OCT. 28, 2007 THE FRONT PAGE
Sometimes I can't resist misconstruing items in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
For example, the top story on October 17 revealed that in this country, the number of deaths from Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus infections (MRSA) has surpassed the number of deaths from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Headline: MRSA GERM KILLS MORE THAN AIDS
My reaction: Of course, the MRSA germ's lobbyist will claim just the opposite, that it aids more than it kills.
Or again, headline: MRSA GERM KILLS MORE THAN AIDS
My reaction: All right, what else does it kill besides AIDS?
OCT. 24, 2007 SCARY PICTURE
OCT. 18, 2007 TWO-STEP PROCESS
When I see the name of musician Peter Cetera, I can't say it immediately. My first impulse is to pronounce it like et cetera, which is the only other occurrence of cetera that I can think of. Then I remember that his name isn't SETT-uh-ruh, it's suh-TERR-uh.
British actor Ralph Fiennes presents a similar problem. I guess we're supposed to say "Rafe Fines." We Americans have to remember to translate Ralph's name before we speak it.
And I have trouble with "real quick." When we're preparing for a TV production, sometimes the director will use that phrase in making small requests, as in "Let me see those starting lineups real quick."
OCT. 13, 2007 PEJORATIVE TERMS
In a promotional clip I heard the other day, a conservative talk radio host proclaimed, Anybody who thinks America is an imperialist nation is deranged! I've heard another talker describe liberals as crazy and insane. So now the right-wingers claim that everyone of sound mind obviously is on their side, and everyone who differs should be in a mental hospital.
Whatever became of the concept of reasonable people might disagree? When I was growing up, political discourse was usually somewhat more polite. I beg the gentleman's pardon, but, with all due respect, I fear that his characterization of America as imperialist might be mistaken. My understanding of imperialism is....
In discussions of traffic delays, frustrated motorists often blame rubberneckers, drivers who slow down to get a better look at accidents and stopped vehicles. You idiots, haven't you ever seen someone get a speeding ticket? Keep moving!
Actually, though, those who slow down usually aren't sightseeing. They're simply obeying common sense and the law. According to AAA, 40 states have move-over laws that require motorists, when they encounter a law enforcement, fire, or rescue vehicle on the side of the road, to move over into a lane away from a ... vehicle working at the roadside, or to slow down significantly below highway speeds if they are unable to merge into another lane. The law also applies also to tow trucks in 19 states, a number AAA wants increased. Roadside problem solvers, police, paramedics, and other first-responders who work along the side of our country's highways are faced with the danger of passing vehicles swerving into them each day. ...Not enough motorists are aware of ... the danger they put roadside workers and other motorists in when they do not slow down or move over.
OCT. 8, 2007 GEOGRAPHY & GEOLOGY
Little details sometimes catch my attention. Playing around with Google Earth this morning, I was reminded of Meridian Road in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh. I know that the 80th meridian (of longitude west of Greenwich) passes through downtown Pittsburgh, at the intersection of Liberty and Sixth Avenues. Did Meridian Road get its name because it's also on this same imaginary line?
Alas, no, according to Google. The road would need to be 2.4 miles farther west. It does have a couple of sections that run directly north and south (which is unusual in the hilly country around here), but their west longitudes are only 79.9547° and 79.9550°.
I was actually using the program to find the viewpoint you see below. The hills in the foreground used to slope down to the Allegheny River, but they've been cut back to make room for Pennsylvania Route 28, the expressway that I use to get into the city. Unfortunately, these huge steep-sided piles of stone aren't very cohesive, and chunks of rock fall onto the expressway every few months. In one episode last week, some 40-ton boulders as big as cars tumbled down.
My question is, how long will the rocks continue to fall? I've heard that some cliffs in Panama, cut back for the canal a century ago, are still sliding today. In another few decades, will the residents of Shadow Lane find themselves not in the right foreground of this picture but in the river?
OCT. 4, 2007 & DIES IRAE
"In 1955, it was said that America soon would launch into space an artificial satellite of the earth," I wrote on this site a couple of years ago. "As an eight-year-old boy, I read with interest the predictions of this great scientific feat. But on Friday, October 4, 1957, the Soviets beat us to it with their Sputnik.
