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ArchiveAPRIL 2018



I'm trying to eat better, eat less, and walk more.  But I can't be a good boy all the time, now, can I?

In a new article, I describe how I've made rules for myself that I can simply ignore, except at certain times and on certain days.  It's called Fasting 5:00 to 9:00



I had a childhood friend — not this kid — who was afraid of chickens.  If he visited a farm, he'd have to find a “safe space.”

Was there any hope for a cure?  Yes, therapies involving gradual exposure can help a person learn to tolerate such anxieties.

In a brief article on Over-Coddling I apply this principle to other threats, like viruses and offensive ideas and peanuts.


APRIL 26, 2008 flashback   HOTEL THEATRE

Here's a way for hotels to increase occupancy rates.  They could convert some of their bedrooms into screening rooms.

I've sketched out the idea on an Embassy Suites floor plan. I've replaced the bed and dresser with a big plasma TV screen (red) and nine chairs (aqua), along with surround sound speakers, a Blu-ray disc player, and high-def service from cable or satellite.

The former bedroom now resembles a high-end home theater, offering something bigger and better than the TV sets most people have in their own houses.

The other spaces retain their functions as bathroom, kitchen, and living room.  The sofa opens out into a bed, so the suite can still be considered a hotel suite.

A group of local people could rent the suite for a get-together, splitting the cost several ways, or a larger group could rent several adjacent suites and have a big party.  In the kitchen they could prepare snacks, or they could order room service.  On the big screen they could watch the big game or a couple of movies they've brought with them.  At other times they could gather in the living room to chat.  I don't think the hotel could be accused of charging admission to watch the game; rather, they're simply renting rooms that happen to have better amenities than most.



Here's an update to my April 8 post about playing baseball in cold weather.  As other fans have done, I suggested starting the season later and/or scheduling northern teams to travel to southern cities during April.

However, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said yesterday, “there are real limitations in the schedule.  No teams are going to want to start the season on the road for a couple of weeks.  In fact, the Basic Agreement prohibits a trip that long.”  (I checked the Agreement and failed to find such a rule.)

And the southern teams wouldn't like it either, said Manfred.  “The domed and warm-weather markets don't want that many games early in the year.  Until school gets out, they are tougher dates.”  If they now play 40 lucrative home games during the school vacation, that would be reduced to 32 games under my plan.

But how about not playing at all in early spring, whether home or away?  Last week Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs suggested playing less baseball, even if it means being paid less.  “I think playing in the cold sucks.  As a fan, you're going to a baseball game in April, and it's raining, snowing and freezing rain.  Is it really that much fun?  We play too much baseball.  Yes, guys are going to take pay cuts.  But are we playing this game for the money, or do we love this game?”  And the Yankees' CC Sabathia agreed.  “I honestly think players would agree to it.  The season's long and it takes such a toll.  If it cuts down on injuries and you get to see your favorite player for longer out on the field, why not?”


APRIL 23, 2018    THE HORROR!

There's a public service announcement warning us to call 811 for approval before we dig up our lawns, lest we accidentally sever buried utilities and leave the whole neighborhood in the dark.

The announcement dramatizes one such case and the various inconveniences it caused.  For one woman, it was a major disaster.  “The power was out on the entire block.”  Worse, she sobs, “It was a Saturday, so the kids were home!!”


I too would be aghast if I were forced to share my house with children.




So imagine this.  A huge orchestra assembles on stage to perform Beethoven's Ninth.  The “audience” sitting behind them actually consists of a chorus and solo singers who won't be needed for another hour or so.

The musicians tune up their instruments to the concert A, or perhaps the E a fifth above.  But then they fall silent, eschewing their usual warmup procedure of playing an annoying cacophony of random notes and runs.

There's an expectant hush in the auditorium, then applause as the conductor enters.  He shakes hands with the concertmaster before mounting the podium.  Nodding to the concertmaster to proceed with the preparations, the conductor steps back, arms folded, head bowed.

Now is when the instrumentalists warm up with their random runs.  Eventually, after 20 seconds or so, things begin to quiet down again.  Soon most of the musicians are just sitting there, waiting.  The cellos and the second violins are still playing, but only a pianissimo tremolo of A's and E's, their bows barely moving.  The trumpeters are still warming up their mouthpieces by softly playing A's and E's.  Occasionally other instruments try a note or two of their own.

What the audience doesn't realize at first:  This is exactly what Beethoven wrote!

