And In Elephant Traffic Control News


The easy thing to do is be thrown by the lede of this Reuters “Oddly Enough” feature. Let me prove it:

Chilli-powder condoms, firecrackers boost Tanzania elephant protection

Conservationists in Tanzania are using an unorthodox way of keeping elephants from wandering into human settlements — by throwing condoms filled with chilli powder at them.

The method has proved effective and Honeyguide Foundation, which hit upon the idea several years ago, with U.S.-based Nature Conservancy has stepped up its promotion, training volunteers in villages in north Tanzania to use a non-violent four-step way of protecting their homes and crops without hurting the animals. Previously many used spears to defend themselves.

[ Skipping ahead a bit. ]
Chilli powder mixed with soil is packed with a firecracker into a condom, its end is twisted shut with just the fuse exposed. When lit, the condom bursts open with a bang, spraying a fine dust of chilli powder into the air. One whiff is usually enough to send an elephant the other way.

OK, so that’s all good merry fun that helps us feel a tiny bit less guilty about how everybody likes elephants and we still treat them like humans treat elephants regardless. But here’s what I wonder. Given that apparently condoms filled with chilli powder and firecrackers are an effective means of elephant direction, how long is it going to take before this is the orthodox way to do it? At some point somebody will propose a way to shoo elephants out of the village and people will say, “That’s daft talk, Chad!” (He’s only nicknamed Chad, but nobody remembers his original name anymore.) “Now be sensible and stuff chilli powder and fireworks into these condoms! We’re counting on you!”

And yet a future generation will acknowledge that Chad was right, just … right too soon.

In Which I Explain The Nathan-Nebus Conversation


Singapore’s Former President S R Nathan died this week. So this is a fitting time to record for posterity my understanding of our relationship. It’s also the last time I can share this story without my being inhumanly dull. That’s all right. I’ve been using this story to be a bit dull for twelve years and that’s not bad for a standard-grade anecdote. It doesn’t measure up to the styrofoam peanut computer monitor incident of 1999, but not everything is.

Back in the day (2004) I was working at the National University of Singapore, in the Department of Computational Science. This was a department that did physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics from a computer science perspective. “Wait,” you ask, “how is that different from ordinary physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and computer science, what with it being literally the 21st Century and everything being done on computers?” Our department would say that LOOK THERE’S A BIG DISTRACTING THING OVER THERE and run out to the Science Canteen to regroup. We were disbanded the next year.

It was the start of the school year. It was time for the Commencement ceremonies. Last year’s graduates officially received their diplomas and I realized all the time I had spent in United States academia had been a lie. “Commencement”! The word is right there in the name of the thing. WHY DO WE PUT IT AT THE END OF THE YEAR? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? This was enough to send me to the Science Canteen and drown my sorrow in tuna buns. These are a Singaporean food thing where you take a bun and put tuna in it. Well, they put tuna in it. You just eat it. Someday this is going to hit the United States big. Corn buns ought to too, but that’s probably not enough meat for the typical American. Chocolate buns may be just a little too weird. Too bad.

The department needed someone to be on stage for Commencement, one of those professory types in dignified robes watching the proceedings without nodding off. I’d volunteered for one of the school Commencements. The University ran two or three commencements for the various schools over the course of like two weeks because maybe they had too many subdivisions. He thought, from the doomed department. That led to the whole “Dubiously Wanted Pants” Affair but that’s another story. Then I got an invite to attend the main commencement, if I responded before the actual letter was sent to me. I checked and they told me that sure, they’d have a chair for me if I got there for 9:20 am. That’s like my third-best 9:20 of the day, but all right. I wore the pair of dubiously wanted pants and everything.

My participation got me marked for VIP treatment. This ran hard against my general level of self-esteem. I won’t brag about my low self-esteem because I couldn’t possibly bring myself to do it. But to have actually well-dressed ushers ushing me off past velvet barriers and stuff encourages the feeling of accidentally stumbling into a Nikolai Gogol play I never actually read or saw or anything. Also somehow all us faculty misunderstood something the first time we went out on stage so they had to call us back and send us out again. That’s just reinforcing so many stereotypes.

The ceremony was different from United States university commencements in that they only played like eight bars of Pomp and Circumstance at the start. They had to save time at some point. There were like twelve more school commencement ceremonies later that day. At this one they just blasted through the doctoral and master-degree candidates and presented them all to the University Chancellor, President Nathan. (Remember him?)

At the reception afterwards they still wanted me around and among the VIP section even though honestly. And our department didn’t have any doctoral or masters-degree candidates. So all I had to do was wander around the packed hallway, filling my plate with kueh (any of hundreds of desserts made by compressing sugar into Singaporean Hyper-Sugar) and bee hoon (the tastiest part of the bee) and then emptying it. And then I sneezed. I wasn’t yet skilled at sneezing into my elbow and I just managed to sneeze into my right hand instead. Not too messy but still, sneeze.

I saw a little clearing of people, off in the general direction of the bathroom, and I charged directly into it. It was a little open gap of people in front of President Nathan. He smiled at this fat, tall person who had just sneezed into his hand in front of him. I had always assumed President of Singapore to be a pretty easy gig. The country’s got a Westminster parliament scheme but with only one really organized political party. So there’s not even the occasional bit of choosing to approve a coalition government or proroguing parliament or anything for the Head of State to do. But he proved me wrong about the job’s easiness. He reached out and shook my booger-laden hand. I could never do something like that.

And then we had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, was exactly this majestic:

“Good day,” he said.

“Good day … I’m honoured to meet you, sir.” (I would do my best to approach the Singaporean accent without sounding like I’m making fun of myself.)

“Where do you come from?”

“New Jersey. Um. The United States.”

“Ah. Are you a graduate?”

“Faculty, actually. I’m a teaching fellow.”

