On this website, I've built hundreds of pages since 2000, never intending them to fit onto newfangled smartphone screens.  But this one page does fit!

It consists of reformatted versions of the most recent posts on my regular home page.

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AUG. 8, 2014

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

“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.”


AUG. 4, 2019

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

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.

JULY 28, 2019

Forty years ago today, I mailed a letter explaining how I was conserving energy.  Due to a reduction in oil coming from Iran, Americans perceived that there was an energy crisis.  There were long lines for gasoline.  I resolved to use my car as little as possible.

From my apartment in downtown Washington, Pennsylvania, I could walk almost anywhere I needed to be.  I estimated I could go 60 days between trips to the gas station.  If it took 20 gallons to fill up the tank of my big Oldsmobile, on average I was burning merely one gallon every three days.

Fuel economy is normally expressed in Miles Per Gallon, but maybe we should think of Hours Per Gallon instead.  Not hours on the road but actual hours, 24 of them every day.

During that summer of 1979 I was getting three days to the gallon.  That's 3 x 24 = 72 hours per gallon, or 72 HPG.

Someone with a long commute (30 miles each way at 15 MPG) might have needed four gallons every day.  That's 24 / 4 = 6 HPG.  I was doing a dozen times better than that.  Yay, me!

The point is that to burn less fuel, we should simply drive less (if we're able).  Carpool, walk, take public transportation, shop in our own neighborhood, work from home, visit via Skype instead of making long journeys, and so on.  Let's save money and cut pollution by getting those HPG numbers up!


JULY 28, 2019

Have you ever visited the city of 68,000 people known as Texarkana?  I have.  My parents and I drove through there exactly 56 years ago.  The date was July 28, 1963.  Just like today, it was a Sunday.  In the afternoon.  Around 2:00, Central Time.

How do I know that?  As the teenager navigating from the back seat, I was carefully logging the progress of our vacation trip through the middle of the country.  In previous years our family had driven to Louisiana and to Oklahoma, but I had not yet visited the neighboring states of Arkansas and Texas.  This 11-day journey had been mapped out to remedy my deficiencies.

Texarkana was founded in the 1870s when the first railroad crossed the state line there.  The city takes its name, of course, from the fact that it's partly in Texas and partly in Arkansas.  I guess that makes it two cities.  Their shared motto is “Twice as Nice.”  They're mentioned in a popular song of the day, composed by Huddie Ledbetter and first recorded in 1940.

When I was a little baby,
My mama would rock me in the cradle
     In them old cotton fields at home.

It was down in Lou'siana
Just a mile from Texarkana,
     In them old cotton fields at home.

Apparently when old Lead Belly wrote “Cotton Fields,” he used a bit of poetic license to achieve a rhyme.  His geography didn't make sense to this navigator.  I'd seen the maps.  I knew the cotton fields of Louisiana were considerably farther than a mile from Texarkana.


JULY 27, 2009 flashback

Baseball fans often complain about how many runs their team has allowed.  Sometimes, they lament that most of them came after there were two outs in the inning.

Is that unusual?  I’m not so sure.

What are the Major League averages for runs scored with no outs, one out, and two outs?  Are the runs evenly distributed at 33%, 33%, and 33%?  I’d guess it might be more like 25%, 33%, and 42%, simply because as the inning progresses there are more likely to be runners on base.  But I’ve never seen the actual numbers.

Before we could even consider calculating the numbers, we’d have to define what we mean by “a run scored with two outs.”  That’s not as simple as you might think.  Should we use definition B:  there were two outs BEFORE the play began?  Or should we use definition M:  there were two outs at the MOMENT the runner crossed the plate?

Suppose there’s a runner on 3rd base with one out.  The batter hits a fly ball to the center fielder.  Now there are two outs.  The runner tags up and comes home to score on the sacrifice fly.

According to B, the scoring play happened with one out.  According to M, the run actually scored after there were two outs.

Suppose there are runners on 1st and 3rd with nobody out.  The batter grounds to the shortstop, who decides to concede a run in order to make a double play.  He throws to 2nd base; now there is one out.  Then the throw goes to 1st base for the second out, which occurs at almost the same time that the runner from 3rd base is crossing the plate.

According to B, the scoring play happened with no outs.  According to M, the run scored after there were either one out or two outs, but it’s hard to tell.

I suspect that the lament over “runs allowed after two outs” is actually a lament over missed opportunities.  If we had only gotten one more out when we really needed it, we could have prevented those runs!  (In this case, definition B is the relevant one.)  This is similar to the lament over runners left on base.  If we had only gotten one more hit when we really needed it, we could have scored those runners!  And it may turn out to be just as meaningless.


