World widescreen web

Thinking of upgrading your conventional picture-tube TV to a fancy new flat-panel widescreen? But you’re on a budget and don’t want to go overboard? Confused about what size TV to buy? You’ve come to the right place.

The main criterion for choosing a screen size is one that I have not seen described in other TV buying guides: viewing area. The viewing area of a 32″ conventional TV is 492 square inches, whereas the viewing area of a 32″ widescreen TV is a mere 438 square inches! If you’re upgrading from a 32″ conventional TV you’ll want at least a 34″ widescreen to get the same viewing area.

Here’s how I arrived at those figures.

The advertised size of a TV display is the length of the diagonal. If from the diagonal we can determine the height of the display, h, and the width, w, then the viewing area is h×w. Thanks to Pythagoras we know that h2+w2 = 322. But this isn’t enough information to determine the viewing area: we also need the fact that the aspect ratio of most conventional TV displays is 4:3, which means the width of the display is four-thirds the height.

Substituting 4h/3 for w and then simplifying gives us:

h2+(4h/3)2 = 322
h2+16h2/9 = 322
25h2/9 = 322
h = √(9×322/25)
h = 3×32/5 = 19.2

Plugging that into the formula for viewing area (h×w) and recalling that w = 4h/3,

h×4h/3 = 19.2×4×19.2/3 = 491.52 square inches

Knowing that the aspect ratio of widescreen displays is 16:9 and using similar arithmetic gives a result of 438 square inches for a 32″ diagonal.

In fact, the math shows that for a given diagonal, the viewing area of a 16:9 display will always be about 11% less than the viewing area of a 4:3 display.

But wait! It’s not as simple as finding the widescreen TV that has at least the same viewing area as your conventional TV. You should also take into account the kinds of programming you watch.

Do you watch a lot of wide-format movies on your 4:3 TV? If so, you’ve certainly noticed the “letterboxing” needed to fit the wide aspect ratio of the film into the narrow one of the display. You’re not using the entire viewing area; some of it is wasted, as much as 32% of it for very wide format formats such as “CinemaScope.” With a 16:9 TV the need for letterboxing wide-format movies is decreased or eliminated.

Similarly, if you watch a lot of conventional TV programming (sitcoms, newscasts, etc.) on a widescreen TV, you’ll get “reverse letterboxing,” also called pillar boxing, where the black bars appear not on the top and bottom but on the left and right of the image to make the taller aspect ratio fit into a shorter one. Here again you’re wasting some of your viewing area.

So think about the kinds of programming you watch and consult this handy table that shows the true image size (in square inches) for various combinations of TV diagonal size, TV aspect ratio, and programming aspect ratio. Choose a TV that gives you the best image size you can afford for the types of programming you typically watch.

Program aspect ratio
very common
some movies
20″ 192 154 144 138 109
27″ 350 280 262 252 199
32″ 492 393 369 354 279
36″ 622 498 467 448 353
42″ 847 677 635 610 480
46″ 1016 813 762 732 576
50″ 1200 960 900 865 681
20″ 128 160 171 164 129
27″ 234 292 312 299 236
32″ 328 410 438 420 331
36″ 415 519 554 532 419
42″ 565 707 754 724 570
46″ 678 848 904 869 684
50″ 801 1001 1068 1027 808

Prescription from the happy hippie family

As a fundraising gimmick, Jonah’s preschool sells bricks that you can have inscribed with a brief sentiment, your family’s name, etc., and that are then set into the pavement in front of the school. Like good soldiers we bought a brick a couple of weeks ago with the names of both kids (Archer will be attending this preschool in the fall), but as the deadline for buying bricks drew near, we realized, why not be great soldiers and buy an additional brick?

Having dispensed with our need for familial self-memorialization (say that ten times fast!) we were free to consider witty or inspirational inscriptions. I liked Andrea’s first suggestion: “SMILE,” which had the virtues of extreme simplicity and near-infallibility (i.e., it would make people smile). She liked my suggestion that we use our family motto, “Always do everything” (Latin: Semper fac omnia — thanks, Vicky). We also considered the phrase, “Know the what / Understand the why,” which popped into my head the other day as a kind of update of Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “What signifies knowing the names if you know not the nature of things?”

