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It started as a discussion group for Methodist college students.  However, “the traditional concept of God no longer seems real to many people,” we observed.  “We found that for us, at least, the creed was relatively unimportant so long as we all had a common purpose, namely to share our experiences with each other in order to give each other strength for meeting the world.

“A member of our little group could freely discuss his thoughts, no matter how controversial.

“Openness encouraged even more openness, in a process we dubbed the ‘Non-Threat Spiral.’”

And that’s what we renamed the group.

My letters from the 1960s tell the Non-Threat Spiral story.  It's this month’s “100 Moons” article.



Yesterday, for the first time in three decades, I paid a brief visit to The Meadows.  That’s a harness track near Washington, Pennsylvania.

When the track began televising its races in the 1980s, I often operated the graphics, as shown at the left and described here.

Since then it’s become The Meadows Racetrack and Casino, and non-racing gambling (mainly slot machines) provides most of its revenue.

There is still live harness racing.  The familiar voice of Roger Huston still calls the action.  And when the sulkies are on the backstretch, the video screens still feature the “Branch Buxton wipe.”

Branch was a local driver who suggested this effect to us more than 30 years ago.  To see how your horse is doing, especially if he’s not doing very well, you need a wide view of the whole field.  But that wastes a lot of screen space above and below the horses.  Branch’s split screen fills the unused half with a closeup of the fight for the lead.

When I visited this weekend, there weren’t many people in the lower grandstand watching the races.  The two huge garages were mostly filled with the vehicles of slots players.  In the background you can see one of those garages.  Its location had a different purpose back in the day.

It was where we parked our TV trucks, as in my 1984 photo below.

To be fair, racing attendance isn’t always as sparse as it was yesterday.  I did find online a shot of the crowd on a “Friday Fun Night,” which you see below.

But I had come on a Saturday afternoon in April.  Few fans crowded the rail to see the close finish of the second race.  Maybe when the weather gets warmer . . .



The war is over, and these men are ready to sail for home aboard the General W.P. Richardson.

So is my father.  Along the way, he will take nearly 20 photos that appear in Homeward Bound, Part Two, which I've just posted.

Take a cruise through the Suez Canal with Vernon and Signe!



Once again I’ve rewritten an old tale.

Although it has nothing to do with Ernest Hemingway’s novel, I’ve alluded to his title by calling my story The Old Mann and the Sea.  Besides the geezer, we’ll also meet the meathead and the pointy guy.



In a snobbish April 6 essay for the New Zealand Herald (not on my usual reading list), Rachel Wells wrote in part, “On Thursday, Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M will launch its first ever bridal collection.  The most you will pay is $599.  The launch of the affordable wedding gowns comes just weeks after fellow fast fashion giant ASOS launched its first bridal collection to the Australian market.  Prices for ASOS’s wedding gowns start from as little as $137.

“I think it’s a little tacky.  I am well aware that not every bride can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a bespoke wedding dress, but I can’t help feeling that wedding dresses that cost less than your weekly grocery bill somewhat trivialise the significance and sanctity of a wedding.”

A cheaper garment is “ready to wear” or “off the rack,” while a custom gown — the only kind worthy of a bride — evidently is “bespoke.” But that word bothers me.

I guess it’s the proper term if you’re a tailor.  “No, you can’t buy this suit I’m constructing.  It’s not destined to hang on the display rack.  I’m not making it ‘on spec’ to a standard set of measurements.  It’s bespoke.  I’m making it on the request of a specific client who has already spoken for it.”

But until very recently I’d never heard the word outside Albany’s line in the fifth act of King Lear:

If you will marry, make your loves to me;
My lady is bespoke.

The meaning is that the lady isn't available, because Albany has already married her.

To describe clothing designed for a particular person, let’s use “custom made.”  The word “bespoke” is bespoke.  (Besides, shouldn’t it be “bespoken”?)


UPDATE:  Garry Trudeau used “bespoke” in Doonesbury to describe ‘facts’ that are fabricated to order, depending on what the customer wants to ‘prove’ to reinforce his bias.



Shortly after Villanova's exciting victory in Monday night's NCAA Tournament championship, arsonists uprooted campus shrubbery to fuel this celebratory bonfire.  A sofa and other small items were also ignited.

