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ArchiveNOVEMBER 2018



The Pittsburgh Steelers defense didn't get off to a good start against the Baltimore Ravens in September.  After less than seven minutes, the Ravens had a 14-0 lead, and quarterback Joe Flacco was already 6-for-6 with 73 yards and two touchdowns.  It seemed easy.  Baltimore went on to win 26-14.

After the game, Flacco recalled feeling that “we could have 28, 30, 35 points up out there at halftime.  It's not like today was the toughest Pittsburgh Steeler [game] I've ever played.”

The quarterback told the reporters what he thought, which matched what they had observed.  However, athletes mustn't speak honestly to the media!

The Steelers defense took offense at being reminded they had had an atypical off day.  We weren't “tough”?  Flacco insulted our manhood!  He bruised our egos!  Frank opinions like that are called “bulletin board material.”

“As soon as we heard what Flacco said, that lit the fire underneath us,” said defensive back Mike Hilton.  “It just kept going all around the room.  It was all over the media.  When you hear another team say something like that, it gets you riled up.”

Never disrespect a football player.  The peeved Pittsburghers held Flacco to 209 yards and zero touchdowns in winning this month's rematch.


NOV. 25, 2018    CASTE SYSTEM

In most states, high schools are divided into classes by size, so small schools don't have to compete against big ones at tournament time.

Pennsylvania used to have four classes for football.  The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) staged all four of its championship games on the same day at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

However, finer distinctions are now being drawn.  There are six classes.  And six games can't be squeezed into one day.

How are classes determined?  A higher authority, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), sorted 567 football-playing schools according to the total male enrollment in grades 9, 10, and 11.  Then they sliced that stack into six equal parts of about 95 schools each.  As it turned out, schools with 131 boys or fewer ended up in Class 1A, those with 132 to 198 are in Class 2A, and so on up to Class 6A with 561 or more.


Here in Western Pennsylvania there are 120 WPIAL schools.  We could likewise slice our stack into six equal parts, each with 20 teams.  But no!  We have to use the PIAA's dividing lines, so that our schools can compete on an equal footing with others hundreds of miles to the east.  More than a quarter of our teams end up in Class 2A, the smallish-school classification, with only nine megaschools in Class 6A.

Considering this unequal distribution, which teams should get to extend their seasons into November?  Ideally, roughly half should be included in the playoffs.  Therefore the WPIAL decided that in Classes 1A, 3A, and 4A, eight teams would make the tournament, while Class 6A's paltry nine schools would get only six invitations with two byes.  Those four classes played on November 2 and 9 with their championship games at Heinz Field on November 17.

But in the two largest classes (2A and 5A), 16 teams were allowed into the playoffs.  That required an extra round, which required an extra week.  Their championship games were played on November 24 and 23 respectively at other sites.

Imagine that your team qualifies for the postseason with a 7-3 record, including five big wins by an average score of 54-3, but then you're eliminated in your first-round playoff game by a score of 60-6.  That was Imani Christian's disappointment.  They lost to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the eventual 1A champion.

I complained earlier this year about all the blowouts in high school football played before Labor Day, when only 28% of the results were close (within 14 points).  November turned out to be better, but only slightly, at 37%.  In the championships it was 33%, as the margins of victory were 22, 42, 23, 7, 10, and 27 points.

Of the 56 playoff games, 27% were decided by 35 points or more, a lead that triggers a “mercy rule.”  Blue squares represent first-round outcomes; red, subsequent rounds.


This year KDKA-TV and co-owned WPCW-TV broadcast all the championships live.  In past years, a different telecaster aired the four Heinz Field games but usually had to tape-delay two of them due to hockey commitments.

In past years, a single crew was hired to work an exhausting 17-hour quadrupleheader, earning the equivalent of 27 hours pay:  10 regular time, 6 for four time-and-a-half hours, 6 for three double-time hours, 3 for two missed-meal penalties, and 2 for covering more than one event in a single day.

But this year's planners saved money by hiring two separate shifts for 10 hours each.  Hooray!  However, there was some confusion when a second crew had to unseat the first crew without dropping the ball in the middle of an uninterrupted 13½-hour telecast.

I got to work the final 2½ games on November 17 plus this week's two events elsewhere — as many championships as before, but with less fatigue.



It's that time of year when you list those things for which you're thankful.  It might be helpful to count your blessings at other times as well, as Methodist minister Johnson Oatman, Jr., wrote in 1897.

