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ArchiveSEPTEMBER 2019


SEPT. 30, 2009 flashback   THE SECRET OF UNHAPPINESS

“I know very few people,” says Betsy Stevenson, “who would tell me they wish they hadn’t had kids.”  In other words, they wouldn't admit that they regret being parents.  However, that’s at odds with her Wharton School study called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”  She was quoted in Maureen Dowd’s column earlier this month.  And what were her findings?

“The one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.”

The conclusion applies universally.  “It’s true whether you’re wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early,” Professor Stevenson says.

Update from news reports, August 2015:

“Having a child can have a pretty strong negative impact on a person's happiness, according to a new study published in the journal Demography. In fact, on average, the effect of a new baby on a person's life is devastatingly bad — worse than divorce, worse than unemployment, and worse even than the death of a partner.”  [I suppose that’s because you can recover from those other disasters by finding a new partner or a new job; but once you've taken on the responsibility of raising a child, there’s no escape.]  “Researchers Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskylä, examining how the experience of becoming a first-child parent affects the likelihood of having additional children, found that 73 percent of participants expressed decreased happiness after their first child, compared to 27 percent who reported no change or an increase in happiness.”

Update from Jane Johnson, August 2019:

“Children are often one great source of happiness.  But there's the daily grind, less energy and sleep, the strain on finances and marriage, the increased level of worry, guilt, frustration, stress....  The time consumed by parenting leaves few opportunities to experience many other sources of joy, so your net happiness can be less.”



In a new article, I imagine astronomers staying up until midnight on this date 38 centuries ago to watch the culmination of the Pleiades.  Then they would blow their noisemakers to signal Happy New Year 1800 BC!

(By the way, L'shanah tovah to our Jewish friends.)



Eric Allie re millennials leaving Illinois

You may have heard about this.

Compared to 50 years ago when I was in grad school, there are now 29% fewer birds in North America!  That's according to a study published last week and described in this article.

Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania headquartered near me, told the Tribune-Review that he is, sadly, not surprised.

How did our continent lose three billion birds?  Among other possible causes, we've eliminated habitats, particularly grasslands.  We've also increased our use of pesticides, thereby reducing the number of insects.

I remember when I was a boy chasing the fireflies (“lightning bugs”) in the back yard.  Now I usually see only one solitary firefly each summer.

I remember when robins warbled to greet the dawn, and blackbirds strutted across the lawn, and sparrows chattered in the shrubbery.  Not lately, however.  It's been weeks since I've encountered a robin.  I did see a mourning dove last Wednesday.

Shane Dunlap, Tribune-Review

I'm told that when robins arrive in the spring, they sing to claim their breeding territories, but then in the summer they seem to disappear from our yards because they're foraging in the woods.  Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that the local birds must have migrated back to Canada because of the warming climate.

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 14, 2019:  Earl Pomerantz agrees that the blackbirds have gone bye-bye.  “On our last trip to Michiana [in July], unlike in years past, we saw no cardinals, no scrub jays, and heard no woodpeckers tapping on nearby trees or, less idyllically, the vulnerable exterior of our log cabin.  I don’t know.  Maybe, like us, they were just on vacation.”

Scripture predicted this would happen.  The Old Testament warns of a coming day when the grasshopper can only drag itself along, a day “when the street doors are shut, when the sound of the mill fades, when the chirping of the sparrow grows faint and the songbirds fall silent.”  (Ecclesiastes 12:4, Revised English Bible)|



When the Oberlin College Class of 2019 graduated in May, my old classmates also got together on campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Commencement.

Ten months earlier I had been assigned to administer a website so that our reunion would have a presence on the Internet.  The template came from a company called Class Creator, and the home page looked like this.

The site provided a place for messages like “Remember me?  I'm a retired physician now.  I'm looking forward to seeing you at the reunion!”  Classmates contributed pictures and other content.  There was a copy of our yearbook, plus memorabilia from our student years and historical tidbits from the century that preceded us.

I did my best to drum up enthusiasm for the planned events, including an optional day beforehand in nearby Cleveland.



A Conservatory alumnus invited folks to join a chorus that would sing Brahms on Saturday in the concert hall.

An hour-by-hour schedule promoted the available activities for our class, plus other Commencement Weekend events.



