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ArchiveAPRIL 2023


In the 1950s, when my family was driving through rural Ohio, we'd often encounter restrictions when entering a town.  “No peddlers allowed!  No muffler cutouts!”

My parents explained that those signs were holdovers from the 1930s.  The villagers didn't want unemployed transients coming onto their porches trying to make a buck.  In those days, residents didn't shoot strangers knocking on their doors; they merely called the cops.

Also, the villagers didn't want loud motor vehicles revving their engines.  Apparently some older cars (and some modern hotrods) use “cutouts” to bypass the muffler in the exhaust system, thereby gaining a little power and efficiency.  Only out in the countryside was that legal, because an unmuffled engine makes a lot more noise.

Morral, Ohio, 23 miles from my old home, still tempers its welcome with a warning or two.

The “Green River Ordinance” makes it illegal for uninvited callers to sell items door-to-door; the city of Green River, Wyoming, enacted the first such ordinance in 1931, and Morral followed suit in 2017.

But what about the prohibition on “engine braking,” adopted six years before?  What exactly is engine braking?

When I'm driving down a steep hill, I prefer to save the wear and tear on my brakes by shifting to a lower gear.  The car's momentum, acting through the transmission, forces the engine to turn faster to keep up.  The noise level goes up as I hear the RPMs suddenly increase.  But my foot is off the accelerator, so the engine has to slow down, and that slows the car.

However, most folks in farm country will just use their normal brakes.  Morral has no hills.  What's the problem? 

Well, Morral does have a grain elevator, next to the railroad crossing, and commercial trucks loaded with corn and wheat and soybeans will stop there occasionally.  The town also boasts two large fertilizer companies.

A braking system specific to diesels, known as a Jacobs brake, can use the engine to assist the vehicle's air brakes.  The driver presses a button to shut off the fuel to certain cylinders and exhaust their compressed air, loudly.  Use of these “Jake brakes” is very loud, like this, and would annoy the Morralites.  They'd prefer the truckers to slow down more gradually by using only their standard air brakes.


APRIL 26, 2023    MOVIN' ON UP

Wilder Hall has stood on the campus of Oberlin College for 112 years.  For more than half that time, my former college radio station WOBC-FM made its home on the west end of the third floor. 

Now the building is being remodeled.  I'm told that the station has been relocated to smaller quarters on the fourth floor, unfortunately leaving behind the memories of 14 generations of students.  I tell what I've heard in WOBC Moves Upstairs.



Does ChatGPT sound like this website?  It should, at least a tiny bit.  According to Washington Post research, t2buck.com's 130,000 tokens make it the 161,865th largest domain among those that were “scraped” for Google's C4 dataset.  C4 is “a massive snapshot of the contents of 15 million websites [including more than half a million personal blogs] that have been used to instruct some high-profile English-language AIs, called large language models, including Google's T5 and Facebook's LLaMA.”


APRIL 22, 2023    BIG BLOWUP

What went wrong with the unmanned SpaceX rocket launch on April 20?

In a series of tweets yesterday, aerospace engineer Christopher David blamed a person who's been the subject of many social media comments lately, the founder/CEO/chief engineer of the company, one Elon Musk.

The failure of the SpaceX launch can be directly linked to a personal decision that Elon Musk made three years ago to not install flame diverters on the Starship launch pad.  He overruled his own engineers.  Hubris.  It's his fault.

Because of this decision, the launch pad was blasted apart and debris slammed into the engines at the bottom of the booster, damaging them and ultimately resulting in the spectacular cartwheels and explosion that we saw just moments later.”

Jeff Stirling observed:  “It's arguably true — and James Oberg wrote about this years ago — that the success of Apollo was at least in part due to the reliability of the five huge Saturn V engines, as opposed to the Soviet Union's necessity to use 15-20 separate, smaller engines that had to fire simultaneously.”

The first stage of the Starship Super Heavy has 33 separate, smaller engines — three in the middle, then a ring of 10, then an outer ring of 20 — that have to fire simultaneously.  Or at least they're supposed to.

Vanmojo” observed:  “Shortly after the vehicle cleared (what was left of) the tower, they showed the engine carriage, and it was obvious not everything fired as planned.”

A chart posted online recorded that three of the Raptor engines were not running at liftoff.  Nevertheless, with 91% power the rocket managed to clear the tower, allowing Musk to claim success.  Another Raptor failed at 41 seconds into the flight, a fifth at 1:03, and a sixth at 1:41.

“Here's where they eventually ended up,” writes Christopher David.  “Eight out of 33 engines failed, for a reliability rate of 75%.  That's super, super bad.”

With so many engines out on one side, the gimbal range was exceeded, and there was no way to prevent the rocket from veering to that side.  At 2:50, the stack decoupler failed to separate the stages. 

