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JUNE \ MAY 2010



Weary of being looked down upon, janitors changed the name of their profession to custodians.  Eventually people caught on.  Then the custodians had to reinvent themselves again as maintenance engineers.

As I observed in an article about a Methodist conference six years ago, “Groups of outsiders always feel that any label placed on them is somehow insulting, so they're always asking for a new label.”

The example I gave:  descendants of slaves in America.  First they were African, as in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.  Then it was decided that colored people would be a more polite term, as in the National Association for the Advancement of same (the NAACP).  Later, folks felt that Negroes would be less demeaning, as long as it was pronounced correctly.  Then the Negroes decided they wanted to be called blacks.  In the 1960s and ’70s we were encouraged to use Afro-Americans instead, then African-Americans, then minorities.  Finally the Methodist conference declared minorities pejorative and replaced it with racial/ethnic persons.

Now, from another field, we have another example of this "euphemism treadmill.Mentally retarded is being changed to intellectually disabled.

After today, as reported in this news story, the Allegheny County Office of Mental Retardation / Developmental Disabilities will be known as the Allegheny County Office of Intellectual Disability.

Developmental neuropsychiatrist James C. Harris says that back in the 1960s and ’70s, the accepted diagnoses were idiot, imbecile and moron.  Then a new term, considered to be more sensitive, appeared in medical and psychiatric journals:  mentally retarded.

However, after 40 years of this terminology, “People with disabilities and their families are simply tired of the old words. They were demeaning.”  (That’s according to Nancy Murray, president of the ARC of Greater Pittsburgh.  Her organization used to be the Association for Retarded Citizens until about five years ago, when it switched to using only the initials ARC.)  When the phrase retarded citizen is shortened, and people refer to others as retards, it’s no better than calling them morons.

Eventually, I suppose the new term intellectually disabled will also start to seem demeaning, and we’ll have to invent something else.



At the conclusion of a conference in San Francisco, a charter was signed 65 years ago today by the United Nations, “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

How has that worked out so far?  We have indeed avoided another World War, but we have not prevented all armed conflicts.  That may never be possible.  It has always been human nature to resort to violence when there seems to be no other option.

It’s also human nature to consume the earth’s resources.  We want energy, so we burn whatever we can get our hands on:  wood, coal, oil, gas, biomass.

As we try to restrain wars through international agreements, we can try to restrain the burning of carbon through “green” initiatives.  But we can't change human nature.  While we Americans reluctantly take small steps to achieve better gas mileage, “in the developing world the use of private automobiles is escalating at double-digit rates” (Walter Hook, executive director, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy).

“The mood of Western civilization is Abrahamic.  The explorers and colonists were guided by a biblical prayer: May we take possession of this land that God has provided and let it drip milk and honey into our mouths, forever.  Now, more than six billion people fill the world.  ...The living world is dying; the natural economy is crumbling beneath our busy feet.  We have been too self-absorbed to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions” (Edward O. Wilson in The Future of Life).

Just as we can never prevent war completely, we can never do without combustion completely.  We have little realistic hope of reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Therefore, as far as global warming is concerned, we’re going to have to turn our efforts away from preventing the inevitable and toward living with it.

We’re going to have to spend money, a lot of it, to relocate the world’s population away from the slowly submerging coastal regions and away from the increasingly torrid tropics.

The good news:  Humans are adaptable.  We’ll survive, though our numbers will be drastically reduced and we will become even more polarized.  I mean literally.

As the lower latitudes become uninhabitable in the coming centuries, half of our species will flee towards the North Pole to dwell on the balmy shores of the Arctic Ocean, while the other few million survivors will flee towards the South Pole to farm the valleys of Antarctica.


JUNE 24, 2010     MOCKUMENTS

Hank Stuever objected this week to the conventions of modern “faux reality sitcoms.”  Here’s a distilled version of his column:

When he looks at the camera, to whom is Modern Family dad Phil Dunphy talking?  And who is on the other end of the camera when employees of Dunder Mifflin confess their innermost thoughts on The Office?  And what sort of fictional camera crew, making what sort of film, would find itself limitlessly interested in one Leslie Knope of the Pawnee, Ind., Parks and Recreation department?