JULY 25, 2019

A puzzle requires me to find two different eight-letter words following the patterns

          _ _ _ _ W I _ D
          _ _ _ _ B A _ D

inserting the same five letters into the blanks each time.  The best I can do is WOODWIND and WOODBAND.  However, although “woodband” could mean a wooden ring or a forested strip or Michael Wood's orchestra, I don't think it's a common word.

I finally give up and start watching an old Columbo, reading the closed-captioned dialogue for hints.  Finally one character mentions the word “head.”  Aha!

JULY 22, 2009 flashback

This past week, Scott Adams (the creator of the comic strip Dilbert) has been blogging about an ideal city called Cheapatopia, built from scratch as “an absurdly cheap place to live with a ridiculously high quality of life.”

From his entries for July 13, July 14, July 17, and July 20, here are some condensed excerpts.

The era of ridiculous consumption is over.  The average household will have to learn how to make do with less.  But there is no reason we can't be happier at the same time.

In Cheapatopia, no one would ever again hire a babysitter or put their dog in the kennel while they are on vacation. That sort of thing would all be done by neighbors, and you would know those neighbors well.

Cheapatopia puts a big emphasis on social interaction.  Most of your meals are eaten at the city-run all-you-can-eat buffets located in each neighborhood.  You'd always see your neighbors at meals, and you'd never need to shop or cook or clean.  Prices would be lower than regular restaurants because these eateries would be operated at cost, and food would be purchased in bulk.  The food quality and variety would be excellent, at least by family standards, because this is one area in which Cheapatopia would not skimp.

Residents could get further discounts on their buffet meal plans by agreeing to work shifts at the cafeteria.  You might find it fun to work with your neighbors for a few hours every week.

Ride sharing would be made easy by an Internet system.  But the only rides you would ever need would be to the nearest airport.  There would be no cars within Cheapatopia.

The real purpose of this system is not just the convenience of getting stuff done, but the social interaction it causes.  Most people make their friends from their organized activities, past or present.  They find their spouses and lovers the same way.  Cheapatopia increases your social involvement and therefore your social life.

Many of you believe Cheapatopia can't work because communes have been tried and failed.  And besides, you wouldn't want to live in such a socialist place.

But Cheapatopia is designed with individual self-interest as the founding principle.  Living in Cheapatopia is optional.  Plain old capitalism will always surround it.

The only difference is that capitalism has inefficiencies that don't benefit anyone.  As I write this, I'm looking out the window at seven parked cars, each of them requiring auto insurance, and none of them being used.  And every home in my neighborhood has poor roof insulation because there was no market pressure on the developer to do better.

There would be lots of different reasons for wanting to live in Cheapatopia, if only for a few years.

The closest model is college dormitory living.  In college, the meals are communal, the buildings are inexpensive, and the social life is organized and abundant.

Dorm living is only appropriate for a few years of your life, to accomplish a goal.  Cheapatopia is similar in concept, but more high-end and designed for families.

So that’s why I look back so fondly on college days!  We lived in dorms, owned no cars, walked or biked everywhere, and ate at the dining hall.  We knew that life outside, in what we called “the real world,” would never be like this.  For four years we were living in a Utopia.


JULY 20, 2019

Neil Armstrong and I were practically neighbors.  We each grew up northwest of Columbus, Ohio.

Wakaponeta was his home town.  He went to middle school in Upper Sandusky, only 25 miles north of my home in Richwood.  (I've underlined the accented syllables for you.)

“Central Ohio” is pronounced “sinturl uh-high-uh” in that part of the country.  “For a man” is slurred into “fruh man” in that part of the country.  So I think I can buy Laura Dilley's explanation of Neil's famous quote.

It was not “one small step for man”
but rather “one small step fruh man.”

This shadowy TV frame actually shows Buzz Aldrin's small step.  Neil is the bright spot in the sunlit back-ground, as depicted in the CGI reconstruction below.


JULY 16, 2019

I avidly followed all the early space launches.  For example, on Wednesday, May 15, 1963, when I was a high school sophomore, Gordon Cooper lifted off shortly after 8:00 AM for the final Mercury flight.  About the time I got home from school that afternoon, he had surpassed Wally Schirra's orbital endurance record.  He was on his way to a 34-hour mission in that tiny capsule, taking pictures and adjusting equipment and performing experiments.  I stayed glued to the TV for the reports until, around 10:00 that evening, controllers suggested Major Cooper should try to get some sleep.  “Well, if he's going to sleep, I guess I can too,” I remarked, heading off to bed.

Fifty years ago this morning, humans climbed into a vehicle to begin a complex, hazardous, expensive journey all the way to the surface of the moon.  They would stay there for less than 22 hours, then hurry home.

