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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website



Signs!  Portents!  In the last eight weeks there have been so many harbingers of The End of the World — from three devastating hurricanes to the fires still sweeping California — that we almost overlooked the first of these omens.

Some folks who are not intellectuals resent those who are.  They have their own ideas.  My conversation with a Fictional Uninformed Interlocutor is titled Phooey on the Eclipse.



When I was newly arrived here in southwestern Pennsylvania, I turned on the local TV news one evening and saw footage of a minor house fire in Allentown.  “Why are they reporting on that?” I wondered.  “Allentown, Pennsylvania, is 300 miles east of here!”  Eventually I discovered that Allentown is also the name of a 189-acre neighborhood that's part of the city of Pittsburgh.

My birth state of Ohio likewise has multiple place names.  The overhead view on the right shows one of the places called Orange.

This Orange is on Orange Road, nine miles north of Columbus.  As I'm sure you recall, it was on April 4, 1859, that Anderson Jennings and Richard Mitchell were taken into custody at the railroad station here.  Their presence was required in court for a case involving the Fugitive Slave Act.

The village on the left is called Stringtown.  It's 30 miles from Cincinnati.  Although there are only three homes in downtown Stringtown, its northern suburbs boast eleven more along the road to Felicity.  Nevertheless, the name Stringtown is popular in Ohio — twice as popular as Bloomfield, and five times as popular as Adamsville. 

I explain everything in this month's 100 Moons article.



When I was in college, back in the dark ages, I didn't have a smartphone or a laptop.  Nevertheless, I could actually communicate with a computer.  To do so, I had to borrow a clunky machine like this.  Extremely clunky.  It made loud clunks with every character I typed.

The story, and some old election news, is in a new article called Bedrock Computing.  It quotes from two letters I received 50 years ago this month.


OCT. 9, 2017    POINT AND CALL

The Chyron machine I operate allows me to use either of two output channels, but the director expects certain graphics to appear on FB1 and others to appear on FB2.  Note the two icons labeled accordingly.

Before I call up a graphic, I really ought to check to see that the correct icon is highlighted in blue, lest I erase another graphic that's already airing on the other channel.  It's easy to fail to pay attention to this step.

Therefore, I've developed the habit of first looking at my monitor, pointing at the icon with either one or two fingers, and saying either "one" or "two" out loud.

I've recently learned that others also use a strange-looking procedure to reduce errors.  According to this article, the Japanese call it shisa kanko.



I forgot to mention my little adventure in rural Ohio two years ago.  Better late than never, I guess.

Ohio University had a home football game scheduled in Athens for Saturday, September 19, 2015, and I was scheduled to help televise it.  Because our crew would have to start setting up early in the morning, I drove down the day before.  And because the farm where my mother grew up was more or less on the way, and I hadn't been there in 14 years, I took a side trip to Noble County.

The place is called Curtis Ridge.  I've described it in this photo gallery.  My mother, born Anna Buckingham in 1913, lived on this hilltop for the first 11 years of her life.  What remains of the farmhouse is barely visible in the trees that have grown up since it was abandoned 80 years ago.  Those trees are on the right side of the picture below.

But what's going on out back?  That gravel area wasn't there on my previous visit.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered that this is an installation to extract natural gas from the Utica Shale formation.  Signs identify it as NBL-1A-HSU, API number 34121243420100.  Unfortunately, I was not "authorized personnel" and I lacked hazard training, so I couldn't explore further.

Online research comes to the rescue, in particular Google Earth with its "historical imagery" function.  On the left below:  in October 2011, the eight-acre field south of the house was still under cultivation, but a drilling permit was issued that December.  On the right below:  by October 2013, the crops and some of the trees had been cleared away.  Two temporary ponds had been constructed to hold fracking fluids.  The well was drilled not straight down but horizontally, towards the southeast, passing under the land shown in the lower right corner of the pictures. 

Then in 2015, barely two weeks after my visit, the cameras captured the scene I've labeled below.  Drilling operations had been completed, and natural gas was flowing into the pipeline.

I noticed for the first time that Google identifies Township Highway 232, the narrow road that climbs up Curtis Ridge, as "Buckingham Road."  That is as it should be.  Tommy Buckingham married Mary E. Curtis in 1869.  They became my great-grandparents.  Their grave is in a small cemetery across the road from the house they built.

I trust the Buckinghams would be proud to know that their farm remains productive, and their monument still looks out over the Ohio hills.


OCT. 4, 2007 flashback   Sputnik & 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.

I was actually looking for something else.

