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Now, on the last day of the year, as our daylight hours have dwindled to a minimum, let us look at the earth at night, revealed in this well-known composite of satellite photographs.

Let us take a closer look at North America.  In the Eastern and Central time zones, virtually all the land has been illuminated, in one form or another, by the electric light.  But the same cannot be said for the western half.

As Winston Churchill almost said, in his famous 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri:

From Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba to Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico, a Dark Curtain has descended across the continent.  Behind that line lie all the capitals of the states and provinces of the Old West.

Denver, Boise, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Calgary, Cheyenne, Carson City, Salt Lake City; all these famous cities and the sparse populations around them lie in what I must call the Great American Darkness, and all are part of a general emptiness that is relieved only by the dense settlements along the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

Tonight, let us imagine ourselves in one of those cold dark places, far from civilization, where one can still see the stars at night.  Let us imagine ourselves looking up in solitude at the eternal night sky.



Last night NBC rebroadcast the September 17 season premiere of Amy Poehler’s sitcom, Parks and Recreation.

In this episode, her character Leslie Knope promoted the local zoo with cute faux ceremonies for the animals, such as “birthday parties” or “graduations.”  There was a “wedding” for Tux and Flipper, a pair of newly acquired penguins.  But then someone pointed out that both penguins were male.

(Some fundamentalists, convinced that homosexuality is a deliberate sin against God's law that only willful humans can commit, refuse to believe that God could have created gay penguins.  But apparently He did.  And penguins mate for life.) 

The Society for Family Stability Foundation, accusing the zoo of endorsing gay marriage, demanded that Leslie “separate the penguins, annul the marriage, reimburse the taxpayers for the cost of the wedding, and then resign.”

She did none of that; instead, she transferred the birds to a zoo in Iowa, where gay marriage is legal.

During the commercial breaks, the writer in me couldn’t resist sketching out a serious speech for Leslie.

Dearly beloved, when we gathered together at the penguin exhibit, I made an error — not a political statement.

Had I known both Tux and Flipper were male, I would not have pretended to marry them.  Whatever our opinions on gay marriage, we know a wedding for two male birds will be controversial.  And our zoo doesn’t need controversy.  I’m sorry for that.

The SFSF has made four demands.  However, I must reject them all.

I will not resign.  I’ve learned from my mistake.

I will not reimburse anyone.  We all volunteered our time, so there’s nothing to reimburse.

I will not annul the marriage.  I have never had the authority to marry or unmarry anyone or anything, so there’s nothing to annul.

Finally, I will not separate the penguins.  Instead, they’re on their way to live happily together in a more tolerant part of our country.

Tux and Flipper are two of God’s creatures. Irrespective of any of our human customs, they have mated for life.  That is their nature.

What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.



Will the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers make the NFL playoffs this season?  The odds are against it.  Here’s how I estimate the probability.

The regular season will end this Sunday.  In their final game, the 8-7 Steelers must win at Miami.  Let’s assume they have a 50-50 chance of doing so.

But to earn an AFC wild card berth, they'll need help.  There are four other 8-7 teams, and at least two and maybe three of them must not win on Sunday.  Those teams are Houston, Baltimore, Denver, and the New York Jets.  Each is favored by at least a touchdown.  Let’s assume each has a 60-40 chance of winning.

After Pittsburgh and Houston have played their 1:00 games, there are three possible situations leading into Sunday's later contests.





At Miami

PIT lost

PIT won

PIT won

At Houston

doesn't matter

HOU won

HOU lost





Under Scenario A, the Steelers have zero chance of making the playoffs.

Under Scenario B, the Steelers make the playoffs only if Baltimore and Denver both lose at 4:15 and the Jets lose at 8:20.  The probability of any one of these favorites losing is .40, so the probability of all three losing is a slim .40 x .40 x .40 = .064.  Multiplied by the 30% probability of Scenario B happening at all, this gives the Steelers a 1.92% chance of making the playoffs via this unlikely route.