In the end we chose “Make someone smile” as a more broadly prescriptive variant of Andrea’s original idea — it should make the reader smile and make the reader make someone else smile too.

Take the time, do it right

I used the following story at work the other day to illustrate why some of us should avoid some ill-advised shortcuts and choose instead to stand up to critics of how long our project is taking:

In 1995, when my primary flight training was complete, it was time for my checkride to see whether I’d become a licensed pilot or not. For the checkride I had to fly from my home airport, Petaluma, to the FAA examiner’s airport, Santa Rosa (er, the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport — yes, that Charles Schulz). That flight was uneventful. When I arrived I shut down and secured the plane as usual, then went in to talk to the examiner for a while before we began the “practical” (flying) portion of the examination.

Unlike Petaluma, Santa Rosa has a control tower, which means you must radio for permission to taxi. So after preflighting the plane, climbing aboard, strapping in, putting on my headset, starting the engine, and performing the pre-taxi checklist, I radioed the tower. “Santa Rosa ground, Cessna 24498 on the main ramp, taxi to the active with Foxtrot.” The tower did not respond, which is not too unusual as control towers sometimes get busy and taxi clearances get low priority. So after a few seconds I radioed again. “Santa Rosa ground, Cessna 24498 on the main ramp, taxi to the active with Foxtrot.” Still nothing. I double-checked the frequency to which the radio was tuned, waited a few seconds and tried again. Then again. Finally after several long minutes, with the instructor waiting patiently beside me (and was that a bemused smile on his face the whole time?), I noticed that I’d forgotten to plug the headsets into the radio stack! The instructor and I were able to talk to each other but not to the tower.

Flustered, I explained to the instructor that this was my first time using a two-person intercom with the radio stack. (In small planes, very often the intercom is a separate little box that the pilot owns. Two headsets plug into it, then the box — which usually ends up wedged between the front seats or knocking around loose on the floor of the cabin — plugs into the radio. Before the checkride, I flew solo with no need for an intercom — my headset plugged right into the radio — and before flying solo, my instructor would always set up his intercom for us to use.) The examiner put me at ease, saying, “Anyone could have forgotten to plug in the intercom. It’s not on the checklist. A poor student would have given up and started taxiing without clearance. You did what you were supposed to do, even if it took a little longer.”

About an hour later I was a licensed pilot.

Moral of the story: if it takes a little longer to do things right because you haven’t thought of everything, it’s still better than the alternative.

Greatest hits: Alex FAQ

I just unearthed this e-mail to my dad from 1995. He was coming to visit me and Andrea but was wary of staying under the same roof as Alex, who was then a very energetic dog. My dad and dogs — not so much. (Actually, once upon a time, me and dogs not so much, but Alex worked her doggie magic and changed me. As it turned out, she did the same for my dad.)

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Alex

1. When Alex charges at me, should I cringe? Is she attacking?

No — she’s giving an enthusiastic greeting. If you cringe or block her, you’re telling her in clear body language, “I have no desire to become acquainted with you.” This is in direct opposition to the purpose of nearly every dog: to make friends.

If instead of cringing, you kneel down to greet her and give her a few moments of attention, she’ll be satisfied. Otherwise… well, imagine how you’d feel if someone came into your house and, every time you held out your hand and said, “Hi, I’m your host,” you got a cold shoulder?

2a. When Alex barks, is it because she hates me?

Not at all. When you’re accustomed to communicating only with humans, the language of dogs can be bewildering and misleading. There are only two words in the dog vocabulary that mean “I don’t like you”: a low growl (I don’t trust you, keep your distance), and a teeth-baring snarl (I am preparing to attack). Neither can be mistaken for the series of loud, repeated barks that is Alex’s customary way of greeting newcomers to the house. It usually takes about five minutes until Alex is all barked out.

2b. So if barking doesn’t mean she hates me, what does it mean?

Any or all of the following: “Welcome to my house!” “This is my couch!” “I seem to remember your smell!” “Maybe later we can play!” “Check out how impressive I sound!” “Bob and Andrea sure seem excited to see you!”