Logistical matters like registration, ground transportation, and housing were explained on a page for FAQs.  Who was planning to attend, and which activities?  There were surveys.  I even included a weather forecast.

I received many compliments on the website.  Several class leaders credited my work for our fine turnout.  Of 554 living classmates, 250 joined the site and 167 came to the reunion.  Thirty percent attendance isn't bad, considering that we're all now at least 70 years old.  Over the last half century, we've been scattered across the country, even across the world. 

Of course, lots of pictures were taken at the reunion plus several hours of video, so the website now has a Scrapbook section.

During the Saturday-night soirée (a buffet in the reading room of the old library), I stood in a back corner to take the wide view above.


Class president Wayne Alpern thanked the many who had made the event possible, and at the end he made a special point of thanking me.  The class stood up, turned to my corner, and gave me a standing ovation!  I was touched.

In my life, I've received one other standing ovation from my classmates — 54 years earlier, at an awards assembly during my senior year at Richwood High School.

Why did the Tigers feel I deserved applause?  See this month's 100 Moons article. 



Every few days, I like to leave the suburbs behind and drive out into the countryside for a relaxing cruise among the trees and fields.  I did so yesterday.

Google Earth

This is Route 85 about five miles west of Rural Valley, PA, a two-lane road where the speed limit is 45 mph.  As usual, there's not much traffic, but as usual, several cars seem to be traveling as a group.  Yeah, we got a little convoy; ain't she a beautiful sight?  But why?

Suppose I'm in the red car leading the pack through the winding curves, uphill and down.  I don't want to exceed the speed limit, but I don't want to drop below it either, so I've set my cruise control for 45 mph.  Other drivers who would prefer to go faster have bunched up behind me.  I keep an eye on them in my rear-view mirror.  They can't pass me, because the double yellow line continues for miles.  I've forced them to become law-abiding citizens.  Mmmwwwhahaha!  (Evil laugh.)


SEPT. 19, 2019    YOKAY?

The most common single line of dialogue in scripts seems to be the question “Are you okay?”  I hear it in every movie and TV program.  In the final season of The Big Bang Theory, I counted four times in Episode 14 when someone asked Leonard whether he was all right.  Usually it was because he had sneezed rather violently.  Allergies. 

Every show, whether comedy or drama, has at least one moment in which a character suffers an emotional or physical misfortune.  (If there were no problems, there would be no story.)  Another character sees the first character groaning in anguish and solicitously asks, “Are you okay?”

Update, March 6, 2020

Today's blog by comedy writer Ken Levine responded to Terry Harvey's inquiry:  "Practically every show I watch has a moment where one character asks another, 'Are you OK?'  Is there any way around this writing device that is used so often?  Or is it simply a necessary means for quickly advancing the story by greenlighting a character to have their moment and letting the emotions flow?"

Ken replied, "Truthfully, I’ve never thought about it, nor has it bothered me.  In real life, if you see someone hit with some shattering news and wrestling with how to deal with it, 'Are you okay?' seems an appropriate question.  You need to hear how wrecked they are before you can deal with them properly."

Despite the frequent appearance of that line in scripts, I don't remember hearing it often in real life.  Well, there was one time, if high school can be considered real life.

Richwood High School had no cafeteria.  My guess is that when the building was being designed in the late 1930s, someone pointed out that it didn't really need a cafeteria because there already was a kitchen and dining hall in the nearby elementary school and an additional half-hour could be scheduled.

Therefore, if we high school students wanted to eat lunch, at the start of fifth period we'd traipse a couple hundred yards through the rain or snow to the grade school (X).  Entering that building, we'd clatter down the stairs to the lower level, where the floor would be wet from what we were tracking in.

One day my feet slipped out from under me and I fell into a sitting position.  As I got up, someone asked me if I were all right.

I answered no.  I explained that the shock to my spinal column had momentarily stunned me and I was still seeing stars.  I was not quite all right.  The honest response to “Are you okay?” would almost always be “No, obviously I am not.”

But I suppose “Are you okay?” is preferable to the longer alternative:  “I have observed that you appear to be in some distress, and I wish to offer my sympathy and to inquire whether I can be of any assistance to your hopefully quick recovery, okay?”

It's also preferable to simply ignoring someone's suffering.  An Australian suicide-prevention organisation is called R U OK?


