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ArchiveSEPTEMBER 2018



The Center for Inquiry sued the giant drug retailer CVS this summer, alleging consumer fraud for its marketing of useless medicines.

Harriet Hall reveals the manufacturing process:  “The liver is long gone but the quack is still evident.”  “Remedies must be vigorously shaken (not stirred).”

What's she describing?  James Bond's snake oil?  No, the same fake cures I wrote about in this month's 100 Moons Article, from ten years ago.

On the other hand, taking an ineffective pill can actually make us feel better — if we think it can.  If we have faith.  How can that be?  Well, 179 months ago I suggested a possible mechanism.


SEPT. 25, 2008 flashback   EIGHT DAYS A WEEK

I've started to schedule events for 2009.  That means it's time to invest in a new pocket calendar to keep track of them, lest I accidentally "double-book" myself by promising to show up to televise sporting events at two different venues on the same date.

Many people switched to electronic Personal Digital Assistants years ago, but I still prefer to jot down my appointments on actual paper.  For the past couple of decades, I've used the preprinted 70-035 weekly pocket planner from At-A-Glance®. 

I have only one small quibble with the 70-035.  Like most weekly planners, it divides the left and right pages into a total of only six equal boxes, as shown here in blue.  However, people are nearly unanimous in their opinion that a week consists not of six days but of seven.  Therefore, not every day gets its own box.  The weekend days of Saturday and Sunday have to share.

That's fine for most folks, whose appointments tend to fall into the normal Monday-to-Friday workweek.  But, of course, I'm not most folks.  The heaviest-booked single day of my week is Saturday, and this format allots less than half as much empty space to Saturday as to a weekday.

I've seen a few QuickNotes® planners divided into eight equal boxes:  Mon-Tue-Wed-Thu on the left page and Blank-Fri-Sat-Sun on the right.  That would work better for me, if I could find a wirebound unruled three-by-five-inch model.

Even more flexible would be the layout I've shown here in green.  I could choose to enter my Sunday appointments either in the upper left box (Sunday has been "the first day of the week" since Biblical times) or in the lower right box (nowadays the first day of the commercial week is Monday).  The box not used for Sunday would remain available for general notations, or even extra details about Saturday.

For now, however, I'll continue squeezing my Saturday notes into a little half-box or borrowing some space from Friday.  It's really an inconsequential complaint.



Well, the Pittsburgh Pirates have done it again.  For the third year in a row, they've failed to make the Major League Baseball playoffs, and for the third year in a row, their attendance has dropped.

The Pirates closed out their home season yesterday (except for a makeup game scheduled for October 1).  Through 80 home games, the total attendance has been 1,465,316.  The final number will be the lowest in PNC Park's 18-year history, more than a million less than the record 2,498,596 who came through the turnstiles in 2015.

I've plotted the game-by-game numbers, which were very irregular.

PNC Park seats 38,362 (blue line).  There were no sellouts, and only four times did the ballpark exceed 79% of capacity:  the return of popular former Pirate Andrew McCutchen on May 11, plus three straight Saturday dates beginning July 28.

On-field success helps.  The Pirates didn't have a winning record between June 6 and the All-Star break, but coming into that July 28 game they had been over .500 for a week and had managed to reach 54-51.  On that summer night, with the help of an Italian Fest promotion, 94% of the seats were filled.  The 35,900 fans watched the Bucs shut out the Mets and stayed for a post-game fireworks show.

The weather also makes a big difference.   In chilly April the average attendance had been only 11,905 (not counting the two games that opened the season), and September's average turned out to be 15,070.  Seven times during those months, the turnstile count failed to reach five figures.

And the opponent matters, too. Let's consider only the 38 home dates during the warm months of June, July, and August, when the visiting teams were evenly divided between five nearby National League rivals and five more distant opponents.  Against the first group, average attendance was 58% greater.


















Do Pirate fans prefer to see games against familiar opponents?  Perhaps, but maybe there's another explanation.  Maybe there are only 15,000 supporters of the home team, but when those neighbors come to town, nearly 10,000 of their fans travel in to support them.