Around measure 11, the first violins become more animated, playing those same A's and E's but now as arpeggios, their bows flying freely back and forth.  The conductor looks up to see what's happening.  The instruments play louder.  He raises his baton.  And suddenly, at measure 17, the A's remain but the E's mutate to fortissimo F's and D's.  Now we have a D minor chord!  And the full orchestra has awakened.

It's a surprise symphony!  Take that, Haydn.



When my father watched baseball on television, as soon as the final out was recorded he would rise from his chair, walk over to the TV, and switch it off.  The game was over.  Why watch any longer?  Maybe your father did the same.

In the 1990s, television executives fretted about this behavior.  It hurt ratings — especially for the studio show that followed the game.  Therefore they imposed some new rules.  Now the postgame show had to begin no more than 20 seconds after the end of the game, before viewers had a chance to switch channels.

(Other new rules:  To avoid losing ratings among the younger audience, announcers couldn't talk about dead people.  Babe Ruth was presumably relevant only to older viewers, about whom sponsors didn't care.  Also, directors were no longer allowed to slowly dissolve artistically from one beautiful shot to the next.  In the movies that indicates passage of time.  It's out of place in a sports event, which is live in the moment!)

I was working one telecast with director Dennis Galloway.  It was a tense moment:  bottom of the ninth, score tied, bases loaded.

An inside pitch hit the batter, forcing in the winning run!  That meant we were supposed to get off the air immediately.  But I'm not sure the winning run actually touched the plate right away, because the batter had been injured by the pitch and his teammates were rushing to help him as lay writhing in the dirt of the batter's box.

Heroically, Dennis defied the rules and stayed on the air an extra minute.



The 1962 motion picture How the West Was Won was an epic retelling of 19th-century American history filmed with an ultra-wide-screen three-lens camera.  I recently ran across it on the Sundance Channel.  Compared to the last time I had encountered it on television, it looked much better.  I could actually enjoy it.


Trying to show this movie on old-fashioned TV sets once required it to be severely “letterboxed” as in the left-hand image.  You could also see the vertical creases.  It was unpleasant to watch.  But thanks to newer technology including digital restoration and HDTV, those problems have been overcome, as in the right-hand image.

The earlier difficulties were a result of the Cinerama process, as I explained in this month's 100 Moons article. 



It was about 60 years ago when we heard that 60-year-old industrialist Armand Hammer was scheduled to be one of the guests on Edward R. Murrow's CBS-TV interview program, Person to Person.

The year would have been 1957 or 1958.  Mr. Hammer, the son of Russian immigrants, had recently become president of Occidental Petroleum.  “He was known as well for his art collection, his philanthropy, and for his close ties to the Soviet Union.  Hammer's business interests around the world and his ‘citizen diplomacy’ helped him cultivate a wide network of friends and associates.”

composite photo

One of those friends and associates might possibly have been my 48-year-old father, Vernon M. Thomas.  Before the show aired, he claimed to have met the multi-millionaire.  And, he jokingly predicted, “I bet he mentions me.”

As it turned out, there was no such mention.  But that's not important right now.  I know what you're wondering.

You're wondering whether Armie Hammer is a relative.

Yes, the actor is a great-grandson of the oil tycoon.


And I know you're also curious about something else.  Which came first, Armand Hammer or Arm & Hammer?

Actually, Vulcan came first.  Wielding a blacksmith's tool, the muscular Roman god of fire and metalworking became a symbol of labor and industry.

Part of him appeared in the logo of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, a brand of sodium hydrogen carbonate (NaHCO3) introduced in 1867.

My father's supposed acquaintance wasn't born until 31 years later.

His father, Julius Hammer, allegedly named him after the fictional Armand Duval — a character in the popular novel and play Camille.

On the other hand, Julius was a leader of the Socialist Labor Party of America, and the SLP's logo depicting an arm and hammer (far left) most likely was the inspiration for his son's name.

Later Soviet symbolism paired a worker's industrial hammer with a peasant's agricultural sickle.

Armand eventually tired of being asked whether he was A: the maker of the baking soda, or B: a Communist.  So that he could give A as the answer, he acquired an ownership share of Church & Dwight, the soda's parent company.



The skies were far from brilliant for the Pittsburgh nine today.
First pitch was set for half past one, with flurries on the way.
And now the park thermometer read only thirty-five!
“I'm leading off,” thought Casey.  “I'd better look alive.”