I'd recently seen an image of the Death Star (top) from the 1977 movie Star Wars, and that reminded me of Mimas (bottom), one of the moons of Saturn first photographed at close range by Voyager I in 1980.  Did George Lucas have some advance knowledge of what would be found three years later at Saturn?

A little Googling revealed that I was not the first to notice the resemblance.  In particular, I found a reference on wanderingspace.net.

And further down the same page is a scene from another planet.

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.


The great day of the Lord is near, near and coming fast;


A day of destruction and devastation,


A day of darkness and gloom,


A day of cloud and dense fog.


I shall destroy human beings and animals,


The birds of the air and the fish in the sea.



This is the city that exulted in her security.


She heeded no warning voice, took no rebuke to heart.


I have wiped out this arrogant people; their bastions are demolished.


I have destroyed their streets; no one walks along them.


Their cities are laid waste, abandoned and unpeopled.


The whole earth will be consumed by the fire.



Remember my graphic depiction of the twists and turns of baseball standings. the Diamond Brick Road?   Well, the graph of the just-concluded 2017 regular season presents a couple of salient features.  Both of them involve division-winning teams.  Both of them represent the same time span of roughly three weeks.

Consider the red road for the Cleveland Indians.  On August 23, the Tribe was leading the American League Central Division with a respectable record of 69 wins and 56 losses.

But that's nothing.  Consider the blue road for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  On August 23 their record was 89-36, an amazing 53 games over .500.

Back on June 6, the Dodgers had only been in third place in the National League West.  But then they won 31 of their next 35 games, and fans in southern California started to dream:  if L.A. could keep up that .886 winning percentage the rest of the way, as I've indicated by the line of green diamonds on my chart, they'd make history by the time they reached the gold line marking the end of the season.  They would finish with 125 wins!  That would far surpass the all-time Major League record of 116, marked by the single brown diamond.

Of course, they couldn't maintain that .886 pace.  They did reach 91 wins, 55 games over .500.  They did take a 21-game lead in their division.  They did have pundits debating whether they were the best team ever.  But then the Dodgers suddenly slumped.  The darker blue portion of their Road, veering off to the right, represents their 2-16 losing stretch.

Meanwhile, over in the American League, the Indians were posting a record winning streak.  The darker red portion of their Road shows that they won 22 games in a row, the longest such streak in A.L. history.

And what does all this tell us?  Nothing.  After all that drama, the teams had very similar records by the second week of September: the Dodgers 92-52, the Indians 91-56.  The Dodgers ended the season with 104 wins, the Indians with 102.

We want to believe that everything happens for a reason, and it's human nature to try to find a narrative hidden in random chaos.  However, the Bible teaches us that such efforts are in vain.  It teaches us that atypical conditions (such as hot and cold streaks) will eventually regress to the average.

From Santa Monica, Earl Pomerantz wrote about his local favorites.

In one season, the Dodgers were the best team in baseball and also the worst team in baseball.  That has never happened before.  If the Dodgers were looking for a record, they set one.  “Best record for four months/worst record for 2½ weeks in the same season” is an achievement likely to stand the statistical test of time.

Inevitably, baseball experts pored over the ashes of this debacle, looking for reasons.  “The Dodgers keep shuffling their lineup.”  “The recently procured players have upset the team's delicate chemistry.”  “The opposition has discovered the Dodgers' preferred batting approach.”  “The Dodgers have succumbed to the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.”

Like the mystified baseball pundits, we, meaning the human species, are incapable of having things happen without definitively determining the reason they did.  An experience takes place and we get right down to business, searching for an acceptable explanation, refusing to quit until the troubling phenomenon is adequately explained — magic, science, “God's mysterious ways,” something — never stopping till “That's it!”   We have to know.  For our basic survival, we must always struggle to understand.

As for the Dodgers?  I see their stunned faces in the dugout and know they still haven't got a clue.



I created the illustrations for my last post by editing these Internet images.  But you may be wondering what the dialogue was all about.

It was inspired by the meltdown of National Football League fanatics who believe passionately that “athletes should not express opinions which I oppose.”

Some athletes have been trying to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality.  Some fans are Trump followers or extreme conservatives, and of course they don't really care about racial injustice and police brutality.  (Nor do they care about Puerto Ricans.)  But they do become incensed if someone doesn't worship the flag properly — or if football players refuse to stand during the pregame National Anthem.

To avoid stirring up the controversy, on September 24 the Pittsburgh Steelers simply remained off the field until the Anthem was over.  “We weren't going to play politics,” explained Coach Mike Tomlin afterwards, “we were going to play the game.  Contrary to popular belief, we are a very patriotic and respectful group.”