That would mean 40% of those in the stands are wearing the opponent's colors.  Observation supports this hypothesis.  The picture below is from the 2015 Wild Card game, the last time that Pittsburgh hosted postseason action.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a ZIP code tabulation for 2017 showed that of those who bought Pirates tickets, only 65% were from Pennsylvania, while 12% came from neighboring Ohio and West Virginia and 23% were from farther away.

Spokesman Brian Warecki says the visitors like “coming into Pittsburgh, staying in our hotels and enjoying our beautiful ballpark.  ...We also offer a tremendous entertainment value ... a more affordable option for fans of visiting teams than they might be accustomed to in their home ballpark.” 

For me, this season's low point came on a Friday night, the sixth of July, when the Phillies brought 9,846 phanatics to join our 15,000 Pirates diehards.  I had the misfortune of being on the crew televising that game back to Philadelphia.  The home team lost for the 11th time in 15 games, this time by the lopsided score of 17-5.  Moreover, the pace was excruciatingly slow:  an average interval of 4¼ minutes between balls in play.  The game lasted four hours and 30 minutes, which equaled the record for the longest nine-inning game in the entire 143-year history of the National League!

Less than four weeks later, it seemed we might be on pace to shatter even that record.  The first pitch was at 7:06 PM, and by 8:48 we had completed only three innings.  At that rate, the ninth inning wouldn't end until 12:12 AM.  But then the pace picked up.  The game was over in 3½ hours, and we actually got to go home before midnight.



Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew struck the small South Carolina farming community of Nichols.  According to Mayor Lawson Battle, about 230 of the town's 261 homes were destroyed.

Nichols recovered, and about 150 homes were rebuilt.  But now those rebuilt homes have been wiped out by new flooding, as Hurricane Florence caused rivers to overflow again.

“I feel like I'm having a nightmare,” Randy Bryan told the Raleigh News & Observer for this article.

One neighbor just had finished building his new house. “Now, it's gone,” Bryant said.

Another neighbor, 79-year-old Robbie White, had spent two years rebuilding her home after Matthew. She was set to return later this month. But Wednesday, her home was filled again with flood water.

“It's just a shame because everybody was just now getting their place back together, you know, and now they're getting hit again,” [Frank] Oliver said. “This is way worse than any of us thought it was going to be. Hundred-year flood every two years, I mean, come on.”

Is this the new normal, as hurricanes become more intense due to global warming?

“Let's get it fixed,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster urged local residents.  He said the state is surveying all options to help rebuild the areas affected by the flooding.

But should residents rebuild?

Which would be less wasteful?  Keep on rebuilding every two years, or abandon the flood-prone site and rebuild once in a better location?

Should Nichols move to higher ground? 


SEPT. 21, 2008 flashback   TUÇSON

The University of Arizona is located in Tuson.  However, that's not how the city's name is spelled.  Local residents insist on adding a “c” next to the “s.”

Now this extraneous “c” does not affect the pronunciation.  Either it's silent or it's pronounced like another “s.”  Since the “c” is pointless, I can never remember whether it should come before or after the real “s.”  Is the city spelled Tucson or Tuscon?  Either way seems equally nonsensical.

Here's a mnemonic device:  Replace the soft “c” with a hard “k.”  Then ask yourself which is better, Tukson or Tuskon?

Would you rather see Jackie Chan with a Tux On or with a Tusk On?

Let's go with Option 1.


My father was an automobile dealer, so I noticed three slightly awkward shot compositions involving vehicles in the 1960 movie Psycho.

At 55, 64, and 75 minutes, director Alfred Hitchcock positions a car in the foreground at the Bates Motel.  The left-hand door is nearest the camera so we can see the driver clearly.  But the actor is instructed not to use that door.  Instead, he opens the door on the passenger side, sliding with some effort across the full width of the front seat.  By taking this shortcut, he spares us from having to wait for him to walk halfway around the vehicle.


This was possible because in those days, cars had “bench seats.”

There were no contoured bucket seats.  And other than the slight hump on the floor for the transmission and driveshaft, there were no obstacles (like floor-mounted gearshifts, or center consoles, or buckle holders for seat belts) that would force a person to use only one particular portal.


SEPT. 15, 2018    ZAMBOOZLED

In 1953, Andy Griffith recorded a comedy monologue, portraying a country preacher who'd stumbled across a football game without understanding what was going on.