Scenario C is more plausible.  Here, the Steelers get in if either Baltimore loses at 4:15 or the Jets lose at 8:20.  To calculate that probability, from 1 we subtract the probability of the opposite outcome (both winning), which is 1 minus .60 x .60, which is .640.  Multiplied by the 20% probability of Scenario C happening, this gives the Steelers a 12.80% chance of making the playoffs this way.

Adding up the three possible scenarios (0% + 1.92% + 12.80%), we see that the Steelers’ probability of moving on to postseason play is only 14.72%.

So what about today's KDKA-TV report in which Carnegie Mellon University mathematics professor John Mackey comes up with a probability three times as big?  He starts with different assumptions.

"One event is the Steelers win," he says.  "Now, we know that this is fairly certain."  So he gives them a 100% chance of winning and rephrases the question to this:  After the Steelers win, what are their playoff chances?  Then he gives each of the other four teams only a 50% chance of winning, instead of my more realistic estimate of 60%.

The "Pittsburgh will win" assumption doubles the probability that they'll make the playoffs.  The "50% instead of 60%" assumption multiplies it by a factor of about 1½.  If I had used those optimistic predictions, I too would have arrived at 43.75%.



On the second day before the holiday, our hockey announcers wanted to express the number 9 in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” format.  But no one was sure what the ninth gift was supposed to be.  Nine lords a-milking?  Probably not.  Two members of the production staff looked it up on the Internet.  One found “nine ladies dancing”; the other found “nine drummers drumming.”  I had not realized that there are different versions.

On the first day before Christmas, I went online myself and learned more about this song.

The opening verse seems nonsensical.  A partridge nests on the ground, never “in a pear tree.”  Also, fruit trees cannot be easily delivered, even as gifts.

However, in France “a partridge” is une perdrix, pronounced “unna per-dree.”  To an Englishman, that sounds like a Gallic-accented “in a pear tree.”  One can imagine the original version, first in France and later in England:

Le premier jour de Noël
Mon véritable amour
M'a envoyé une perdrix.

On the first day of Christmas
My true love sent to me
A partridge, une perdrix.

Also, why is the succession of avian gifts interrupted at number 5 by jewelry?  I learned that the “five gold rings” were probably also fowl, as in five golden ring-necked pheasants.

If the earlier gifts were repeated on succeeding days, as the song implies, by the end of the first week of Christmas the “true love” had sent 7 partridges, 12 turtledoves, 15 French hens, 16 colly birds, 15 pheasants, 12 geese, and 7 swans — a total of 84 birds.  Imagine that New Year’s celebration!

Finally, on the first day of Christmas I found a blog entry that reminded me of my own experience, growing up as an only child in a happy family.  (We're pictured here in 1967.)

Mark Evanier on December 25 wrote the following reminiscence about his family:

Christmas was a special day but it wasn't as special to us as it seemed to be to others.  I was well into my twenties when I figured out what was going on there.  I was then going with a lady who dragged me into her family Christmas arrangements that year.  Hours...days...whole weeks were spent planning the parties, the dinners, the gatherings.  She spent cash she didn't have to buy gifts and purchase a new party-going outfit for herself...and the decorating took twice as long as Michelangelo spent painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It seemed to me more like a chore than a celebration, and one night I asked her why she went to so much trouble.  She said, "Christmas is important.  When I was a kid, it was the one time of the year when we all got along...or came close to getting along."

There it was.  She'd come from a large and dysfunctional family.  Siblings were forever fighting.  Parents drank and split up and got back together and screamed a lot and separated again.  There was much yelling and occasional violence...

...but not as much at Christmas.  Christmas was when they managed to put most of that aside.  Christmas was when they generally managed to act the way they should have acted all year.  That was why, when it came around, they made so much of it.

We never had to declare a holiday cease-fire in my family.  We always got along.  There was very little arguing between my parents or between them and me, and what little occurred never lasted long.  I never had fights with brothers or sisters because I never had brothers or sisters.

