Sunday, December 28, 2008

Looking above

The other night, my Dad walked up next to me as I was working on the computer. He asked me, “Do you realize that the computer you’re working on now is better than the one they used when they first went to the moon?”

That sounds incredible, but do you realize that the first space visits to the moon took place nearly 40 years ago? 40!!! It’s amazing how much technology has changed since then. Space travel is, of course, still quite risky. But those risks have gone down considerably, to the point where certain rich people are paying for the right to go into outer space for a day.

With all this in mind, I’d like to share with you an article by Joe Blackstock of the Daily Bulletin newspaper. Joe has some memories of that time 40 years ago, and shares them in this column:

Let's face it, these are pretty hard times, but it's important sometimes to recall we've been in tough straits before and eventually rebounded from them all.
With that in mind, I thought I'd send along a type of Christmas card with an encouraging message from the past.

If you're looking for a depressing time in our history, it's hard to beat 40 years ago in 1968.
America was still reeling from the assassinations earlier in the year of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and riots at the Democratic Convention that summer. Newspaper headlines talked about the violence and uproar over the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests.

Consider some of the events of the last week of that forgettable year:
- The worst freeze in nearly two decades over three days ruined a quarter of the Inland Valley's citrus crop. On Dec. 21, the temperature held at 23 degrees for nine hours.
- The uneasy holiday truce declared in Vietnam exploded on Christmas eve with several bombings and small battles breaking the peace.
- The crew of the Pueblo, a Navy ship that had been captured when it allegedly strayed into North Korean waters, was released but the men had many ugly stories of abuse during their captivity.
And not surprisingly, a wire service story reported that due to a large number of American tourists in the Holy Land on Christmas eve, innkeepers in Bethlehem were again turning away pilgrims seeking lodging.

With these sobering events as a backdrop, three men on a long trip provided a little hope 40 years ago Wednesday.

They were at the apex of the flight of Apollo 8 which brought men into orbit around the moon for the first time. They never actually got to the surface, the trip serving as a stepping stone for the first successful moon landing by Apollo 11 the following July.

On that Christmas Eve, astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell and William A. Anders made 10 trips around the moon, looking at sights never before viewed by people of Earth.
Their trip to the moon certainly got people starting to look up, literally and figuratively.
NASA in Houston was inundated by calls from people asking if the white spot near the moon was Apollo 8, the Ontario Daily Report noted Dec. 24.

Officials had to patiently explain that dot was actually the planet Venus.

One of my own most vivid recollections was the photo they took of man's first "earthrise" from lunar obit, as the Earth majestically rose above the moon's surface. And the picture didn't show even a hint of the troubles going on 230,000 miles away back home.
Before being assigned to the mission, Borman was originally scheduled to read a Christmas Eve prayer at his church in League City, Texas. Instead he read the prayer from orbit that was recorded for his church and offered "actually to people everywhere."

It read:
"Give us, o God, the vision which can see thy love in the world, in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust the goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace."

That evening, the three astronauts put on one of the most remarkable television programs ever attempted, showing live close-up photos of the moon's mottled surface as they flew 70 miles above.

The crew members described the view in wonder and then each read excerpts from the book of Genesis.

Making everyone forget for a few faint moments all the sorrow and despair and pain that 1968 had brought the world was Borman's poignant farewell words that Christmas eve:
"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you all of you on the good Earth."

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at or by calling (909) 483-9382.

A Merry days after Christmas to all of you as well. Here’s to a fine 2009!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Alfie, the Christmas tree


by John Denver and Lee Holdridge

Did you ever hear the story of the Christmas tree

Who just didn't want to change the show?

He liked living in the woods and playing with squirrels

He liked icycles and snow

He liked wolves and eagles and grizzly bears

And critters and creatures that crawl

Why, bugs were some of his very best friends,

Spiders and ants and all

Now that's not to say that he ever looked down

On a vision of twinkling lights

Or on mirrored bubbles and peppermint canes

And a thousand other delights

And he often had dreams of tiny reindeer

And a jolly old man in a sleigh

Full of toys and presents and wonderful things

And the story of Christmas day

Oh, Alfie believed in Christmas all right

He was full of Christmas cheer

All through each and every day

And all throughout the year

To him it was more than a special time

Much more than a special day

It was more than a beautiful story,

It was a special kind of way

You see, some folks have never heard a jingle bell ring

And they've never heard of Santa Claus

They've never heard the story of the son of God

And that made Alfie pause

Did that mean that they'd never know of peace on earth

Or the brotherhood of man

Or know how to love, or know how to give?