Ten years later, I was in high school.  Some of the guys were athletes, but I was a manager.

During the winter months our school played only one sport, so I was a basketball manager.

And we had no mechanical floor polishers, so one of my pregame tasks was to sweep the court with a dry mop like this guy.

However, one must always be open to new experiences.

I've imagined a mopper named Roscoe who encountered an entirely different indoor sport.  With a nod to Gary Clem's tale of a South Carolinian who disassembled his camera after the second “half,” I call this dialogue What It Was, Was Hockey.



The folks at California University of Pennsylvania, when Angelo Armenti was president, wanted to increase their visibility by televising some of their Vulcans’ games.  They established a Vulcan Sports Network.  Essentially this network fed one station in Pittsburgh and one FOX subsidiary satellite channel.

In 2010, CalU decided the network should have its own distinctive visual style for football telecasts.  It fell to me to make this “look” practical, and I organized things my own way.  The argotic details have been preserved for posterity in my new article on VSN Graphics.


SEPT. 10, 2018    BE SERENE?


Reinhold Niebuhr prayed,
Grant me serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

The wise person says,
Here's something that
 I wish I could change.

But I know I can't.   It is what it is.

Therefore, I'll accept it.
I shall serenely stop worrying.

However . . .

Winston Churchill urged, Never give in!  Never give in!  Never!  Never!  Never!  Never!  In nothing, great or small, large or petty!

And Jim Valvano implored, Don't give up!  Don't ever give up! 

Thus the wise person is conflicted.


SEPT. 7, 2008 flashback   WE ARE OBERLIN   

My alma mater's football team — the Division III "Yeomen" of Oberlin College, once coached by John Heisman of trophy fame — can still claim a unique distinction.

That distinction was in peril yesterday.  In the third quarter, the Ohio University Bobcats led the No. 3 Buckeyes of The Ohio State University by a score of 14-6.  But Ohio State averted the upset and eventually won 26-14.

The victory was OSU's 36th straight win over an in-state opponent.  What was the last Ohio school to defeat Ohio State in football?  Oberlin!

It was way back in 1921, the final season for the Buckeyes' Ohio Field at High Street and Woodruff Avenue in Columbus.  (The "Horseshoe," Ohio Stadium, would open the following year.)  The final score:  Oberlin 7, Ohio State 6. 

This picture comes from a 1916 volume, Songs of Ohio State University.  (Where's the The?)  The book originally belonged to Ruth M. Ford; later, when she was my mother's friend Ruth Miller, she gave it to me, and I've now colorized the photo.  It appears above the words and music to "Across the Field," Ohio State's then-new fight song, written in 1915 by sophomore W.A. Dougherty Jr.

The song apparently was not enough when the Buckeyes faced the fearless Yeomen in 1921.


The fearless Yeomen taunted those Ohio State losers with a cheer, or "yell," which was already a tradition when the first Oberlin yearbook was published in 1890.


SEPT. 4, 2018    BLOWOUTS

When I was a lad, today would have been the first day of school following summer vacation:  the day after Labor Day.  Therefore the first high school football game would have been this coming Friday.

But times have changed, and school starts earlier now.  In the Pittsburgh area, the WPIAL played 116 football games in August.                  

Margins of Victory, August 2018

The results were unusually lopsided.  One would prefer games to be competitive, with the wins by 14 points or less, but only 28% of those early-season contests met that criterion (the blue portion of this histogram).  The average margin was 25 points.

On August 25 Imani Christian, having scored touchdowns on its first three plays from scrimmage, led 58-0 at halftime.  After that, the coaches agreed to cut the 12-minute quarters in half, and a “mercy rule” kept the clock running following incompletions and such.  Thus the final score was merely 80-6.

Other matchups resulted in embarrassing shutouts of 41-0, 43-0, 45-0, 46-0, 48-0 (three times), 62-0, and 63-0.  Serves those kids right for wearing game jerseys before Labor Day.



When September of 1968 rolled around, it was time for WOBC to sign on again.  Jan Olson and I went to church together, although she did berate me on the second occasion for my failure to issue a proper invitation.  And we had cast parties!

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