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ArchiveOCTOBER 2017



Once upon a time a young man, having just earned a master's degree at the University of Erfurt, followed his father's wishes and enrolled in law school there.  But almost immediately he dropped out.  To him, law represented ambiguity, with arguments on both sides.  He wanted something without doubt.  He wanted something he could be sure of, something like Christianity.

“We hunger for certainty.  That is a big problem,” says Adam Frank.  “Religions are often built around this.  Scriptures are transformed into unwavering blueprints for an unchanging order ... monuments to the fear of change.”

So the young man became a monk.  His name was Martin Luther.  On this date exactly 500 years ago, he sent his archbishop a list of 95 theses against the Church's questionable practice of selling indulgences.  It's said he also nailed a copy to the door of a Wittenberg church.

Later Luther began insisting that individual church members should read the Bible for themselves and form their own interpretations, rather than merely accepting the authority of the Pope and tradition.

His stubborn insubordination led Pope Leo X to excommunicate him barely three years later.

And what does it mean to “excommunicate” someone?  As a non-Catholic myself, I try to grasp the meaning of the term in an article entitled You're Cut Off!


OCT. 29, 2017    HO-HO-HO!

According to Bill Crawford of Pittsburgh's WDVE:

Halloween is the one night a year when we encourage our children to take candy from strangers.

And Christmas Eve is the one night a year when we encourage our children to welcome a home intruder.



In days of yore, when the University of Pittsburgh competed in the same athletic conference as West Virginia University, their partisans absolutely despised each other.

(Those “Backyard Brawls” came to an end, as I noted five years ago, when the two universities relocated more than a thousand miles apart.  The Panthers headed toward the ocean while the Mountaineers aimed their muskets at Texas.  They're now members of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 respectively.)

Evidently, supporters of nearby rivals — especially immature supporters — have always reveled in their mutual hatred.  A Dodger fan who is now extremely mature (almost 103 years old) was quoted yesterday in a Los Angeles Times article by Hailey Branson-Potts.

Before stepping into Dodger Stadium this week, Norman Lloyd had attended one World Series.  In 1926.

As a 12-year-old boy at Yankee Stadium, he watched as Babe Ruth slid into second base and split his pants.  Yankees trainer Doc Woods rushed onto the field with a needle and thread to fix his uniform right there.  "An ordinary person would call time out and get a new pair," Lloyd said.  "Not the Babe.  He stood up, on the base, hands on his hips, surveyed the crowd and stood there while they sewed him up."

Now, a mere 91 years later, the actor, a Brooklyn-bred boy with a penchant for salty language, naturally adores the Dodgers.  "We kids who grew up in Brooklyn as Dodgers fans, we hated the New York Giants," Lloyd said.  "I don't mean to tell you we disliked them.  We haaaated them."

The Giants' early 20th century Hall of Fame manager, John McGraw, had a nickname that he hated: Mugsy.  Lloyd and his pre-teen boys feasted on that hatred and waited for him to leave the ballpark.  As he made his way to his Buick, Lloyd said, the boys were there.  "We waited until he came out, and we'd say, 'Aw, you Mugsy bastard!' and run for the subway," Lloyd said.  "We had done our rite of passage.  We were real Dodger fans."

But when the opponent isn't a traditional rival, there's less animosity in the stands, at least among baseball fans in Pittsburgh.  I wrote ten years ago about Pirate followers who observe the game respectfully, as though they're attending a play and applauding only at the end of an act.  “To competitive Delegators, the Spectators appear apathetic.  The Tribune-Review's Joe Starkey noted, ‘Pirates ownership actually deserves credit for cultivating a fan base that, by-and-large, couldn't care less what happens on the field.’  During the previous night's game, at one critical point with the tying run on second base, the TV crew noticed that the audience was simply watching quietly, waiting to see what would happen next.”

Apparently the local fans have behaved with like decorum ever since the Pirates lost to the Yankees in the 1927 Series.  However, over the years, other fan bases have become more emotionally invested. 

Lloyd attended Wednesday's game at Dodger Stadium with his longtime friend Tim O'Connor, who said the actor told him mid-game that he was intrigued by one major difference between this World Series and the one 91 years ago: the noise.  In Lloyd's youth, the crowd was always silent as they watched the slow-moving game, until something extraordinary happened.

Wednesday's wild, extra-innings game was certainly theater.  Fans screamed in joy, only to be screaming in horror minutes later.  In the stands, a young boy in a Dodgers shirt melted down, screaming and crying, burying his face in his mother's shirt as the Astros took the lead.


OCT. 26, 2017    DEAR PRUDISH

As soon as the Beatles released their “White Album” in 1968, our college radio station began airing all 30 tracks.  When we played one in particular, eyebrows were raised and snickers suppressed.  The lyrics, in their entirety:  “Why don't we do it in the road?  No one will be watching us.”

