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ArchiveAUGUST 2019


AUG. 29, 2019    LESS IS BETTER

I follow a pair of critics who enjoy watching movies, but not forever.  Apparently they think a good length for a motion picture would be about 80 minutes.  One was planning to attend a revival of Gone with the Wind until he realized that the film runs 221 minutes, or four hours including the overture and intermission.

On television, I don't understand why documentaries need to consist of 690 minutes spread over five nights.  The Civil War by Ken Burns was worth it, but most aren't.

Most of us in TV sports feel the same way.  Although the director and the sponsors are hoping for an exciting nail-biter that goes into triple overtime with a lot of strategic time-outs, the production crew is rooting for a laugher.  We want the game to end quickly so we can all go home.

Three weeks ago, Mark Vidonic posted, “Today I had the shortest event I've ever worked.  A six-inning Little League game:  1 hour, 6 minutes.  In layman's terms, that's one inning of a Yankees/Red Sox game.”

Other expeditious competitions?  Matt Wolff commented, “Bowling is the short sport of champions.”  (A two-person bowling match takes only about half an hour per game — only 24 balls if they roll nothing but strikes.)

“That's why I loved working volleyball,” added Troy Wright.  (A women's match decided in a lopsided two sets might require only 60 points and scarcely more than half an hour.) 

I've happily worked both of sorts of telecasts myself.  Even when I'm merely watching from home, I get bored with baseball halfway through.  For auto racing, I much prefer a two-hour Formula 1 race to an endurance test like NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, which took almost five hours to complete this past May.  Cut to the final chase!


AUG. 26, 2019    CROSSING OVER

Where two major highways intersect, there ought to be no red lights.  Traffic shouldn't have to be halted on one and then on the other.  After all, these are expressways, and “express” implies no stopping.  Instead, one highway is elevated on a bridge so the two can cross unimpeded, one over the other.

But if a trucker on the lower roadway wants to turn onto the upper one, how does he get up there?  And when he does, will he have to stop and wait for the cross traffic to clear?

To solve this problem, “cloverleaf” ramps were invented a century ago.  Nobody has to stop.  Nobody even has to turn left, so traffic can flow continuously.  And unlike a roundabout, traffic going straight through doesn't even have to slow down.

A northbound trucker, entering from the bottom of this cloverleaf, must get into the right-hand lane if he plans to exit.  At 1 he can bear right onto a ramp and go east.  Or if he wants to go west, he can continue on under the bridge, bear right at 2, and curve up that 270° ramp.  It's tight, with a radius of as little as 150 feet, so the trucker has to watch his speed lest he hit the outer wall. 

Another hazard is the conflict point at X, where a motorist may cut off our trucker.  She's descending a different ramp, and after merging she needs to switch to the left lane because she doesn't want to exit.  Meanwhile our trucker does want to exit, so he must reclaim the right lane.  These maneuvers have to be accomplished within a short “weave zone,” the hundred yards from X to 2.  There's a non-zero probability of sideswipes at the bridge.

A better solution has recently been introduced, the Diverging Diamond Interchange.  The first DDI in this country opened only ten years ago.  At last count, there are now 140 finished or under construction, with an equal number in the planning stages.

The primary road is for high-speed straight-ahead traffic; in the diagram below, we've colored it tan (eastbound and westbound).  On the other road, slight curves and traffic lights may be allowed; we've colored it yellow (northbound) and blue (southbound).

Before the secondary road crosses over the primary, northbound lanes and southbound lanes switch sides.  How British of them!  This arrangement allows their ramps (gray) to turn right and left without encountering oncoming traffic.

For example, consider the yellow parts of this diagram.  Starting from the bottom, a yellow lane is subtracted at 1, added at 3, subtracted at 5, and added at 7.

1  The right lane exits to the east.

2  While the blue lanes are stopped at a red light, all the remaining yellow lanes have a green light to continue through the gray diamond.

3  A ramp from the west merges on the left.

4  The entire length of the overpass constitutes a weave zone, though weaving is necessary only while the light at 2 is green.