"Around noon the next day, CBS television aired a special report about the satellite, which I watched with even greater interest. To my disappointment, the report ended and a hockey game came on. After that, for some reason I never really learned to like hockey very much."
Today, of course, is the 50th anniversary of that launch. But I've recently run across a picture I hadn't seen before, a picture from a subsequent Soviet space achievement.
Venera-13, a Soviet spacecraft, took the picture below in 1982; it has been reprocessed recently. We're looking at the desolate surface of Venus.
This is a planet named for the Roman goddess of beauty a planet that, when it was born, was virtually a twin of Earth. However, the atmosphere of Venus is now 97% carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid. The dense greenhouse gases and the resultant global warming have raised the surface temperature to nearly 900° F. The Venera lander survived those hellish conditions for only a couple of hours.
Will greenhouse gases ultimately drive our similar-sized planet to the same fate? Sooner than we think, according to the prophet Zephaniah.
SEPT. 30, 2007 SHILOH STORY
I've retold another Bible narrative from my own idiosyncratic first-person point of view. This time, you'll meet the old priest Eli and hear about his sons in the year 1080 B.C.
SEPT. 27, 2007 LONG-RUNNING JINX
You've probably heard of the alleged Sports Illustrated cover jinx. The week before a big game, an athlete's picture appears on the magazine's cover. Then his team loses.
It's perfectly natural that such things occur from time to time. Nobody, no matter how good, wins every week. Nevertheless, fans who fear jinxes pray that no photo from their favorite team ever makes the cursed cover of SI.
When did this belief in the cover jinx start? The publisher of Time and Life began printing Sports Illustrated in 1954. But the belief is older than the magazine.
I know this because, while driving home last night, I heard an old radio program on Pittsburgh's KQV. It was a 1949 edition of Bill Stern's Colgate Sports Newsreel. To the accompaniment of scary organ music, Stern breathlessly described a dozen events dating back to 1931 that he attributed to a Time magazine cover jinx. Joe DiMaggio had a bad day in an All-Star game, Joe Louis had a fight postponed, Ben Hogan had an auto accident, a champion racehorse never won again all after their pictures appeared on the cover of Time!
Now the Radio Hall of Fame admits that Stern, a vaudeville stage director who first broadcast a football game at the age of 18, liked to tell stories that sometimes "stretched the limits of credibility." I have no doubt that he overdramatized some of the misfortunes that followed such appearances. But the fact that he was talking about it in 1949 shows that the concept of the cover jinx antedated Sports Illustrated by at least five years, if not twenty.
SEPT. 26, 2007 UNNATURAL STORIES
In the days of Jules Verne, science fiction imagined future technological advances and described how we might react to them.
In my high school days, before space probes disproved speculation about ancient Martian canals, I remember reading a Robert Heinlein novel about human colonists on Mars. Frozen canals are their highways. Their iceboats have open fronts to catch and compress the thin atmosphere. For long-distance communication, they bounce signals off Phobos and Deimos, using the moons of Mars as natural relay satellites. All of these are technically possible, and the story is about ordinary young people in this setting.
In the present day, apparently we're running out of plausible situations. Science fiction is gradually giving way to fantasy.
The other night I watched the 2006 movie Stranger Than Fiction. Emma Thompson plays a novelist whose protagonists always die in the end. She's currently writing about a character named Harold Crick. Unfortunately, it turns out there's a real Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell. He starts hearing her voice in his head, narrating his life. As the situation unfolds, the baffled author is warned that if she kills off the fictional Harold, it might kill the real one. She exclaims in exasperation, "I don't know the rules!"
That was my feeling exactly. Those who devise these fantastic stories are making up their own rules, which don't have to correspond to the way the real world works. And I have trouble suspending disbelief and accepting these artificial premises.
Television gives us stories about people who are angels, or Supermen, or conduits for the thoughts of dead people. Can they turn back time? Can they stop a speeding bullet? No real person can, but these characters can if the plot requires it.