Police in riot gear were on hand.  At least six people were arrested, two of them for hitting a police horse.  One report says that 30 were injured, five of them hospitalized.

This is nothing new.  Following the 2002 title game, for example, rioters at both schools assaulted police and committed other mayhem.  At joyous Maryland, there were 17 arrests and four injuries; at enraged Indiana, 30 arrests and 40 injuries.

In 2002, Dick Moreland told Ron Cook, a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:  “People are basically uncivilized.  [They’re] held in check only by fear of punishment.”  Moreland, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, does research on social behavior in groups and organizations.

Cook remarked, “People are nameless and faceless in a mob.  That leads to courage they wouldn’t have in another situation.”

Moreland concurred.  “Even nice people will do these kinds of things when they’re in a group.  To be influenced by your conscience, you have to turn your attention inward.  That tends to happen when you’re by yourself.  But the acts of a group draw your attention outward.  That tends to short-circuit guilt when it comes to your values and beliefs.

“We’re basically selfish people who are prone to misbehave as long as we can get away with it.  We’ll try almost anything if we think we won’t get caught.  ...And even if [we] are caught, the punishment probably won’t be as severe because, well, everyone else was doing the same thing, weren’t they?”

So go ahead and break the speed limit and cheat on your taxes, right?  It’s okay.  The rest of the mob is doing it.


APRIL 3, 2016    DRONING

Dustin Gilliland, North Union High School class of 2008, used to live in my old hometown.  He moved last year to Dublin, Ohio.  But he returned with his drone and shot aerial video of Richwood, especially the school and its athletic fields.

Jim Blue shared a link on Facebook, which is where I discovered Dustin’s edits.  One is here, another is here, and the third is here.

UPDATE:  The village looked even nicer after the trees put out their leaves.  Dustin's fourth edition is here.

I now live outside Pittsburgh, which is currently making a big deal about its bicentennial.  The 200th anniversary of its founding is long past, but this time we’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of the day when the state legislature promoted the town to full “city” status.  The Borough of Pittsburgh became the City of Pittsburgh — a mere legal distinction.

This is another example of something that mildly annoys me:  the pompousness of local government employees who wear silly hats and give their agencies officious names like “County of Allegheny” or “Department of Fire.”

Although snow coated the windows of my car last night and lightning flashed, Major League Baseball can’t wait any longer to start its 162-game schedule.  Today will be Opening Day in Pittsburgh.  The latest forecast I’ve seen calls for a balmy 37 degrees at game time with a wind chill of 25.

As usual, the Pirates have come up with new ways to distract fans while making a little extra revenue.

At the Riverwalk Grill, you can get a Cracker Jack & Mac Dog on naan (Indian flatbread) with deep-fried pickled jalapeños.  “A fantastic creation,” the food concessionaire’s manager called it.  “People eat baked beans on a hot dog, right?”

Well, I don’t.  I prefer my baked beans in a little dish on the side, and my Cracker Jack in a little box.  You can spice up my macaroni and cheese with jalapeños if you like, but I want to eat those “nachos” separately from my hot dog.

Others may like to add as many ingredients as possible to a sandwich, but I find such a pile very messy to handle.  Of course, as a kid I was the kind of finicky eater who didn’t want the gravy on my plate touching the broccoli.



Because sports is merely the “toy department” of news media, sporting types sometimes play hoaxes.

• In 1941, a group of stockbrokers wondered about the many college football results that were listed in tiny “agate” type in the New York Times.  They suspected the newspaper was making up games to fill space.  “Slippery Rock State Teachers College”?  Come on!  That can’t be a real school, can it?

So the guys invented Plainfield Teachers College and began phoning in its scores.  “Plainfield Teachers?”  “That’s right.”  “Where is that, in New Jersey?”  “Uh, sure.”  There’s no fact-checking in the toy department, so Plainfield’s fanciful results got printed.  Bill Christine relates in this article how readers were regaled with tales of stellar performers like Johnny Chung, the greatest Chinese halfback ever to wear the mauve and puce.