Following more than a minute of out-of-control tumbling, for safety reasons it was necessary for the Flight Termination System to destroy the vehicle.  Blowed it up real good.  Presumably, they'll try again next year.


APRIL 20, 2023    LOOKY HERE!

National Hockey League fans sometimes have the opportunity to pose next to their sport's famous trophy.

I'm not really a hockey fan, but I did have my own not-so-close encounter.  There were no witnesses.

I tell about it in The Cup and I.


APRIL 17, 2023    "MALICE"?  ACTUALLY?

Was Dominion Voting Systems defamed by Fox News when the latter falsely told its viewers that the 2020 Presidential election had been stolen?  A trial is beginning tomorrow morning in a Delaware courtroom.

Any plaintiff in a defamation case has to prove that the allegedly defaming statements involved facts (not mere opinion), that those “facts” were false, and that the plaintiff was harmed when those statements were delivered to others.  In addition, in this case Dominion also has to prove that Fox behaved with “actual malice” — meaning that its hosts and executives either knew the claims were false or had a reckless disregard for the truth (a high degree of doubt), but aired them anyway.

That may be the way lawyers define “actual malice,” but I don't like the word choice.  In common usage, malice implies evil intent.  Malice is a deliberate desire to harm the aggrieved party, in this case Dominion, but that was not actually Fox's objective.

Fox News reporting may have harmed Dominion's business, but Fox wasn't doing so because it hated the voting machine company.  It didn't care about Dominion.  (That's not an excuse for lying about the election, it's just an observation about motive.)

Fox News lied because it didn't want to be harmed itself.  It didn't dare disillusion its right-wing viewers with truths that they didn't want to hear, because that would have driven them away and depressed Fox's ratings and the value of its employees' stocks.  So the network told its devoted fans a sensational story which they were only too happy to believe.

ADDENDUM:  The trial never happened.  In a settlement, Fox agreed to pay $787.5 million to Dominion.  "Progressives crowed that Fox's reputation would forever be damaged by the revelation that the channel was knowingly lying to its viewers," David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic.  "Perhaps on the margins that's true, but hoping for widespread epiphany is naive.  The viewers either don't care or refuse to recognize what's going on.  The viewers hold the real power, and Fox is at their mercy.  That scares executives far more than any cadre of fancy defamation lawyers ever can — and the lengths that they might go to avoid losing their viewers should scare everyone else."



When I returned to my college dorm room after dinner and undid my tie, my roommate was sitting quietly on the bed.

That strange little unfinished tale is this month's 100 Moons article.

To read more, click this box for a classic article I posted to this website more than a hundred months ago.



At the start of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season on Fox TV, the top of the Pylon — the running order on the left side of the screen — looked something like this simulation.

The Racetracker — the horizontal bar graph — is a visualization of how many laps have been run under the green flag and under the yellow caution flag.  Lead announcer Mike Joy explained this new feature, asked us viewers how we liked it, and invited us to make our opinions known.  “You know how to reach me.”

I did like it.  We can see a summary of the overall progress of the race, which is helpful if we've zoned out during parts of the four hours of coverage.  But the green and the yellow were too similar.  I had to squint to tell the sections apart, especially on a smaller screen.  The green doesn't need to be the brilliant “color bars” tone; it could be a somewhat darker shade.

I considered tweeting Mike with that suggestion.  We've met, you know; I recall briefly conferring with him on a graphic before a telecast 33 years ago.  However, it just might be possible that he doesn't remember me.  I thought better of the idea.

However, someone else on the Fox crew noticed what I had noticed.  By the next week, the Racetracker colors had been adjusted.  Here's an actual frame grab.  Great minds think alike!

UPDATE, MARCH 11, 2024:  The Racetracker can actually come in handy.  Yesterday afternoon I left my apartment before the telecast of the Shriners Children's 500 from Phoenix Raceway, but my cable box was tuned to Fox.  It was temporarily recording the race.  When I returned, I noticed that the event was under caution.  On the right end of the Racetracker were four yellow bars, closely spaced.  What the heck had happened?  I rewound the DVR and discovered that the first bar represented the break between Stage 2 and Stage 3, while the other three represented spins resulting in caution flags, pit stops, and frantic double-file restarts.  All of that seemed more interesting than ordinary green-flag racing where the cars just go around and around in ovals.  And between wrecks, the DVR allowed me to fast-forward through the commercials.

Speaking of great minds, both Doug Glanville and Keith Olbermann have noted the unfortunate font choice on the back of Atlanta Braves uniforms.

Dylan Dodd is a rookie pitcher whose jersey seems to believe his name is DODO.  Or DOOO.

To avoid ambiguity of this sort, when I'm entering a capital D in a crossword puzzle I exaggerate the serifs.  Maybe not this much, but you get the idea.


