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ArchiveDECEMBER 2023

 

DECEMBER 31, 2023   '23, SKIDOO!

William E. Vaughn:  An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in.  A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.

Alfred Lord Tennyson:  Ring out the old!  Ring in the new!  Ring, happy bells, across the snow!  The year is going; let him go.  Ring out the false, ring in the true.

T.S. Eliot:  Last year's words belong to last year's language.  And next year's words await another voice.

Mark Evanier:  Among my fondest wishes for 2024 is that some part of politics, however small, will be about what's best for human beings, not about “owning” the opposition and making their heads explode.

Pope Francis:  Fraternity and peace is not the responsibility of a few but of the entire human family — the fruit of relationships that recognize and welcome others in their inalienable dignity.

 

DECEMBER 28, 2023
THE CANDLES ARE
STILL GLOWING

 

This month's 100 Moons article depicts the Thomas family holiday from half a century ago, via scenes from home movies.

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

 

DECEMBER 25, 2013 flashback    LULLY, LULLAY

One Christmas song I enjoy hearing is the 500-year-old Coventry Carol.  It’s in a minor key with rather exotic harmonies, as the music was written during the reign of Henry VIII.  The words, one assumes, are being sung to the newborn Baby Jesus in the manger, because the first line is

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child.

But it turns out that “lully” is not a lullaby but a lament.  One commentator says it’s old English slang for “I saw what happened!”

The song comes from a “mystery play,” in which the words refer to the Massacre of the Innocents as described in the Gospel of Matthew.  King Herod hears that a new King of the Jews has recently been born in Bethlehem.  He moves to eliminate his rival, but he doesn’t know who it is, so he cruelly orders the execution of all Bethlehemite boys under the age of two.  In the song, three women are trying in vain to save one poor youngling.

     O sisters two,
     How may we do
For to preserve, this day,
     This poor youngling 
     For whom we do sing
Bye-bye, lully, lullay?

     Herod, the king,
     In his raging,
Chargéd he hath this day
     His men of might,
     In his own sight,
All young children to slay.

     Then woe is me,
     Poor child, for thee!
And every morn and day
     For thy parting
     Neither say nor sing,
Bye-bye, lully, lullay.

The words evoke a horrific scene, depicted in this detail from a painting by Giotto di Bondoni.  But at least the music is lovely.

 

DECEMBER 23, 2023   AN OLD-FASHIONED CHRISTMAS

“The tradition of telling ghost stories in the winter,” writes Isabella Kwai for the New York Times, “became popular in the 19th century.  What else to do, on the long and dark nights as winter solstice closed in?

“‘The family would come together, they would play games, they would end the evening with a storytelling around the fire,’ said Jen Cadwallader, a professor of English at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

“Ghost stories tend to remind people to reflect on their morals, values, and how precious time is spent, something that still resonates in today's working world.  Said Professor Cadwallader, ‘We are as busy as the Victorians were, and we still find it comforting to step out of time for a little bit.’”

Sixty-seven years ago tonight, NBC-TV presented a lavish musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens story of three ghosts, A Christmas Carol.  On that Sunday evening my parents and I might have gathered around the glow of our one-month-old Sylvania, but I don't remember.  Like the television industry itself, I had not yet attained the age of ten.

Opera singer Patrice Munsel was in the cast, though she was almost ten seconds late getting into position for her appearance in the opening credits.  I recall that a few years later someone in school (not I) was accused of having a crush on her.

Basil Rathbone played the very conservative businessman Ebenezer Scrooge.

St. Nicholas?  Ridiculous.
     I abominate old St. Nick.
     His reckless spending makes me sick.
     I think St. Nick's a lunatic.
When you say good old Nicholas,
              I say bah!

The program, sponsored by aluminum foil, was broadcast live and in color from New York.  Like most of America, we could see it only in black and white.

That's how you can watch the entire show now.  Just click the image that I've recreated of our 1956 living room, which will enable you to read Robert J. Elisberg's story with its embedded video.