• A quarter century later, George Carlin as sports anchor “Biff Barf” asserted, “I call ’em the way I see ’em.  And if I don’t see ’em, I make ’em up!  No games today; however, we’ve got a few late football scores still coming in from the Far West.  Guam Prep 45, Tahiti 14.  Mindanao A&I 27, Molokai 10.  Cal Tech 14.5, MIT 123.  And here’s a partial score: Philadelphia 29.”

In the fall of 1965 I was a freshman on a campus near Cleveland.  And this is not fiction: The Cleveland Browns were actually the defending champions of the National Football League.  I had no TV in my dorm room, so I listened to local sportscaster Gib Shanley calling the Browns games on the radio.

Cleveland was also the source of my daily newspaper.  Every morning, I bought a copy of the Plain Dealer for a window on the wider world.

The PD covered American college and pro football, of course.  But it also had its own football scores coming in from the Far West.  Each week that fall, columnist Bill Hickey reported on the exploits of the Pusan State Panthers.

The Pusan State fullback was Won Sok Hung, “the Sun Prince of Korean football.”  Once Hickey included a photo like this of the 4’11” 128-pound Sok in his golden helmet.  I thought he looked more like a Fighting Irishman, but what did I know?

I read with raised eyebrow that the Panthers’ quarterback was Kim Dip Thong and the coach was Nu Rok Nee.  Finally, when Hickey quoted an enthusiastic comment from announcer Gib Chan Lee, I caught on.

Pusan State won the Sake Bowl in a thrilling upset but was never heard from again, except for a mention in this Scorecard column in Sports Illustrated.

• That was not the end of imaginative sportswriting, of course.  Two decades later, George Plimpton wrote about a Mets rookie with a 168-mph fastball.  The story of Sidd Finch ran in SI on this very date in 1985.  The date, of course, was April 1.



Long ago, when I was keeping stats for my high school basketball team, a teacher from the next county introduced me to a new statistical measure that he claimed to have invented:  the Offensive Efficiency Rating.  It was merely points per possession.  Tracking this stat required some work, because we didn’t normally count up a team’s possessions.  However, I referred to the OER occasionally when I was my college radio station’s sports director.

It’s still being used.  ESPN SportsCenter reported that when Villanova shot 63% from the field to defeat Miami last week, the Wildcats’ 1.58 points per possession marked their “best offensive efficiency in any game in the last five seasons.”

Nowadays, of course, analysts tabulate all sorts of ratios.  Before Duquesne met Nebraska Omaha in the CBI tournament on March 16, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said of Duquesne, “Of all its points this season, 36.6 percent of them have come from 3-pointers, 26th most in Division I.”  Conversely, it said of Nebraska Omaha, “Only 20.6 percent of its points are coming on 3s, the 14th-lowest mark in Division I.”

Tons of statistics are calculated for all 351 Division I teams.  The reporter searched all the categories to learn where the Dukes and Mavericks ranked, thereby discovering an additional Hidden Stat:  “Both teams rank among the top 20 Division I teams in tempo, with Nebraska Omaha fifth and Duquesne 19th.”

Tempo?  I hadn’t heard of that one before; apparently it’s also called “pace.”  I looked up the numbers myself.  Sure enough, Nebraska Omaha races through 79 possessions per game and Duquesne 75½.  (When they met, they really racked up the points.  Duquesne won 120-112.)  Virginia has the slowest tempo at 62.7 possessions per game.

I assume there are many other ratios out there that I haven’t yet discovered, such as “put-back efficiency,” which would be second-chance points per offensive rebound.  Or how about “blocks per foot,” defined as blocked shots divided by the average height of the starters. 

Some ratios might even be meaningful; others might only seem meaningful.

I discuss these matters further in this month’s 100 Moons article.



Fox is rebroadcasting the musical Grease Live this Sunday.

When first telecast live on January 31, it was an amazingly complex production, performed partly on a sound stage and partly on a studio lot outdoors in the drizzling rain.

Bleachers were filled with audience members.  That was one of my few quibbles:  I heard the audience only when they erupted in cheering that sounded like American Idol.  The Applause sign must have gone on.

I would have expected to hear laughter and other reactions at other times, but I didn’t, so the audience almost sounded prerecorded.