“Ah.” And he nodded and moved on to people not threatening to smear nasal goop over him.

This would prove to be our final conversation, for which I don’t blame him.

Dirty Words At Work


A friend was talking about some Spider-Man video game he’d played as a kid. There was a screen where you could enter cheat codes. If you entered something that wasn’t a cheat code, mostly, the game just ignored it. But if you entered a cuss word or something else dirty or sexual or racist or something Spider-Man would come out and whap your entry. So the game turned into one of testing out every possible word to see what would be objectionable. It’s possible there was no actual Spider-Man game and kids were just entertained trying to figure out what wasn’t allowed as a cheat-code word.

It’s got me realizing that someone had the job of making a list of all the words deserving of a Spider-whapping. Maybe not at the game maker’s, maybe they grabbed the list from some industry-standard list. But that just moves the list-making. Somebody had the job of compiling a list of all the words kids might reasonably enter into a game and that they shouldn’t be doing. And I bet it wasn’t just one person either, because who knows every sexist or homophobic or racist term out there? You need to pool experiences to get something close to full coverage. There had to be meetings of people working out this list of offensive terms. And somebody deciding whether a word really was a common and offensive enough term to include in the list.

And then they had to do all this without breaking the rules about appropriate office discussion or creating a hostile work environment. And that’s got me boggled. It almost seems easier to just not let people cheat on their Spider-Man games.

(I’m kidding. I know tech companies don’t have any rules about appropriate office discussions and require the work environments to be hostile. But imagine if it were another way! How would they get things done?)

Do We Need To Get Out And Give Twitter A Push?


Among the trends: SummerSlam, OpeningCeremony, ClosingCeremony, TheNightOf (?), and LastWeekTonight.

From what was Trending on Twitter late Sunday night. I don’t even mean during the actual closing ceremonies but after that was done even in the Pacific time zone. Also I don’t need to 90s-song-my-life, because I was a nerd in college and grad school in the 90s so I’m just surrounded by this vague wash of They Might Be Giants tunes whether I want them or not. Look, “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is a fine song but it’s all right if I go the occasional day without hearing it and I’m pretty sure the Two People Named John Both Of Potentially Noteworthy Size agree with me.

Honestly, Twitter. At this point even the people who were in the Olympics Opening Ceremony aren’t talking about it. Why are you telling me it’s trending? We’ve moved on, all of us, to discussing how much all the jillions of stories of how unprepared Rio was and how big a fiasco it would be reflected the normal Unprepared Fiasco Warnings that every Olympics gets in the last few weeks, and how much they reflect a racist bias against supposing these non-English-speaking nations might be able to get a big complicated project done. That’s a discussion going almost eight percent better and nearly six percent more productively than you imagine, and we’re not even through with the people giving us statistics about concrete pouring for the Athens and Beijing games compared to the similar times before the London, Atlanta, and Sydney games. OK, we’re through with them, but they’re still droning on, and haven’t noticed.

What, Just For This?


A six-storey industrial building photographed as fire spills out of several floors.

“A raging fire broke out at My CK building in Tampines on Wednesday (Aug 17). (Photo: Calvin Oh).” Tampines is a neighborhood in Singapore and the name is three syllables, tam-pin-ease, so now if you go visiting you won’t go calling it “tam-pines” and sound like a tourist in your head. Few of us go touristing in our own heads anyway since the landscaping is pretty dull there.

Aren’t you afraid of overreacting, BCA, whatever your initials stand for? I mean, they think the fire’s out and everything.

Well, it took a week but my mathematics blog is on about comic strips again. I write about stuff that isn’t comic strips too, but that takes more work.

Comic Strips Worth Reading: Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s _Sally Forth_


Comic strip fans, by which I mean people still passionately angry about what Lynn Johnston did to Elizabeth in the last years of For Better Or For Worse, tend to fetishize original artists. It’s understandable. The first several years of a comic strip tend to be its strongest, when the ideas are most exploratory, the writing the most fresh, the characters the most deftly realized. Even if the original artist and writer stay on they tend to fall into patterns and lose the sense of exploration and discovery of a comic strip’s universe and subtle boundaries. When a new person, often a child or grandchild of the original artist, takes over things tend to be worse-received. Perhaps the new artist doesn’t wish to venture too near breaking the comic. Perhaps the new artist, with the best will and talent in the world, just isn’t in tune with the material the way the originator was during the second and third years of syndication.

And yet sometimes the original artist isn’t the best at exploiting the creative idea. Ordinary comic strip readers, by which I mean people who have never while reading Peanuts wondered about whether Schroeder is his first or last name nor formed a strong opinion on the question, probably don’t care. If the comic strip is entertaining what difference whether it’s written and drawn by the original artist, or by her granddaughter, or by the person who happened to be walking past Comic Strip Master Command when the old artist said she was retiring? There is wisdom in this. Good art is its own justification. Only boring trivia buffs care about the first two film versions of The Maltese Falcon. Star Trek: The Next Generation was an intriguingly-designed but dumb mess before Gene Roddenberry was sidelined from it[*]. Sometimes the cover artist records the song better. So here’s the best current example of this phenomenon.

[*] (Admitting that the production of the Next Generation was deeply screwed up early on, and that a lot of the design of the show was David Gerrold’s, who was thrown off the show in its first season.)

Sally Forth, by Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe.

Greg Howard, a lawyer figuring he could get in on some of that sweet syndicated-newspaper-comic-strip money, began Sally Forth in 1982, and needed only fifteen years to learn better. He first turned over the art to Craig MacIntosh, who’s since turned it over to Jim Keefe. The writing went to Francesco Marciuliano.