 

DECEMBER 22, 2023   FROZEN FOR A WEEK

On Christmas weekend last year, an arctic front brought snow and -20° wind chills, and Pittsburgh's mayor urged “if you don't have to go out, please don't be out.”   Lacking nearby relatives, I've fallen out of the habit of celebrating holidays by visiting acquaintances, so I was content to stay warm at home.

According to notations in my calendar, I retreated into my apartment at 2:36 pm one week ago today, on December 22, 2022.

Other than helping the mail carrier by shoveling a section of my sidewalk on December 26, I didn't emerge again until 1:00 pm December 28, when I dared to go to a restaurant.

I'm happy to report that this year has been much milder.  The average high temperature for the first ten days of December was 52°, and for Christmas Day it's predicted to be 59°!

 

DECEMBER 20, 2013 flashback    THE NIGHT OF THE BROKEN ORGAN

I’ve colorized a photo of this memorial, which was carved to depict an event that took place in Austria 195 years ago.

It’s on the site of the St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg.

 

Leaning forward is the assistant pastor, Father Joseph Mohr.

I imagine him addressing his congregation on Thursday night, December 24, 1818.


Willkommen, meine lieben Freunde, an diesem Weihnachtsabend!  I bid you welcome to the Midnight Mass, wherein we celebrate the birth of our blessed Lord.

I’m sure you have noticed already that there’s something different about the celebration this year.  My friend Franz Gruber, our choirmaster, is not seated at the organ as we have come to expect.  Instead, he’s standing behind me, tuning up his guitar.

On Tuesday, Franz tells me, he was preparing for tonight’s service and found that the organ wouldn’t play.  We think mice got into the bellows and gnawed holes in the leather.  We immediately sent word to Karl Mauracher, our repairman over in the Ziller Valley, but he won’t be able to come to Oberndorf until after the first of the year.

So what can be done in the meantime?  Franz said he could accompany tonight’s singing on his guitar.  That was fine with me; I dearly love guitar music.  But it seemed we ought to do more.

Two years ago, while I was assigned to the church in Mariapfarr, I wrote a Christmas poem.  This morning I took it to Franz’s apartment in Arnsdorf, where he teaches school.  I asked if he could perhaps set my poem to music.  Within a couple hours he had done so, and this evening he brought me the finished composition.

He and I have been practicing singing it as a duet.  An hour ago, when the choir arrived, Franz instructed them to repeat the last couple of lines of each verse in four-part harmony.  So we’re almost ready.

But first I should point out that this new carol with its simple accompaniment is quite different from the festive rejoicing with which we usually open our service.  This is not the exultant Latin hymn Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes, with its loudly proclaimed summons to adore the King, “Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!”  We will not hear the power of the organ.

Instead, in our new carol, the night is quiet.  We will hear a single guitar.

We meditate upon the miraculous gift God has given us, and we marvel.

On this holy night, the little village of Bethlehem lies dark and still, much like this little village of ours.

The angels have not yet invited the shepherds to the manger, nor has the star beckoned the wise men.

In the stable there are only Mary ... and Joseph ... 

and the newborn Light of the World!

Franz, shall we begin?

Silent night.  Holy night.
     All is calm.  All is bright
’Round yon virgin mother and child!
     Holy infant, so tender and mild,
          Sleep in heavenly peace.
          Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night.  Holy night.
     Son of God!  Love's pure light —
Radiant — beams from thy holy face
     With the dawn of redeeming grace,
          Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
          Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.    

Gerrit Van.
Honthorst,
 1622 --

 

DECEMBER 17, 2013 flashback    BEEP CODES

When the washing machine has finished its cycle, it alerts me with a long beep.  When the dryer has finished its alloted time, it comes to a quiet stop.  No beep.

If I make a mistake while programming my microwave oven, it beeps twice.  Later, when it's done cooking, it beeps four times.  When I open the door, it beeps once more to inform me that I have indeed opened the door.  If I fail to do so, after another minute it repeats the four-beep signal to remind me that my food is ready.

When I press the orange button on my key fob, my car locks its doors.  It lets me know it’s done so by beeping and flashing its turn signals once.  But if I make a mistake and press the orange button while a door is still ajar, my car beeps and flashes five times.