THE REAL BACKSTORY:  Paul McCartney later explained that while the Beatles were in India, he saw two monkeys walking down a road and pausing to “do it.”  Their copulation took only a couple of seconds — much simpler than humans' complicated courtship rituals.  That inspired the lyric.

For any prudes out there, I'd like to offer alternative facts.

As you may know, by 1966 the Fab Four had become tired of performing live on stage.  Their loudly enthusiastic audiences were drowning out the songs, and there were travel hassles.  So after a final concert in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, George Harrison exclaimed, “That's it.  I'm not a Beatle anymore!”  Their touring days were over.

However, that didn't mean they had to stop playing and singing.  Studio recordings were still an option.

MY FICTIONAL BACKSTORY:  John Lennon remarked to his mates, “When we make music in a recording facility, we have complete control.”  George added, “And we aren't bothered by those crazed fans!”  “I've always hated it,” said Paul, “when they stare at us and scream.”  “So what might be a good location to cut an album?" asked Ringo Starr.

George: “We could do it in the Abbey Road Studios.”

Paul: “Why don't we do it in the Road?  No one will be watching us.”

Ringo: “Excellent idea!”

John: “Follow me.”


OCT. 24, 2007 flashback   SCARY PICTURE

I've found, hidden in the basement, the Halloween costume that I wore more than 20 years ago.  No, it's not a lampshade.

The party was at Tami Rippy's place.  A gorilla crouched in front of me, stared, scratched his head, shrugged, and shuffled away, unable to figure out what I was supposed to be.  (I think the guy in the gorilla suit turned out to be Mike Kobik.)

So what did my costume represent?  Why, I had come as my favorite Platonic solid, the dodecahedron!

Dodeca means 2+10, or 12.  Hedron means face.  On this page, you can get a better look at the polyhedron made from twelve regular pentagons, this time without my face.  Happy Halloween!


OCT. 21, 2017    ?

Five weeks ago, Earl Pomerantz posted a rant from Santa Monica:

Certain things seem to just happen out of the blue.  You're doing things one way, and then suddenly, without agreement on your part, you are forced, or at least seriously encouraged, to do them another way — the original way becoming mustily suspect.

My oft-mentioned example in this regard:  Going up at the end of sentences.

Nobody ever did that.  Now, almost everyone does.  Smart people on television, experts in quantum physics and macroeconomics, are going up at the end of their sentences.  Learned scholars.  Graduates of fine universities.  Everyone's doing “The Rise.”  Sometimes, even I do it.  I don't mean to.  I just get caught up in the contagion?

Someone must have initiated “going up at the end of sentences.”  It did not materialize by itself.  And now, with neither vote nor referendum, it's The Law.  (Fuddy-duddies:  Ignore at your own peril.)

This fuddy-duddy hadn't taken particular note of Earl's pet peeve, so I figured it must be a California thing.

The very next morning, I attended a discussion on “Life at Oberlin College Today.”  The panel consisted of five very articulate students.  One of them, however, went up in pitch at the end of every sentence?  She was a sophomore?  And she did, in fact, come from California?  She was from Marin County?  And she sometimes giggled self-consciously?  You know what I mean?

It's similar to athletes being interviewed who insert “you know” every few seconds.  I found it distracting.

Oh, by the way, I should not have called her a sophomore.  She's a “second-year student.”

Nobody ever employed that terminology in my day.  We were freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.  Now almost everyone uses ordinal numbers.  Someone must have initiated it.  It did not materialize by itself.  And now, with neither vote nor referendum, it's The Law.


OCT. 18, 2007 flashback   TWO-STEP PROCESS

When I see the name of musician Peter Cetera, I can't say it immediately.  My first impulse is to pronounce it like et cetera, which is the only other occurrence of cetera that I can think of.  Then I remember that his name isn't SETT-uh-ruh, it's suh-TERR-uh.

What about actor Ralph Fiennes?  His name looks like it rhymes with "HOWL fie INN us," but I guess it's supposed to rhyme with "safe fines."  We Americans have to remember to translate Ralph's British name before we speak it.

And I have trouble with "real quick."  When we're preparing for a TV production, sometimes the director will use that phrase in making small requests, as in "Let me see those starting lineups real quick."

What it sounds like to me:  "Urgent!  Drop whatever you're doing and give me those lineups right now!  You must bestow your highest priority upon my every whim, for I am your director."

What he really means:  "Pardon me; this will only take a moment, and then you can go back to what you were doing."

I don't always respond to such a request real quick.  First I have to decipher it.



Signs!  Portents!  In the last eight weeks there have been so many harbingers of The End of the World — from three devastating hurricanes to the fires still sweeping California — that we almost overlooked the first of these omens.

