It’s always so tempting to go around and tinker with my web site, because it’s a fine way to stay vaguely busy in 2002. But there’s always questions about what to drop, like, the mailto: links. The only time I’ve eve found a mailto: link that worked was on a functioning gopher: server. I think I’ll replace it with a little form that takes the note, compiles it into a JSON object, and then turns it over to jQuery to pop up an error message, allowing me to claim three more areas of web design expertise.
In this column recently we erroneously quoted Michigan state Senator Carl Levin as saying, “a mapping for a manifold M is structurally stable if any perturbation is topologically conjugate to , where is a function such that is close to and that the first r derivatives of are also close to the respective derivatives of ”. State Senators are notoriously shy, reclusive, almost mythological creatures and it was not our intention to embarrass one by printing his name where anyone might see it. We apologize for the error.
I suppose it isn’t quite too late to make a decent round of March Madness predictions, what with Madness having another six and one-third years to run before the Grand Neurostability Field penetrates the inner Oort cloud and reshapes the Earth in such dramatic yet peaceable fashion. Also March has two or three days left to run depending on just how you want to count things like “two” or “day”. The competitions so far have seen a whole lot of upsets, particularly with teams finding out what the others have been saying about them online, and everyone’s in a pretty foul mood, which should make for an exciting Sweet Sixteen round of competition provided the players can refrain from slugging one another.
The most interesting development, I think, is going to be in the East, where I’m expecting Georgetown — previously eliminated in a contest that made my uncle who went there holler loud enough to be heard in an adjacent state (he lives in Rhode Island, so it wasn’t that loud) — to sneak back into the tournament. This they’ll do by luring Miami of Florida’s actual players out to the old amusement park on Whelk Lake, and then leaving them stuck in the line for the Dodgem Cars, by the expedient of turning on all the lights and having their Assistant Ball Rounder pose as the ride operator and insist they just have to do one or two more test runs before it’s safe to ride. While that’ll go well, unfortunately Georgetown will lose to Marquette (in fact, the Georgetown players who wanted to go to a movie instead, only to find the didn’t know what was playing and were horrified by the selection) after their Assistant Ball is found to be insufficiently round for tournament play. Connecticut and Massachusetts should know that’s what they’re going to be hearing.
In the Midwest division, Minnesota chapter, I see the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode number 620, Danger!! Death Ray, surging ahead of episode number 505, The Magic Voyage Of Sinbad, as a result of a deep disagreement among online voters about which one of them has the “Nummy Muffin Coocol Butter” sketches. This is a pretty silly reason for one to win out over the other, particularly since I’m pretty sure everyone knows those sketches were in show number 615, Kitten With A Whip. Just saying.
In the West, I see the contest between computer languages finally resolving the struggle between Logo and Pilot just in time for people my age to insist there was too a computer language called Pilot and it probably had some features that made it attractive to use. Those features included great use of the colon, which otherwise doesn’t get any attention in computer languages, and it probably did much to support the self-esteem of the psychology professor who created it. The winner of this match will go on to face WATFOR-11S, which I expect will be an easy win as even WATFOR-11S has never heard of WATFOR-11S and thinks I’m making it up. I am.
The next round should see an exciting battle between people’s brackets for college basketball taking on brackets for favorite web comics, while the brackets for best episode of the new Battlestar Galactica goes on to contest the favorite colors and/or words spelled the same in different languages. That last is a powerful bracket because of its flexibility and tendency to pop up in daily trivia e-mails.
In the Final Four, I expect that Two will beat Three, while Three goes on to beat One. Two falls to Four, and One defeats Four, at which point the entire contest is called off on account of intransitivity. A training session to raise awareness of this problem will be held in early May, but be called off following an inconclusive rock-paper-scissors match.
The winnings from the office pool for all this are expected to go right into the pizza fund, just like was done last year, according to Tom, who won last year, or to go right into buying Tom an iPod mini, according to Bill, who runs the pizza fund.
I really didn’t see that coming. No matter how shaky our rehearsals might have gone — and I’d like to point out we got pretty good at remembering there’s a part of the classic Tin Pan Alley song where you sing “and the music goes round and round and … something … it comes out here”, and that there’s probably other bits of words and melody that go around that — I didn’t see how our first performance back together would work out. I still don’t recognize any of the others in the group.