I never in my life wished I had a brother or sister.  Never for one second.  When I went to the homes of friends who had siblings, I only heard screaming and yelling and fighting over belongings...and envy from my friends that I had my own room and the undivided love and attention of my parents.  (Evanier November 8, 2012)

My folks and I were known to give each other gifts for no special occasion and to occasionally get the whole (small) local family together for a big meal.  So Christmas wasn't that much different from the way we lived all year.

A year or two ago, I told a friend all of the above and his reaction was on the order of, "Gee, too bad for you."  Because in his household, Christmas was wondrous and festive and the source of most of his happy childhood memories.  I never saw it that way.  I have loads of happy childhood memories.  They were just no more likely to occur around Christmas than at any other time...and I liked it that way.  I mean, you can have Christmas once a year or you can have it 365 times a year.  Peace on Earth, good will towards men doesn't have to stop later tonight.



I took these photos earlier this month, at 5:15 on a clear cold evening at the park in my old hometown in Ohio.  Merry Christmas!


DECEMBER 20, 2009     Mui vas pokhoronim!

Betty White understands what Nikita meant.

I finally got around to watching the October 29 episode of the NBC comedy 30 Rock, in which the much younger Tracy Jordan hopes he will outlive Betty.  “Nice try, Jordan!” she retorts.  “But I am going to be at your funeral.  I will bury you.

The allusion was to a famous remark by Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union.  As a Communist, Khrushchev believed what Karl Marx taught:  in the same way that feudalism was replaced by capitalism, eventually capitalism will be superseded by communism.

At a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956, Khrushchev spoke to Western diplomats about the idea of peaceful coexistence.  “Whether we exist doesn't depend on you.  If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you.  Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.  We will bury you.”

“We will bury you!”  Paranoid Americans took this as a direct threat.  I remember that politicians like Barry Goldwater exploited our fears.  Time put a belligerent Khrushchev on its cover, a hydrogen bomb exploding behind him.  He was depicted as dangerously aggressive, an arrogant bully who planned to utterly destroy America and bury us under the earth. 

Even as a young boy at the time, I realized “We will bury you” meant “We will attend your funeral,” not “We will cause your funeral.”  Khrushchev was predicting that America would collapse of its own accord, due to internal faults like class warfare and immorality, while the Soviet Union would survive.  In Marx’s view, the Western economic system inevitably dies a natural death, and “the proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism.”  Khrushchev was merely saying, “When you are dead and ready for the grave, the Soviet Union will be there to do the burying.”

Of course, he was wrong.  But that’s another story.



I've retold yet another Bible story in the first person.  Perhaps Transfiguration is even more outrageous than my previous four tales, but it could well describe what really happened on that mountain.



It used to be that WTAE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh, was Channel 4.  No matter whether you used cable or an antenna, for ABC you tuned to Channel 4.

Nowadays it’s not that simple.

The first complication came when, to avoid interference between broadcast 4 and cable 4, Comcast Cable moved its version of the station to cable channel 8.

Then digital high-definition television came along.  WTAE-DT began broadcasting on UHF channel 51.  If you have an antenna and a DTV receiver, the HD signal appears as channel 4.1, but if you have Comcast and a cable box, it appears as channel 210. 

Because much of Pittsburgh can’t receive WTAE-DT on channel 51, the station fills the gaps with a “repeater” transmitter at a different location and on a different frequency, channel 22.  If you have a DTV receiver, this shows up as channel 4.3. 

Analog over-the-air broadcasts on channel 4 have now ended.  But Comcast continues to use analog cable channel 8 for a standard-definition version of WTAE-TV.

The cable company also carries that same SD version as a digital channel.  To view it, you tune your Comcast digital cable box to channel 008.  Or you feed the cable (instead of an antenna) to the input of your DTV receiver and tune it to QAM channel 81-5.

These digital versions are gradually taking over.  To record programs on tape or disk, I once used analog tuners almost exclusively, but many of the analog channels have been eliminated (to save bandwidth) in favor of digital.  I’m now starting to use a QAM tuner to feed my DVD recorder.

