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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website

 

SEPTEMBER 29, 2016    DECISIONS, DECISIONS

Mikki Brock (left) teaches history at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.  She tweeted this week that she’s “furious and ashamed that we are a nation torn between electing a smart, experienced woman and an incoherent, narcissistic racist.”

Suppose you're among the torn.  You’re still trying to decide whether to vote for Donald Trump.

On a sheet of paper you draw a vertical line to make two columns, pro and con.  You list the points in favor and those against, and you count them up.

But that’s simplistic, because not all the reasons are equally important.  Among the “cons,” the fact that you didn’t like his sniffing during the debate — even if you really really didn’t like his sniffing — should carry less weight than the fact that on many issues, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

This month’s 100 Moons article links to a little spreadsheet I designed to evaluate such lists.

 

SEPTEMBER 26, 2016    A MAJOR INVESTMENT OF TIME

As I grow older, I’m gradually retiring, and this year I’ve worked my fewest baseball telecasts since 1982.  However, this past weekend the Washington Nationals visited the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I was behind the graphics keyboard for more than enough pitches to make up for what I’ve missed.  (While I was at it, I heard the MASN announcers invent the words exuberation and analyzationThey also quoted the classic lyric from Ozzy Osbourne, “I'm going off the rails on a gravy train.”)

Friday’s game lasted 11 innings and took 4:36 to play.

Saturday’s game was relatively quick by today’s standards, requiring less than 3½ hours, but we stayed on the air an extra hour to interview the Nationals as they celebrated clinching the division championship.

Then yesterday we endured “a very extended nine-inning ballgame,” in the words of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.  There was a benches-clearing fight, red uniforms scuffling with gold uniforms.  There were many pitching changes — frequently double switches.  The Nationals averaged one pitcher per inning (pulling their starter after 56 pitches), and they employed 15 other players.  Combined, the two teams used 17 pitchers, one shy of the Major League record for a nine-inning game, and a total of 45 players, also one shy of the Major League record.  And they were on the field for 4:01.  Pittsburgh’s loss once again dropped their record below .500.

Fortunately I did not work the telecast of the previous meeting between these two teams, an 18-inning marathon in Washington on July 17.  If you include that game and Saturday's spraying of the celebratory champagne, the last four meetings have averaged 12 innings and 4:43.  Enough!

 

SEPTEMBER 22, 2016    MY BROADWAY DEBUT

Thirty years ago I got an urgent phone call.  “CBS has a big live awards telecast coming up this Sunday, from a theater on Broadway in New York City.  But they've got a problem animating their graphics.  And you're the only one who can save the day!”

Donning my imaginary superhero costume, that very afternoon I flew to Metropolis, where preparations were under way at the Minskoff Theatre on 45th Street for the 40th annual Tony Awards three days later.

Quickly I solved the difficulty by demonstrating my somewhat obscure techniques to graphics operator Barry Fialk.  I’d never met him before, but later he would book me for a couple of sports telecasts in New York.

We had to leave the mobile unit temporarily so our conversation didn’t bother the producers and director sitting in front of us.  Out on the street, Barry showed me the high-tech equipment (two separate trucks, for redundancy, because this was a prestigious prime-time special) that would transmit the live video all the way to the CBS Broadcast Center 15 blocks away.  Then he took me backstage, and from the fly loft I looked down on Bea Arthur rehearsing her presentation far below.

Recently someone posted a tape of the Tony telecast to YouTube, so I can show you my work.  It appears in the medley of recent show tunes beginning at 1:34:45.

Very conventionally for 1986, the graphic font is merely Helvetica Bold with a four-line drop shadow.  However, the words are surrounded by an oval of twinkling chaser lights designed by me!

It wasn’t easy to achieve that animation on the rather primitive old Chyron IV.  Details are in this letter that I wrote at the time.

 

SEPTEMBER 19, 2016    WHAT HAVE I MISSED?

