Then the chorale melody “Wachet auf” entered, and the piece built to an inspiring climax.  “I must be listening to Mendelssohn,” I thought.  “I'm reminded of the sound of his Reformation Symphony, and he was a big fan of Bach.”  Mendelssohn famously conducted a performance in which he revived Bach's neglected St. Matthew Passion a century after it was written.

The announcer came on afterwards and identified the work as the overture to Mendelssohn's oratorio Paulus.  I was right.

But I've barely heard of that oratorio.  Looking for more information online, I found a quote from Thomas Norrington in The Guardian:  “My guess is that the piece that familiarised audiences with Bach was Mendelssohn's Paulus.  It was performed 300 times in its first year, all over, from Manchester to Cologne to America.  It's got chorales all the way through and people said, ‘What's that?’ and Mendelssohn said, ‘It's Bach.’”  Tim Ashley adds, “Paulus is now rarely performed and is, perhaps, now very much a lost work in need of rediscovery as the St Matthew Passion once was.”



In New Orleans, Canal Street leads down to the river.  But in Pittsburgh, Canal Street runs parallel to the river.  It's hard to believe that people would go to the trouble of building an artificial waterway alongside a natural waterway that already existed.  But they did.  It was part of the Main Line nearly two centuries ago, as I explain in a new article.