Sunday, August 28, 2016

Closed captioning

I've probably never depended on the closed captioning runners on my television screen more than I do now during this political season.

No, it's not because I've learned how to turn down/off the sound whenever a candidate speaks (although doing that might save my sanity).

But every morning, when I work out at the YMCA, I'm occasionally in front of a muted television screen. And there, before my very eyes, were the actual words allegedly coming out of the speakers' mouths running across the bottom of the monitor.

Sometimes I wonder how this technology works, because it's not always perfect.

For example, one day I was reading "leg is later" when I realized the intended word was "legislature." Well, did the auto correct suddenly cut in? Or cut off? I don't know.

The other day, I was watching a story about the earthquake in Italy when the CC crawler told me rescuers were "pourless to do anything." Hmm. I can almost see the logic in that one, except that I'm powerless to explain how.

Even this morning, I was watching a story about a Southwest passenger jet that lost one of its two engines. Because of the skill of the pilots, the plane landed safely, with the passengers giving the pilots "aorund of applause." Well, that was a simple spelling error. I've managed thousands of typos like that in my journalism career.

Then came a story about the immigration issue, especially that part where one of the candidates wants to remove "thousands of illegal grimmigrants." Well, no wonder they're grim. They're threatened with removal.

Sometimes you just don't know where the CC is going. Somebody was telling one of the candidates to "stake out your volalues." What? Do you mean values? Volatiles? Valuables? What?

I'm not quite sure how closed captioning works. Not that long ago I had an image of some guy sitting in front of a television screen in some broadcast booth furiously typing away the spoken transcript he was hearing into some kind of encoding device. Presto, seconds later, we can read (sort of) what the speaker is saying on our TV screens.

I thought this because sometimes, on the monitor, as the closed captioning is being typed out, it will erase a word — like "leg is later" — letter by letter and start over until it gets it right. Surely only a human can recognize their own error, right?

Then I thought, No, we live in an incredibly technological era. Surely the closed captioning device is voice activated. That's why we get all those synonymic typos.

But then I read this after a Google search: "Most programs are captioned in advance of transmission, but the nature of some programs, such as live news broadcasts, requires real time captioning. For real time captioning, a stenographer listens to the broadcast and types a shorthand version into a program that converts the shorthand into captions and adds that data to the television signal."

Yikes. So there really is a guy locked in a room somewhere furiously typing away, like a court stenographer, on some kind of an Ultra Secret Enigma machine.

Jeez. Makes me wonder if he's a former journalist.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Games of summer

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio will end today, and presumably the United States will earn another gold medal in men's basketball if it can defeat Serbia.

As I write this blog early this morning, the United States has currently hauled down 43 gold medals and a total of 116 gold, silver and bronze, making it one of the more spectacular hauls in recent Games.

Amazingly, Sports Illustrated predicted two weeks ago that the U.S. would end up with 45 golds and 118 total medals. Wow.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick glance of previous medal counts to see how this year stacks up. In the 2012 London games, the U.S. brought in 46 golds and 103 total medals, with China in second place with 38 gold and 88 total totems.

In the Beijing Games in 2008, China led the way with 51 gold and 100 total medals, while the U.S. followed with 36 gold and 110 total charms.

And in the Athens Games in 2004, the United States had 36 gold and 101 total medals, while China had 32 gold and 63 total medals.

I think the thing that surprised me the most about those numbers was how consistent they were over the years. This year, it felt like the United States was minting gold medals left and right. But as we go into the last day of the 2016 Games, the U.S. still hasn't quite reached its 2012 gold strike total.

I've watched the Games off and on for the past two weeks, even stealing a few minutes of TV time at work to watch water polo, rhythmic ribbon dancing or synchronized swimming, which are sports you would never catch me watching if I was in my right mind (then again, I'm inexplicably a big curling fan whenever the Winter Games are on). Late one afternoon, I watched someone named Helen Louise Maroulis win a gold medal in freestyle bantamweight wrestling. She defeated somebody who'd lost like three times in the previous 14 years. I didn't even know there were women wrestlers. Didn't matter. Yay, I thought, because the USA had another gold.

There were a few down moments, of course. U.S. women's soccer goalie Hope Solo irrationally called the Swedes "cowards" after Sweden eliminated the U.S. in a shootout. Shut up, Hope. You lost. Get over it. Geez. And swimmer Ryan Lochte showing us what an Ugly American looks like after drunkenly vandalizing a public restroom and then basically blaming the host country for his actions. Shut up, Ryan. You're an idiot. Get over it. Geez.

There's other stuff outside the Olympics going on, too.

I really enjoy watching the Little League World Series because it's fun to see pint-sized ball players play the game so well.

Did I say pint-sized? One team has a 12-year-old pitcher who stands 6 feet tall and chucks a 75 mph fastball 46 feet away from home plate. I'm 5-6 and can't even see a fastball. I admire their youth as they stand on the verge of adulthood. I like their panache. I like their talent. And I love their boundless joy in victory and their humility in defeat while still in their formative years, when all of that really means something.

