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ArchiveMARCH 2020


“My deepest impulses are optimistic,” wrote Ellen Willis; “an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.”

In my new article about The Future, I explained why I'm sadly unable to be optimistic about what the world will become after I'm gone.


When a radio station broadcasts nothing but silence, that's called “dead air.”

In 1970, a Chicago station began broadcasting “clean air” — in other words, no more of that crazy rock & roll with its suggestive lyrics.  WEXI-FM had decided to aim instead for a grown-up audience, 24 to 50 years old. 

A friend was working at the station around that time, which has led me to recall the brief period when clean air was Spreading over Chicagoland


MARCH 24, 2020    S.U. SESQUI

The Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation has pledged $75 million to Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  That's the largest gift in the University's history.

Donald E. Newhouse '51 made the announcement in January at the Newhouse School on the Syracuse campus.

Today, there's another big occasion in upstate New York:  S.U.'s 150th birthday!  Of course, the campus is looking rather empty at present.

University Vice President Matt Ter Molen writes, “As you have likely heard, Syracuse University made the difficult decision to transition students to online learning for the remainder of the spring semester.  I won't sugarcoat this: it is heartbreaking.  As alumni know best, memories made on campus and abroad are irreplaceable — and we feel for every member of our student body.”

Because of the pandemic, half a dozen scheduled celebrations have been postponed.  And something else is missing:  the 40-year-old air-supported roof on the Carrier Dome has been removed, to be replaced by a new roof supported by an external “crown truss” (depicted below).

I was on campus for the 100th birthday in 1970, although I don't recall any particular celebrations then either.  Checking my archives for that Tuesday, the only entry noted that my landlady was out of town, visiting her son in Florida.

At the time I was a graduate student in radio and television at the aforementioned Newhouse School.  Some of the letters I wrote are in this month's 100 Moons article.



MARCH 20, 2020    WEEKCLOX

Since I began working in TV mobile units parked outside stadiums and arenas, I haven't toiled in a traditional Monday-through-Friday office for decades.  As I gradually retire, I find myself working fewer and fewer days; and because all the sports events have recently been postponed or canceled, I currently have no work days at all.  It's hard to keep track of where I am in the midst of an unscheduled week.

Therefore, I've made a 168-hour clock and put it on my refrigerator.

Each of the seven days is divided into four segments — dark night, bright morning, bright afternoon, dark evening — of six hours each.  The hand is pointing to 7:30 Friday morning, approximately.

However, my “clock” doesn't run automatically.  It's paper, with a hand that's actually a magnet that I move manually when I get around to it.

If I wanted to purchase an actual motor-driven device, there are several online from the British firm DayClox.  In each case, the single hand makes one revolution per week (1 RPW).  However, none of these examples follow my color code, nor my idea of locating Over-the-Hump Day at the top of the dial.

Such devices can be made more useful by the addition of a minute hand (168 RPW), like the example on the left from Small Big Design Ltd.  But one has to squint to read the day and hour using the larger dial, which has 14 times as many hourly tick marks as a standard clock.  This one reads 12:38 pm Tuesday, reminding workers that even though it's lunchtime on the second day, almost a quarter of the week is already gone.  “By thinking long term and visualizing your week, you will focus relentlessly on your prioritized goal.”

A much easier-to-read clock employs a traditional look but adds a red hand running at 1 RPW.  The one on the right indicates 4:44 pm Sunday.

Of course, DayClox makes several digital models with no hands at all.  They say these are “supported by Alzheimer's and Dementia communities throughout the world.”  I'm not demented yet, but I do find it helpful to be reminded what day it is.


On this morning 50 years ago, I began a letter with the dateline “Tuesday, March 17, 1970, 9:30 am.”  Then I continued by asking:

“Why does St. Patrick's Day always come on a Tuesday?  It doesn't really, of course, but somehow when I write Tuesday, March 17, I feel that no other day would fit in there.  Saturday, March 17, is impossible.

“I suppose that sometime in my childhood a particularly memorable March 17 happened to come on a Tuesday, so I still associate the two.  Or something like that.

Other days have associations, too.  Groundhog Day always is a Thursday, Valentine's Day a Friday, Columbus Day a Wednesday, and the Fourth of July a Saturday.  And, of course, Easter usually comes on a Sunday.”

This rule mostly holds true half a century later, though the groundhog did break the tradition last month and so will Columbus in October.



Amazing soap!
     how sweet the smell,
That keeps our hands germ-free!