If they can't - no one can

You see, life is a very special kind of thing

Not just for a chosen few

But for each and every living, breathing thing

Not just me and you

So in your Christmas prayers this year

Alfie asked me if I'd ask you

Say a prayer for the wind and the water and the wood

And those who live there, too

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gonna paint a legend

Ah, the power of the Internet. I never would have imagined that someday I would find out the name of the actor who played the “mad painter” on Sesame Street. His name was Paul Benedict, and he sadly recently passed away. The short films he appeared in on the show were shown for decades, and always brought a smile. Here's a list of them:

GONNA PAINT A TWO: He paints a “2” on the sail of a small boat, only to be chased away by the bald guy

GONNA PAINT A THREE: He tries to paint a 3 on some bread using mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup.

GONNA PAINT A FOUR: He paints it on a woman's umbrella, only to be drenched when she puts the umbrella down.

GONNA PAINT A FIVE: He crawls into a cage at the zoo (how the heck he could do that I don't know) and is confronted by a gorilla, who fortunately, also knows how to paint. (It's possible. Remember Koko?) Together, they paint a 5 on a large yellow ball.

GONNA PAINT A SIX: He uses cake icing to paint a 6 on a small white cake. The bald guy arrives, and unfortunately the cake was probably not meant for a 6-year-old, because he pushes the cake into the mad painter's face.

GONNA PAINT A SEVEN: He tries to paint it on the door of an elevator, but the 7 keeps disappearing as the door opens and he paints it on the people riding the elevator. It's hard to appreciate this one if you've never seen it!

GONNA PAINT AN EIGHT: My favorite. He puts on scuba gear to swim in a large pool to paint a large 8 onto the bald guy's head. The chase at the end is classic.

GONNA PAINT A NINE: He paints it right in the middle of a street, just before the bald guy drives up with the street cleaner.

GONNA PAINT A TEN: He paints it on the seat of a stool, right before the bald guy sits on it.

GONNA PAINT AN ELEVEN: He's in a waiting room, trying to paint an 11 on the small window of a door. He succeeds, but the bald guy shows up and washes the 11 away.

For images from each of these films, check out the Muppet Wiki page dedicated to the mad painter:

Special thanks to those who first downloaded these pictures and video clips. I appreciate the ability to present them here to other fans.

BEST FOOT FORWARD: Okay, look. Just because you don't like somebody, that doesn't give you the right to try and hurt them. You don't throw shoes at people. You might hurt them. You don't hurt people just because you disagree with them.

Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, a reporter in Iraq was unable to grasp this concept, and threw some shoes at George W. on Sunday. Look, I don't approve of Bush either, but let the man be! To throw shoes at the president demonstrates that you have truly lost your sole.

Hang on, I need to sneeze. . .ah. . .ah. . .A-SHOE!!!

Here's how the BBC reported the event:
In the middle of the news conference with Mr Maliki, Iraqi television journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi stood up and shouted "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," before hurling a shoe at Mr Bush which narrowly missed him. Showing the soles of shoes to someone is a sign of contempt in Arab culture.
With his second shoe, which the president also managed to dodge, Mr Zaidi said: "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq." Mr Zaidi, a correspondent for Cairo-based al-Baghdadiya TV, was then wrestled to the ground by security personnel and hauled away. "If you want the facts, it's a size 10 shoe that he threw," Mr Bush joked afterwards.
Al-Baghdadiya's bureau chief told the Associated Press that he had no idea what prompted Mr Zaidi to attack President Bush, although reports say he was once kidnapped by a militia and beaten up. "I am trying to reach Muntadar since the incident, but in vain," said Fityan Mohammed. "His phone is switched off." Correspondents said the attack was symbolic. Iraqis threw shoes and used them to beat Saddam Hussein's statue after his overthrow.

Needless to say, this journalist was not trying to be fair and unbiased. Bush's policy is certainly not popular with many, and while perhaps we can't blame the reporter for being upset, we also have to realize that we must tame our inner demons before we can unleash them on somebody else.

Inner demons? Sure - you've probably heard of anger and sorrow. And depression. And vengeance. And lust for the flesh. And covetousness. (I'm good friends with some of these guys). And greed. How do we gain control of them? Well, a long life helps. But for the short run, we simply have to look beyond ourselves – not forever, just for a little bit – and understand how foolish our actions would ultimately be. Admittedly, this often isn't easy. But it's probably the only way we can live in the world without killing everybody.