Because these TV comedies are doing their jobs right, we viewers mostly don't care to think it through.  Many of us first fell for mockumentary with director Rob Reiner's 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap.  The format remains funny because it seems just real enough.  When they're looking right into the camera, the characters seem to be talking to us, the audience, their confidants — which is flattering in a way.

Thinking about it too much recently had me wondering, who are the mockumentarians?

By now, the imaginary, unseen film crew tasked with completing a documentary about an average American workplace (The Office) has amassed five full years' worth of footage.  What do "they" intend to "do" with it all?  No one in "The Office" ever asks when the project will conclude.  If it's to be a reality TV show, why has it never aired?  If it's a film project, where does the unlimited funding come from?  All we know is that a film crew follows Dunder Miffliners around each and every workday with unheard-of journalistic access, to the point where the crew was even at that roadside gas station when Jim proposed to Pam.

Anyone who's ever studied or participated in actual documentary filmmaking can point out hundreds of examples of "ungettable" moments — places where cameras (and crews) miraculously gain access to both sides of a locked door, so to speak, and other lapses in verisimilitude.

Mr. Steuver is indeed thinking about it too much.  We viewers realize these aren’t actual documentaries, but we’ve learned to accept the mockumentary style as an excellent method of alternating among various characters’ points of view to tell an amusing story.

Other storytelling conventions that we accept without thinking:

In traditional three-camera sitcoms, the family spends most of its time in a huge living/dining room.  The part of the floor near the door is one step higher than the rest of the room, and there are only three walls and no ceiling.  How is that realistic?

In dramas, when a couple have a conversation, we’re looking over the woman’s shoulder at the man’s face; then in a blink of an eye we’ve changed positions, and we’re looking over the man’s shoulder at the woman’s face.  How could we move that quickly in real life?

So don’t worry about the unseen camera crew.  Just enjoy the show.


JUNE 22, 2010     IT'S NEWS TO ME

I've recently discovered that one of my fellow Oberlin College alumni was Yeijiro Ono.  Dr. Ono, a native of Tokyo, was a member of the Class of 1887.  More than 80 years later, his granddaughter Yoko broke up the Beatles.

(This image is from the video of the 2010 Commencement ceremonies last month.)

I've also learned, thanks to coverage of World Cup soccer, a useful British term for an exchange of insults:  “slanging match.”



The front of the package for the Simply Asia Roasted Peanut Noodle Bowl proclaims “Just heat and serve.  Ready in 2 minutes!”  But that’s only the heating time.  The actual procedure takes at least twice that long, and I’m ready to eat now.

On the back of the package are the “Microwave directions.  Recipe Time: 2 Minutes.”  To paraphrase the five steps:


Remove bowl from cardboard sleeve.

Remove plastic overwrap from bowl.

Remove all contents from bowl:  authentic Asian noodles packet, Simply Asia signature sauce packet, vegetable packet, roasted peanut topping packet, and fork.


Open noodles packet and empty into bowl.

Open vegetable packet and empty into bowl.


Open sauce packet and pour sauce over noodles.

Add two tablespoons of water.

Cover loosely with lid.


Place in oven.

Microwave on high for 2 minutes.

Remove from oven.  (Caution:  after cooking, the bowl may be extremely hot.  Handle with care to avoid spilling or burning yourself.)

Remove lid.


Stir noodles until they are evenly coated with sauce.

Open roasted peanut topping packet and sprinkle over noodles.


I also added a few drops of Tabasco sauce, and I did enjoy — after about five minutes of preparation.


JUNE 13, 2010     "45" OLDIES

Last night, for the first time in decades, I talked with Ed Olson.  Once president of our high school class, he's now a County Commissioner in Mansfield, Ohio.

