Pops-A-Ball (#atozchallenge)

If you ask my mother, my brothers and I had just about every toy that was ever made when we were kids. I guess we were pretty lucky, but every toy ever made? Nah. I can think of one or two that we didn’t have. But we really liked the ones that we got. Our all time favorite gift was Pops-a-ball.

I couldn’t find a picture of Pops-a-ball (I’m not sure that any still exist), but I think this will explain it. I’m sure you’ve seen these if you know someone who’s an avid golfer.


It’s a putting cup, so that you can practice your putting inside when you can’t hit the links. You plug it in and stand several feet away from it with some golf balls and your putter, and try to putt the ball into the cup. If you’re successful, the device kicks the ball back to you. Pops-a-ball worked on the same principle. The mechanism to shoot the ball back to you was at the top of a ramp. You stood several feet away and rolled a light plastic ball across the floor and up the ramp, kind of like Skee-ball. If you managed to get the ball into the hole, the mechanism would shoot it back to you. Not push it back across the floor. It would shoot the ball back to you on the fly.

The company that made Pops-a-ball (can’t remember who it was. Kenner? Marx? Wham-o?) advertised it heavily in the weeks leading up to Christmas one year, and every kid in the neighborhood wanted the toy. Especially the three of us. It was an action game that featured balls shooting across the room. What’s not to like? Naturally, my mother was less than enthusiastic. “No! Absolutely not! You are NOT getting Pops-a-ball for Christmas!” So we asked Grandma, and Mom told her that she was NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, to buy us Pops-a-ball. It was the same with everyone else.

Somehow, she forgot to tell her sister Alice. Alice had just gotten married, so she and her husband Dick had no children yet. They had no idea we were forbidden from having one. So imagine the horror when Alice and Dick arrived at our apartment on Christmas night and gave the three of us a Pops-a-ball. “Well, it looked like a lot of fun, Bunny,” Alice said innocently.

We took the ramp and the light plastic balls out of the box and figured out how to wind up the mechanism so that the balls would come back, set the ramp up and stood a few feet away. I rolled the first ball; unfortunately, we had a sculptured rug, and the ball got caught in the grooves and roll away. We needed a bare floor, and were told we couldn’t bring it into the kitchen, so we set the ramp up on a bare stretch of floor near the front door. We stood back a couple of feet, and somehow missed the ramp. We kept trying it from shorter distances, and finally got it to work from a foot away. One of us rolled the ball up the ramp, got it into the hole, and Pops-a-ball shot the ball back and hit him in the forehead. We knew then that we would have to roll the ball and duck.

A day or so later, we made the discovery that, if you wound the return mechanism tightly enough, tilted the ramp backward, and dropped the ball into the hole, you could get the ball to fly across the room and hit the Christmas tree. Kind of like a mortar.


By the time Mom caught us, we had shot several ornaments off the tree and shattered them. Pops-a-ball was removed to the basement and put on a shelf where we couldn’t reach it, and Mom called her sister. “Alice, when you have children, they’re all getting drums!”


Operations Research (#atozchallenge)

I have a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Production and Operations Management from Loyola University Chicago. I earned the Production Management Key as the top student in the major in 1978.

How much competition did I have? Three others.

The school doesn’t even offer a degree in Production and Operations Management anymore. I don’t think anyone does. They’ve gotten rid of it in favor of degrees in Entrepreneurship and Sports Facility Management. They had no degree in Information Systems when I was there (they do now), and all of the computer courses were in the Production Management department. (By “all of the courses,” I mean one in PL/I programming and one in COBOL programming, and I was a “plank holder” (member of the initial offering) in that.) I was more interested in the statistics and computer classes, thus I majored where my interests were.

Maybe they should have called the degree “Business Statistics.” I had two courses that could properly be called “Production Management” courses, and one of them was Statistical Quality Control. Basically statistics. Production Management was on its way out as the US economy de-emphasized manufacturing. I did spend roughly two years as a production supervisor early in my career, wanting to “use my major.” Being a supervisor wasn’t a particularly good use of my major, unfortunately, and by mid-1980 I was writing computer code.

A lot of what I learned in my Statistics and Production Management was relatively new stuff (at least in the late 1970’s). It all came out of an area called Operations Research, or “Operational Research” as it’s known in the UK, where it first appeared in 1937 at the Bawdsey Research Station. Much of the initial work in the field supported the war effort, but there are instances of this type of research as early as the 1840’s, when Charles Babbage analyzed the operations of the Royal Post Office and made the “Penny Post” possible.