Some folks who are not intellectuals resent those who are.  They have their own ideas.  My conversation with a Fictional Uninformed Interlocutor is titled Phooey on the Eclipse.



When I was newly arrived here in southwestern Pennsylvania, I turned on the local TV news one evening and saw footage of a minor house fire in Allentown.  “Why are they reporting on that?” I wondered.  “Allentown, Pennsylvania, is 300 miles east of here!”  Eventually I discovered that Allentown is also the name of a 189-acre neighborhood that's part of the city of Pittsburgh.

My birth state of Ohio likewise has multiple place names.  The overhead view on the right shows one of the places called Orange.

This Orange is on Orange Road, nine miles north of Columbus.  As I'm sure you recall, it was on April 4, 1859, that Anderson Jennings and Richard Mitchell were taken into custody at the railroad station here.  Their presence was required in court for a case involving the Fugitive Slave Act.

The village on the left is called Stringtown.  It's 30 miles from Cincinnati.  Although there are only three homes in downtown Stringtown, its northern suburbs boast eleven more along the road to Felicity.  Nevertheless, the name Stringtown is popular in Ohio — twice as popular as Bloomfield, and five times as popular as Adamsville. 

I explain everything in this month's 100 Moons article.



When I was in college, back in the dark ages, I didn't have a smartphone or a laptop.  Nevertheless, I could actually communicate with a computer.  To do so, I had to borrow a clunky machine like this.  Extremely clunky.  It made loud clunks with every character I typed.

The story, and some old election news, is in a new article called Bedrock Computing.  It quotes from two letters I received 50 years ago this month.


OCT. 9, 2017    POINT AND CALL

The Chyron machine I operate allows me to use either of two output channels, but the director expects certain graphics to appear on FB1 and others to appear on FB2.  Note the two icons labeled accordingly.

Before I call up a graphic, I really ought to check to see that the correct icon is highlighted in blue, lest I erase another graphic that's already airing on the other channel.  It's easy to fail to pay attention to this step.

Therefore, I've developed the habit of first looking at my monitor, pointing at the icon with either one or two fingers, and saying either "one" or "two" out loud.

I've recently learned that others also use a strange-looking procedure to reduce errors.  According to this article, the Japanese call it shisa kanko.



I forgot to mention my little adventure in rural Ohio two years ago.  Better late than never, I guess.

Ohio University had a home football game scheduled in Athens for Saturday, September 19, 2015, and I was scheduled to help televise it.  Because our crew would have to start setting up early in the morning, I drove down the day before.  And because the farm where my mother grew up was more or less on the way, and I hadn't been there in 14 years, I took a side trip to Noble County.

The place is called Curtis Ridge.  I've described it in this photo gallery.  My mother, born Anna Buckingham in 1913, lived on this hilltop for the first 11 years of her life.  What remains of the farmhouse is barely visible in the trees that have grown up since it was abandoned 80 years ago.  Those trees are on the right side of the picture below.

But what's going on out back?  That gravel area wasn't there on my previous visit.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that this is an installation to extract natural gas from the Utica Shale formation.  Signs identify it as NBL-1A-HSU, API number 34121243420100.  Unfortunately, I was not "authorized personnel" and I lacked hazard training, so I couldn't explore further.

Online research comes to the rescue, in particular Google Earth with its "historical imagery" function.  On the left below:  in October 2011, the eight-acre field south of the house was still under cultivation, but a drilling permit was issued that December.  On the right below:  by October 2013, the crops and some of the trees had been cleared away.  Two temporary ponds had been constructed to hold fracking fluids.  The well was drilled not straight down but horizontally, towards the southeast, passing under the land shown in the lower right corner of the pictures. 

Then in 2015, barely two weeks after my visit, the cameras captured the scene I've labeled below.  Drilling operations had been completed, and natural gas was flowing into the pipeline.

I noticed for the first time that Google identifies Township Highway 232, the narrow road that climbs up Curtis Ridge, as "Buckingham Road."  That is as it should be.  Tommy Buckingham married Mary E. Curtis in 1869.  They became my great-grandparents.  Their grave is in a small cemetery across the road from the house they built.

I trust the Buckinghams would be proud to know that their farm remains productive, and their monument still looks out over the Ohio hills.


OCT. 4, 2007 flashback   Sputnik & DIES IRAE

"In 1955, it was said that America soon would launch into space an artificial satellite of the earth," I wrote on this site a couple of years ago.  "As an eight-year-old boy, I read with interest the predictions of this great scientific feat.  But on Friday, October 4, 1957, the Soviets beat us to it with their Sputnik.

"Around noon the next day, CBS television aired a special report about the satellite, which I watched with even greater interest.  To my disappointment, the report ended and a hockey game came on.  After that, for some reason I never really learned to like hockey very much."