Jim Keefe’s a fine artist, the last person to draw the Flash Gordon comic strip. Sad to say, and despite some game efforts by Marciuliano, there isn’t much chance to show off action in Sally Forth. There really aren’t any action-adventure strips left. There’s Mark Trail and if it runs in any actual newspapers Rip Haywire, but past that the only real action in a comic is the occasional sports sequence. The modern comic strip mostly uses art as a scaffold to tether the word balloons. We occasionally decry this, but we go on reading comics with indifferent art as long as the writing is there. Keefe does well, though. Even the talky episodes — and there is a lot of talk in the strip — avoid the trap of being static. We get movement.

``Another autumn, another six hours lost in a corn maze.'' ``We just need a better vantage point. What do you see, Hil?'' ``THRESHER!!!''

Francesco Marciuliano and Craig MacIntosh’s Sally Forth for the 3rd of September, 2008. Because the memory of this particular strip has caused me to giggle occasionally for eight years now.

But, yeah, it’s Marciuliano’s writing that draws interest. Comic strip readers, casual and fans, will put up with almost any art if the writing’s good. Marciuliano made the strip good by what’s probably the only way to make an established thing good again in a lasting, durable way. He looked for emotional honesty in it. After some time spent learning the comic (his WordPress blog has an enlightening description of the earliest days) he wrote to that.

Hilary and Ted Forth compete to be first with Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed. It ends, as such competitions will, with pancakes in the bed and give different types of cheeses on the stairs.

Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth for the 8th of May, 2016 (Mother’s Day). Yes, it’s wordy. But I make out eight distinct punch lines in six panels. Your count may vary. Note by the way Hilary’s quietly offended look in the first panel, bottom row.

An example. Sally Forth’s original boss, a pompous idiot named Ralph, would in any responsible organization be fired. And eventually he was, and he lived in the horrible loneliness of a middle-aged person whose identity’s been torn away. Marciuliano isn’t a cruel writer. Ralph was allowed to find a new space, a job he does all right despite his own fears, a relationship with someone (Sally Forth’s sister) whose strengths and weaknesses complement his, making them functional, happy people. It’s a set of storylines which retool a stock character into a person.

He also did this by giving Ted Forth a personality. He became the guy who knows every Monty Python quote and had gotten just old enough to not deploy them at every opportunity. You know this kind of person. I’m one. I can still function in normal society. Ted functions, more obviously ridiculously, but he’s supposed to. (The term “man-child” keeps being brought up, not unfairly.) He’s credibly threatened to take over the comic strip altogether. And the comic keeps running towards being a parody of family-and-workplace comic strips.

Then it draws back, returning to emotional honesty. This summer has had Sally and Ted’s daughter Hilary going off to camp, giving them the chance to live like newlyweds again. And then a few weeks ago they realized they don’t feel that way. That there’s something wrong. Something fixable but they don’t know quite what it is or just how to do it. It was a surprise to them. It surprised me as reader. It surprised Marciuliano when he realized it was going that way.

Ted and Sally Forth talk: Sally realizes that she's taken on a taskmaster role in their relationship while Ted plays the manchild and that isn't satisfying anymore. The original is rather wordier than that.

Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth for the 7th of August, 2016. It’s again wordy but it’s also worth the read. The “wrong Hamilton musical” here refers to a storyline from April in which it turned out Ted bought scalped tickets to a musical about the founding of Hamilton Beach. Which will happen.

But it was also true. Once made explicit it’s obvious this is a sensible way for their relationship to go. It’s the sort of developing human story that, ironically, story comics don’t do well anymore. The humor strips with continuity, and a storytelling style in which a theme is introduced and riffed on for a week, do it much better.

In one of the strip’s flights of fancy there’ve been a few weeks showing Hilary Forth and her friends ten years in the future, in that exciting time of life of being an adult but still relying on your parents because your car’s alternator is always burning out. Many comic strip fans saw it as a better Apartment 3-G than was the actual Apartment 3-G. Some proposed that Marciuliano was secretly auditioning to write it.

This week, Marciuliano takes over the writing for Judge Parker. That story strip’s taken it particularly rough from comic strip fans the last couple years. It’s gotten a lot of slagging for the not-even-glacial story progression — it’s hard to be sure, but I believe in all sincerity they’ve been covering the same three-day weekend since May of 2015 — and showering of the primary characters with undeserved and increasingly implausible riches, some of that from people who are actually thinking of Rex Morgan, which is pretty much the same strip anyway.

He promises, “Yes, there will be a car crash. And yes, the survivors will eat the dead. After all [ … ] it may be minutes before the band is found.” And he’s aware of the storytelling challenges: “If the car crashes then people will say, `I knew it.’ If the car doesn’t crash then people will say, `I knew it. Nothing bad ever happens to these characters’.” I am optimistic about all this.

Statistics Saturday: How Many Albums Al Stewart Was Away From Writing ‘Year Of The Cat’ Before He Did It


A lesson for us all, though don’t ask me what we’re learning.

Album Albums Away From Writing ‘Year Of The Cat’ Year
Bedsitter Images 6 1967
Love Chronicles 5 1969
Zero She Flies 4 1970
Orange 3 1972
Past, Present and Future 2 1973
Modern Times 1 1975
Year of the Cat 0 1976

Not included: Singles.

Really Acting Like A Real Grownup For Real


So we went to the movie theater for the Rifftrax show last night. We split a bag of popcorn and I took home a refill of soda because apparently free refills is a thing movie theaters do now just like it was normal. And it was pretty late, after normal dinner time, but I didn’t figure I was hungry. And then realized I was, so I made some sandwiches. And that’s why I had a midnight dinner of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with Diet Mountain Dew. Not because I’ve suddenly become twelve years old again. In point of fact I went, according to my records, from age 11 through 27 without having any variety of Mountain Dew.