Operations Research is “a discipline that deals with the application of advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions.” For a long time, its principles were considered a field of higher math and industrial engineering. It seeks to answer questions like

  • How much inventory of a part should we buy?
  • How many checkout lanes should we have working on a busy Saturday afternoon at the grocery store?
  • How long will this humongous project take? What are the critical activities that need to be completed for the project to be done for the project to come in on time?
  • What’s the best way to lay out this factory, given our manufacturing processes?
  • Where should we locate our new facility?

The field of Supply Chain Management owes its existence to Operations Research, but most of its applications are found in government, especially in defense-related areas. Plus, the answers are not always usable “as is”; applying the Economic Order Quantity formula formula tends to recommend quantities that 173.2406678…. where the closest number that can be ordered is 200. Likewise, the optimal place to locate a facility might be in the middle of a pond. Still, Operations Research seemed glamorous when I was a 20-year-old. Now I wonder what in the world I was thinking.

I do that a lot.

Year of Ideas: The Idea Drawer

I remember reading somewhere that, when he was a standup comedian just starting out, Woody Allen developed a habit that continues to this day. He’d be out walking, or sitting at the bar between shows, or sitting around the house, and he’d think of something, or see something on the street, or overhear something on the subway, and he would think it had some comedic value, so he’d write it down and stick it in his pocket. When he got home, he’d toss the pieces of paper that he accumulated in a drawer. Matchbook covers, margins of newspapers, Bev-Naps, scraps of paper torn from legal pads, whatever he could find. When it came time for him to do a show, he’d take the pieces of paper out of the drawer, spread them out on the floor or bed, look for ideas that he thought were ready, and build them into his act. He talks about it here, in a segment from PBS’s *American Masters.”

When he became successful enough to hire an assistant, the first job he gave her was to type all of the ideas he had accumulated. When she finished, I think she had over 100 pages, just all of these ideas he had written on scraps of paper.

He didn’t sit down and brainstorm the ideas, he just made sure to write them down when he had them. Sometimes the idea was something like “Sing,” other times it was an idea like the one he shared in the video, a man inheriting every trick from a retired magician.

I don’t like any of Woody Allen’s movies and really don’t think much of him, either, but I was thinking that it might not be a bad idea to have an idea drawer of my own. Then I realized, I already have one. Lots of them, in fact.

  • Old notebooks from the days when I’d spend hours scribbling in them.
  • Steno pads and legal pads that I used to take notes for work at the jobs I used to have.
  • Springpad. I’ve bookmarked hundreds of links there, everything from funny stuff to articles about the brain, from politics to technical subjects, from checklists to notes and reminders. (And before anyone says anything, I’m fully aware of Evernote, SimpleNote, Google Note, OneNote, blah blah blah. I just prefer Springpad.)
  • My Documents directory. There’s stuff in there that I haven’t looked at in years that I moved over from the PC that I owned until 2007, including stories that I started and didn’t finish, and all of the stuff that I added since, some of which might have been added by applications that just sort of use it as a junk drawer. And while we’re at it, the Downloads directory and the pictures directory. Lots of good junk in there.
  • I’m forever finding file folders in the cabinet that have stuff in them that might have been important once, but I can’t remember what for.
  • Speaking of junk drawers… Every drawer in my house has junk and papers in it that are no longer relevant.

So I’ve been making a point of looking in those places for story ideas. It’s working out pretty well, really.

Have you ever found a notebook or a file folder that you had forgotten about and gotten lots of ideas from it, or found something in a drawer that stirred a memory for you?

Noise (#atozchallenge)

Ali, over at Aliventures, wrote an excellent blog post last week listing 17 ways to make the most of your writing time, even when it’s limited. Number 9 on her list was “Listen to Music,” a good idea if you can do it. I’m not one of those people who can: I love music, as evidenced by all of my Two for Tuesday posts, and I tend to stop writing and listen to the music all the time, so it works against me.

I left her a comment and suggested that some people might find it more productive to use nature sounds, such as rain (I’m listening to that now), or pure noise, such as white noise, pink noise, or brown noise. For today’s A to Z entry, then, let’s talk about noise.

The type of noise I’m talking about is not the unpleasant noise that no one likes, things like cats fighting, the kid next door playing his music at full volume with the bass cranked up high, cars honking their horns, fireworks, dishes breaking, and heavy traffic. The noise I’m talking about is generated electronically using algorithms that are waaaaay over my head. But these types of noise can help to block out noises, or to keep things from being too quiet. The types of noise I’m going to tell you about can help minimize the distraction of tinnitus; it’s been a godsend for me.