Here are some of this season's new TV series, as described in TV Guide.
SEPT. 22, 2007 FACE SHOTS
Another decade has rolled around, and it will soon be time to renew the passport that I first obtained to travel to the 1988 Olympics in South Korea. So yesterday I visited the local photo studio, and they provided me with an up-to-date mug shot, which I shall now inflict upon you. (For passports, I understand that smiling is frowned upon.)
Then last night I noticed that NBC had made available for free, on my cable system's On Demand service, the pilots for several new series that will debut next week. So I watched one of them, Chuck. The series doesn't premiere until Monday, which made me feel like a privileged TV critic. I was being allowed to watch this show three days before the rest of the American public could see it.
I don't think that obligates me to write a review. However, I will mention this Australian actress, who plays a CIA agent on Chuck. I gather that her real name is Yvonne Strzechowski, which few people who are not Polish are able to pronounce. Therefore, she's changed to a phonetic spelling so that people will say her name correctly. She's now billed as Yvonne Strahovski.
Yvonne is obviously an attractive young woman. But watching in HD, I kept focusing for some reason on her two front teeth. Those may be the most prominent upper central incisors I've ever seen. They easily overshadow the lateral incisors beside them. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a pretty smile, in a cute Bugs Bunny kind of way. It's just that in HD, details like this are much more noticeable.
For example, Tiki Barber on NBC's Football Night in America last Sunday must have gotten a rush job in the makeup chair. His face looked preternaturally smooth, but his neck showed five o'clock stubble.
SEPT. 18, 2007 VOICES THAT BREAK
In a new article, I recall a couple of small roles that I played way back in 1970 as a comic "scientist," which leads to the question Can You Repeat That? And that leads to some examples of possibly unique performances by female vocalists.
SEPT. 16, 2007 A NON-CENTERED LETTERBOX
Having just this morning discovered a clever new wrinkle in the ongoing struggle to make high-definition and standard-definition televised sports compatible with each other, I had to add it to the end of this article.
SEPT. 15, 2007 TWO LOVELY SONGS
I've added some professional musical performances to flesh out a couple of this website's stories about my attempts at creativity.
In a major motion picture, Perry Como performed a ballad that for a few weeks I thought I had written. It turned out to be by Richard Rodgers. Perry's scene is linked from the end of this article, which also includes a low-quality audio clip from a 1963 rehearsal of my version.
And you might think, from a music video that I edited in 1986, that Stevie Nicks wrote a song for Joe Paterno. Click here to listen to that one.
SEPT. 9, 2007 AN OLD WESTERN TALE
SEPT. 3, 2007 GO MAUKA, THEN GO FREEPORT
I returned yesterday from Michigan, where I was part of the Big Ten Network football telecast (Appalachian State upset the #5 Wolverines).
After my plane landed, the last leg of my trip involved driving Pennsylvania Route 28 from Pittsburgh to my suburban home. The state calls it "northbound" Route 28. Around here, however, the road parallels the Allegheny River and actually goes more east than north. To avoid confusion, traffic reporters usually call it "outbound" Route 28.
That got me thinking. Sometimes our situation is better suited to coordinate systems other than the standard directions of north, south, east, and west.
Inside a shopping mall, if someone asks us how to get to the Hologram Hut, we don't say "walk west and it's on your left." We say "walk toward Sears and it's on your left."
In my neighborhood, where streets are oriented to the river, it isn't quite correct to say "go north, then turn right and go east." It would be more accurate to say "go north-northwest, then turn right and go east-northeast," but that's as difficult to visualize as it is to pronounce. So I prefer to say "go away from the river, then turn right and go upstream."
And in the state of Hawaii, where the typical island is an extinct volcano surrounded by a ring of habitable land sloping down to the shore, the locals avoid the usual Cartesian coordinates (north, south, east, and west). Instead, they use the radial coordinate system (in, out, clockwise, and counterclockwise). "In" is mauka, toward the mountains. "Out" is makai, toward the sea. At Honolulu, "clockwise" is ewa, toward Ewa Plantation, and "counterclockwise" is waikiki, toward Waikiki Beach.