Rabid fans jumped to the opposite conclusion.  “How dare you boycott the Anthem?” they raged.  They wanted to tell the players “You're fired!”  Since they couldn't, they fired themselves, swearing they'd never attend another game.

Michael Hesson posted, “Today, after 30 years of loving the Pittsburgh Steelers, I'm going burn [sic] my Steelers jersey.  They have taken a great American sport that people use to forget there [sic] problems with and turned it into a political circus.”

In a YouTube video, Robert Williams destroyed hundreds of dollars of Pittsburgh paraphernalia, saying “We have morals in this country!  You do not disrespect the flag and the country and the Constitution, so watch this stuff burn.”

In another video, Jim Heaney said “I'm a lifelong Steelers fan.  Not anymore.  There you go.  Goodbye, Pittsburgh Steelers.  Burn in hell.”

“Racism is so ingrained in America,” tweeted Qasim Rashid, “that when people of color protest racism, critics think we're protesting America.”  And foreigners may have stoked the debate “to push divisiveness in this country,” according to Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) of the Senate Intelligence Committee.   “We watched, even this weekend, the Russians and their troll farms, their internet folks, start hash-tagging out #TakeAKnee and also hash-tagging out #BoycottNFL.  They were taking both sides of the argument ... to try to raise the noise level of America and make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue.”

However, most people didn't really get that excited over the matter.  Kristina Ribali tweeted, “I've been so busy I have no idea what I'm supposed to be offended about.”  And the NFL's TV ratings, Donald Trump's favorite indicator of winning, actually showed a 3% increase this week.



Good morning, Felicia.

Oh, hello, Mr. Phenattik!  I was so happy to see you at church again last Sunday.  How long were you in, uh ... in the hospital?

Nine weeks.  But now I think my mind is straightened out.  I'm thinking clearly again.

Good for you.

But say, Felicia, speaking of last Sunday, I wanted to ask you about something that happened during the service.

What's that?

After the offering, you know how the ushers brought all the collection plates forward and placed them on the altar, like they do every week?  And the organ played louder and everyone stood up and faced the altar and sang the Doxology?

"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow."

I noticed you didn't stand up.

Some other women didn't, either.

You just sat there and folded your hands and bowed your heads.  Some of you knelt.  What was that all about?

Well, did you know our former pastor had to resign?  He was arrested for domestic violence.

Yes, I heard he beat up his wife and his mother-in-law.  Big scandal.

The church's Board of Trustees voted to use some of our offerings to pay his legal bills, but a lot of the church ladies felt that was wrong.  We know what some women have to endure.  Our gifts shouldn't be enabling a wife-beater.

But he's a preacher.  We should stand behind all our men of the cloth.

Even the ones who abuse innocent people?


We complained to the board, but nothing changed.  We mustn't allow this injustice to proceed.  So we decided on a symbolic protest to follow the offering.  Instead of standing for the Doxology, we chose to remain seated while bowing our heads in an attitude of prayer.

You women don't respect the Doxology?

No, that's not it.

You don't believe we should praise God, from whom all blessings flow?

Of course we should.  We're just trying to call attention to what we perceive as a wrong.

Do you think there's something wrong with our church?  Are you criticizing the church?  Our church is perfect, just as God's Holy Word is perfect!

Well, in this case, we feel a mistake is being made.  And we're trying to point it out.

But you're doing so by disrupting the service!  That's disgraceful!  You're protesting the Doxology!  That hymn is sacred!  Stand up for it!  Praise God the way you're supposed to!  Not only that, you're also disrespecting the offerings that we've placed on the altar.

That's not our intent ...

It's an outrage!  Those offerings support our missionaries in far-off lands!  Those heroes are risking their lives for the Gospel!

This isn't about them, not at all.  We support mission work.

You're attacking the symbols of our faith!  You should be grateful for God's blessings!  You know what should be done with anyone who refuses to stand and sing?  I say, we ought to kick you out!  We ought to throw you uppity bitches off the property!  If you aren't behind our missionaries, if you have a problem with our church, get out!  If you don't love it, leave it!  Right now!  Leave us in peace!

We do love the church.  We simply want it to be better.  We want it to be true to Christian principles.

You ungrateful women!  You don't appreciate how much you've been blessed by God!  You don't know your place!

Now, Mr. Phenattik ...

You know what?  I'm going to leave the church!

Wait, what?

I'm disgusted with it!  I'm going to burn all my Sunday clothes and tear up my season tickets and never go back there again!  I'll never even watch a service on TV!  I've had it with you people!

Perhaps you need to pay another visit to the hospital, Mr. Phenattik.


SEPT. 26, 2007 flashback   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.