I’ve tried to sort out these complexities by making a detailed list of what I have available on cable.  Here’s a small part of it.  The HD channels are in the first column.  The second column is the QAM channel.  Finally comes the SD digital cable channel; if the number has fewer than three digits, it’s also available as an analog cable channel for my recorders and smaller TVs.

To recap: the local ABC affiliate is now on either 4.1 or 4.3 or 8 or 008 or 22 or 51 or 81-5 or 210, depending on your mode of reception.  On satellite, it might have yet another designation.  If you want to convert these “channels” to actual frequencies in megahertz, you get a different set of numbers.  The old analog channel 4 is no longer among your choices.

You have the right to be confused.

But to minimize the confusion, the station still calls itself Channel 4.  Most other stations likewise continue to identify themselves with time-honored digits that are no longer related to their actual frequencies.  Is that clear?




On Friday, I was one of 9.4 million viewers for the finale of the USA Network series Monk, making it the most-watched hourlong series ever on basic cable.  In happy-ending fashion, the episode wrapped up loose ends from eight seasons.  Even bumbling Lt. Disher got a better job out of the blue, as chief of police in Summit, New Jersey.

However, of that audience of 9.4 million, only 3.2 million were in the age range of 18-49 most desired by advertisers.  The majority, 6.2 million, were either children or mature adults like me, and it's well known that we never buy anything.



You’ve heard of the Viking explorer and real estate salesman known as Eric the Red.  To entice settlers from Iceland to move to his new project, he named it Greenland.  Later his son, Leif Ericsson, also became a famous explorer.

You may not know about the rest of Eric’s family.  He had two daughters, Helga Ericsdottir and Freydis Ericsdottir.  There was also another son, Rudy Ericsson, who was called Rudolph the Red because of his resemblance to his dad.

After Eric the Red and his family established a settlement on Greenland in the year 986, his son Rudy sent for his new wife to join him.  However, when she arrived, she discovered she had been the victim of her father-in-law’s false advertising.  This land wasn’t green.  On the contrary, it was covered by a huge glacier.  And the weather was even more inhospitable than it had been back home.

Rudy tried to convince his bride that Greenland wasn’t as gloomy as she thought.  “You’ll see,” he said.  “Conditions will improve once the rainy season is over.”

“Rainy season?!” she exclaimed.  “This stuff falling from the clouds isn’t rain.  It’s frozen!”

“No, it’s rain,” he reassured her.

“It’s sleet and snow!”

But her husband was insistent.  “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”


(Which is on CBS tonight, by the way.  I first heard this punch line 50 years ago, but in those Cold War days “Rudolph the Red” was a Communist from Moscow.)



Having gone to the trouble of solving certain Sunday crossword puzzles from the New York Times, edited by Will Shortz, I’ve saved some of the interesting results.

For example, one puzzle went nuts over these eight 15-letter phrases.  Count the different letters in each phrase.  What “odd” characteristic do they share?


Other puzzles contain humorous little verses, composed under very strict rules.  Not only must they have four rhyming lines, each line must contain (not counting spaces or punctuation marks) exactly 21 letters.  Here are four from the late Frances Hansen.


Lesson for Today

Socrates was put on trial.
At first it was a deadlock,
But after arguing awhile
He had to swallow wedlock.


First the Sheep, Then . . . ?

I meet Santa more and more.
Many stores enthrone him.
Someone must be joking, or
They’ve begun to clone him.


Yule Get Over It

It’s all right if I’m so busy
That I’m shopping in a haze.
Every season I turn dizzy
In my Christmas holidaze.


Cold Cure

When Santa’s polar climes
Make Santa sob for Bimini,
He warms himself at times
By jumping down a chimini.


And finally there was this magnum opus, requiring eight lines, 23 letters per line, and two authors, Dave J. Kahn and Hillary B. Kahn.


Green Eggs and Hamlet

I do not like my dad’s brother:
Poisoned king, wed my mother.
I let them think that I am mad.
Oops, I stabbed Ophelia’s dad!
Nobody helps me in my plight.
Now Laertes and I will fight.
Swords are switched in a jam;
A theatrical ending, Ham-I-am.