I am not sure if the journalist will be fired for this. But he probably deserves to be.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A brief pause with Mr. Claus

SANTA: Steven? Steven, wake up. It's me, Santa Claus.

STEVE: Huh? Oh. Good morning Santa.

SANTA: I just wanted to compliment you on your blog. I read it often.

STEVE: Really? Wow, thank you! I didn't think too many people cared about it. I've wanted to update it more regularly, but things get in the way. Real life takes time.

SANTA: Indeed. It will be three years old this year, right?

STEVE: Right, on Wednesday, December 10.

SANTA: A little bird told me that you want to have a bigger presence on the Web. He said you wanted to download your art, stories and poems- and even some of your audio and video work!

STEVE: That's right- How on earth do you know these things?

SANTA: I have friends in low places. Of course, living on top of the world, most of my friends are in low places.

STEVE: Say, has global warming affected your work at the North Pole?

SANTA: Just a little bit. The reindeer have to be more careful in their reindeer games. And more and more of my volunteers are polar bears and penguins. Apparently they prefer living with me than trying to brave the sinking ice of their homes. My fear is that someday, they'll ALL have to live with me, and they won't have homes of their own anymore.

STEVE: That would be terrible indeed. They would change from animals into mythology. Just like the elves who help you out.

SANTA: It's very difficult for those elves to find work elsewhere. It's an age thing, I think. Some of them are 200 years old. No one wants to insure a 200-year-old elf.

STEVE: Santa, what do YOU want for Christmas?

SANTA: I ask for the same thing every year. I want the children of the world to share their love with others, just as I share my love with them.

STEVE: By giving presents.

SANTA: And by listening to them. And by letting them know that they are loved.

STEVE: You might enjoy my holiday blog posting about Daniel Striped Tiger. It's about sharing love as well:

SANTA: Yes, I love that post.

STEVE: It's turning into a Christmas tradition for me to link to it.

SANTA: Enough about me. What do YOU want for Christmas, Steven?

STEVE: Well. . . the problem is. . .most of the things I really want are spiritual. They can't be wrapped up in a box. They can't be bought at the store.

SANTA: You'd be surprised how often I get such requests. I certainly can't always make someone's dreams come true. But I can do one thing. I can offer who I am. I can let people know that I love them.

STEVE: Santa, that may be the most important work you do. When people see you, they should think of love. Like an old friend or relative, they should feel at ease with you, and willing to share in your dreams.

SANTA: I've got to hurry and make more deliveries. But I always enjoy talking with you, Steven.
STEVE: Thanks, Santa. It means a lot for me to spend time with you. Good luck!

SANTA: Goodbye until next year! Ho, ho, ho!

STEVE: Adios, amigo. Buenas noches! Feliz Navidad! Oingo Boingo! Duran Duran! Na-No, Na-No! Arivaderche! See yaaa!

SANTA: Quiet, you'll wake everybody up!

STEVE: Oh, sorry. To all, a good night!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama, Ebay and where's the music?

Long time, no blog. A lot to catch up on! Here we go. . .

POOR FEEDBACK FOR EBAY: I'm not a very active buyer or seller on eBay, but the auction site has always been fun to visit, even if I don't buy anything. It also gives one a good example of what kinds of rare items are out there and how much they usually cost. But I don't think I'll be buying anything listed on eBay anytime soon, and I want to explain why.

Years ago, eBay began the “Paypal” system, where prospective buyers and sellers could send out funds through their credit cards (using Paypal as a middleman between accounts). I never signed up for it, preferring to buy items with a check or money order. Well, guess what? From now on, Paypal will be the only way to buy anything on eBay. And that sucks. This new policy will actually prevent some people from bidding. By making eBay a Paypal-only site, the people who can't (or don't want to) use their credit cards will be shut out. That's potentially a huge loss of bidders! Why are they doing this?

I wish I could send eBay an e-mail about my concerns. But when you click on the “contact us” tab, you are presented with a series of statements which they think you want to ask them. (“How do I bid? Can I take back a bid?”, etc.) Unfortunately, none of these statements is what I want to say. But I can't do anything about it. There's no direct e-mail address for eBay! ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR SITES ON THE INTERNET DOESN'T HAVE A DIRECT E-MAIL ADDRESS! I actually tried to type in something like, “There isn't an option for what I want to say, s***heads.”