When the TV listings tell me there’s an episode coming up of a series I like, I set my DVR to record it.  Then if I don’t watch it live, I can watch it later.  However, there’s no urgency.  I find better things to do, and the recordings pile up.

For a given series, the DVR sorts all the episodes into a file folder.  Lately, with some of these containing 10 or more programs, I’ve been systematically paring them down by watching the oldest show from the fullest folders.  I’ve just cleared the seventh archived Big Bang Theory.  Now no folder contains more than six episodes.

But many contain exactly six.  To be precise, there are 29 such six-packs!  The oldest was recorded between June 24 and July 29, 2015.  I still have a lot of catching up to do.

 

SEPTEMBER 15, 2016    FIRE UP THE ZAMBONI

They say that time passes more quickly as one gets older.  

It was only three months ago that Pittsburgh held a huge parade to honor the Penguins for winning hockey’s Stanley Cup.  But our brief summer hockey respite is already at an end.  It’s time to start making ice again.  The Consol Energy Center hosted a couple of World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament exhibitions last night, and the Penguins’ first preseason game is in Detroit a week from Tuesday.

Long ago when I was in high school, snapping whippers, our vacation time between athletic seasons was longer than three months.  It was nine months.  We never wearied of a sport.

Consider my classmate Criss Somerlot, a four-sport man.  In August, Richwood High School began practice for high school football, where he was a lineman and placekicker.  In November, we put away the pads and Criss became a forward on the basketball team.  In February, we put away the basketballs and he started tossing the shot and discus.  And in May, the track and field season ended and Criss headed to the baseball diamond.

Criss went on to specialize in “the weights.”  He set the Ohio University record in the hammer throw, a staple of the Olympics.  (And of frustrated dads, according to Captain Obvious).  Then Criss became a widely respected track and field coach.  Next month he’ll be inducted into the OU Athletic Hall of Fame.

Right now, many are growing tired of Major League Baseball — especially those of us who follow the Pittsburgh Pirates, losers of 13 of their last 16 games.  The season started with spring training seven months ago and isn't scheduled to end until Game 7 of the World Series on November 2.

Bad news:  I asked the groundhog whether autumn is just around the corner.  He glanced at his shadow and said no, we’re going to have six more weeks of baseball.

 

SEPTEMBER 9, 2016    MOVING ON

I’ve prepared another installment of letters written during the early 1970s by the young lady of my acquaintance who was enrolled in med school — and played the autoharp, went camping, and drew mermaids.

One highlight involved the wee hours of January 30, 1971.  After holding a party for 11 people, Jan and her roommate went out for a 2½-mile walk through eight inches of fresh snow.  Then the snow got heavier.  They decided to spend the rest of the night in a guy’s room.  Within two years, one of them had married the guy.

Other highlights from these letters:

I am now officially a junior member of the American Medical Women’s Association, Inc.  The official publication deals with issues such as how to combine doctorhood and motherhood.

We spend about 12 hours a week in lab dissecting our cadaver.  Each pair of students rooming together was given a box of bones to take home with them.

I have nightmares about the patients at the hospital.  Also, I sleepwalk.  A few nights ago Chris heard some “angry mutterings.”  She saw me crawling around on the floor beside my bed, talking.  I picked up my alarm clock, looked at it, and said, “Oh, my!” 

The times, they were a-changing.

Hooray for Women’s Liberation!  Hooray for the Equal Rights Amendment!  Hooray for very liberalized abortion laws!

Last week in my elective on Sex and Sex Ed., we talked to three members (two women and a man) from Rochester’s Gay Liberation Front.  Most interesting!  Homosexuals are not necessarily either criminals or sick.

I am a volunteer in a study of low-dose oral contraceptives.  The purpose of the experiment is to determine whether low dosages of progesterone and estrogen will prevent ovulation without causing changes in blood clotting.

And, in the fall of 1972, Jan announced her plans to be married.  Not to me, of course.  She and I always had been friendly, but we knew we weren’t “right for each other.”  Nevertheless, she took care to “let me down easy.”

You and I have done all right despite the fact that I seem to have been “going with” somebody other than you for most of the years I’ve known you!