He eyed the fielders staying warm with slaps and jumps and jukes,
The coaches wearing ski masks and the vendors wearing tuques,
And dugout subs all shivering, though bundled toe to head.
“This ain't my style,” said Casey.  “Play ball!” the umpire said.

It was still winter on March 19.  Only ten days later, Major League Baseball opened its 2018 season.  Brrr!

The Pittsburgh Pirates began with three scheduled games in Detroit, two of which had to be postponed until the next day because of inclement weather.  They won all three of those.  Then they returned to Pittsburgh for a six-game home stand, winning four.  This afternoon's 5-0 victory gave the Pirates a two-game lead in the National League Central Division.

During those nine games (five at night, four in the daytime), the average temperature at first pitch was 39.7° with a wind speed of 10.8 mph.  That works out to a wind chill of 32.9°.  And how was the attendance?  Not counting the two Opening Day crowds, only 14,274 fans on average braved the cold.

Worst case: April 4, blowing snow, wind chill 26°
(actual temperature 37°, winds 21 mph)

Why do the major leagues have to start in March, anyhow?  In my boyhood, seasons typically began on April 15.  Let's start a campaign to return Opening Day to the middle of April where it belongs!

Of course, those seasons when I was a boy were only 154 games long.  Today they're 162.  Could we still squeeze in 162 games between April 15 and September 30?  Yes, if we brought back the old practice of scheduling doubleheaders on Sundays.

Alternatively, if games must be played during the first half of April, let's give up on the idea of staging them in northern climes.  Play in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida instead, as college teams do.  We might even want to extend this idea to all of April.

Around here, the weather doesn't usually get nice until the first weekend in May.  Weather Underground's website generates this curve to answer the question, “When is it good weather for baseball in Pittsburgh, PA?”

The 15 snow-white dots on the right represent every team north of 38°40' that lacks a retractable dome.  These teams ought to go on a month-long road trip in April, visiting the 15 more congenial ballparks represented by black dots.  Then they would make up the missing home dates by playing 60% of their games at home for the remaining five months of the season.  Make it so!

[Update here.]




Recently I wrote on a message board:

I remember, one time in college, conversing with a young lady at the campus radio station.  Afterwards, a female friend expressed her amusement at having watched the young lady flirt with me.  I had no idea that any flirting had been taking place.  I'd missed that completely.

Non-verbal communication is unfair to us oblivious males and should be outlawed.

The board was discussing this article.  A psychological study of college students has come to the (unsurprising) conclusion that women are better than men at interpreting non-verbal cues.  Excerpts from the article:

Young men just find it difficult to tell the difference between women who are being friendly and women who are interested in something more.  Some might think even the slightest female interest sparks sexual fantasy.  But the study found that it goes both ways for guys — they mistake females' sexual signals as friendly ones.  Guys have trouble noticing and interpreting the subtleties of non-verbal cues, in either direction.

One contributor to the board actually read the study and found it unconvincing.  It ignores such signals such as gestures or voice pitch or physical proximity, merely asking its participants to evaluate photos.  He notes that “37.1% of men and 31.9% of women identified certain photos and thought ‘friendly’ instead of ‘interested.’  When that large of a percentage in both genders is missing the cues, well, maybe there aren't any cues.  The methodology is pretty tortured, too.  There are so many variables that, if you did it with a whole different group of people, you'd probably arrive at a different conclusion.”

My impression is that many psychological studies are similarly half-baked.  They use an unrepresentative sample (easy-to-obtain college undergraduates) and simple tests (easy-to-arrange photo identification), then attempt to extrapolate the limited results into sweeping conclusions.

But regardless of the quality of the experimental data, we can always find anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion — such as my contribution to the board, quoted above.  Several others agreed with me.  One wrote:  “I'll give you that ‘Amen’ you're looking for, sir.  I wouldn't know flirting if there was a Sprockets-esque announcement — Now is the time when we flirt.”


APRIL 3, 2018    

The body of Jesus was nowhere to be found on Easter morning.  What happened?

In a newly posted article, Brother Billy questions the owner of the Temporary Tomb.



As Program Director of Oberlin College's student radio station in April 1968, I had to deal with matters ranging from a national tragedy to a misleading headline in the campus newspaper.  That was also the month when gender-mingling in the dormitories led to the resignation of the Dean of Women.

Click here for my latest article in the 14-month series recalling my life 50 years ago.

And this installment includes a bonus!  Inside that article you'll find another link inviting you to listen to ten audio clips, including some “natural sound” for a news story about an anti-war protest.  There's also a conversation with my lab partner about her bicycle.