When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings!  Name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings!  Every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.

My mother liked to imagine her grandmother toiling at her weekly chores, then taking time to put on a clean dress, “brew cup of tee, set and rest and rock a spell.” 

“And count yore blessins!”

That sensible recipe is this month's 100 Moons article.


NOV. 19, 2008 flashback   SALT LAKE?  NO, SALT LAKE

I feel as though I have two Mormon friends on the Internet, as I regularly visit their blogs.  Both graduated from Brigham Young University, served their time as missionaries, and eventually moved from Utah back to the West Coast.  One is the son of a bishop.  But neither seems at all fanatical about LDS beliefs, and their writings are intelligent and amusing.  Check out this example.

One is movie critic Eric D. Snider (BYU 1999).  I started reading his "Snide Remarks" column when I was preparing to spend a month in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics and was looking for some perspective on the local culture.

The other is Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings (BYU 2000).  Ken has many talents and interests besides trivia.  For example, he painted a frieze around the walls of a bedroom in his house, depicting each letter of the alphabet with an illustration from children's literature.

Recently Ken and his readers discussed a topic that most of us have never noticed:  how we pronounce two-word phrases.  Which of the two words do we accent?

For example, names of thoroughfares.  Usually the stress goes on the second word:  Fifth Avenue, Mulholland Drive, Tobacco Road.  But if the second word is "street," it's not accented:  Main Street, Easy Street.

For another example, names of sports venues.  Even though the first word is the key identifier, we always seem to stress the second:  Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, PNC Park, Conseco Fieldhouse.  The exceptions might include United Center or Staples Center, where the two words are given approximately equal weight.

Most of us emphasize the first word in the combinations on the left, but the second word in the combinations on the right.

match point

moot point

Big Top

Big Sur

radar gun

Top Gun

South Park

South Bronx

fire truck

Bernie Mac

Beach Boys

Rolling Stones

I assume the choice was made when some influential person or group began accenting one word instead of the other, and the rest of us fell into line.



Sometimes on the radio, a 30-second car commercial concludes with five seconds or so of impossibly rapid speech to qualify the promises that have just been made.

Those disclaimers are legally necessary.  “Based on R.L. Polk & Company registration data for April and May.  Your mileage may vary.  Approved trade-in required.”  But speaking them normally would take up half the commercial, which would have to be extended to 45 seconds.  Therefore the legalese is digitally sped up into gabble.  The sponsor doesn't care whether you actually understand it.

The same considerations apply to television.  To avoid being sued, Subaru has to tell viewers they mustn't allow their dog behind the wheel.  This driver is a skilled professional on a closed course.  He earns a lot of kibble.

Subaru's warning is squeezed to the bottom of the screen.  Can you read it down there (arrow)?  I've magnified it for you.

Viewers who wish to comprehend more complicated automotive fine print can freeze the video for a minute or so.

On the other hand, ads for prescription drugs must meet more stringent standards.  These disclaimers do take up at least half the commercial time, because Big Pharma is required to clearly state the possible side effects of their miracle medications — up to and including death.

And an even scarier side effect could soon be disclosed:  the cost.  Although insurance often reduces what consumers actually have to pay, Health and Human Services says the ten most commonly advertised drugs have list prices up to $11,000 per month (or usual course of therapy).

A month ago, HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar II announced a proposal to require television ads for prescription drugs to include their list price if it's greater than $35 a month, “displayed on the screen in type that is large enough to read.”

Pharmaceutical companies would prefer not to disclose this information, but maybe soon we'll see something like this on our TV screens.



There are four major state-related universities in Pennsylvania, including Penn State.  There are also 14 smaller state-owned universities with an additional 113,000 students.  According to a report yesterday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, most of the presidents on these smaller campuses will be receiving salary increases of as much as 11 percent.

When salaries rise, eyebrows rise.  The economy is worsening, state financial support of higher education is being reduced, and students are paying more in tuition to make up the difference.  Is this the time to be giving out raises?

Most people understandably object when they see top executives getting bigger bonuses while they themselves endure cutbacks.  They should consider the bigger picture.

•  Competition makes higher salaries necessary to retain highly-qualified executives.  According to the article, "The recipient of the biggest percentage raise was Mansfield University of Pennsylvania President Maravene Loeschke, whose salary was upped by roughly 11 percent, to $189,195, this year. The raise includes an $8,547 merit increase and a $9,708 'market adjustment' to bring her pay closer to what peers on comparable campuses around the country make."