Don’t mind me. I’m just recovering from how Comics Kingdom’s Thimble Theatre reruns seem to have dropped those awful Kabibble Kabaret footers. I’m suffering from irony withdrawal. It’s a terrible problem to have because anyone being sympathetic is doing so sarcastically.

To sum up: the Olympics are like two weeks old at this point. Why is Twitter telling me “OpeningCeremony” is still a trending thing? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? That’s probably enough asking.

Bunch of trending items on Twitter as of the 18th of August, two weeks after the Olympics Opening Ceremony: OpeningCeremony.

“OpeningCeremony” was just sitting there for like two weeks no matter what I did. Then I took the screen shot of this and it’s gone since then. I understand DuckDuckGo asking every single time that I open it if I want to make it my default search engine — it is — but this is getting creepy. Oh, wait, no, it’s back today. Never mind.

How To Wash Your Hands Or Someone Else’s If Things Have Come To That


Let’s suppose you’ve decided to go along with last week’s advice and wash your hands. If you’re not willing to then I’m afraid we aren’t going to do anything useful here. Maybe we should meet again next week when I’m going to talk about how movies get made or some other nonsense like that. While I admit I’m responsible for most of what goes on around here, I can’t do absolutely everything. At some point you have to read it or in some sense neither of us exists. That sense is foolish.

To wash your hands you need a couple of things, which is how they make their money. First is your hands, or the hands of someone who’s entrusted them to your care. If they are someone else’s hands do be sure you don’t return them to the wrong person. Returning hands to the wrong person can lead to embarrassing situations. It throws off their typing and they send text messages to incorrect people. If you take anything away from this essay it should be the importance of good inventory management practices. Bring them back when you’re done.

You’ll need water, which can be found by turning on the faucet. This you do by turning the handle or pressing it down or pushing a button or something like that if it’s the kind of faucet that works. Or you might be at one of the city’s numerous weekend jazz street festivals. They’ll have those things where you step on a partly deflated rubber bladder so the spout spits a mouthful of tepid water at you. You don’t have to support the city in its weekend jazz street festival habit, you know.

If you have one of those sensor-driven faucets then you get water by punching it. At least I do. I have a skin condition which results in my being invisible to hand sensors. In public bathrooms I have to stand helpless by the sink. Then I have to wait for someone to come near and then shove their hands under the faucet, scrub swiftly as possible, and flee before they can identify me.

Identifying me is easy considering how often I wear t-shirts for obscure amusement parks and how I am taller than every person in Singapore. That last was more identifying back when I lived in Singapore. Now it’s only a solid identifier if the person I’ve technically-speaking committed battery against happens to know Singaporean demographics. You get less of that in mid-Michigan than you’d think. Not a lot less, only maybe six percent less. Still, less is less. Oh, I might also have technically committed a kidnapping across urinal lines. Anyway, I’m tall and I guess there have to be some drawbacks for how great it is otherwise.

Besides water you’ll need soap. Soap comes in solid form if you want to touch something that’s been repeatedly rubbed by strangers who needed to wash their hands. It also comes in liquid form if you want to not be sure you have enough of it. And finally it comes in a foamy form that smells great but never seems like enough even if you have a foamy puddle large enough to conceal a guinea pig. I bet someone’s working on another kind of soap even more generally inadequate. Maybe it’s a sensor-driven spray of ultraviolet waves that might not even exist. They’ll get called particles because it makes the diagrams of how to use the thing more cute. You just know they’re going to do that. Punch the ultraviolet-particle soap dispenser now, before it even exists, and don’t stop.

To clean the hands apply water and soap to your hands or the hands of those in your cleaning custody until cleaning is done. Drying your hands afterward used to be optional but not required. Many of us liked doing without this step. It let us brush a slightly-soapy water film over the whole world, one or two hands-widths at a time. But with the rise in smart phones there’s no doing that anymore. The water gets underneath your phone’s protective screen layer somehow and screws up everything, even tapping stuff nowhere near the trapped water bubble. Such are the ways new technology ruins old lifestyles.

A squirt of hand sanitizer is an excellent way to turn hands you’re not sure are clean into hands that feel gummy and unclean. I recommend it. Time things right and you can spend the whole day washing your hands, and wouldn’t that be an improvement on whatever you were otherwise up to?

What Socks Needed


I was going about my business minding it as best as I’m able and then Salon dropped this headline on me:

Researchers fashion self-healing clothing — out of squid teeth

Here I had been almost ready finally go to learning about the history of socks and now they’re giving me some self-healing squid-toothed socks? Thank you, no, I have a list of garments I will allow to be squid-toothed and they are all squid mouth costumes. I’m assuming here squids have mouths. If they don’t, and they have teeth anyway, I do not want to know about it and I will refuse to hear if you carry on anyway.

The subheadline warns self-healing squid-tooth clothing “can be produced on easily and on the cheap, but don’t expect to see them on shelves any time soon”. I agree. We will be seeing them in nightmares to come for years now, that’s something, but not shelves. They’ll be sneaking up on us in the bathtub if I know anything about squid. I don’t know anything about squid, except that I stopped eating calamari a long while ago because no matter how good someone promised it was going to be, it tasted and felt like that. And there’s no point my putting the octopus or squid to that kind of hassle for an experience I’m not going to enjoy either. But I have enjoyed the experience of wearing clothes on many occasions, in fact every occasion including during showers. I don’t want that messed with.

Thrown For A Curve


When I went to the library it was to return a book. I went in saying, “thanks kindly for having so many books available but I don’t need any new ones just now and wait, a book about the history of fast-pitch softball? Yes, I should read that”. It’s Erica Westly’s Fastpitch: The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game. I recommend it, as it’s a pleasant and breezy history. It’s got a bit more focus on major people and less on the policy-setting and organizational challenges than I’d like, but do remember, I’m a person who has a preferred author for pop histories of containerized cargo. If that isn’t enough, well, I’ll let my dad tell you what he thinks of it. I’m guessing my dad’s read it, as we have eerily similar tastes in nonfiction. And he only reads more fiction because he’s the guy in his book club that actually reads the book.