APRIL 9, 2013 flashback    I'VE GOT IT PEGGED

You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole.  Nor can you fit a round peg into a square hole.  But which comes closer to fitting?

Last Friday night, we broadcasters had just finished televising an exciting hockey game; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New York Rangers in a shootout.  As we put away our TV toys, cameraman Chris Dahl reminded me that I had once posed and answered the peg question.  It must have been 20 years ago.

First consider a square hole, one inch on a side.  The cross-sectional area is 1.000 square inch.  The largest round peg that can be inserted into this hole has a diameter of one inch and a radius of one-half inch, so its cross-sectional area (pi times r2) is 0.785 square inch.

Then consider a round hole with the same cross-sectional area as the first hole, 1.000 square inch.  Its radius is 0.564 inch (the square root of 1/pi), so its diameter is 1.128 inch.  The largest square peg that can be inserted into this round hole measures 1.128 inch along the diagonal.  By the Pythagorean theorem, the peg measures 0.798 inch along the side.  Its cross-sectional area (0.798 squared) is 0.636 square inch.

So 78.5% of a square hole can be filled by a round peg (or dowel), but only 63.6% of a round hole can be filled by a square peg.  (Compare the size of the empty space in the corners.)

Now we know.  Dowels rule!



On this very night 299 years ago, in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, Germany, the Good Friday Vespers service lasted about three hours.

The scripture came from the Gospel of John, interspersed with comments such as “Lord, through your Passion, show us that even in the lowliest state you are always glorified!”  Or, in the original rhyming German:

Remarkably, except for the sermon, all the words were sung.  The music was composed by one Johann Sebastian Bach, then in his first year as choirmaster of St. Thomas's Church and School.

Three centuries later, I've provided a YouTube link to a performance plus a translation.  Imagine a rainbow blooming from Jesus's bloodstained back and also Heavenly Flowers from His Thorns.



I mostly ignore radio commercials, but I perked up when I heard one of them mention the borough of Tarentum.  That's just half a mile from where I live, and a new store was opening in the nearby mall.  The ad mentioned phones and accessories, twice giving the address as 2015 Pittsburgh Mills Boulevard.  But what kind of store was it?  I had to do online research; it turned out to be a Verizon outlet.  Later I heard the ad again from the beginning and noted that the sponsor was mentioned in the second sentence but never again.

Another commercial caught my attention with a clip of an exciting recent goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  It then continued with “It's the only meeting between these long-time rivals in Pittsburgh this season!  Get your tickets at....”  Presumably they had mentioned the date and opponent before playing the clip but failed to repeat that information afterwards, so I still don't know what game was being promoted.

A couple of poorly-constructed commercials, if you ask me.  Text or print ads at least allow us to go back and recheck the part we skipped over.


APRIL 3, 2013 flashback    FOUND AT CRACKER BARREL

When my mother was in high school, “a man held to be irresistibly attractive to romantic young women” was called a sheik.

In the spring of 1930, my future mother was voted the Prettiest Girl in school for the second straight year, while her boyfriend at the time, Durward McKee, was voted the Biggest Sheik for the second straight year.

And the May 17, 1930, edition of the popular Liberty magazine featured an illustration by Leslie Thrasher entitled “The Sheik,” in which a girl draws a monocle and mustache on her little brother to make him “irresistibly attractive.”

I noticed a framed copy of this cover hanging on the wall next to my table at a local Cracker Barrel restaurant, and I found an image of the cover on the Internet.

What was inside this edition?  The Internet knows everything.  Further research reveals that in one passage, the humorist Robert Benchley described falling briefly asleep every minute, a phenomenon I would later experience in window seats on airplanes.

The article was entitled “Sporting Life In America: Dozing.”

Dozing before arising does not really come within the range of this treatise. What we are concerned with are those little lapses when we are fully dressed, when we fondly believe that no one notices. Riding on a train, for example.

There is the short-distance doze in a day coach, probably the most humiliating form of train sleeping. In this the elbow is rested on the window sill and the head placed in the hand in an attitude of thought. The glass feels very cool on the forehead and we rest it there, more to cool off than anything else. The next thing we know the forehead (carrying the entire head with it) has slid down the length of the slippery pane and we have received a rather nasty bang against the woodwork. They shouldn't keep their glass so slippery. A person is likely to get badly hurt that way.

However, back again goes the forehead against the pane in its original position, with the hand serving more or less as a buffer, until another skid occurs, this time resulting in an angry determination to give the whole thing up entirely and sit up straight in the seat. Some dozers will take four or five slides without whimpering, going back each time for more with apparently undiminished confidence in their ability to see the thing through.

It is a game that you can't beat, however, and the sooner you sit up straight in your seat, the sooner you will stop banging your head.