5  The left lane exits to the west.

6  When the second light is green, all the remaining yellow lanes continue through the gray diamond.

7  A ramp from the east merges on the right.

At the diamonds, northbound and southbound do need to time-share the pavement by stopping for red lights.  But each signal is red no more than 50% of the time, because there's no waiting for left-turn-on-green traffic to get out of the way.

At first glance, this diagram appears to depict a lot of confusing options, but really you have only two (other than continuing straight through).  If you're on the expressway, you can first choose the right-hand exit ramp, then choose whether to turn north or south.  If you're on the yellow/blue road, you can either choose the right-hand lane to turn right onto the expressway, or later choose the left-hand lane to turn left onto the expressway.

I've recently learned of an improvement to the DDI.  Provided that enough land is available, simply raise the yellow lanes higher than the blue ones to make a Double Crossover Merging Interchange!  Northbound traffic can cross over southbound traffic at each diamond, so no traffic lights are required.

As far as I know, no DCMI has yet been constructed — except for simulations built by highway hobbyists on their computers, such as this one from Steam Community.

What design could be more beautiful?


AUG. 23, 2014   I'LL TAKE SPORTS FOR $200, ALEX

(Lights flash)

Tom: “What is Korinna?”

Alex: “That is correct!”

Early in 1984, Betsy Overly and I were planning the graphics for Pittsburgh Pirates cablecasts.  We needed a fresh look and a new font style.

Chyron, the company that manufactured the character generator, provided a “font library” for their machine on 8-inch floppy disks.  A few dozen styles were available.  Some were offered in only one size, but there were several that came in five different sizes, providing flexibility.

One of those, called Korinna Bold, caught our eye.  It was a fresh, relatively new font; the modern version had been introduced only ten years before.  It had some flair, with the distinctive shapes of the P and the N and especially the U, yet it was sufficiently bold for sports television.  So we chose it to build the full screens and lower thirds that we’d need for baseball.  Our new look premiered on a road game on April 6.

Unfortunately, by the time the team returned to Pittsburgh, the network was out of business, and our graphics package was never seen again.  More details are here.

That same year, however, a long-running game show was being updated with a new host and a new look for syndication.  And the producers made the same Chyron choice that Betsy and I had made.

Thirty years ago next month, Alex Trebek introduced Jeopardy! with the clues given in Korinna.  The font’s still there three decades later.  You can’t keep a good idea down.

Here are some other notes.

• Korinna was also used for the intertitles and closing credits on the 1993-2004 comedy Frasier.

• Ken Jennings claims that when he had his winning run 10 years ago, the name of the show was still pronounced “jee-OP-ur-dee.”

• And why is it called Jeopardy anyway?  Alex could say, “I told you that on the very first program, when I explained how the game is played.  Weren’t you listening?  Do I have to repeat the rules every 30 years?”  (You're in danger of losing some of your winnings if you give an incorrect response, and Jeopardy was considered a more intriguing title than the original What's the Question?)


AUG. 21, 2009 flashback   DO NOT WANT

The other day, I was dining in a restaurant when a man with three young sons was shown to the table next to me.  One of the boys was an infant dozing in a car seat; the other two were ambulatory.

The middle child considered himself too grownup for a highchair.  His father helped him up onto a regular chair, but he warned the boy he'd have to sit still.  Of course, he didn't.  Within seconds he was trying to climb over the back.  Then he fell off.  He wasn't hurt, but he began crying for his mommy.

To my surprise, the father stood up, picked up the sleeping basket case, and led the other two boys back to the restaurant's entrance.

Now I've often heard parents in public places admonish their unruly kids, “If you don't behave, we're going home!”  But this was the first time I'd seen the threat actually carried out.  And so promptly, too!  No second warning.  No “this is is last time I'm going to tell you.”

Alas, Dad didn't leave.  He had just gone to fetch a highchair, as well as his wife, who apparently had been parking the SUV.

When the family reconvened at the table, the mother tried to insert the middle boy into the highchair.  Predictably, he resisted.  “No!  Don't want to!”