During musical numbers, every camera shot was choreographed.  The associate director counted the beats and measures until the next shot, as you can hear in this video and read about in this interview.  That’s much different from the way my colleagues switch a sports event, which of course is unscripted.  And it’s much more intense than editing a movie.

One commenter called this “a job for adrenaline junkies who prefer to be safely seated inside.”  But how else can you make that many precise camera cuts in real time?

Another noted that the AD repeats a lot of numbers.  “The operator of Camera Three knows that most of the time when she says ‘three’ she’s not referring to him.  Except sometimes she is.”

To avoid this confusion, I’d suggest the following rules.  Single digits should be reserved for ordinary numbers, as in “four measures and one beat.”  Cameras should be assigned two-digit identifiers between 10 and 49.  Shots should have three-digit identifiers from 150 to 199, 250 to 299, and so on; however, when they’re being called in sequence the first digit isn’t necessary.  And the counting of beats should use a different language, perhaps German in which  Eins!  Zwei!  Drei!  Vier!  Fünf!  Sechs!  Sieb’n!  Acht!  can all be single syllables.

Mark Evanier remarked, “Like certain magic tricks, some things in television are more impressive when you know how they're done.  And speaking of magic: If you go full-screen and look real careful at the various monitors on display in front of Ms. Havel, you may be able to figure out how they did that amazing transformation of the car during the number.”  Between the one-minute mark and the dramatic “whip!” pan, a Chevy is temporarily changed from dingy white to sparkling red.

And if that isn't enough, here’s another control room, at halftime of Super Bowl 50.



My father once cruised through the Mediterranean Sea on this ship!

She looked much different then.  At the time, she was painted a drab gray, and he was in the Army — but only for the next two weeks.

I begin to tell the story this month in Part One of my new article Homeward Bound.



I hear that the Columbia Broadcasting System is considering selling off its radio division.  Nevertheless, I recently listened to a 1949 CBS radio comedy, My Favorite Husband, as one sometimes does when one’s Sirius XM is tuned to channel 148.

In the script by Jess Oppenheimer (left), two people upstairs were wondering why there was laughter coming from the people downstairs.

“You don’t have a steamboat in the house, do you?”

“A steamboat?  No.”

“Well, they’re not laughing at Fulton.”

The actors didn’t wait for an audience reaction, which was wise because there was none.  Only puzzlement.  What did that line mean?

I presume it referred to Robert Fulton, who was mocked for declaring he could propel a boat on the Hudson River without sails or oars.  In 1807!  It seems unlikely that “laughing at Fulton” was still a meme 142 years later. 

Actually, the reference might have been only 12 years out of date.  In the 1937 movie Shall We Dance, Ginger Rogers sang a Gershwin tune including the lines:

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round.
     They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat, Hershey and his chocolate bar.
     Ford and his Lizzie kept the laughers busy.  That's how people are.
They all said we’d never get together.  They laughed at us, and how!
     For oh, ho, ho — who’s got the last laugh now?

But since then, “laughing at Fulton” seems to have fallen out of our collective consciousness.



I was sitting near the stage of an outdoor arena in my little hometown.  All around me, hundreds of adults were hurling insults at two men they’d never met — a Mexican and a Muslim. 

My father was beside me, and he joined in booing and heckling the foreigners.  As a shy adolescent who on Tuesday would be starting the eighth grade, I was slightly embarrassed to be there.

The crowd shouted for the strangers to be clobbered and punished.  They wanted to get them out of there.  One was using the alias of Pancho Villa, the notorious Mexican bandit turned revolutionary.  The other called himself Ali Pasha, “The Terrible Turk.”

This was, of course, a professional wrestling show at the Richwood Fairgrounds in 1960.  I mentioned it at the end of this article.  It was great entertainment for folks who enjoy that sort of thing.

There are people who know how to incite crowds like that, to whip them up to hate the designated villains.  One such agitator was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame just three years ago.

Now that he’s set his sights on the White House, his political followers have started to act like wrestling followers.  But they don’t seem to be play-acting.  A riot could break out at any time.

It isn’t only the demagogue who’s responsible for the bad behavior of his rabble.  It’s the rabble themselves.

“I have never seen more hateful people in my life,” Jordan Ray Correll posted on Facebook after attending a rally last week in Fayetteville, North Carolina (these pictures come from elsewhere).  “Everyone was just filled with so much hatred.