Later, my car beeps and flashes twice if I do any of the following:  press the blue button once to unlock the driver's door, press the blue button twice to unlock all the doors, or hold the “trunk” button for at least two seconds.  Merely pressing it does nothing, but if I hold it long enough, the trunk pops open.

When I want to start my car from inside my apartment, I use a different remote control.  It has only one button.  To start the engine, I press the button twice.  I watch it flash blue in various patterns to confirm that the car is locked, all systems are “go,” the starter has been activated, and the engine is running.  To stop the engine, I press it once, but for at least two seconds.  Then I have to use the other remote to unlock the door(s).

When I plug in my cell phone, a light glows red.  But when I plug in my electric razor, a light glows green.  Later, once the phone has recharged, its red light changes to green.  And once the razor has recharged, its green light changes to... flashing green!

The circuitry to produce a beep or a light is very inexpensive, which I suppose is why many of our devices use beeps or lights or repeated beeps or repeated lights to communicate with us.  But why are we forced to learn the codes?  Why do we have to remember whether a glowing green light means “fully charged” or “still charging,” depending on the device?  Why do we have to remember that one monotone beep means “I'm done” or “door's open” or “I'm locked,” two means “error" or “I'm unlocked,” four means “I'm done,” and five means “door's open”?

Microchips are so cheap nowadays that even children’s toys have sound-generating circuitry and speakers.  Why can’t manufacturers spend a few extra cents?  They could give us different tones for different circumstances, as on a computer or cell phone, rather than merely beeping at us.  Better yet, they could give us specific voice warnings as in an airplane cockpit, such as “Please close the right rear door” or “Pull up!  Pull up!”

 

DECEMBER 15, 2023   SEARCHING FOR THE STARTING POINT

When we hold a treasured belief, we want proof.  We might not even care about the literal truth of the facts we uncover, as long as they buttress our preconceived faith.

When we are first introduced to a superhero, we learn of his marvelous powers.  Only later do we hear his origin story.

In my latest article, five people speculate at length about the early life of their hero, whose fame continues to grow.

Did he have a humble beginning in obscurity?  Perhaps.  But some prefer to believe that he was special from birth.  Or even before.

The Collector is asked to uncover stories that support these ideas.  

 

DECEMBER 13, 2023   TRISKETBALL? OH, MEGA!


A basketball game involves two teams; we'll call them blue and red.  If you're a member of the blue team, you're trying to put the ball in the blue net.  On defense, you're trying to prevent it from going into the red net.

During one study-hall period in high school, thinking about Chinese checkers, I was bored enough to wonder whether basketball could be played with more than two teams at a time.  Perhaps three.

I imagined a triangular court.  I assumed that in trisketball, the blue team would still be trying to put the ball in the blue net, while both the red and gold teams would be trying to prevent them from scoring.  That didn't sound like a promising form of competition.  Five players on offense against ten on defense (red and gold) would not result in a lot of points.

However, if the red team fell hopelessly behind, they might be persuaded to form an alliance with the blue team.  That would make it ten on offense (red and blue) shooting at the blue net against only five gold defenders, and the lopsided nature of the competition would be inverted.  Still not promising.

Eureka:  sixty years later, I've learned that there is another way!  I recently became aware of a three-team variation of soccer.  It's called Omegaball, and it claims to be “faster paced with ten times more goals and action.”

The key difference, if I understand it, is that the blue team isn't trying to score into the blue net.  Rather, it's defending the blue net, while trying to score into either of the other two nets.  Doubling the number of targets does seem to solve the two-players-against-one problem as well as soccer's low-scoring problem. 

I don't know that much about soccer, and I found it hard to follow a televised game.  Sure enough, the players were wearing three different colors, but following tradition, the goalkeepers were clad differently from their teammates.  And it wasn't easy to remember which goal each was guarding, because the pitch was not painted as in my illustration.  It couldn't be.  The teams switched sides at halftime at thirdtime, rotating 120° clockwise after each period.  Six different colors, moving in every which direction — such confusion!