Ed recalled for the group the suggestion that our school superintendent, the late Richard Fetter, made at the time of our Commencement in 1965.  Mr. Fetter pointed out that the 49th annual Richwood High School Alumni Banquet was coming up in a couple of weeks, and it might be good for us to attend as newly-minted alumni.  This was especially appropriate because we would be the last class to graduate from RHS before it was consolidated into the new North Union High School.

Maybe that's why many of the grads from our age group still attend events like the one last night, the 94th annual Richwood-North Union High School Alumni Banquet.

There were special tables for 11 honored classes in five-year intervals from 1935 to 1985.  One of them was our Class of 1965, the 45-year class.  (I had last attended the last time we were honored, as the 40-year class.)

Originally 76 of us graduated, of whom nine are now deceased.  Eleven attended the ceremonies.  In addition to Ed and me, there were nine girls:  Bonnie Bell, Dee Ann DeBolt, Mary Jo Fetter, Lynne Glass, Pat Ransome, Judy Rubeck, Doris Schrote, Lois Smith, and Mary Wells (maiden names).

Bonnie held a get-together at her house afterwards.  At 9:00 pm, Ed was at the head of the table under the tent, flanked by Lois (listening on the left) and Ed's wife Pat (talking on the right).

At least five additional classmates joined us for this party, including John Caudill, Keith Forrider, Spencer Jordan, Rick Ridge, and Sandy Sanderson.

All told, about 24% of our surviving members were there last night.

However, very few graduates from the 1980s or 1990s or 2000s showed up for the banquet.  Almost everyone in attendance was old enough to have grandchildren.

What's the matter with kids today?  I suppose they need a Mr. Fetter to teach them school spirit.



It's been 40 years since my last stint as a radio disc jockey.  I had a two-hour shift, once a week.  This summer replacement gig lasted only a couple of months.

At the time, I was enrolled in the graduate program of the TV/Radio Department at Syracuse University.  That's department chairman Larry Myers on the far left with some of the senior staff of campus radio station WAER-FM, circa 1969.

During the summer, those undergraduate students went home.  However, we graduate students were still around, so we took over the abandoned station.

What records was I playing in June of 1970?  I've added a lengthy playlist to my article about WAER Radio, plus more pictures.


JUNE 3, 2010     CHROMA KEY

Even a hole in his tie won't stop our Vice President from talking.

What am I talking about?  In a new little article about television techniques, I discuss some Key Topics.



Back in 1978, I helped put this teenager on television, where he amazed our small audience in Washington, Pennsylvania.

The next year, he helped James Randi point out how researchers in the field of parapsychology could be deceived if they weren't careful.

Today, under the stage name of Banachek, he's still working as a mentalist.

The story is in my new article entitled, appropriately, Banachek!



Whilst going through my files a couple of months ago, I ran across the missing second half of the lyrics I wrote in high school and posted last year at this time:  the story of Bill Doodle, a soldier who enlisted unwisely.

Click here for the article.  In Part Two of my expanded tale, our hero conquers war.  He accomplishes this by gallantly running away from the Army and back home to his sweetheart.  I knew there was more to the story!


MAY 27, 2010     MAROONS 28, BLUES 24 (FINAL)

You probably missed the historic telecast last night.  I missed it too:  the world's first sporting event to be broadcast in 3D live over the air.  Channel Nine, not cable, telecast the opening game of something called...

The Harvey Norman State of Origin Rugby League Football Tournament.

I know what you're thinking.  You're worried about the future of football at Harvey Norman State.  Will the Norms decide to abandon the Origin Rugby League and join the Big Ten?

But no, it turns out that Harvey Norman is Australia's biggest chain of retail stores, rugby league football is a sport, and State of Origin is an intriguing all-star format.  Athletes represent the state in which they played their first senior football.  (Fans presumably root for the state in which they pay their taxes.)

Apparently rugby is played in only two Aussie states.  If your career originated in New South Wales, you're forever sentenced to be a member of the Blue team.  If you got your start in Queensland, you're a Maroon.

This best-of-three series has been called "sport's greatest rivalry."  But then, what hasn't?