NOVEMBER 25, 2009     EXTRA

News report:  California growers are developing large-scale olive tree farms to undercut Europe’s domination of the oil market.

The story mentioned “extra-virgin olive oil,” a term that's always puzzled me.  I tried to reason it out.  If virgin olive oil has never “gone all the way,” has extra-virgin oil never even “gone to second base”?  What would any of that mean, anyway?

And what would non-virgin oil be?  In what way has it been sullied, its virtue defamed?  Perhaps it's used cooking oil.  The little bits of food have been skimmed off and filtered out, and the oil has been recycled.

Well, I finally decided to look it up.  No, non-virgin oil has not been defiled by prior experience in the kitchen.  However, I was partly right:  it has, in fact, been filtered and refined to artificially reduce extraneous flavors and acidity.  But virgin oil is “all-natural,” straight from the fruit.  Extra-virgin applies to virgin oil that naturally happens to have less acidity and a better taste.  And none of it has even reached first base.


NOVEMBER 19, 2009     OMG!

When I was in college, a fellow physics major was intrigued by the investigations of J.B. Rhine (right) in the field of extra-sensory perception.

Being open-minded, I thought ESP might be possible.  Could any of my acquaintances read my mind?

I devised a simple test:  if they could, they should be able to find therein a certain obscure incident from my childhood.  They should be able to describe a story that only I knew, the story of David and Annette.

Photo: Duke University Archives

More than four decades later, I've decided that ESP is highly unlikely, in part because no one has repeated that secret story to me.  So here it is.

A popular record in 1960 featured Annette Funicello as a lovesick girl singing “O Dio Mio.”  One of my classmates in junior high was David Main, the son of the pastor of the local Church of Christ.  Translating the title into English, David informed me in a shocked tone that it meant “Oh My God” — a phrase that he plainly thought deserving of more respect.  Although the lyrics are set in the form of a prayer, the song is definitely not a hymn. 

O Dio Mio, I love him so
O Dio Mio, please let him know
How much I need him
How much I want him
How much I long for his love

O Dio Mio, please hear my prayer
O Dio Mio, please make him care
If he would love me
I'd be in Heaven above
Heaven above

Each time I hear
The church bells chime
I dream I'm his
And he is mine

O Dio Mio, I love him so
O Dio Mio, please let him know
How much I need him
How much I long for his love
Make him my love

A more appropriate occasion for the phrase came a few years later in Dallas.  Upon seeing her husband murdered, Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly exclaimed “Oh my God!”

But Americans casually continue to overuse the expression.  Yesterday a Pittsburgh columnist, Reg Henry, stated his objections.



Six years ago on this site, I wrote of my childhood as follows.

On weekends, my parents and I often drove randomly out into the country.  As they pointed out who lived in each farmhouse, I'd gaze at the rural scenery.  I daydreamed.  What if my hometown had its own television station?  One program could be shot from a car traveling these country roads.  I'd call it Sunday Driver.  Shut-ins might like it.

This fall, the Maine-based producers of the Discovery HD Theater series “Sunrise Earth” introduced a new morning series called “SunRides Earth.”  In the first episode, a high-definition camera rides the roads of Maine’s Acadia National Park.  Sometimes the vehicle moves at normal speeds; sometimes it slows to a walk for a better look.  There’s no narration.  The only “story line” is an occasional graphic that shows the remaining distance to the destination, which turns out to be a parking area at the top of Cadillac Mountain.

Once more, an idea of mine has been realized.



Sunday was a nice day in Pittsburgh, so I drove to the North Shore and took a walk to see some sights.

A helicopter was hovering over the Allegheny River, filming a River Rescue boat for a scene in the new Russell Crowe movie, The Next Three Days.  Replicas of the Niña and the Pinta, two ships from the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, were tied up outside Jerome Bettis' Grille 36, where I ate lunch.  A few hundred yards downstream, the new Rivers Casino was open.  And in between, a pier from the 1915 Manchester Bridge once again has a purpose.