I joined 650,000,000 other people in watching the coverage.  However, I deliberately did not watch the Lunar Module's landing on television because I knew there were no live TV cameras on the moon.  Not yet, anyway.  CBS was going to depict what should be happening with a prerecorded animation, but that might not be what was happening, so I retreated to the bedroom and listened to actual transmissions on my transistor radio.

According to the flight plan, the LM was supposed to touch down at 4:17:20 Eastern time, so that's what my relatives in the living room saw on TV. 

My uncle Cecil watching a CBS News
 simulation (TV image reconstructed)

But the LM hadn't actually landed yet, because Neil Armstrong needed another 20 seconds to fly over some boulders to a better landing spot.

Later that evening, I did join my parents in front of the TV to watch the astronauts walk on the moon.  Mother and Neil Armstrong both laughed at Buzz Aldrin's quip after he'd started down the ladder: 

“Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch, making sure not to lock it on my way out.”

Five more landings would be made before the end of 1972, but we haven't returned since.  Been there, done that.

It's true that if funding comes through, NASA is hoping to fly an updated Apollo vehicle called Orion and land a crew on the moon during the Artemis 3 mission in 2024.  That would be in preparation for a possible manned mission to Mars maybe in the mid-2030s.  Those are nice places to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. 

It would be dangerous to live there.  As Elton John sang in “Rocket Man”:

Mars ain't the kind of place
     to raise your kids.
In fact, it's cold as hell.
And there's no one there
     to raise them if you did.

Writing in Free Inquiry for June/July 2019, Gregory S. Paul points out, “Being in space means every moment being on the verge of death if something goes wrong with the damn oxygen supply.  ...All of deep space is chock-full of cosmic rays that will in a few months fry the human brain into permanent dementia and pepper the body with cancers.  Never forget, we evolved here on planet Earth, whose magnetic field protects us from said radiation.  There is no practical way to shield people in space vehicles that must be lightly constructed.  Living on the moon or Mars will require living underground.  But watch out for moon and Mars dust; it's pretty toxic stuff comparable to, say, asbestos.”

Also, rockets sometimes blow up, and they're extremely expensive.  In May, the Trump administration added $1.6 billion to its 2020 budget request for NASA.  But “rhetoric is really cheap,” said Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society.  “You can evaluate how serious something is by looking at the actual dollars.  Looking at this request, it's a nice, welcome bump, but it's not indicative of a serious attempt to land on the moon in 2024.”  Allowing for inflation, the Apollo program cost 70 times that much.  “I find it very unlikely that 2024 will see a lunar landing with people.  It's just not enough.”

Just last week, Bill Gerstenmaier, “a steady and methodical force” at NASA for 42 years, was suddenly removed as head of human exploration.

Why the unexpected shakeup?  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine would only say it's time for a change.  “I don't think there's anything that he was not doing.  I just think it's time for new leadership.”  But no permanent replacement was named.

The chair of the House Science Space and Technology committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), did offer a statement:  “The Trump administration's ill-defined crash program to land astronauts on the Moon in 2004 was going to be challenging enough to achieve under the best of circumstances.  Removing experienced engineering leadership ... at such a critical point in time seems misguided at best.  The Administrator needs to explain this personnel action, as well as provide an executable program plan accompanied by a credible budget if Congress is to have any basis for supporting the President's Moon initiative.”

What about the next dream, sending people to Mars to colonize it and save our species?  “That is an escapist elitist fantasy,” writes Gregory S. Paul.  “The remote colony would be perpetually vulnerable to political strife and autocracy.  Even in the incredible event that the fantastic funds needed to conduct the hyper-risky effort to terraform the planet actually worked out, Mars would be a rump human habitat that would do little to save the species if our homeworld goes belly-up.”

Paul offers two recommendations.  First, deal with the one spaceship we already have, our planet.  “If we can't make it here on Earth, we can't make it anywhere.”  Secondly, if conscious minds do go to Mars, they should be “artificial minds that don't need oxygen and can get to space cheaply and safely and be resistant to the radiation.”

The robots already living on the red planet are sending back pictures and data that are almost as good as being there.  Couldn't humans join them?  “Ain't happening, folks,” writes Paul.  “It never will be practical in terms of cost and safety.”


JULY 13, 2019

For the 1965 Beatles album Rubber Soul, Paul McCartney wrote a song addressed to a girl who went away and now refuses to even answer the phone.

     Though the days are few
          They're filled with tears,
     And since I lost you
          It feels like years.

     I just can't go on if
          You Won't See Me.

The opening line of the lyric always catches my attention.  People nowadays would complain, “When I try to phone you, my call goes to voice mail.”

People back then would have said, “When I call, all I get is a busy signal.  Bzz, bzz, bzz, bzz.”

But McCartney, being British, could write a much more poetic iambic version:  “When I call you up, your line's engaged.”