You see, that's the problem with kids today.  We try to make them happy by catering to their every whim.  “What do you want to drink?  Do you want orange juice?  Apple juice?  How about some chocolate milk?”  The kids begin to feel entitled to have their desires always accommodated.

Why give them a choice?  Can you always get what you want?  You can't always get what you want.

Just tell them, “We're serving orange juice, and that's it, whether you like it or not.  If you don't like it, you can just go thirsty.  What's that?  You don't want orange juice?  You don't want to sit in a highchair?  WHO CARES?  Listen, kid, we're in charge of this family, not you.”

End of rant from childless old codger.

AUG. 14, 2019    FIFTY YEARS AGO

I didn't go to Woodstock in August of 1969, but a few members of my college class did make it there.  Can you find them in the crowd?

My latest article quotes Robert Krulwich's recollections about An Hour at Bethel.


AUG. 15, 2009 flashback   CANDLES IN THE RAIN

My apologies to Lord Bulwer-Lytton, but I've heard that it was a dark and stormy night in upstate New York on this date 40 years ago.  Rain poured down as the hour of eleven p.m. approached.

But the rain did not chase away, could not chase away, the half million people sitting in Max Yasgur’s pasture.  They had come to join in “an Aquarian exposition:  three days of peace and music” known as Woodstock.

Ravi Shankar had just finished his sitar performance.  The Incredible String Band was scheduled next, but they didn’t want to play in the rain.  In their place, a relatively unknown performer agreed to go on:  a hippie folk singer with her guitar.

Thomas Ryan wrote, “To walk onstage alone, in front of a city of people who don't know you but are paying rapt attention, can be a harrowing and humbling experience.

“She watched amazed as the hills slowly lit up with thousands upon thousands of candles.”

And the singer sang.

Beautiful people!
You live in the same world as I do,
But somehow I never noticed you before today,
I'm ashamed to say.

Beautiful people!
You look like friends of mine,
And it's about time
That someone said it here and now:
I make a vow
That some time, somehow,
I'll have a meeting.  Invite ev'ryone you know.
I'll pass out buttons to the ones who come, to show

Beautiful people
Never have to be alone,
'Cause there'll always be someone
With the same button on as you.
Include him in ev'rything you do.
He may be sitting right next to you.
He may be beautiful people too.

And if you take care of him, maybe I'll take care of you.

Birthday of the Sun

If I were to hang my head
I'd miss all the rainbows
And I'd drown in raindrops instead

But I'm the one;
I found the birthday of the sun.

And all things change.
And now I'm sure it's the birthday of the rain.

I wrote about Melanie last year; click here for that piece.  It includes a link to a song she wrote later “to capture the spirituality and magic of that moment,” according to Ryan.  “To convey a sense of the warm crowd, she envisioned hundreds of voices joining her on the chorus.”

We were so close, there was no room...
We all sang the songs of peace.
Some came to sing, some came to pray, 
Some came to keep the dark away.

From the movie Taking Woodstock, opening this month

So raise your candles high, 
'Cause if you don't
we could stay black
against the night. 

Oh, raise them higher again, 
'Cause if you do
we could stay dry
against the rain!

[I wrote about Melanie again in 2015.  Click here.]



Fifty years ago on this date, many of my generation abandoned the big cities and camped out for a weekend listening to the music of the cowbells (and guitars) on Max Yasgur's farm.

I wasn't there, but I've heard it was far out!  It was organic, man!

That led me to write an organic article called Carbonstock.  It's actually more about etymology and chemistry.



Eighty years ago tonight, the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, hosted one of the out-of-town premieres of the soon-to-be-classic motion picture The Wizard of Oz.

The movie eventually made it to television in November 1956, the same month that my family finally got a TV set.  That's how most of us have seen it.

My favorite part?  The protagonists are confronted by a disembodied giant face.  Surrounded by bursts of fire, the face loudly proclaims, “I am Oz, the great and powerful!”  They cower.

But later in the movie, Toto realizes the face is just an image on a TV screen.  The little dog pulls back a drape to reveal the perpetrator of the deception.