Pushing Daisies:  Ned can bring the dead back to life with a touch.  However, if he touches them a second time they're dead again, this time permanently.

Journeyman:  Dan travels back in time and meets his presumed-dead fiancé.  However, to get back to the present he must alter the events of a stranger's life.

Reaper:  Sam has to capture escapees from Hell and send them back to Satan.

Cavemen:  three Cro-Magnons find themselves in today's racist world.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles:  a woman and her teenage son try to avoid alien cyborgs from the future.

Chuck:  the title character can access all sorts of secret government data that has been downloaded into his brain.

Eli Stone:  a lawyer might be a prophet.

And then there's Bionic Woman.

Give me outlandish premises like these, and it's easy to write a story.  Can I tweak the rules just a little more?

SEPT. 23, 2017    PEAKING

Archers require backstops to catch any arrows that miss the target entirely.

Montana requires mountains to justify its name.

This particular 8,180-foot-high peak in Glacier National Park was dubbed Mount Oberlin by Lyman Beecher Sperry, MD.

The "Gentleman Explorer," who led the first party to reach Sperry Glacier in 1896, named the mountain after his employer back in Ohio, Oberlin College.

Oberlin is my alma mater.  It's only ten miles from the shores of Lake Erie, and I'm well aware that its campus is completely flat — except, that is, for one elevation that I remember as the college's very own "Mount Oberlin."

I ought to be surer of my sources, considering that I was WOBC-FM's sports director for 2½ years.  Some of these facts may be distorted by the mists of time, and some may never have been true in the first place.  But here's the tale as I recall it:

When construction began in 1930 on Crane Swimming Pool for Women, the excavated dirt was dumped in a pile on the athletic grounds out back.   When I enrolled 35 years later, the pile was still there, now covered in grass.  It served as the archery backstop, and I think I once climbed all the way to its summit.  This eminence was jocularly known as Mount Oberlin.

During my visit a week ago, I wandered behind the John W. Heisman Field House and took these photos.  The gold arrow points to Crane Pool, now being renovated, and the crimson arrow points to WOBC's antenna.

Usually when we revisit the scenes of our youth, everything seems smaller than we remember.  But Mount Oberlin has overcome this phenomenon!  (I suppose the bulldozers have been at work.)  I remember it as small and steep and located more or less in the middle of the field.

Now it seems to have become a long mound on the west side.  I don't know whether it's even still referred to as a Mount.

But just to the north, the soccer and track & field and lacrosse teams now have an up-to-date lighted facility including this right-sized grandstand.

At our alumni meeting, we were told that Oberlin's Division III athletes, the Yeomen, are the happiest students on campus.  They have scaled the heights!


SEPT. 21, 2017    OUT THE DOOR?

Last month, the French Embassy tweeted:  “Flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata was born #OTD.  Picasso, who heard him in Arles, proclaimed ‘This man is of greater worth than I am!’”

I admire de Plata for overcoming his congenital disorder.  However, what does it mean to be “born OTD”?  Is it like being “born blind” or “born HIV positive”?  Or did his mother merely have an On Time Delivery?

I'd forgotten that OTD is tweetspeak for On This Date.  My bad.

And I've often had to remind myself that my initials TBT are tweetspeak for Throw-Back Thursday.



There was a buffet dinner Saturday evening at Oberlin College for the volunteers planning the next two 50th anniversary reunions.  I happened to find a seat between Wayne Alpern, president of the Class of 1969, and our classmate Christie Seltzer Fountain.  Thanks to George Spencer-Green for the photo below, which I've flanked with yearbook portraits. 

Our after-dinner conversation was mostly about Oberlin history.  Wayne related that the college's charismatic early leader, evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, agreed to become a professor only on the condition that the young institution would accept Black students.  That was in 1835.

In May of this year, Oberlin named Carmen Ambar as its 15th president, the first African American leader in the institution's 184-year history.  She spoke to us on both Friday and Saturday and made a great impression.

However, all three of us at the table Saturday evening had noticed fewer Blacks currently on campus than we remembered from the 1960s.  Alan Goldman, our committee's liaison with the college, forwarded the official numbers yesterday.

Two different ways of counting are in use. 

According to the federal reporting method, there are 151 students who identify as Black.  (That's only a fraction of the 1,013 students who by this method are non-white.)

According to a method which allows checking more than one box, there are 248 calling themselves at least partly African American.

Those numbers respectively translate to 5.3% and 8.8% of the college's 2,827 total students.  For the nation as a whole, the corresponding numbers are 13.3% and 14.5%.  Oberlin's legacy demands that we do better.