For nearly four decades, since the structure was replaced by the Fort Duquesne Bridge and demolished in 1970, this abandoned stone eyesore loomed over the riverbank.  But now workers have cleaned it up and cut an archway through it.

As shown in the artist’s rendering below, it frames a new statue honoring the late host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers is depicted twice as large as life.  He’s sitting down and tying his shoe, as he did to open each episode of the long-running children’s program he produced at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh.

Approaching the memorial from the direction of Heinz Field, as depicted in the drawing, I saw only the back of the figure.

Unfortunately, the sculptor was Robert Berks.  He prefers a very rough texture, as on his memorials to Albert Einstein and the late Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri.  From the rear, this statue looks like a giant hairy gorilla, slumped on a stump, brooding over the river.

In front of the figure, I could recognize Mr. Rogers’ smiling face, sort of.  But his huge teeth are enough to frighten little kids.

The statue “doesn’t resemble him at all,” according to the director of the nearby Warhol Museum.  “It doesn’t look beckoning and warm.”

And Jimmy Kimmel told his TV audience the statue “made the nicest man in the world look like a mud monster.”



Last weekend while surfing through the cable channels, I found myself watching a movie:  the 1998 restoration of the 1958 film noir Touch of Evil, directed by and starring Orson Welles as a corrupt police captain.

The cast also includes Charlton Heston as a Mexican drug enforcement agent and Janet Leigh as his bride.  Dennis Weaver, on a three-day break from his role as Chester in TV’s Gunsmoke, plays a dimwitted night clerk at a motel.  Marlene Dietrich also appears as a fortuneteller to whom Welles’ character says, “Come on, read my future for me.”  “You haven’t got any,” she replies.  “Your future is all used up.”

I was impressed by the famous opening tracking shot (a continuous take of over three minutes), but even more so by the masterful camera angles and shot compositions.  We don’t see movie-making like this today.

In 1958, Welles wrote, “While the style of Touch of Evil may be somewhat overly baroque, there are positively no camera tricks. Nowadays the eye is tamed, I think, by the new wide screens.  These ‘systems’ with their rigid technical limitations are in such monopoly that any vigorous use of the old black-and-white, normal-aperture camera runs the risk of seeming tricky by comparison.  The old camera permits use of a range of visual conventions as removed from ‘realism’ as grand opera.  This is a language, not a bag of tricks.  If it is now a dead language, as a candid partisan of the old eloquence, I must face the likelihood that I shall not again be able to put it to the service of any theme of my own choosing.”

What else have I found on TV lately?  Well, there’s only one show on the Style Network that I enjoy watching:  The Dish.  Danielle Fishel makes fun of the excesses of various female-oriented TV programs.  As a guy, I am not a fan of those programs.  However, as a guy, I do find Danielle cute and entertaining.



Why is Major League Baseball’s championship called the World Series, although teams from other countries like Japan aren’t invited?

According to snopes.com, since the beginning of professional baseball “teams engaged in exhibitions and unofficial regional playoffs after the end of regular-season play.”  For example, in 1882 the new American Association's champion, Cincinnati, played a pair of exhibition games against the National League's champion, Chicago.  Two years later, after the NL had acknowledged the legitmacy of the AA, the first official postseason interleague series was played. 

But what should it be called?  As Spalding’s Base Ball Guide explained, both leagues “entitle their championship contests each season as those for the base ball championship of the United States.”  Therefore, when the two United States champions met, they had to be playing for something even grander.  A new name like “Super Bowl” had to be invented.  Spalding’s Guide called the 1886 series “The World’s Championship.”  The Reach Guide referred to it as “The Great World’s Series” to decide the “championship of the world.”

Through 1890, the National League won four of these World Series and the American Association one, with two ties.  But then the AA folded.

A decade later, a “junior circuit” called the American League began crowning champions.  In 1903, the “modern” World Series between NL and AL pennant-winners began.  I’ve pointed out, elsewhere on this website, the location in Pittsburgh where that Series was contested.