Today, of course, is the 50th anniversary of that launch.  But I've recently run across a picture I hadn't seen before, a picture from a subsequent Soviet space achievement.

I was actually looking for something else.

I'd recently seen an image of the Death Star (top) from the 1977 movie Star Wars, and that reminded me of Mimas (bottom), one of the moons of Saturn first photographed at close range by Voyager I in 1980.  Did George Lucas have some advance knowledge of what would be found three years later at Saturn?

A little Googling revealed that I was not the first to notice the resemblance.  In particular, I found a reference on wanderingspace.net.

And further down the same page is a scene from another planet.

Venera-13, a Soviet spacecraft, took the picture below in 1982; it has been reprocessed recently.  We're looking at the desolate surface of Venus.

This is a planet named for the Roman goddess of beauty — a planet that, when it was born, was virtually a twin of Earth.  However, the atmosphere of Venus is now 97% carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid.  The dense greenhouse gases and the resultant global warming have raised the surface temperature to nearly 900° F.  The Venera lander survived those hellish conditions for only a couple of hours.

Will greenhouse gases ultimately drive our similar-sized planet to the same fate?  Sooner than we think, according to the prophet Zephaniah.


The great day of the Lord is near, near and coming fast;


A day of destruction and devastation,


A day of darkness and gloom,


A day of cloud and dense fog.


I shall destroy human beings and animals,


The birds of the air and the fish in the sea.



This is the city that exulted in her security.


She heeded no warning voice, took no rebuke to heart.


I have wiped out this arrogant people; their bastions are demolished.


I have destroyed their streets; no one walks along them.


Their cities are laid waste, abandoned and unpeopled.


The whole earth will be consumed by the fire.



Remember my graphic depiction of the twists and turns of baseball standings. the Diamond Brick Road?   Well, the graph of the just-concluded 2017 regular season presents a couple of salient features.  Both of them involve division-winning teams.  Both of them represent the same time span of roughly three weeks.

Consider the red road for the Cleveland Indians.  On August 23, the Tribe was leading the American League Central Division with a respectable record of 69 wins and 56 losses.

But that's nothing.  Consider the blue road for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  On August 23 their record was 89-36, an amazing 53 games over .500.

Back on June 6, the Dodgers had only been in third place in the National League West.  But then they won 31 of their next 35 games, and fans in southern California started to dream:  if L.A. could keep up that .886 winning percentage the rest of the way, as I've indicated by the line of green diamonds on my chart, they'd make history by the time they reached the gold line marking the end of the season.  They would finish with 125 wins!  That would far surpass the all-time Major League record of 116, marked by the single brown diamond.

Of course, they couldn't maintain that .886 pace.  They did reach 91 wins, 55 games over .500.  They did take a 21-game lead in their division.  They did have pundits debating whether they were the best team ever.  But then the Dodgers suddenly slumped.  The darker blue portion of their Road, veering off to the right, represents their 2-16 losing stretch.

Meanwhile, over in the American League, the Indians were posting a record winning streak.  The darker red portion of their Road shows that they won 22 games in a row, the longest such streak in A.L. history.

And what does all this tell us?  Nothing.  After all that drama, the teams had very similar records by the second week of September: the Dodgers 92-52, the Indians 91-56.  The Dodgers ended the season with 104 wins, the Indians with 102.

We want to believe that everything happens for a reason, and it's human nature to try to find a narrative hidden in random chaos.  However, the Bible teaches us that such efforts are in vain.  It teaches us that atypical conditions (such as hot and cold streaks) will eventually regress to the average.

Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV)

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low. (Isaiah 40:4 NIV)

From Santa Monica, Earl Pomerantz wrote about his local favorites.

In one season, the Dodgers were the best team in baseball and also the worst team in baseball.  That has never happened before.  If the Dodgers were looking for a record, they set one.  “Best record for four months/worst record for 2½ weeks in the same season” is an achievement likely to stand the statistical test of time.

Inevitably, baseball experts pored over the ashes of this debacle, looking for reasons.  “The Dodgers keep shuffling their lineup.”  “The recently procured players have upset the team's delicate chemistry.”  “The opposition has discovered the Dodgers' preferred batting approach.”  “The Dodgers have succumbed to the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.”

Like the mystified baseball pundits, we, meaning the human species, are incapable of having things happen without definitively determining the reason they did.  An experience takes place and we get right down to business, searching for an acceptable explanation, refusing to quit until the troubling phenomenon is adequately explained — magic, science, “God's mysterious ways,” something — never stopping till “That's it!”   We have to know.  For our basic survival, we must always struggle to understand.

As for the Dodgers?  I see their stunned faces in the dugout and know they still haven't got a clue.