 

DECEMBER 11, 2023   THE NEW OLD-FASHIONED WAY

In 1974, my recently-retired parents became snowbirds.  They began spending at least one week each winter in the Valley of the Sun at Scottsdale, Arizona.

Sometime during the next several Februaries, they went to a show in the Phoenix area.   Afterwards, my mother raved about the performance by the funny, energetic 4'9" singer, Brenda Lee.


Gabriel McCurdy for The New York Times 

Brenda had recorded “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958 at the age of 13.  Four years later the teenager was performing in Europe, and the Beatles opened for her!  By then her hits included:

        I'm Sorry
           I Want to Be Wanted
              Dum Dum
                 Fool No. 1
                    Break It To Me Gently
                       All Alone Am I

Earlier this month, for the very first time, that 1958 “Rockin'” recording topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  The self-proclaimed Queen of Christmas, Mariah Carey, sent Brenda flowers.

And today is her 79th birthday!

 

DECEMBER 10, 2013 flashback    SORRY, 4 IS TAKEN; HOW ABOUT 4a?

Football jerseys have numbers on them, one or two digits to identify the players.  There are a hundred possible combinations of digits.  But that’s not enough for some college football programs that welcome too many walk-on participants.

When I worked the telecast of an Allegheny College game in 2011, the roster included 131 players, so some jersey numbers had to be duplicated.  Both the starting fullback and the starting cornerback wore “4.”  Both the split end and the placekicker wore “9.”  That’s an intolerable situation for spectators and the media.

2023 UPDATE:  During recent college football telecasts, I've seen more than one occasion when a team was penalized for having two special-teams players on the field with the same number.

I've suggested that hexadecimal digits could solve the problem, as a pair of them can represent 256 possible numbers from “00” to “FF.”  But a jersey labeled “E0” would look odd.

Since then, I’ve modified that idea to allow for 252 possible numbers.  Let’s assign the first hundred to players who are likely to see action, with no duplications allowed.

Then let’s give the other players jerseys that have a combination of a digit and a letter, such as these.  The letters would be lower case for better legibility.  (For example, 5D looks rather like 50, but 5d is unmistakable.)

Digits 0 and 1 as well as letters o and i would be excluded to avoid confusion.  Also, any letter with a descender (g, j, p, q, or y) would be excluded because its tail, hanging lower than the adjacent digit, might be covered by the belt.

Pairing 8 possible digits with 19 possible letters gives us 152 combinations beyond the original hundred.  That should be enough, shouldn’t it?

 

DECEMBER 7, 2023   MERRY CHRISTMAS, AMERICA!

Yesterday, a shooter killed three people at the University of Las Vegas.  The day before, another shooter was arrested for killing his parents and four others in Texas.  As somebody commented, “Our national experiment in freely giving deadly weapons to anyone who wants one and cultivating an atmosphere of paranoia and fear is going extremely well.”

“The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the citizenry may be armed... with weapons, including assault rifles, that are frequently purchased with an eye toward resisting that very government,” notes Drew Gilpin Faust in this month's edition of The Atlantic.

The National Rifle Association tells us, “Millions of law-abiding citizens own and use AR-15s to defend themselves and their families.”  But police veteran Michael Fanone writes, “it's the last gun that I would recommend for that purpose.” 

Contrary to what this evil family seems to believe, death-dealing weapons of war are not appropriate gifts for the season of peace on earth.

Assault weapons of the AR-15 variety are military firearms designed for use by professional soldiers on the battlefield, not by apprehensive amateurs huddled together at home. 

According to Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times, “gun manufacturers have promoted the rifle as a lifestyle accessory ... an object worshiped for its supposed power and symbolic meaning. Guns aren't actually totems of freedom or liberty or youth.  They are instruments of death.”

Here are a few examples from earlier this year:

A couple of months ago, one man used a single AR-15 to end the lives of 18 innocent Maine residents (right).

A 65-year-old man in upstate New York fired at a car that mistakenly drove into his driveway.  He was charged with murder in the death of a 20-year-old woman.

An 84-year-old man in Kansas City fired two shots through a glass door into a teenager who rang his doorbell on Northeast 115th Street, thinking it was Northeast 115th Terrace.