“If a protester had a sign, even the peaceful ones, they would take the sign from them, rip it up, and throw it back at the protesters.  Whenever a protester would get removed, the crowd would yell horrible things.

“Once, after a protester was removed, Trump said, ‘Where are these people coming from? Who are they?’  A lady sitting not five feet from me said, ‘Well, hopefully when you're President, you'll get rid of ’em all!’  Get rid of them?  Get rid of anyone who opposes Trump?  It was sickening.  I felt truly nauseous.

“...They loved the drama and the chaos.  And Trump fed upon it.  It was easily one of the strangest and uncomfortable things I've ever witnessed.  I could just hear the horrible things being spoken around me and it made my skin crawl.

“...I implore you, if you're thinking about voting for Trump, reconsider. You are only promoting chaos and hatred.  I witnessed it firsthand.  And trust me, this is not something you want to see in person.  This is not what you want to happen to our country.”


MARCH 13, 2016    ORIGINS

From whence do I come?  Although many of my ancestors emigrated from Germany, my father’s surname is  Thomas and my mother’s surname is Buckingham. Those are both British. 

There's a website that allows us to narrow  down the matter.

The Brits named Thomas, including poet Dylan Thomas, mostly come from southern Wales.  It’s colored green on this map.

The Brits named Buckingham come from the areas colored red.  We originated at a town called Buckingham, after the early Anglo-Saxon settler Bucca; that town is northeast of Oxford.  But we seem to have built a stronger presence in Devon.

Therefore, “T. Buckingham Thomas” has the Bristol Channel bracketed!



I’ve updated some earlier articles.

Here, a few of my fellow cast members from the play Dear Diary reunite in Florida.

Here, a biologist laments the media’s fixation on poll numbers rather than issues.

And here, I explain how the late producer George Martin and I shared a difficulty (we couldn’t play the piano fast enough).  To solve it, on the Beatles album Rubber Soul it seems that Sir George used a technique I’d recently developed.   



I remember watching the first modern debate between Presidential candidates, which took place in a Chicago TV studio on September 26, 1960.

It was all very dignified.  There was no studio audience.  We were not distracted by throngs of crazed supporters whooping and hollering as though they were at a campaign rally.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon treated us like grownups.  They discussed actual issues.  I recall that much of their second debate concerned the proper American response to Chinese aggression against the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

The leading candidate of today is praised for saying whatever is on his mind, which often turns out to be childish insults about his opponents.  But in 1960, the candidates’ minds were on important matters of national policy.  They were not bullies in “sixth-grade food fights,” as Bernie Sanders said yesterday.  They didn't try to outshout each other.  They behaved not like reality show contestants but like statesmen.

And four months later, I remember a TV set being brought into a third-floor classroom so we could watch the inauguration, where Kennedy inspired us to “ask what you can do for your country.”

I want to go back to the Sixties.



I often turn left at the intersection shown below, from PA 910 onto Freeport Road.  (The pictures are from Google Earth.)

The road I’m entering has two medians:  #2 is marked with painted chevrons, and #1 is constructed from raised concrete.  I need to get past both before completing my turn.

But if I weren’t paying attention — if I went between #2 and #1 — I’d end up driving the wrong way on the wrong side of the concrete.

More than once have I come close to making this mistake.

It’s hard to see the markings, especially on a rainy night.  Where exactly should I go?  There ought to be a “Keep Right” sign at 1, but there isn’t.  (Maybe there used to be, until someone cut the corner short and ran over the divider and knocked down the sign.)

Closer to the city, the left turn shown below is thoroughly marked.  It's from the 40th Street Bridge onto PA 28, headed into Pittsburgh.  Not only is there a “Keep Right” at 1, it’s flanked by a “Do Not Enter” at 3, and there are “Wrong Way” signs at 4 and 5.  And there are arrows on the pavement.

Nevertheless, last Saturday morning 81-year-old Perry Kastanias made his left turn too sharp.  He passed to the left of the “Keep Right” and headed down the off-ramp.   Going in the wrong direction, he struck one vehicle and then collided head-on with a second.  Mr. Kastanias did not survive.

Stay alert out there!