This latest collection of correspondence is called Letters from Jan: Onward. 

 

SEPTEMBER 5, 2016    FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

A century ago, the game of football was played by college and high school students on autumn Saturday afternoons.  Then many high schools installed lights at their fields and began playing on Friday nights.


From the 1954 Tigrtrax, the Richwood High School Tigers kick an extra point.
The lights at Memorial Field weren’t very bright,
so the ball was white and the photographer used flash.

Meanwhile, professional teams claimed Sundays.  They eventually competed most of the winter as well, into February.  I grew up feeling this was the natural gridiron progression:  high school on Friday night, college on Saturday, pro on Sunday.

That natural order began to break down with the debut of Monday Night Football in 1970, and a gradual relaxation of standards continues even today.  This past Friday evening, there were five college games live on my cable TV — college games, not high school.

FS1

Kansas State

vs

8

Stanford

BIG TEN

Furman

vs

12

Michigan State

ESPN

Colorado State

vs

Colorado

ESPNU

Toledo

vs

Arkansas State

CBSSN

Army

vs

Temple

Next Friday, two such telecasts are scheduled.  High schools managed to preserve their Friday monopoly for a long time, but fewer kids are playing football these days and their time slot exclusivity seems to have gone away. 

 

AUGUST 30, 2016    ASTRONAUT IN JEOPARDY

At Oberlin, a liberal arts college, I was a physics major.  In addition to our department’s rigorous studies, a simple non-technical course was offered for humanities students who needed to fulfill their science requirement.  We patronizingly called it “poet’s physics.”

In a tweet last Friday, Ken Jennings intended to mention my alma mater.  But he failed.

He was imagining a space traveler unable to find words to express the wonders around him.

Brown?  An Ivy League school?  In his next tweet Ken confided, “I really wanted this to be ‘Oberlin’ instead but couldn't get it to scan.”  I feel slighted.

 

AUGUST 24, 2016    STOP? GO AROUND?

Let's take a look at the pros and cons of roundabout intersections, including a downtown “racetrack” in nearby Rochester, PA.  My article on this subject is called Courteous Circling.

 

AUGUST 19, 2016    ROBOTIC REPORTAGE

In college, I used to rip the news off our campus radio station's UPI teletype and read it on the air.  Often my shift was the 5:30 pm newscast on Thursday.  What sports stories break at that hour on a Thursday?

Almost invariably, I found that the sports section led off like this.  The standard sentence could have been written by a machine.

Nowadays we're told that the Associated Press is allowing a computer program to begin filling in the blanks.  It uses the data from minor league box scores to generate baseball stories automatically.  No human sportswriters are required to actually watch the games.

However, the robot isn’t taking away anyone’s job.  In this era of budget cutbacks, as I noted earlier about high school football, there’s less and less actual in-person newsgathering going on these days.  No reporter would have been assigned to these particular minor league games anyway.

 

AUGUST 15, 2016    THE RIGHT-HAND MAN

Vin Scully is drawing closer to the end of an amazing 67 years of broadcasting Dodgers baseball.  Yesterday he called his final Pittsburgh at Los Angeles game.

I crossed paths with Vin only once.  It was ten years ago in the restroom of the Dodger Stadium pressbox.  But his assistant — now there’s a different story.



 

Boyd Robertson’s specialty is the position we call “stage manager,” overseeing various details in the announcers’ booth.

In 1987 I started traveling as part of the KDKA broadcast team covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I relied on his help any time we televised from L.A.

As the graphics operator, I couldn’t actually see the game.  I was out in the parking lot, sitting behind a keyboard in a truck called the mobile unit.  My view of the ballpark was limited to what the cameras were shooting.  If a pinch-hitter came out on deck or a reliever started warming in the bullpen, the stage manager needed to notice it and alert me via headset.

I also required his assistance in other situations.  He’d bring me the starting lineups as soon as they became available.  When I forgot to mark something on my scorecard, he’d help me fill in the gaps.  And late in the game we’d discuss which pitcher would be awarded the win and which would take the loss, barring any further scoring.