Actor Frank Morgan is speaking into a microphone while pulling levers to activate the other special effects.  Morgan desperately makes the giant face command, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

I naturally was reminded of the scene in the Bible in which Moses is just walking along when something strange happens.  Out of bursts of fire, he hears the voice, “I am the God of thy father!”

Moses turns aside to get a closer look.  The voice desperately warns him to stay back.  “Draw not nigh hither!  Put off thy shoes from off thy feet!”

It was nearly ten years ago that I peered behind the burning bush to demystify this ancient story.  It's this month's 100 Moons article. 


AUG. 11, 2009 flashback   ONCE SAVED, ALWAYS SAVED

Do dogs go to heaven?

In a story I wrote a couple of years ago, a little girl decides they do.  But there’s no real answer.  We might as well inquire into the pay scale for elves at Santa’s workshop, or ask about next year’s enrollment at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Like heaven, the workshop and Hogwarts are fictional places.  Therefore, no details that we dream up about them can be proven wrong.

Do born-again mass murderers go to heaven?

This has been a problem for Christianity ever since the very beginning.  The Gospel proclaims that if we are born again, our sins are forgiven.  “Now,” asks Paul in chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans (J.B. Phillips translation), “what is our response to be?  Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God?  What a ghastly thought!  We, who have died to sin — how could we live in sin a moment longer?”  Nevertheless, it’s tempting to consider God’s promise of forgiveness to be a blank check.

A week ago tonight, George Sodini shot up an exercise class in suburban Pittsburgh, killing three women before taking his own life.  He had been told that Jesus would forgive any and all of his sins.

Found among his writings was a grievance against the non-denominational Tetelestai Church and its pastor, Rick Knapp.  “Guilt and fear kept me there 13 long years until Nov 2006.  I think his crap did the most damage.  ...  This guy teaches (and convinced me) you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.  Ask him.”

A reporter did ask Rev. Knapp.  “That's not anything I have ever said.  ... The message of the word I preach never reflected such a thing.”  (link)

But members of his church weren’t so sure.  Senior deacon Chuck Matone said of Sodini, “Is he in heaven?  Only God and he know.”

Another deacon, Jack Rickard, suggested that Sodini is in fact on his way to glory land, but he won’t enjoy it there.  Apparently God is grudgingly keeping His earlier promise to let Sodini pass through the pearly gates, but there’s no way He’s issuing him a harp.  Rickard said that according to the Bible, “professing a faith in Jesus as savior means you will have complete eternal salvation.  ... We believe in permanent security — once saved, always saved.  ... He'll be in heaven, but he won't have any rewards because he did evil.”

This is a new concept to me, a restricted associate membership in paradise.  Because heaven is imaginary, I suppose we can imagine whatever rules we want.


AUG. 8, 2014   SEARCH ME

Years ago, when I needed to do some research as an Oberlin College student, I walked over the repository of all knowledge on the campus:  Carnegie Library.  There, working back and forth between the card catalogs and the “stacks,” I eventually identified two or three books that contained some information on my subject.  I carried them to a desk and turned the pages.  When I found something I could use, I transcribed it in my notebook.  Eventually these notes became the foundation of my little report.

But now there’s an easily available repository of all knowledge in the world:  the Internet.  And it’s searchable by keyword!  There’s no need to travel to a big library, no need to locate books using a card catalog, and no need to turn their pages.  I can’t get over how much easier this is.

This week, I was preparing an article that will appear on this website Monday.  A small part of it concerns an obscure 19th-century preacher named John Ingersoll.  He couldn’t hold a job.  None of his congregations liked him.  However, I discovered, he was associated with a more famous revivalist named Charles Finney.  And Finney later became the second president of my alma mater, Oberlin College.  I'd discovered a connection with personal relevance!

Consulting the Internet, I opened a lengthy biography of Finney and asked my browser to find all the appearances of the word Ingersoll.  And it did.  Besides confirming his incompetence, the bio mentioned that in 1840 Ingersoll actually lived in Oberlin.  Nothing was said of his activities there — he didn't seem to have a pastorate — but if he was in town, it seemed likely that at some point his friend Finney must have invited him to speak.