Authors of “historical novels” develop fictional characters and imagine them interacting with actual historical personages and events.

For example, the Whitman Publishing Company released this book in the “juvenile fiction” category when I was ten years old.  My uncle Ralph, a Whitman executive, sent me a copy.

Alternatively titled A Boy Sailor with John Paul Jones, it was written by H.C. Thomas (no relation).  I clearly understood that the young Noah, the Yankee firebrand, was invented by the author and inserted into the real American Revolution.

But sometimes the author gets too clever, and readers think his creations really existed.

A friend of mine last week reported that his kids had discovered a Victorian-era mechanical man called Boilerplate.  It was featured in one of their robotics magazines, and they found more details on a website.

According to the story, Boilerplate was introduced to the public in 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The automaton went on to explore the polar regions and to serve as a soldier in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

My friend was puzzled by technical questions.  Without a gyroscope, how did Boilerplate balance on two skinny legs?  How did he run?  Where are the blueprints showing how his joints were articulated?

I also was puzzled.  If a robot participated in Teddy Roosevelt’s famous charge up San Juan Hill, why had this remarkable detail been omitted from the history books?

It didn't take me long, via an Internet search, to establish that Boilerplate is a fictional character.  The contraption was invented in Portland, Oregon, in 2000.  The photos are of a 12" model.

Two years later, a U.S. News & World Report special edition on “The Art of the Hoax” included this picture.  Thomas Hayden wrote, “The robot is fake.  Fake, fake, fake.  Yet folks want to believe, says artist Paul Guinan (in uniform).”

Interviewed by John Dooley of the Portland Mercury, Hayden observed, “Boilerplate works because of people's gullibility rather than Guinan's guile.  ...It's immediately obvious that the site is a joke. The amazing thing is that some seemingly intelligent people believe it anyway.  ...The first clue that something might not be true is the reaction, 'Oh my god, that is so freaking cool, I can't believe it's really true!'  If it seems too good/cool/weird to be true, hey, big surprise, chances are it is.”

Guinan estimates that about a third of his site's visitors are taken in by the spoof.

My friend felt violated.  He had been the victim of a hoax.  Admitted, he and his kids had learned some real history, such as the story of the Buffalo Soldiers.  But, he asked, shouldn’t it be illegal (or something) to deliberately disseminate outright disinformation like Boilerplate?

All I could answer was, “Don’t believe everything you read.”


MAY 18, 2010     WHAT'S IN IT FOR US?

Today, voters in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District are choosing a replacement to serve out the unexpired term of the late John Murtha, “the colossus whose pork-barrel legerdemain kept the 12th District's economy churning” (according to Dennis B. Roddy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Whom should the District send to Congress now?  Someone who will do good things for the voters of the District?  Or someone who will do good things for America?

I have some thoughts on this question.  See my new article On Representative Democracy.



For reasons which will soon become clear, while watching the recording I made of last night's Saturday Night Live I paid attention to my TV set's closed captioning (CC) when the musical guest (TP) came out for his second performance.  Here's what I thought I heard . . . and here's what I saw.

ALEC BALDWIN:  Once again, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers!


AUDIENCE:  cheers and applause.


BAND:  begins playing a driving blues song.


TP:   Well, four o'clock campus,
        and it loved a little maid out there;


TP:   Midnight creepin'
        out with a sun and share;

         TO TREAT ME MEAN 

TP:   Kept the secret of the day
        where the little burlap shack.

At this point, the captioning operator realized that he'd mistakenly cued up the prerecorded introduction & audience reaction & lyrics to the Heartbreakers' first song.  He quickly recalled the correct words and caught us up, and I learned what Mr. Petty was actually singing.


        OUT BACK 

        OUT TO THE

          KEPT A SECRET
        WRAPPED IN A
        BURLAP SACK 

Yes, Saturday Night might be Live, but portions are still prerecorded — even the captions for the host's formulaic intros and the predetermined audience response.