3. Why, when I try to make nice with Alex, does she keep her distance?

It’s because she’s afraid of you. You’re so much bigger than she is! When you heave your massive bulk in her direction, naturally she retreats.

The proper way to put a dog at ease is to make yourself small, either by kneeling or by sitting. Permit the dog to come to you. Remember, the dog is nervous and can only be reassured by (a) smelling you and (b) trusting that you won’t exploit his or her vulnerability. This means staying put while the dog checks you out. After you’ve been given a once-over, you can reach out your hand to pet the dog. But again, simply reaching out your hand can be misinterpreted, so before you go to pet the dog, hold your hand out for inspection — palm up, under the dog’s chin, never over the dog’s head.

4. Those teeth! Those claws! I’ll be torn to shreds!!

No, you won’t. Even when I play rough with Alex — where the object seems to be for Alex to immobilize one of my hands between her teeth while we’re both swatting at each other’s faces — I get nothing more than a few red marks and tooth impressions on my skin. In seven years there’s never been even a drop of blood, and there’s been plenty of roughhousing. The worst that’s ever happened is, we’re tumbling around on the floor and Alex’s head comes up under my chin and gives me a solid uppercut, knocking my jaws together and making my ears ring. Ow.

In fact, when on occasion I feel our playing is becoming too rough, I’m always able to tell Alex to take a breather, and I make sure she knows it’s all fun and games by asking her to give me a kiss, which she never fails to do.

So don’t worry.

Money-saving suggestion

Happy new year!

Undoubtedly one of the best times to be in the health-club business is shortly after the new year, when everyone makes a new year’s resolution to lose weight and get fit, then joins a gym in order to accomplish those goals. As health clubs know, the majority of those new memberships will be of people who don’t actually show up more than a few times to use the facilities — and the gym gets to keep their non-refundable membership fees running to the hundreds of dollars each. My guess is that the income from January alone probably keeps a health club going at least until swimsuit season starts looming near.

On the one hand, it’s hard to fault health clubs for this practice. If you decide to join a gym, pay your money, then don’t show up, whose fault is it, theirs? No. On the other hand, there’s a P.T. Barnum sucker-born-every-minute aspect to this practice that is vaguely distasteful to plain-dealing folks like myself, who insist on receiving money only for actual goods or services delivered. So here is a common-sense consumer-protection suggestion from me to you:

If your new-year’s resolution is to get fit and lose weight (which I encourage), don’t join a gym first. Do ten push-ups, ten squats, and ten leg-lifts every day for fourteen days. (My doctor once told me, when encouraging an exercise regime I was beginning: “Fourteen days makes a habit.”) At the end of that time, if you are still consistently doing your exercises and your enthusiasm hasn’t waned, then join a gym.

(Disclaimer: get a doctor’s advice [I’m not one], do proper warm-up stretches, etc.)

If you do resolve to get fit and lose weight in the new year, and you were inclined to join a gym but you took my suggestion and you ended up abandoning your fitness regime, I will gladly accept a donation of 10% of the health club membership fee that I saved you!

Words to live by

When my dad was in his forties he loved a book by Jules Feiffer called Tantrum, about a middle-aged man named Leo having a mid-life crisis. His life has too much responsibility and too little fun and he throws a tantrum, willing himself back to age two! He spends most of the rest of the book looking for someone willing to pamper and baby him.

A new edition of that book was among the gifts from my dad when I turned forty myself recently. It’s witty and well-observed, if a bit depressing. You don’t have to be having a mid-life crisis to appreciate it.

In one scene, two-year-old Leo encounters an authentic two-year-old at an airport. Having by this point in the story suffered several rejections — everyone’s got their own problems (which is more or less the whole point of the book) — Leo bitterly tells the other boy, “If I knew at your age what I’ve learned with grief since… don’t thank me, just listen,” and then offers this advice:

  1. Get the grades, but don’t trust what they teach you.
  2. Don’t tell them what you’re thinking; they’ll use it against you.
  3. Never be rational if you want to have your way.
  4. Ignore logic; it’ll cripple your spirit.
  5. Look out for abandonment by your loved ones.
  6. Don’t be horny after marriage.

Then, as the other boy walks away to board a flight with his family,

  1. Don’t mature! Mature people do the shit work!