Anyway, the cover blurb is from Lily Koppel, “bestselling author of The Astronaut Wives Club”, which I’ve heard good things about but somehow not read because I guess my dad hasn’t got around to it yet. But Koppel says:

Fastpitch is A League Of Their Own for the softball set.

Good recommendation, if you liked A League Of Their Own, which I think I do even though I only remember the scene about there being no crying in baseball. But the thing is, A League Of Their Own was about the women’s fast-pitch softball league. The book talks about it in several chapters. I suppose there really aren’t any other movie references to softball, fast- or slow-pitch, that anybody remembers at all, but it’s still weird. It’s got me wondering about other Koppel book recommendations, like, “Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon is Apollo 13 for the Space Race set”, or “Team Of Rivals is Lincoln for the Civil War”. “The Longest Day is The Longest Day for D-Day”. Dad, you have any thoughts about books?

Gremlins of the Midway


Set of large Gizmo Gremlin dolls as redemption games at Michigan's Adventure amusement park.

Fortunately the park isn’t open at night, so even the people who drove a long time to get there are home and feeding their plush before midnight.

They only got the one Gizmo doll in stock originally, but they’d set it up at a redemption-game booth right next to the log flume and the spray, well, you know how this goes.


Also over on my mathematics blog there’s a fresh bunch of comic strips under review. I wrote it as the “Skipping Saturday” edition because I hadn’t read Saturday’s comics before writing the post. Turns out there wasn’t anything relevant on Saturday anyway so I guess that worked out and nobody had to know.

Comic Strips Worth Reading: Tony Cochran’s _Agnes_


Richard Thompson’s death reminded me how long I took to start following Cul de Sac and how many people had the bad fortune never to start reading it. So I’d like to take some time this month and point out some currently-ongoing comic strips that are worth more attention.

Agnes, by Tony Cochran.

I’ve mentioned some Percy Crosby’s comic strip Skippy. It’s a powerful strip. It’s about the only comic strip from the 1920s that you can read and still understand what in it was supposed to be funny. There are comic strips from that era still going on that are entertaining enough. But they’ve all mutated so far from their 1920s starts as to be unrecognizable. Here you can take the original comic and tell what the joke was. It was an influential comic strip, too. All the comic strips about children concerned about things far beyond their age are working in its shadow. They may think they’re working in Charles Schulz’s shadow, but he was working in Crosby’s.

``You look grumpy today, Agnes.'' ``People tell me that all the time.'' ``Probably because of that grumpy look you have.'' ``I'm happy. Genetics just gave me a grumpy face.'' ``Maybe you could smile more often.'' ``Smile when you're born with a grumpy face, people think you're devious.''

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 31st of July, 2016. I don’t have a natural-born grumpy face exactly. But I’m aware that in every picture I look like I’ve decided the low cost of repairing the front steps must be because we got a second-rate job done and we’ll have to have it redone later at much greater expense and inconvenience. So Agnes has a point about the nature of faces.

Tony Cochrane draws one of these strips, and one of the best, under-appreciated ones. Agnes is about the person named in the title, and her grandmother/caretaker, and her best friend Trout. Agnes and Trout are somewhere in elementary school. They live in the sort of poverty that’s so all-encompassing that people who emerge from it grow up saying they never knew they were poor because there just wasn’t anyone who had money. It’s a quiet thing behind much of the strip, that say why Agnes would take up an interest in a horribly mutilated old doll she found behind a dumpster and turn it into a plaything. The poverty quietly adds drive to Agnes’s imagination, and why she should make so much elaborate play for herself.

``Look, Mewbella, you have two options. One is leaping into the abyss.'' ``Ha! You're a riot, you are.'' ``Two, you ca do a crab-like skitter back to this end, let me help you down the ladder and let mocking laughter follow you forever.'' ``I choose that one.'' ``Good. After a time you'll convince yourself it's an invisible herd of giddy geese.'' ``Easy lie to live.''

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 5th of August, 2016. We have all been caught on the end of the high diving board at some time. I remember my father coaxing us into jumping off it by promising he’d buy ice cream cones which, in point of fact, he did about two hours before the diving board issue came up. While I concede the truth of his logical implication we were still grumbling about that for … ah … I guess this makes it thirty years after?

She’s an imaginative character, the sort that draws other people into her play. Trout mostly puts up with this, despite reservations. Her grandmother is less interested, but does make clear she’s had an adventurous life she’s now content to rest from. The children and adults around her are often bewildered, playing along in that way you do when someone is being more interesting than social convention allows. She brings this operatic touch to everyday business, making more out of a long string of projects that start strong and peter out into little, the way most stuff you do as a kid does. and that without losing the wise-child comic’s ability to make sharp comments on the way the world works.

People learning to write comedy are told the value of picking funny words. It’s not wrong advice but it isn’t quite enough. You need funny words, but a funny word dropped into a boring sentence is amusing the way a Mad Lib is amusing. What you need are funny sentences, which requires more than just a glaze of funny words. Cochran is good at composing funny sentences, ones in which a character will answer Agnes’s request for books about teleportation with “We still have epic tomes on knitting”. “Epic tomes” looks funny; to speak in this context of an epic tome on knitting makes for a funny sentence.

``I have mastered all current yo-yo tricks and now I will make up new ones.'' ``You didn't master all the current tricks.'' ``Yes, I did. They are mastered. Mastered perfectly.'' ``Agnes, I had to cut you free from string six times today.'' ``Yo-yo mastery has been fraught with pitfalls.'' ``And whose blood is on the ceiling? Yours or mine?''