MAY 15, 2010     BALL TIMMORY

In 1624, an improved scientific instrument for making thermal measurements was described as a “thermo-meter.”  But they spelled the new name without a hyphen.  When it came time to pronounce it, somebody decided to accent the Mom.  Why?  What did Mom have to do with it?

I’m tempted to follow that example and accent the Tim in the word Baltimore.  Wouldn’t it be more elegant to refer to the Preakness city as Ball Timmory?



On this morning 40 years ago, embattled President Richard M. Nixon couldn’t sleep.  He headed over to the Lincoln Memorial.  Perhaps he wanted to confer with Abe’s statue.  Instead, he found himself talking with college students who had marched on Washington to protest his policies.

Three of the students were from the university I was attending at the time, and an account of their strange early-morning encounter made it into a student newspaper and thence into my files.  I’ve added it to my article on Protest and Viet Nam, here.



Has it been that long?  Yes, it has.  Exactly 40 years ago today, I recorded the sounds of the control room at a television studio.  And now, by clicking on the title of the program, you can hear what happened on that day when my graduate-school class taped a special called "I Wear a Happy Face."



On this very evening in the momentous year 1968, I worked a disk jockey shift at my college radio station.  Everybody else headed to the field house to set up a live broadcast of our mock political convention, taking with them almost all the station's microphones.  I had to speak into the only one that remained, an ancient and scary “electric toothbrush,” as I described in this article.

How ancient was my mic?  Well, in that same year out in California, Mark Evanier went dumpster diving and rescued a film containing scenes of Groucho Marx talking into a very similar “electric toothbrush” 19 years before.

As Evanier explains in this article on his website, while Groucho recorded a 1949 episode of his CBS Radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, the show was also filmed as a test to see how it might play on the new medium of television.  For whatever reason, the contestant used the traditional “ribbon” mic while Groucho was given the skinny condenser microphone.

On the left, we have a better-looking picture.  Yvonne Craig is addressing a new and improved version of this mic as she plays Barbara Gordon — excuse me, as she plays “Control” — in a 1966 movie compiled from episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.




“First Saturday in May!  What a glorious, glorious day!”  As a high school student, I rhymed that couplet in honor of what always seemed to be the first really nice warm day of the year.

Having finally gotten rid of April’s cloudy, rainy weather, we could look forward to about six weeks of pleasant conditions before the arrival of summer’s oppressive heat and humidity.  If I remember correctly, the first Saturday in May was celebrated by a morning bus trip to Otterbein College for the state scholarship tests, followed by the televised Kentucky Derby in the afternoon and our own Richwood Relays in the evening.

Consider the year as a circle of twelve months.  It turns out that there’s more than one way to divide it into four seasons.  I’ve made the diagram below and colored winter blue, spring green, summer red, and autumn gold.

The colors on the outside of the black circle represent our standard calendar, in which the seasons begin on the December 21 winter solstice, the March 20 spring equinox, the June 21 summer solstice, and the September 23 autumn equinox.

Today, May 1 or Beltane, is the middle of springtime.  It's one of the “cross-quarter” days that fall halfway between an equinox and a solstice.  In early August, Lammas or Lughnasadh is in the middle of summer.  On October 31, Halloween or Samhain marks the midpoint of autumn.  And on February 2, Groundhog Day or Candlemas is the middle of winter.

However, some cultures deem these cross-quarter days not the midpoints but the beginnings of seasons.  As indicated by the colors inside the circle, their seasons start six weeks earlier than ours.

For example, on Groundhog Day, which we consider the middle of winter, spring is actually right around the corner — according to the Celtic calendar.  Nevertheless, if the weather on February 2 is dominated by a cold high-pressure system, the groundhog will see his shadow and switch to our standard calendar, thereby postponing the start of spring for six weeks until the Ostara equinox arrives.

Today, May Day, marks the end of the Celtic spring and the beginning of the sunny Celtic summer.  The middle of summer will arrive about six weeks from now on June 21 — truly Midsummer, as dreamt by Shakespeare.