Boyd was always great to work with.  I was glad to see him on a few other occasions when he came East or when we were televising a sport other than baseball.

But starting in 1989, he rarely had to deal with visiting broadcasters like us because he had joined Vin Scully’s crew.  I didn’t see him much after that, except on a July 2005 edition of HBO’s Real Sports in which Bryant Gumbel followed Vinny behind the scenes.

This article from last month, when the Dodgers were on the road at Anaheim, brings us up to date on the Boyd Robertson story.  Good luck to him, wherever he goes from here!

 

 

AUGUST 10, 2016    FEMINISTS ON THE RISE

“In my lifetime,” President Barack Obama noted one week ago today, “we’ve gone from a job market that basically confined women to a handful of often poorly paid positions, to a moment when women not only make up roughly half the workforce but are leading in every sector — from sports to space, from Hollywood to the Supreme Court.  I’ve witnessed how women have won the freedom to make their own choices about how they’ll live their lives.  That’s what 21st-century feminism is about:  the idea that when everybody is equal, we are all more free.”

Indeed, many professions were effectively closed to women when I was a young man in 1970.  But that didn’t stop fellow Oberlin College graduate Jan Olson.  She was going to be a doctor.  She applied to several medical schools including the Yale School of Medicine, only to discover that Yale’s admission policies favored men.  Jan got herself accepted elsewhere.

Some mossbacks didn’t trust physicians of either gender, as I later wrote to Dr. Olson.

Listening to the radio recently, I happened to run across a preacher who was talking about having faith in what God tells us, using Luke 1:19-20.  Then he quoted James 5:14-15, in which we are told that if the elders of the church pray over a sick man, God will cure him.  So why is it, asked the preacher, that when we are sick we go to a doctor?

The preacher himself had not been to a doctor since he was discharged from the Navy in 1946.  God says that prayer will cure us.  Who are you going to believe?  God, or “some old demon-possessed doctor who’s been out all night with his nurse, boozing it up?”

That’s one of the strange tangents that can result from a too literal, too uncritical reading of the Bible.

Other verses, like I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:12, had excluded women from church leadership positions.

But by 1980 Jan was able to tell me proudly that her newly elected bishop in Wisconsin was Marjorie Matthews (left) from Colgate Rochester Divinity School, the first woman to become a bishop of the United Methodist Church.

“There are no models for me,” Bishop Matthews said.  “I'll have to make my own.”

Anyway, where was I?  Ah, yes.  Back in the first year out of college, I was.  Applying to med schools, Jan was.  Also, she was conflicted about her love life.  She wrote,

I'm alone in the silence that separates me
From another.

The rest of that poem, and the one I wrote in reply, are to be found in this month's second installment of Letters from Jan: Readjustment.

 

AUGUST 5, 2016    OBRIGADO!  EU SOU RICO!

As you may have heard, the Olympic Games are getting under way down in Brazil.  The opening ceremony will be tonight.

My most recent summer Olympics telecast was in 1996, where I provided a small part of the graphics for the international feed.

That year in Atlanta, my first assignment was the opening ceremony (at right).

There was much speculation about which celebrity might receive the honor of lighting the flame.  For a few minutes I was one of the only people in the world who knew the secret; they told me in advance so I could prepare a lower-third identifier.  Even Bob Costas didn't know who it was going to be until Muhammad Ali stepped out to take the torch.

Once the competition began, my assignment changed to events on the stadium track.

For example, there was as the 200-meter dash.  In the final, Michael Johnson set a new world record by more than a third of a second.

Once again I knew in advance.  I could tell several strides before the finish that he was going to surpass the old mark, and I exclaimed to my coordinator, “That's a world record!”

 

Today, however, I’m recalling another gathering of nations for a different festival of athletic competition.  There a stranger from Brazil gave me money.  For no reason at all, he handed me 100,000 Cruzeiros!