Please wash your hands,
     and dry them, too,
That we might healthy be.

— Pastor Ben Williams in the empty sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church at Chapel Hill, NC, leading a service via YouTube and Facebook Live, as quoted in the New York Times.

It takes about 20 seconds to sing “Amazing Soap,” which happens to be the recommended minimum hand-washing time.


MARCH 14, 2010 flashback   ONE MOMENT IN TIME

Driving home yesterday from the Patriot League championship game, where Lehigh defeated Lafayette for the right to advance to the NCAA tournament and be trounced by top-seeded Kansas this coming Thursday, I stopped at a huge Cabela’s store north of Reading, PA.  I am definitely not an outdoorsman, but I was curious about what was inside.

The photo at the right, and the next one, come from this web page.

Besides the expected vast assortment of hunting and fishing gear for sale, Cabela’s offers other attractions for the tourist, including an aquarium and several taxidermic displays.

In one side room are realistic dioramas filled with dozens of stuffed whitetail deer.  Each is labeled.  Many of the labels name the hunter who shot the deer.  At least one label names the person who “collected” the deer, which I presume means that he picked the road kill up off the highway.

Other displays feature stuffed moose, mountain goats, Arctic foxes, and other animals in natural-looking settings.  

There’s also an African section.  At the entrance are several animals posed in a freeze frame of an exciting action sequence:  a wide-eyed group of greater kudu fleeing toward us, trying to escape a lion attack.  Like running backs making their cuts, the athletic lions are closing in for the kill.

The panicked antelope are almost close enough to touch.  That’s a step up from zoos, where we stare from a distance at bored animals standing around.  Of course, at least the zoo animals are still alive.

Shouldn’t sports halls of fame also depict their athletes in frozen three-dimensional “shining moments”?  Of course, it wouldn’t do for taxidermists to stuff the athletes, but statues could be posed to bring the action within reach.  I’ve faked a photo of such a display.

I haven’t been to a sports museum lately.  Do they already do this sort of thing?  If not, why not?


From Wisconsin, Ray Barrington informs me that it is in fact being done.  At the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in Lambeau Field, visitors can relive the freeze frame just before the final snap of the famous 1967 “Ice Bowl” NFL championship game.

And how could I have forgotten Franco Harris, who made the “Immaculate Reception” for the Steelers five years later?  That moment is also available for inspection, though not in a sports museum.  It’s next to the escalators at Pittsburgh International Airport.

(Photos posted by others
 on the Internet)

MARCH 11, 2010 flashback   BRIGHT IDEAS

By some, the concept of daylight saving time has been traced back to a method to save on the expense of candles, proposed in a letter written by Benjamin Franklin.  This letter, as a matter of fact.  But it turns out that old Ben wasn’t completely serious.

In a satirical essay worthy of Dave Barry, Franklin pretends to stumble accidentally on the discovery that daylight begins as early as 6:00 AM.  In the summer, it begins even earlier.  The people of Paris don’t realize this, he says, because they stay up most of the night burning the midnight oil.  Then they go to bed and don’t rise to greet the sun until noon.

By ignoring Franklin’s motto, “early to bed, early to rise,” Parisians are losing money.  If they were to replace costly artificial light with free natural sunlight, he calculates they could save 96,075,000 livres in just half a year.

To this end, he has several suggestions.  However, they don’t include “daylight time.”  He does not propose resetting the clocks so that “noon” occurs at sunrise.

Instead, to encourage people to go to bed earlier, Franklin recommends rationing candle wax.  To discourage the use of window shutters that block out the morning sun, he recommends taxing the shutters.  Sleepyheads would be roused at dawn with church bells and cannon fire.

Sadly, the sleepyheads did not come around, and morning sunlight continued to go to waste for more than a hundred years.  Reportedly, it was not until 1907 that setting the clocks ahead in the spring was first seriously advocated by William Willett.  That expedient is now the law.

When I was in charge of local origination channels on cable TV systems, we didn’t present programs 24 hours a day.  Most of the time, TV-3 merely displayed automated screens of time, weather, and text ads, as in these examples.

Some subscribers must have actually referred to these screens.  On two particular Sundays during the year, a few people would call our office and leave messages like this:  “Hey, you idiots, your clock is wrong!”  Of course, those Sundays were the ones when daylight time began or ended at 2:00 AM.  Because no one was in our office then, no one had yet reset the clock.

It didn’t seem cost-effective to pay someone to come in on Sunday morning for this trivial task.  Finally, I hit upon a solution.