SEPT. 16, 2009 flashback   IS YOUR MIDDLE NAME JEROME?

I was just reviewing tomorrow night’s starting lineups for the Latrobe High School Wildcats.  According to the official roster, the defense includes nose guard Thomas Dovie and strong safety Donato Lonigro.  However, they’re better known as “T.J.” Dovie and “D.J.” Lonigro.

Many young men these days call themselves “something J.”  Can we assume J is their middle initial?  Does J stand for Joseph or Jefferson?  No, more likely J stands for Junior.

A couple of years ago, T.J. Beam pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  His formal name was Theodore Lester Beam, Jr., so he should have gone by T.L. instead of T.J.  But I suppose his father was known as Ted, so people called the new little boy Ted Junior.  That soon became T.J., and that stuck.

Among Juniors, this is still a fairly limited phenomenon.  Otherwise, we'd have celebrities like K.J. Griffey the baseball slugger, V.J. McMahon the wrestling entrepreneur, and D.J. Fairbanks and L.J. Chaney the late movie stars.  Famous racecar drivers would include D.J. Earnhardt, A.J. Unser, and A.J.J. Foyt.  In the Seventies, our President would have been J.J. Carter.  President J.J.?  That would have been dyno-MITE!



On this date 108 years ago, what was happening in western Kentucky?

Bill Monroe was born on September 13, 1911, on a farm near Rosine.  He learned to play the mandolin, and he went on to become the Father of Bluegrass.

Meanwhile, 22 miles away in the town of Livermore, Vernon Thomas was already a two-year-old.  He never played an instrument, but he did grow up to become the father of me.

Another town, just three miles from Livermore, has a puzzling name.  Now I can reveal its source.  My article is titled Marooned in the Bluegrass, and it's mostly about old bridges.


SEPT. 11, 2009 flashback   THAT'S NOT HOW IT WORKS

Many car keys come attached to a fob containing a little radio transmitter.  At the press of a button, you can remotely unlock your car’s doors.

Some people have gotten the idea that these devices work better if you hold them up to your chin.  They even have video evidence.  Allegedly, “the oral cavity in your skull amplifies the signal.”

That’s bogus.  Where would the electricity come from to operate this alleged amplifier?

The best you could hope for is an unpowered passive reflector.  Maybe the radio waves are reflected toward your car by the “oral cavity in your skull,” otherwise known as your mouth.

Shut your mouth.  Radio waves don’t behave like that.  They don't bounce off your body; they are absorbed by it.  They don’t reflect off anything inside your mouth (except your dental fillings, which only scatter them in random directions).  Instead, they soak into your head, as we've learned from the alarmist warnings about cell phone radiation.

Yet some people insist that their fobs work better at chin level.  Could this be?  If so, is there a non-bogus explanation?

To automobile stylists, the “beltline” is the base of the windows.  Above the beltline is the “greenhouse” — mostly glass, through which radio waves easily pass.  Below the beltline are fenders and door panels — mostly steel, which radio waves don’t penetrate.

Typically the signals from your key fob are received by an antenna (shown here as a blue asterisk) at the top of the dashboard, essentially on the beltline.

If you hold the fob up high, as this man is doing with his right hand, the radio waves can avoid nearby parked cars and other obstacles, pass through the greenhouse, and reach the receiving antenna.

But if you hold the fob at your beltline, as the man is doing with his left hand, you’re holding it below the car’s beltline.  The radio waves don’t have a direct path to the receiver.  (Nevertheless, they’ll probably get there by a roundabout path if you’re not too far away.  Maybe they’ll first reflect off the underside of the car’s roof and then bounce around the interior for awhile.)

Take it from a physics major:  your mouth can redirect sound waves, but not radio waves.  Unless you're an android, of course.


SEPT. 7, 2019    HEAR, HEAR!

I'm watching a PBS documentary about Bakersfield country music (Merle Haggard, Buck Owens).  The backstory:  Okies packed up their cars to flee the Dust Bowl for California.

I hear a snippet of an old-timey song, “I have a little car and it's a Chevrolet.  It is better than a Dodge or a Ford coupé.”

I perk up.  In those days, my father sold Chevrolets!  He worked at a garage within a day's drive of Nashville.

I do some research, locate the song, and add a link on this page.  It's not about an old flivver; it's about a Chevver!