•  Percentages can be misleading.  The raises seem large when compared to the previous salary, but they're practically infinitesimal when compared to the total operation.  Mansfield University of Pennsylvania's operating budget is reportedly $52 million.  Dr. Loeschke's raise amounts to less than 0.04% of that budget.  If she declined her raise and instead distributed the money among her students to help defray the cost of tuition, each student would receive about five bucks.

•  And she's already saved Mansfield 21 times her raise, or $383,000 a year, by eliminating football a couple of years ago.



There's a new old place to eat just down the street.  I'll get to that eventually.  But first ...

A century ago, many men used two initials, like H.R. or H.G., instead of their first name.  Here are two examples.

Also, my grandfathers were H.G. Buckingham and H.F. Thomas.  The latter had a brother whom everyone knew as E.O. — more euphonious than his full name, Emmet Orval Thomas.

1954:  In Richwood, Ohio, we moved to a house across the road from the Cramers.  They had moved there eight years before, having disposed of their registered Angus cattle and farming implements in order to go into the hardware business in the village.  Mr. Cramer still sold Cushman motor scooters, and I heard him addressed as R.B.  Therefore, I assumed his full name was something like Riley Bernard.  But I was wrong.  His first name actually was Arby!

1964:  In Boardman, Ohio, Leroy Raffel and his brother Forrest Raffel opened a Western-themed fast-food restaurant.  Following the unimaginative convention of the time, Leroy & Forrest could have used their first initials to dub their new venture the “L&F Sandwich Shop.”  However, they were sharing the business, so they decided to use their shared last name:  “The Raffel Brothers' Place.”  Or “The R.B.'s Place.”  Or “Arby's.”

Although R.B. stood for Raffel Brothers, a lot of folks (including me) assumed it meant Roast Beef.  The sign's big gold capital letters encouraged us in this belief.  It turns out we were wrong.

Nevertheless, the brothers hoped hungry hombres hankering for Roast Beef would naturally think of Arby's.  RoBee's, established in 1967, was sued for trademark infringement.  They had to sign a deal with a movie star and rebrand as “Roy Rogers” restaurants, although they did get to keep their chuck-wagon logo and flavored super shakes.

Today there are 3,415 Arby's restaurants worldwide.  Down the street from me, there's one that may have been among the first hundred built, according to franchisee Jim Noble.

The Noble family has owned this location for fifty years.  They've remodeled three times, but the restaurant, seen here from Google Earth, was showing its age.  This year they demolished it (except for the kitchen) and rebuilt.

Located on a small lot, the new building had to be narrowed from the standard Arby's design in order to retain its parking spaces.  It does, however, have indoor plumbing.  (Well, the old one did too.  But like a gas station, the restrooms were around back and customers were obliged to go outside to access them.  Now there's an interior hallway.)



Although the new building appears to have added a second story, as far as I can tell there's nothing up there.  It's like an Old West saloon with a false front.

Think I might just mosey on down to Arby's place and get me one of them Beef 'N Cheddars!



In case you haven't noticed, the forecast in my previous post has become inoperative.  The much-hyped midterm elections were not particularly chaotic.  Never mind.

Instead, we've returned to our usual chaos — emerging in particular from the White House and also from the nation's 300,000,000 firearms.

So last night, a man walks into a bar with a handgun.  Twelve dead in Thousand Oaks.  Someone else shoots up a parked car in Youngstown, killing a man and woman and their baby.  Three dead in Ohio.

In the first 300 days of this year, through the October 27 massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, there were 47,220 incidents of gun violence in the United States.  That includes 1,321 accidents and 297 mass shootings.  As a result, gunfire killed 11,984 people.

This does not include an estimated 18,000 suicides by gunshot during that period.  On average, adding the two numbers together, guns kill a hundred Americans every day!



Remember 18 years ago, when a very important election was followed by five weeks of controversy before a winner could be declared?  This time we have many close contests nationwide, and frenzied partisans will not hesitate to file lawsuits.

Mark Evanier predicts today “will be the messiest Election Day in the history of Election Days,” and not just because of heavy turnouts.  We'll hear about voter intimidation and malfunctioning machines and provisional ballots and challenged outcomes.