So I turned to the Internet again and searched for “John Ingersoll” and “Oberlin.”  As it turns out, Google Books has helpfully indexed a volume buried in the periodicals collection of the University of Minnesota.  The book consists of reprints of a semi-monthly newspaper The Oberlin Evangelist, beginning with the first issue on November 1, 1838.  Google highlighted my search terms.  Oberlin was highlighted on every page, but where was Ingersoll?  Did I have to examine the 224 pages of fine print?  No, I merely refined the search and found he was mentioned exactly once, on page 158.

September 23, 1840:  “ORDINATION.  At an adjourned meeting of the Lorain Association, held at this place on Thursday last, Mr. ROBERT COCHRAN was ordained to the work of the Gospel Ministry.  Sermon by Rev. John Ingersoll, from Jn. 15:6:  ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  Reading the Confession of Faith, by Pres. Mahan.  Ordaining prayer and charge by Prof. Finney.  Right hand of fellowship by Rev. Ira Smith.  At the same time and place, and by the same body, Messrs. E.H. and J.H. Fairchild, members of the Senior Theological Class, were licensed to preach the gospel.”

Quickly checking my 1840 calendar (via an Internet application, of course), I determined that “Thursday last” would have been September 17.  So now I had the exact date of a sermon that Ingersoll preached at Oberlin — in Finney’s presence— as well as the text he used.

It would have been very difficult for me to unearth this nugget of history as a college undergraduate.  We had no Internet access in the library in those days.  We had only one computer, in a basement across the street.  Now I have a home computer, and I can use it to do the research in a few minutes!  I find this marvelous.


AUG. 6, 2009 flashback   TWO SHORT DEBATES

“I cannot believe the earth is billions of years old.”

“Is there anything I could say to change your mind?”

“Impossible.  My faith is firm.”

“You’re locked into your opinions, are you?  I have these scientific studies....”

“I refuse to read them.  They’re the work of the devil.”

“Then further discussion would be a waste of time.  You’ve reached your conclusions without bothering to consider the facts.  You’re prejudiced, you’re unyielding, and your mind is closed.  Goodbye.”

GOP diehards retreat toward Jackson Hole for last stand

“I cannot believe President Obama was born in this country.”

“But there were birth announcements in two newspapers in Hawaii.  And here’s his Certification of Live Birth.”

“That document could be faked.  I demand to see the original Certificate from the hospital.”

“And if you saw the original, you would be satisfied?”

“No, I wouldn’t.  The so-called original could also be a forgery.”

“So no evidence would convince you that Obama is an American?”

“I don’t really want evidence.  I already know the truth.  Obama is an illegitimate president.  He’s not like me.  I want my country back!  I want my country run by white conservatives, as it was in the beginning, should be now, and ever shall be!  World soon will end, amen, amen.”

“Then further discussion would be a waste of time.  You’re prejudiced, you’re unyielding, and your mind is closed.  You’ve earned the right to be ignored.  Goodbye.”



Not that long ago, a politician would firmly grasp a portion of a stranger's anatomy and give it a meaningful squeeze.  And if there was a young girl present, the politician would plant an enthusiastic kiss on the pretty one without even getting her permission, often leaving her in tears.

But now people have started to object to the touchy-feely campaign technique known as “shaking hands and kissing babies.”  (Doing it the other way around has always been objectionable.)


AUG. 2, 2019    NOTHIN' TO LOSE

A Janis Joplin album is being covered this weekend by Jill Simmons and others from the Pittsburgh band theCAUSE.

Included is Kris Kristofferson's classic song “Me and Bobby McGee.”  I finally understand the refrain by first considering both verses.

I loved traveling with Bobby, until one day up near Salinas he went a different direction.  I'd trade all of my tomorrows for a single yesterday.

So, um, do you have a partner now?

No.  Since I lost Bobby, I have nothing.

So I guess you're free.

Free?!  Then the refrain:  Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.