“You claim that people evolved from apes, millions of years ago,” says the creationist.  “But if the monkeys turned into humans, why are there still monkeys?  Huh?  Answer that one.  You don’t have an answer, do you?”

“No, I have another question.  If our family is descended from Scottish people who emigrated from Scotland to the New World two centuries ago, why are there still Scotsmen today?  Huh?  You see, some Scots became Americans, but not all of them.

“Some apes developed into humans, but not all of them.  Look up 'cladogenesis' in your biology textbook.  It's simple.”

Speaking of genesis, there’s a young-earth creationist group called “Answers in Genesis” that denies the facts of evolution.  They operate the Creation Museum in Kentucky and are trying to finance a replica of Noah’s Ark nearby.  AIG demands that all employees abide by their statement of faith, which among other things requires that employees believe:

The only legitimate marriage sanctioned by God is the joining of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union, as delineated in Scripture.  God intends sexual intimacy to only occur between a man and a woman who are married to each other, and has commanded that no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.

Clearly, not only have the people at “Answers in Genesis” not read their biology textbook.  The people at “Answers in Genesis” have not even read Genesis!  At least they haven’t read it beyond the story of Noah’s flood.

Scripture clearly does not delineate God’s insistence on a single, exclusive union.

•  Abram, later known as Abraham, was God’s choice to become the father of His chosen people.  But his wife Sarai was infertile, so he took her slave girl Hagar as an additional wife (Genesis 16:3).

•  Later, Abraham’s nephew Lot impregnated both of his own daughters (Genesis 19:36).  In his defense, he was drunk.  Both times.

•  Abraham’s grandsons Esau and Jacob each married multiple wives.  First, Esau wed two Hittite women (Genesis 26:34).  His mother didn’t get along with them and said, “If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like those who live here, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:46).  So she sent her other son off to marry his cousin (Genesis 28:2).  Thereupon Esau took the hint and also married one of his cousins, Mahalath, who became his third wife (Genesis 28:9).

•  Jacob duly wed his mother’s niece Leah, but she wasn’t the pretty one, so he also married her sister Rachel (Genesis 29).  He eventually fathered twelve patriarchs:  six by his wife Leah, two by his wife Rachel, two by Leah’s slave girl, and two by Rachel’s slave girl (Genesis 35:23-26).

God did not condemn any of this.  He accepted these arrangements, and the men who made them were revered.

Therefore, “Answers in Genesis,” has God commanded his people to restrict their sexual activity according to the standards of 18th-century America?  The way you’d prefer?

No, he has not.  The answers are in Genesis.



An inverted pyramid is an eye-catching building.  But the term means something else in journalism. 

Reporters are taught to write stories in “inverted pyramid” form, so the reader first encounters the key facts.  Then he learns other details, and finally, if he's curious enough to read that far, the background.

However, if the tale of an athletic contest is written in this manner, I get confused.  I want to be led through the game step by step.  How did it begin, then what happened, then how did it finish?  That's hard to reconstruct if the story starts at the end.

Last week in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost 6-5 at Philadelphia in 11 innings.  Let's analyze the game story from the next morning's online edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It consists (after a two-paragraph introduction) of 16 disordered paragraphs which I've graphed as a descending progression of  blue dots.  The first paragraph tells how the winning run scored in the 11th inning; I'll allow that.

However, the next one flashes back to reveal that the Pirates held a 4-2 lead in the 8th inning.  But apparently the score became tied later, because the next paragraph jumps forward to compliment the relief pitcher who kept it tied into extra innings.  The following paragraph explains that a different reliever entered in the 11th and gave up the winning homer.

Then the story flashes back to the 8th again.  It spends four paragraphs explaining how the Pirates lost that 4-2 lead, followed by a paragraph for the top of the 9th when they scored another run to tie.  Next we flash back further to the 7th inning for a couple of paragraphs about how the Pirates achieved that 4-2 lead.

Then the story flashes back-back-back all the way to the starting pitcher.  From there it moves forward to the 4th when he lost his shutout, then to the 5th when the Pirates cut the deficit to one run.

Now we've accounted for all the scoring, so there, in the middle of the game, the story ends!  Wouldn't it be better to tell the tale in chronological order, as indicated by the gold line?  Ah, what do I know?