That sounds like a lot, but due to inflation at the time, the large-denomination bill was barely worth a couple of bucks American.  Due to subsequent inflation, nowadays the souvenir isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Nevertheless, the anecdote is worth three paragraphs in this month’s 100 Moons article.

 

AUGUST 1, 2016    AWAKE, BETTER ANGELS!

When I consider the possibility of Donald Trump becoming Commander in Chief, two specters haunt me.  One is Donald Trump’s incompetence.  The other is his voters’ hostility.

 

“There is nothing on Mr. Trump’s résumé,” the Washington Post editorialized between the conventions, “to suggest he could function successfully in Washington.  The lack of experience might be overcome if Mr. Trump saw it as a handicap worth overcoming.  But he displays no curiosity, reads no books, and appears to believe he needs no advice ... whether he convinces himself of his own untruths or knows that he is wrong and does not care.”

Paul Krugman wrote, “You can’t run the U.S. government the way he has run his ramshackle business empire.  We know about his stiffing of vendors, his profiting from enterprises even as they go bankrupt, his seeing contracts as mere suggestions and clear-cut financial obligations as starting points for negotiation.  We also know that he sees fiscal policy as no different; he has already talked about renegotiating U.S. debt.  So why should we be surprised that he sees diplomatic obligations in the same way?”

“He has made clear,” the Post continued, “that he would drop allies without a second thought.  The consequences to global security could be disastrous.

“Most alarming is Mr. Trump’s contempt for the Constitution.  ...He doesn’t seem to care about its limitations on executive power.  He has threatened that those who criticize him will suffer when he is president.

“...We have criticized the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the past and will do so again when warranted.  But we do not believe that she ... represents a threat to the Constitution.  Mr. Trump is a unique and present danger.”

Other commentators have even questioned the mental health of the man who would have his finger on the proverbial button.  Keith Olbermann used the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to diagnose Trump as a borderline psychopath.  Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard wrote, “Donald Trump is crazy.  This isn't the behavior of a rational, stable individual.”

I remember 1972, when the Democrats nominated Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri for Vice President.  Two weeks later, we learned he was on the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine and had received electroshock therapy for clinical depression.  His doctors said Eagleton's depression could recur and might endanger the country.  He was forced to withdraw on August 1.  The Democratic National Committee had to nominate a replacement.

But things are different in 2016.  Crazy Donald is not going to give up.

 

Although only one out of every 24 Americans cast a ballot for him in the primaries, that still amounts to 13,300,472 votes — a total that Trump proudly trumpets.  Why do so many support him?

Typically the response is, “Trump understands what it’s like to be me.  In this economy, I’m having a hard time making ends meet.  I know it’s not my fault.  So whose fault is it?  Somebody has to be blamed!  I blame blacks and foreigners.  Also those elite politicians in Washington.  Trump is not a know-it-all politician.  He speaks his mind.  He talks the way I talk.”

That, of course, is the problem!

Trump does talk like an egotistic white male — not a statesman.  His voters cheer for a demagogue who will bully the rest of the world into doing whatever benefits them.  He exploits their fears, slams the door in the face of outsiders, demeans dissenters with crude nicknames.

Even if he loses in November, his supporters will still be with us.  “The election must have been rigged.  Find a scapegoat!  And lock her up!”  Their seething anger might be a greater long-term threat to the nation than crazy Donald himself.

 

What can be done?  It’s up to us.

We Americans have always seen ourselves as bright, optimistic, friendly.  We have always professed a decent respect and charity for all.  Even for “poor,” “tired” foreigners.  Even for “the homeless.”

But sometimes, as Charles Dickens wrote in 1841,

“The shadows of our own desires
stand between us and our better angels,
and thus their brightness is eclipsed.”

Are we going to allow selfishness to block the light of our better angels?  Are we going to listen to those better angels, or to our hateful demons?

 

The temptations are illustrated in this image by C.F. Payne, which I have Trumpified.

 

An actually competent President reminded us in 1861:

“We are not enemies, but friends.

“We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

 

 


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