“You may be eager for this all to be over on Tuesday night before you get to bed but it probably won't be over on Tuesday night.  We may all go beddy-bye with many cliffhangers still dangling out there and people charging fraud over votes their side seems to be losing.  In some cases, they may even be right.”


NOV. 4, 2008 flashback   WHO'S RED?  WHO'S BLUE?

Awaiting tonight's television coverage of the Presidential election returns, I naturally think about TV graphics, because that's my vocation.  In particular, I consider the representation of the electoral vote on a national map.  As analysts declare one candidate or the other the winner in a particular state, that state is filled in with the appropriate color.

At first the colors were arbitrary.  Red and blue were obvious choices, so that the map would bear the colors of the flag, but which party should be red and which should be blue?  I recall in the not-too-distant past that NBC did it one way and CBS the other.

Some electoral maps used blue for the elephants and red for the donkeys, as evidenced by this representation of the 1988 election.  To me, this was the logical choice.

Blue described the Republican party, made up of blue-blooded wealthy elites, prissy blue-nosed social conservatives, and true-blue patriots.

Red described the Democratic party, more to the left politically and thus closer to the Communists with their Red Army and Red Square.

But around the turn of the century, somehow the opposite coloration became the rule.

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 5, 2012:  Further research indicates that this happened almost exactly at the turn of the century.  For more than a month after the 2000 Presidential election, the outcome remained in doubt.  The story was on TV screens day after day, illustrated by an omnipresent electoral map.  There had been no prior agreement among the networks to color Bush states red and Gore states blue, but a majority happened to use that scheme, and the others began conforming to it to avoid confusing viewers who were flipping between the channels.  Republican = red and Democrat = blue became the standards and have remained so ever since. 

Where's the logic now?  There is none, except for the fact that Republican and red both begin with the letter R, and the fact that after the 1960s (when Lyndon Johnson came out for civil rights and Richard Nixon adopted a "Southern strategy") the red-meat-lovin' rednecks began voting for the GOP.

However, I'm glad that we've agreed on a single color scheme, even if it's not the one I would have chosen.  Standardization allows us to use the terms "red state" and "blue state" as an unambiguous political shorthand.

And we can hope that tomorrow all the rancor of the long campaign will begin to fade away and we can once again join in singing the praises of these united States, e pluribus unum, neither white nor black, neither red nor blue but "O beautiful ... for purple ...."

2018 update

Sometimes I feel surrounded, marooned on one of the few blue islands in a Red Sea of intolerance.

The gold numbers mark the places I've resided for a year or more of my life.  In 2016, the people in every one of these counties voted for Trump, except for Pennsylvania's Allegheny County where I now make my home.


NOV. 2, 2008 flashback   CORPORATE EARNINGS WAY UP

"CNX Gas profit soars by 115 percent," read the headline last week.  I suspect many will consider this another example of an energy company making obscene profits while the rest of us have to pay high prices and cope with a recession.

However, we have to be careful when comparing year-to-year profits on a percentage basis.  In some cases, this statistic could be misleading.

Suppose that Sam's Store had a bad year in 2007, barely breaking even.  Sam's revenue was $100,000, but his expenses were $99,985, so his profit was a measly 15 dollars.  "Well," said Sam, "I guess I'll cancel that annual ad in the high school football program.  That'll save me 60 bucks."








no change

minus Expenses



down $60 or 0.06%

equals Profit



up $60 or 400%

Nothing else changes, and in 2008, Sam has another $100,000 in revenue.  But his expenses are now only $99,925, so his profit is 75 dollars.  That's up 400% from the year before!  Better slap a windfall profits tax on Sam.



Funeral services for the 11 people gunned down last Sabbath at the Tree of Life Synagogue are being held this week in Pittsburgh.  Among the prayers is the Kaddish (“Sanctification”), the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning.

I'm told the Kaddish does not mention death, but rather life.  Leonard Bernstein wrote a symphony exploring both aspects: the popular connotation of the prayer as a kind of requiem — “Betrayed, rejected ruler of the universe, I will say this final Kaddish for you” — and its celebration of creation.

I recall listening to the original recording of this symphony fifty years ago.  Parts of the text are included in this month's installment of the series about my life in 1968.

I also recall listening to Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite, and the recently-released “Revolution” by the Beatles, and the recently-synthesized Switched-On Bach by the transgender musician Walter/Wendy Carlos.  And I summarize our radio station's election-night coverage.   Click here.