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 12th of August, 2016. I have never enjoyed such dramatic success with yo-yo. It brings to mind that great Ursula Vernon drawing with a hamster bound and dangling from the ceiling by the toaster and demanding that her friend never mind how it happened, just get help.

The core cast are two girls and a woman, each of them a solid and independent character. There’s not enough of that in the comics pages. I’m glad there are solid comics like this to read.

Statistics Saturday: Aquaman Enemies That Sound Like The Jokes You’d Make About Aquaman Enemies


Excerpted from Wikipedia’s list of Aquaman enemies.

Character First Appearance Wikipedia’s Description
Captain Rader World’s Finest Comics #127 (August 1962) Undersea pirate, used submarine disguised as giant fish.
Electric Man Adventure Comics Vol. 1 #254
(November 1958)
Roy Pinto was an escaped prison convict who decided to keep a low profile. His specialty was electric eels. Constantly handling them mutated him, granting him immumity to electric shocks. Later escaped from prison with five other villains in JLA No.5 to battle the JLA, but was captured by Green Arrow.
The Fisherman Aquaman vol. 2 #21
(May 1965)
A villain who uses fishing gimmicks to commit crimes, member of the Terrible Trio
Gustave the Great Adventure Comics #261 (June 1959) AKA the Animal-Master; an expert animal trainer, Gustave would perform daring crimes on the side. Since Aquaman stopped him while in action, Gustave swore revenge.
The Human Flying Fish Adventure Comics Vol. 1 #272 (May 1960) Vic Bragg was a swimming champion before turning to crime, before he fell in with Dr. Krill, the brilliant medical doctor and marine biologist who had also turned to a life of crime. After several months of recovery and training, Bragg began his career as the Human Flying Fish. One of the few Aquaman villains to appear in the Super Friends comic book.
Iceberg Head DC Special Series #6 (November 1977) Ice creature, caused worldwide cold wave so world would be frozen like himself, convinced by Aquaman, Aqualad and Mera to desist, “melted” and became water creature. [ Editorial note: ahem. ]
The Malignant Amoeba Adventure Comics #135 (December 1948) Giant artificial life-form created by scientists, eats everything in its path; the scientists spent ten years containing it until it escaped and encountered Aquaman.
The Octopus Man Adventure Comics #259 (April 1959) Roland Peters, conducted illegal experiments on marine life to transfer minds between species, transferred Aquaman’s mind into different fish.
“Shark” Wilson Adventure Comics #203 (August 1954) Criminal who was magically transformed into a shark.
Taggert Aquaman #19 (January 1965) Unethical showman who enslaved Atlanteans.
Tom Lariar Adventure Comics #170 (November 1951) Used telepathic machine to command fish to commit crimes.
V’lana Action Comics vol. 1 No.539 (January 1983) Current Queen of Xebel a kingdom located in Dimension Aqua, and enemy of Queen Mera.

So, wait, there are laws about developing fish-mind-swap technology? I guess I’m glad there’s some regulatory oversight. I’m just wondering which is the governing body. And are the fish-mind-swap and fish-mind-control technologies independent lines of fish-mind science or do they blend together? Like, what’s the difference between two fish swapping minds and two fish controlling each other’s body? Anyway it’s really just “Dimension Aqua” that gets V’lana on this list.

Something Believable In The Vending Machine


I can’t be alone in being intrigued by the headline Food for thought: Vending machines to dispense novel food items from September. It’s specifically about vending machines in Singapore, where I used to have a job. I liked the city, even if it was always hot and muggy and if I’m still, nearly a decade on, coming to terms with the Tiger Balm Gardens statuary.

Anyway, the news report starts off talking about a new generation of vending machines that can serve boxes of food with bar codes on them. That’s all exciting, I suppose, for people who are on the new high-bar-code diets. And then it goes on to point out that it’ll soon be possible to buy a shampoo or hand soap or thermometer from a vending machine. They mean one where you buy it just by picking it up off a shelf, instead of the old-fashioned way you get this stuff in travel centers, by pressing the buttons 4 and G before the machine rejects it and you have to enter G and then 4 instead, even though there can’t be a semantic difference between letter-number and number-letter order.

And now I realize that a city I lived in for five years did not have the ability to buy shampoo anytime, day or night, from a vending machine, and it’s only getting that ability sometime next month. Travel never really ends; there’s always something new to learn about a place you’ve been. Or maybe the breakthrough is just being able to buy enough shampoo to actually use it, instead of buying one of those single-use bottles that’s got almost enough shampoo to overcome its own viscosity and emit a tiny bubble of shampoo that you lose in the shower. That would be a breakthrough too.

When Should You Wash Your Hands?


Hands. They’re fine things to have. Without them, where would the glove and mitten industries be? Certainly not curled up and tossed in the corner of the shelf in the hall closet. How would we curl them up? With my toes? Maybe. I’ve got surprisingly dextrous toes. But I couldn’t curl up and toss everybody’s gloves and mittens in a world without hands. There’d be too many things to take care of even if we pretend gloves and mittens are the same as the glove and mitten industries. For example there’s finding out whether I could open a jar of peanut butter with my feet. Probably not, because there’s no way I could get my feet clean enough to dream of touching the thing food is in with them. I have a hard enough time walking into the pantry in bare feet.

Which brings me to my topic and you to relief that I have a topic. A critical part of caring for your hands is washing them. And yet what do we really know about hand washing? Almost everything, if we’re paying attention. It isn’t all that difficult to work out. Washing of hands should be done under many conditions, among them:

When handling food. Especially if you’re handling hot soup, even if you’re doing so very quickly for fear of scalding.