Nicole Sparrow's 15-year-old football-playing son was gunned down at a house party.  “These kids have guns you see people in the army with,” she noted, “and people are scared.”

A six-year-old took a gun from his Virginia home, brought it to his first-grade classroom, and shot his teacher in the chest.  His marijuana-using mother has been sentenced to 21 months in prison.

And guns are the #1 cause of death among children and adolescents.  In 2021, at least 4,752 children died from a firearm injury — a new record, 42% higher than 2018.

A teenage gunman fatally shot three elderly women using three weapons — including an AR-15 — before officers brought him down in front of a New Mexico church.

A pregnant woman was unintentionally shot and killed by her 2-year-old son in Norwalk, Ohio. Police have not said how the toddler accessed a loaded, unsecured gun.

What can we do?  Gun lovers merely offer a prescription that hasn't helped so far: thoughts and prayers.  Thoughts to the survivors and prayers to God.

In fact, Robert Elisberg says that, if we believe with Rep. Keith Self (R-TX) that God “is absolutely in control of our lives,” the Almighty himself must be responsible for the massacres.  According to Keith Olbermann, “We live now in a society in which Republicans treat mass shootings as if they were as inevitable as tornados.”  Acts of God, indeed.

If someone suggests putting government restrictions on firearms, the NRA won't discuss it.  “It's too soon after the unspeakable tragedy.”

Too soon?  We speak of such tragedies literally every single day.

 

DECEMBER 4, 2023   MORE BRICKS!

Winery workers know that the biggest cask is called a “tun.”  A tun holds 252 gallons, or as much as eight wine barrels.

My latest article sings about Sixteen Tuns (more than 4,000 gallons), plus slavery — make that “debt bondage” — in ancient Egypt and today.  Also, Say-Peeder, the ominous angel, makes an appearance.

 

DECEMBER 1, 2013 flashback    MY MISTAKE

NOTE:  Ten years ago I posted the below item about the conservative misperception that job creation is beneficial only if those jobs are in the private sector.  But do we need more jobs today?  What we need is more people to fill the jobs we have!  Teachers, truck drivers, nurses... there are shortages in all those professions.

S

A

T

I

R

E

If I had thousands of right-wing readers, by now at least some of them would have pointed out my error and demanded that I recant the heresy.

When I wrote the previous item about state funding for transportation projects, I casually sneaked in the insidious claim that “the bill could create up to 50,000 new jobs.”  As all good Republicans and Libertarians know, this is utterly impossible.  Mitt Romney and Eric Cantor and other leaders have repeatedly reminded us that government does not create jobs.

You see, workers in the public sector don’t have jobs.  Not real jobs, anyway.  They may think they’re employed, but their paychecks come from tax revenue, so they don’t count.  This includes such parasites as police officers, soldiers, teachers, school bus drivers, highway construction workers, and Congressmen.

No, the only real jobs are in the private sector.  Governor Romney said that if we want to create more, we should become entrepreneurs.  We should become rich (maybe by borrowing from our parents), start our own small businesses, and hire a lot of employees.  Of course, according to the SBA, 90% of small enterprises fail within the first two years.  Some of the owners are left bankrupt with loans they can’t repay.  But that’s not Romney’s problem.

However, “real jobs” aren’t bestowed by rich people, either, as Henry Blodget points out in this article.  Entrepreneurs may start businesses, but it’s customers who keep the businesses running.  Middle-class customers, mostly.

Nowadays those customers have less to spend.  The middle class is being taxed more than its share while the top 1% gets all the breaks, in the hope that those riches will trickle down to the rest of us.  But the trickle is dammed up.  “America's companies are currently being managed to share the least possible amount of their income with the employees who help create it.  Corporate profit margins are at all-time highs, while wages are at an all-time low.  ...America's richest entrepreneurs, investors, and companies now have so much money that they can't possibly spend it all.  So instead of getting pumped back into the economy, thus creating revenue and wages, this cash just remains in investment accounts.”

Blodget reiterates that rich people don’t create the jobs.  “We're all in this together.  And until we understand that, our economy is going to go nowhere.”

 

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