All in all, it's been a pretty good summer.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

My Russia problem

About the same week that the Democratic National Committee determined that Russia was likely lurking behind its email hack, I found something interesting right here on my very own blog site.

There's a page on my blog platform devoted to statistics. If the numbers are to be believed, I get to see how many readers I have at this very minute, or on any given day, or any given week, or any given month, and for all time.

The numbers page even lets me know from which country the page views originate. It does that by coloring in a country in deep green on a world map on the page. I assume the minute a viewer from a country looks at my blog, that country turns green.

I have some suspicion about the accuracy of this worldwide viewer count, but, hey, I'm an old sports writer and statistics fascinate me. I'm horrible in anything mathematical — the right side of my brain just doesn't compute this stuff — but I love calculating batting averages, points per game, or yards per carry. That's about the only math I really understand. I get it, as they say.

But a week or so ago, I was looking over the statistics page on my blog platform. For some reason, I was getting a big bump in viewership. Best as I can remember, this came about the time I wrote about my air conditioner conking out.

So I looked on the statistical map. There it was: Russia was green. And not just green, but deep green. See for yourself:

What do the Russians want?
For that week, I had something like 300 page views from Russia, and 1,175 page views from Russia for the month.

I was getting more views from Russia than I was from the United States.


The last time I had a country seriously interested in my blog, it was France, and I had written about trying to lose some weight.

Now Russia. Interested in my air conditioning?

Because this happened about the time of the DNC hack revelation, it made me wonder if I'd been hacked by Ivan. Coincidence? I mean, do I really have a serious readership in Moscow? I have no friends or relatives that I know of currently in Russia (although I do have a brother who lives in Alaska. He can see Russia from his back porch). What else can it be? Do the Russians really want to read about my 1966 Mustang, Underhill Rose or the Blue Eyed Bettys? What other conclusion can I draw from this?

Maybe the Russians somehow are using my blog as a conduit for hacking other organizations. Now that I think about it, they might be the ones sending me text messages on my cell phone saying "How quickly can u get here. He gone now." (That would actually make me feel better if it was indeed the Russians behind it. It might be code).

Or maybe I'm being just a little paranoid about this. Maybe there's nothing more behind this than some guy in Kiev accidentally came across my blog, read it, enjoyed it, and told 1,174 of his friends about it. Yeah, that's it.

What else could it be?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

My friends put on a play

I just saw something that I can't believe my eyes just saw.

I saw something resembling muppets playing a fiddle, a banjo and a guitar.

No, really.

It all happened in a musical play called "The Tourist Trap," sponsored by The Peppercorn Theater at the Children's Museum of Winston-Salem and it was held in the cozy Hanesbrands Theatre on Spruce Street.

So it's off, off, off, off, way off Broadway.

But that doesn't mean it isn't worth your consideration.

The musical performers in this production are The Blue Eyed Bettys, who wrote the music for the hourish-long performance. The Bettys, as I call them, are a trio of talented actors/musicians who include Ben Mackel on guitar, Daniel Emond on banjo and Sarah Hund on fiddle (see here).

Without revealing the storyline too much, it's about a couple who gets waylaid by car trouble, possibly in ultrarural Georgia. The rest requires suspending — or, as I like to think, expanding— belief.

What is truly astounding about the play is the incredible logistics behind it. The three musicians play their own instruments, but do so with muppet-type puppets attached to their hands and arms. And in order to make the puppets seem real — to open and close their mouths or shake their heads — they are manipulated by humans who might as well have been attached to the Bettys at birth.

The Blue Eyed Bettys, their puppet characters, and their puppeteers.
 The puppeteers are essentially human shadows. It's constricting, it's constraining, it's claus-trophobic — and it's amazing.

"It wasn't easy and it's taken a lot of practice," understated Sarah, whose puppeteer was Bailey Gray Smith. Maria Ortiz shadowed Ben, and Cameron Newton was glued to Daniel.

I saw what I saw and I still can't believe it. How could the Bettys play their instruments? How could they sing in character? How could they move from here to there without tripping over their own personal puppeteer?

How come we don't see this type of stuff on the real Broadway?

There were other marvels. The stage sets were mobile and imaginative. The very fact that the sets were moved into position as the play continued was fascinating. It's actually a very physical production.

And the music was wonderful. If you are familiar with the original work of The Blue Eyed Bettys, the kind they perform in bars, bistros and backyards, you'd have no trouble recognizing the musicianship or the tight harmonies here. It doesn't take much for The Bettys to have their way with you once they get into your head. Literally and figuratively.

(Click here to see the puppets play instruments).

I don't mean to get too carried away by what I saw today. It is, after all, a show geared to children (although Sarah did say that it seems the adults in the audience appear to come away with more of an appreciation for the performance than the kids).

But it is worth an hour of your time. It's a lot of fun. And you won't believe what you just saw.

The play is based on the book and lyrics by John Bowhers and is directed by Harry Poster. The puppet direction is by Scottie Rowell. Other performers in the show include Karen Neitz, Andre Minkins, Hana Kristofferson, J. Andrew Speas and Simone Pommels.

The production continues until Aug. 14, with shows at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. The cost is pay as you can.