After handling food. Unless you were handling it by purely psychological means guiding it to do what you wish by clever suggestion. That’s your choice, but why are you pulling these passive-aggressive head games on your bowl of Museli? Keep on like this and you’re going to be pulling pick-up artist stunts on a bag of Fritos. That’s making the world a more needlessly miserable place. Stop it. Just stop.

Before eating food. Don’t go thinking you’ve found a loophole if you didn’t handle food and just got it delivered to you by some outside agent. We’re paying attention. We aren’t going to let you get away with any argument that wouldn’t work on your mom when you were seven. And even if you did go directly from handling your food as part of preparing it to eating don’t think you can skip the in-between washing step either. In fact, just for that we’re going to say you should wash between your post-handling washing and your eating. And maybe in-between the post-handling washing and the pre-eating washing. And if you think of complaining about that then we’ll give you something to complain about.

After coughing or sneezing into your hand. Also after blowing your nose into your hand. We could avoid this easily if people didn’t make the mistake of coughing or sneezing or boogering into their hands but so many of us do. It’s natural. What else are we supposed to do but put the body parts we use to interpret and manipulate the world directly in the midst of an unpleasant eruption of secreted body fluids? You could lift your arm and cough, sneeze, or whatever into the inside of your elbow, according to a panel of American Medical Association doctors who were kidding but are sticking with that advice now because they’re delighted to see how many people are actually doing it. They want to know how far this will go. You would too.

When you are coping poorly with regret for past mistakes. Not sure when that is? You can set some time and trust it’s about the right amount of your life spent coping poorly. Use this simple guideline. Add 15 to your age and spend that percentage of the day in futile self-recrimination. So for example a 37-year-old would spend 52 percent of his or her waking day trying to wash off the guilt. Add five more percent if absolutely everyone agrees something was not by any reasonable measure your fault.

You know what? Between each bite of food too. We warned you.

After using the bathroom, but before leaving it. We agree there’s the obvious problem here of how you’re supposed to get out of the bathroom without touching something that’s been spending all its day, every day, in the bathroom. Recommended is to find a clean enough section of the bathroom and make gentle whimpering noises until someone comes in and checks on you. Race through the open door, tackling your rescuer so they don’t get stuck in the bathroom too. You absolutely don’t want to get stuck with yourself on the outside and your rescuer on the inside of the bathroom because then there’s no way out except getting yourself stuck in there again, all the while that your soup is getting cold and well-handled.

Before handling food. We saw you skimping earlier. Go back and do it again.

Note: washing can be done by yourself. There is no need to pay for specialist services or to have your hands sent out for custom care. It’s nothing but profit for the dealers.

What The Flipping Heck Is *Wrong* With You, Funky Winkerbean?


If you’ve ever entered “funky winkerbean” into Google for some reason you’ve probably noticed the autocompletes are “misery porn” or “depressing” or “cancer cancer cancer cancer death die cancer death”. I haven’t checked recently but that’s all right. The strip made a staggering reputation for itself in the 90s and 2000s when Tom Batiuk decided to make it a serious issue-addressing strip by making everybody in it miserable and giving lead character Les Moore’s wife Lisa the traits of (a) being Les Moore’s wife and (b) having plot cancer. It’s an especially pernicious kind of cancer, what with how it can reappear years after a heartwarming conclusion just when the author thinks the readers least expect it, even though the readers have been saying in the comments section how they expect it ever since it went into remission.

So. Funky’s Ambiguous Relative (I think he’s a nephew maybe?) Wally had it particularly hard during the Misery Porn years. He went from troubled youth to soldier in Afghanistan, where he was captured by Enemy Forces and held captive for years. He was freed, though, and went home, but it turned out he still had a day of service left and so was called back to duty and shipped to Iraq. And by this point the readers’ relationship with Funky Winkerbean was so bad that even if this were based on something that actually happened to somebody it didn’t matter. None of us were buying it. And then he got captured by More Enemy Forces and held for … a very long time.

It’s hard to say how long. While Wally Winkerbean was off in Enemy Forces hands the strip did its second big “time jump”. This was a half-considered flash-forward after the Death Of Lisa Moore, Who Somehow Keeps Appearing In The Comics A Lot Considering How Dead She Is. The purpose of this was to allow Les Moore to transition from being a widower traumatized by his wife’s recent death from plot cancer into being a widower who’s somehow not even remotely over his wife’s death ten years before. I mean, to an extent I’m sympathetic. Should I outlive my love by a decade-plus I know there will be days I will be miserable, like anniversaries and my love’s birthday and some other special days. “Special days” does not mean, as it does to Moore, “weekdays, plus Sundays, and Saturdays too”. My love understands: a decade on, there will be days I smile even without having a reason.

Anyway, during the time jump, in which Funky Winkerbean got everybody ten years older and more decrepit while sister strip Crankshaft didn’t even though the comics share a universe and sometimes cross over into each other, Wally was held captive. Was he captive for more than ten years? Or was his captivity just retconned into the recent-yet-now-technically-unseen past? Good question and nobody has the faintest idea, Wally included.

As you might imagine Wally came out of this with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a terrible case. Its primary trigger is being seen on-panel for his one storyline a year, which is about how he’s totally over his post-traumatic stress disorder unlike when he thought he was last year and now he’s ready to take some classes at Local Community College. And then we got to last week’s iteration of the story, in which Wally’s regularly present female companion of some relationship interrupts Funky’s work on his Tiny Laptop with a plan that can’t in any way possibly go wrong:

'Let me get this straight. You're going to the Monsters Of Metal Show to help Wally get ready for school?' 'Exactly. There's going to be a big crowd with lots of noise and pyrotechnics. It's sort of a final exam for his PTSD.'

Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean for the 3rd of August, 2016. I know I’ve only taught a few community-college courses. And they’ve been in mathematics, which Wally might not be interested in taking. But we never used pyrotechnics, not for explaining the z-score. We more used the motion-sensor light switch no mortal power could override and that would make the lights cut out when I was sitting down because it was the middle of an exam and I could see everybody was being discreet about their cheating. But the class was at two in the afternoon and there were windows all along the wall so the room would just suddenly go from a little too bright to really quite pleasant instead. The z-score is a mathematics thing in which we subtract one number from another, divide it by a third number, and call the result ‘z’. Not just any numbers; we pick those for special reasons ahead of time and call them x and μ and σ and if they mind they’ve never said so.

OK. Since the second Time Warp (the first one was in the early 90s when original characters finally graduated high school, then came back to work at the high school and suffer for it) Funky Winkerbean has moved away from its Misery Porn incarnation. It’s been much more about aged people sitting around being depressed. Also about praising this imaginary comic-book franchise named Starbuck Jones that’s produced some nice looking Silver Age-style covers and no actual stories. And the occasional halfhearted attempt to bring back the pre-1992 era’s flights of fancy and even whimsy. And yet I keep looking back on this strip and, well, see the subject line here.

If you have any explanation you’re doing better than Tom Batiuk.

SPOILER: Nothing went wrong and Wally is totally over his post-traumatic stress disorder unlike when he thought he was last year and now he’s ready to take some classes at Local Community College!

Primrose and Proper Society


So I’m thinking about the society of mannequins that comes to life when the department store closes for the night as documented in easily like four weird plotless cartoons from 1936 through 1938. Is it more prestigious there to be a more nearly fully human body? So that, like, mannequins with whole torsos and legs have an advantage, but not so much as those which also have faceless heads and hands spread out in no particular pattern? Or does it go the other way, in that maladaptive-glory way that like peacocks are prestigious because their tails are just such a big waste of energy that it shows they’re healthy they can carry on? So that, like, one of those jewelry-counter figures that’s just a bust and head would be able to lord it over the mere full-body figures showing off they can wear shorts and a T-shirt? And then maybe the whole of society would be ruled by the figure that’s locked under the glass counter and is just a hand showing off a ring? But! Would that just be the figurehead mannequin-society ruler, with most of the simulapeople never suspecting the real power behind the throne is the fabric-covered fake dog showing off those vest harnesses that let your dog be walked with less choking? In short, this is the sort of nonsense you should expect if you’re going to leave me alone with my thoughts like this.

Um.


From the top-of-the-town readers choice guide in the local alt-weekly.

Top Five Dining Guide: Top 4 Chinese Restaurants

Insult to injury, one of the four is PF Chang’s. I’m not saying you can’t have a fine dinner at PF Chang’s although I’ve never tried, it’s just that you know where you can get a fine dinner at PF Chang’s? At literally any PF Chang’s that exists anywhere in the United States and at least thirteen other nations is where. I just think top-of-the-area surveys like this should display some bias towards local expressions of the concept of purchasing lumps of matter which can be put into your mouth when you think that wise.

No, really, the metro area has more than four Chinese restaurants. Way more. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were eight or even ten of them. I sense the surprise closure of the House Of Ing earlier this year behind all this even though the place has a spinoff chain of fast-food outlets called Ing!credible with local TV advertisements that are twelve percent more twee than you imagine.

I haven’t mentioned it the last couple of weeks because of boring reasons, but my mathematics blog is still going on and did some comics yesterday. Should do some comics tomorrow, if you’re still reading by then, but I don’t have a URL for that yet.

On Richard Thompson


I first saw Richard Thompson’s cartoons as the occasional illustrations in Joel Achenbach’s Why Things Are books. They were these complicated, scribbly, not-exactly-attractive but still compelling sketches to go along with Achenbach’s Cecil-Adams-esque essays. But Achenbach went on to other things, and I didn’t pay attention to the artist, who went on to other things himself. Mostly that was illustrating for Washington Post features which, since I didn’t live in or near Washington, I’d never see.

Last decade he started the comic strip Cul de Sac, which just everybody I knew who cared about comic strips got to praising. My natural contrariness and memories of past times I was burned left me skeptical. But as sometimes happens everyone was right. It was a fantastic comic strip. The art was no less … weird, honestly. It took time to warm up to it. But it’s … well, here. Let me put up a link that always goes to today’s rerun of the comic strip. I’ll say this confidently: the art is funny to look at. It’s expressive. Every face is showing an emotion, a clear and strongly-drawn one. The stuff that isn’t the focus of the panel’s action is drawn funny too. The more you study the lines the more you realize it’s tricky to draw like that.

Cul de Sac was, by 2010, ready to be the savior of the comics page. The strip just had everything. Expressive artwork. Characters who, by being so outrageously implausible, become intimate familiars. Dialogue that’s logical yet surreal. The small-kid perspective by which everything in the world is a bit magical. And hyperbole. It isn’t enough that one kid’s mother is scrapbooking everything he does. It’s that she has twenty-eight (or something) scrapbooks just for the current month. Tall tales are part of the foundation of the American humorous voice, and Thompson captured that perfectly.

And then just as Cul de Sac was escaping from the notice of comic strip fans into the wider world, where it might be spoken of with the delighted reverence we use for Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts, it was struck down. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and had reached the point he couldn’t do the strip anymore. The comics page has been the poorer since then. There are many fine comics out there, but I haven’t seen anything that shows the apparently-easy genius that Cul de Sac did, or the promise of it.

Thompson died late last month, complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Gocomics.com reruns his Cul de Sac comics as well as the Richard’s Poor Almanac feature, which if I understand right was mostly quarter- or full-page features for Washington Post Sundays. Those haven’t got the recurring characters of Cul de Sac, but they have got the same vibrant imagination and sharp attention to detail. I recommend both comics. There’s things you’ll be sorry you missed. They will likely include jokes about restaurants.