I adopted a policy of changing the clock in advance, on Saturday afternoon.  I put a notice on the crawl at the bottom of the screen:  THE TIME ABOVE IS EASTERN DAYLIGHT TIME, EFFECTIVE AT 2:00 AM SUNDAY.

This seemed to work.  For the rest of Saturday, the incorrect clock reminded people of the impending time change.  Then on Sunday, the correct clock eliminated the complaints.



In 1969-70, my friend Jennifer Wagner was still an undergraduate at Oberlin College, but I was now a graduate student at Syracuse University.  Jenny & Me: JW @OC, TT @SU is the second monthly chapter of highlights from our correspondence.

So were we each poring over our books long into the night?  Were we burning the proverbial midnight oil?  Not really.

In the first chapter, upon returning to my summer job I complained that I was not used to working eight hours a day.  “My college schedule was actually much lighter in terms of time if not in terms of brainpower required.”  One survey suggests that young people in our situation spend less than two hours a day actually studying.  

Students' real purpose is learning about life!



English computer pioneer Charles Babbage, who described his first “difference engine” in 1822, knew all about The Telephone Game — long before the telephone was invented!

Of course, he didn't know it by that title.  The game, sometimes called Broken Telephone or Chinese Whispers, illustrates the inaccuracies of gossip, rumors, and oral traditions as they're passed from one person to another to another.  Babbage describes it in Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, a book he published a dozen years before the actual invention of the communications gadget by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell.

In Chapter XXX, Babbage examines possible ways by which man can “arrive at the knowledge of the existence of a Deity:”  observation of nature, metaphysical proofs, and revelation.  He discusses “the highest external evidence man can have — the declaration of inspiration by the prophet, supported by an admitted miracle performed before competent witnesses to prove the truth of his inspiration.”

But to all who were not present, the evidence of this is entirely dependent on the truth and even upon the accuracy of human testimony.

At every step of its transmission it undergoes some variation in the words in which it is related; and without the least want of good faith at any stage, the mere imperfection of language will necessarily vary the terms by which it is described.  Even when written language has conveyed it to paper as a MSS., there may be several different manuscripts by different persons [as well as doubt] arising from the continually fluctuating meaning of the words themselves.

There is a game occasionally played in society which eminently illustrates the value of testimony transmitted with the most perfect good faith through a succession of truthful persons. It is called Russian Scandal, and is thus played:–

One of the party writes a short simple tale, perhaps a single anecdote.  The original composer of the tale, whom we will call A, retires into another room with B, to whom he communicates it.  A then returns to the party, and sends in C, who is told by B the tale he had just learnt.  B then returns to the party and sends in D, who is informed of the anecdote by C, and so on until the story has been transmitted through twelve educated and truthful witnesses.

The twelfth then relates to the whole party the story he has just heard: after that the original written document is read.  The wit or fun of the transmitted story is invariably gone, and nothing but an unmeaning platitude generally remains.

One very interesting case occurred a few years ago in which the wit of the original story had evidently been lost, but had afterwards been revived in a different form in the latter part of its transmission.

It requires considerable training to become an accurate witness of facts.  No two persons, however well trained, ever express, in the same form of words, the series of facts they have both observed.



As a child musician, I once was a piano player in a non-racist minstrel show!  You can just call me Mr. Ivories.


MARCH 1, 2010 flashback   HAPPY HOLI-DAY

During World War II, 66 years ago in Calcutta, my father witnessed a Hindu spring festival called Holi.  The Indian people playfully sprayed each other with colorful powders and liquids.

He described the celebration in a letter home, to which I've added some modern photos.

In this year 2010, the full moon having appeared last night, Holi is today!

From Calcutta, my father traveled about 300 miles north and then 400 miles east to the province (now state) of Assam.  For the rest of 1944 and 1945, he would be stationed near the town of Chabua.

I’ve recently learned about his neighbor — the little girl who lived down the road.

The base was surrounded by tea plantations.  They were mostly operated by the British using local labor, as in a photo (click here) that my father brought back. 

It turns out that one of those plantation managers lived in the house on the right, pictured recently in the London Daily Mail.  His name was Frank St. John Christie, and he had a three-year-old daughter.

When the war was over, Vernon Thomas left Chabua, returned to America, and became my father.

Soon afterwards, Frank Christie’s daughter left Chabua, moved to England, and became an Academy Award-winning actress.  Her name:  Julie Christie.

And now you know The Rest Of The Story.