So they take away my ability to bid, and there's no way I can talk to them about it, which is evidence that they really don't care about the hundreds, if not thousands, who will be shut out. Thanks a lot, s***heads. This is sad. I'm watching a good site get a little bit worse. This change just isn't good. It's based on pure greed. It only benefits Paypal, not us. Ebay, if you read this- please rethink your strategy.

OVER AT LAST: There's not much to say about the recent election that hasn't already been said. (Except perhaps, “whew!”) We made history, and now Barack Obama will inherit all the glory and pain of being a U.S. President. I wish him well & hope we can help him change our country for the better.

I think the best judge of a president’s character will be if he or she is willing to give a press conference. Remember press conferences? They were a quaint little tradition begun by John F. Kennedy. The president would meet with the press. Reporters would ask him questions, and he would try to answer them. Yes, that was a pretty cool thing, but I don’t blame you if you can’t remember. We haven’t had a real press conference since George W. Bush, the worst president in our nation’s history, came into office. He was so terrible that even the Republican candidate for president in 2008 called for big changes.

If we can just do a little bit better in the next four years, everything should work out OK. Something tells me that that won’t be too difficult. The bar is already so low that things can only get better.

If you like political commentary, You might enjoy reading some comments from the blog of my friend John Bruno:

In his concession speech, McCain said the fault was his. Yep. His first major decision as a presidential candidate was choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. With all her faults, this isn't one you can blame on her. McCain's decision was impulsive -- and he continued to be just that throughout the campaign. Up front was how he dealt with the financial crisis. Whereas Obama was calm and insightful, McCain was erratic -- foreshadowing how he might govern. Voters picked up on the different styles of the candidates and eventually became comfortable with Obama as a potential president. When McCain called a press conference to say he was suspending his campaign and maybe skipping the first presidential debate to work on the financial crisis, Obama responded by saying a president needs to multi-task. A lot of us can identify with multi-tasking -- and a potential president should be aware of that.

WEEKENDS WITH FRED: Unfortunately, my cable company has given in. “Mr. Rogers” is now only being shown on weekends. Sigh. I'm just glad they're showing it at all. While we may not get a week's worth of Fred, we can at least enjoy his classic episodes once in a while. That's more than can be said about many other fine kids' shows. Remember “Captain Kangaroo?” Where is he now? (Yes, I know he's in heaven, but I'm talking about his show!) If we can only get our fix of Fred on the weekends, at least it's better than nothing. Let's hope his show continues to be rerun until the end of time. You can peek at the Mister Rogers schedule for 2008-2009 at the Family Communications Web page (but keep in mind that only one of the five episodes will be shown if your station only has the weekend version of MRN):

PEEKING AT HD: One of my video recorders is equipped with a cable box that can pick up some of the HDTV channels offered by my cable company. I've been recording and watching them a bit. The picture does indeed look good, even on my tiny 10-inch screen. The picture switches easily from widescreen to small screen, depending on how the original material was taped. I recorded something on PBS that wasn't originally taped for the widescreen HDTV format, yet it still looked quite good. So far, so good. The big switch begins in February.

THAT JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANYMORE: At the beginning of this year, I jokingly said that 2008 would be the year that the music stores closed forever. I was kidding. But now the Virgin Megastore nearest to me is going to close up shop sometime in January. Yes, they’re having sales, but again, the prices usually aren’t too much lower than usual. So as another one bites the dust, let’s count up how many other music stores are near me. Well, there’s Best Buy - but Best Buy doesn’t always have the best selection. There’s Circuit City, but they have the same problem. So aside from those two stores, that makes. . .uh. . .zero stores nearby.

ZERO!! My gosh, all the good music stores near me are now gone! There are some good ones further away, but man, what a drive! This really is bad news. I think every town ought to have at least one good music store. Now, I need to leave town to browse the record aisles. For more on this subject, read about the closing of Tower Records in this 2007 post:

ON YOUTUBE: HIGHLIGHTS FROM KERMIT: The YouTube page continues to be sporadically updated with various gems from Sesame Street and. . .well, from Sesame Street. :) I’m afraid you folks will have to wait for me to branch out and post some other gems over there. You will note that some of the clips come to us courtesy of Sesame At last Sesame Workshop is officially sharing clips from its vast library. (Just in case you didn’t know, you folks with fast Web connections should take a peek at Sesame and enjoy highlights from the past 40 years of the show. Us folks here with slow connections will just have to load up our DVD copies of “Old School” Sesame Street.) Check out the "Youtube page" link on the left to see some of the clips.