If you’re old enough to remember when TV stations went off the air and turned off their transmitters at night, or when tuning your TV meant flipping past channels that weren’t being used in your neck of the woods, then you’re familiar with white noise.

Click to hear White Noise (30 seconds)

Pink noise is similar to white noise, but doesn’t have as much high end. It’s not quite as grating at higher volumes.

Click to hear Pink Noise (30 seconds)

Brown noise has no high end at all.

Click to hear Brown Noise (30 seconds)

There are blue noise, violet noise, and gray noise as well. You can find out all about the colors of noise on Wikipedia, and even find the mathematical discussions there, if you’re interested.

These types of noise are generated using theoretical probability distribution functions, but we use the term “white noise” to describe lots of different sounds. The hum of an electric motor, the whirring of a fan, recordings of nature sounds like rain, waves, or running water all make good white noise. Even the sound of a coffee shop can be relaxing, and there are apps, websites, and MP3’s that are a good source for these sounds. Here are some sources:

  • YouTube has many recordings of rain, thunderstorms, and all the different colors of noise. Some of them are as long as twelve hours for extended play when sitting at your desk or in your living room. Search for the type of sound you want.
  • Amazon has a whole selection of nature recordings. My favorites are by Joe Baker and Relax With Nature, but there are others that are just as good. I started listening to the sounds of rain at bedtime when I was in the hospital, and now have a collection of rain recordings that I run all night; it’s very relaxing.
  • Right now, I’m listening to audio from two websites, Noisli and Rainy Mood simultaneously. The Noisli site has a number of options (rain, thunder, wind, forest, leaves, water stream, dripping water, fire, summer night, coffee shop, and white, pink and brown noise). I’m playing “rain” and “thunder” on Noisli and also getting sound from Rainy Mood. Rainy Mood also has an app that will run on your smartphone or tablet. There are many other similar websites; Google is a great help here.
  • I generated the samples above using Audacity, a free audio editor. There are versions for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It’s a good tool to have, and as I said, it’s free.

Do you use white noise or nature sounds when you’re working or trying to go to sleep? What are some of your sources for your “noise”?

Two for Tuesday: Tom Lehrer

The summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school (1972), I was smoking a lot and drinking Dr Pepper by the six-pack, and would stay up until all hours listening to the radio in my room. I discovered an overnight talk show on WDAI hosted by a local comedian named Wayne Juhlin. His show went from midnight until six AM, and, as was the style in those days, it was pretty freeform. There were some interviews with guests, either serious ones or one of an odd assortment of characters (e.g. Herschel Hollywood, a campy entertainment critic); lots of anti-drug PSA’s and commercials for albums, concerts, head shops, and other products and businesses that appealed to the crowd that was listening; and comedy records. There were a few familiar names (George Carlin, Bob Newhart) and many that I had never heard before. One of my favorites was Tom Lehrer.

Tom was a songwriter, satirist, and math professor (University of California Santa Cruz) who became popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s for the humorous songs he would write and perform. Most of the time, he parodied popular song styles, though occasionally, he would take an existing melody and set words to it. A classic example of this is his song “The Elements”, where he set the names of the chemical elements to “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

Tom’s career as a parodist reached its high point when he was asked to be a permanent member of the cast of the US version of the TV show That Was The Week That Was. The popularity of those songs, while making reference to social and political events of that time, have remained popular to this day. Yeah, they were that good.

Tom retired from live performances in the early 1970’s to return to the university and dedicate his time to teaching math and music theater full-time, but his music carries on, as evidenced by the continued popularity of his albums (now digitized) and his videos on YouTube. Here are a couple of my favorites, and believe me, it wasn’t easy to choose.

This was the first Tom Lehrer song I heard, and I laughed so hard that I woke my mother and was told to go to bed. Given my Catholic upbringing and education to that point, you can see why I found it so funny. Here is “The Vatican Rag.”

One of the many fads in education I was subjected to in grammar school was the infamous “New Math.” Tom explains New Math in the following song of the same name.

As I said, there is a veritable plethora of Tom’s music available on YouTube and in digital format, sounding just as good as when it was first recorded. . I hope you’ve enjoyed Tom Lehrer, your Two for Tuesday, April 15, 2014.