So. We got out on stage. We were ready, we weren’t too terrified, we knew some music shops where we’d be able to go later and get our instruments tuned up if that turned out to be a problem, and what happens? This turkey pops out on stage — I’m not being retro-ishy and 70’s here, I mean an actual turkey, with feathers and issues with Thanksgiving and everything — and started a safety lecture. Not just about how to get out of the venue in case of fire, either, it was about all the ways you could do yourself harm and how to not do them, with a lot about traffic safety tucked in. We tried nudging him off stage, but he got into this thing about rattling his tail and I know I sound ridiculous but it’s pretty scary, in person, all right? By the time he was satisfied that we’d been properly drilled, our little group didn’t have any time left to perform.
We’re undeterred, or at least everybody else is in no greater state of deterrment than they were before. I still don’t really remember who these people are and I’m pretty sure we’re just making music angry the more we try playing, but we’re looking for the next chance to perform.
I’m seeing these days a lot more idle talk — I hope it’s idle talk — about bringing mammoths back from extinction through the cloning and whatever else of preserved mammoth DNA. I admit that’d be a pretty good trick, and a fine solution to the nation’s crippling mammoth shortage. It’d certainly make drive-through safaris an even more exciting affair, as after a herd of deer blockade your car you could then have a mammoth give you the choice of surrendering your cup full of kibble or getting your Scion tC sat on.
If they ever achieve it, though, then what are future genetic engineers supposed to do to impress us? I think they’d have to start doing it the hard way, and bring mammoths back into being using nothing but quokka DNA instead, or maybe skip the DNA altogether and breed new mammoths using nothing but some string, a megaphone, and a highly surprised squirrel. Thus ever do the standards required for science stuff to impress us keep rising.
“Are you going to do something about that pond of yours?” said the angry voice on the phone.
“What about that pond?” was the best I could answer.
“It’s in my yard making a mess of things!”
I looked out the back window, and the pond was right where it’s been all winter, tucked under its blanket of ice and that strange snow that stays on top of little ponds all winter whether it snows or not. “Sorry, but I’m looking at it right now and it’s here in my yard.”
The voice harrumphed at me, but I stuck to my story, and then hung up.
Obviously this calls for action, so I’m replacing our phone with a model that’s in a softer and less anger-rousing color.
I don’t wish to spend too much time doing snarky humor on this blog — not because it can’t be fun, but because there is so much of it already around — but I realized I’ve spent so much time giggling about this particular comic strip that I really ought to share it. The web site Dailyink.com runs, besides a bunch of the King Features Syndicate comic strips you can’t quite believe are still running (The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow Because It’s 2013, Right?), some classics from the old days (The Katzenjammer Kids Slightly Less Somehow Since It Was 1940 I Guess).
Among them is Stan Drake’s The Heart Of Juliet Jones, the long-running soap opera strip about how Juliet Jones does not get married. In a strip rerun just a couple days ago, originally printed the 28th of December, 1955, her engagement with Johnny the Civil Engineer certainly appears to have wrapped up its mild complications (Johnny was so into the chic of building bridges he hasn’t minded that he’s under-paid and under-promoted at work) when, well, here. You don’t really need even that much introduction to follow it.
The ruthlessness with which the potentially happy ending is crushed makes me laugh in a way that can’t have been meant — or could it?
I’ve listened to quite a few old-time radio mystery and suspense shows, with the arch, melodramatic acting and loud organ stings at every carefully highlighted moment building to the twist Rod Serling would later rip off; they can manage to be both tolerably suspenseful and utterly unbelievable at once, and I wonder if the original audiences were listening with the same mix of suspense and incredulity that I have. Remember that one of the great radio suspense shows of all time, really and truly, was — exactly as the Bill Cosby routine had it — an episode of Lights Out about a scientist whose biochemical experiments caused the beating heart of a chicken to grow until it consumed the East Coast. Scary? Yes. Too ridiculous to be scared by? Yes. (Unfortunately only truncated versions of the original radio broadcast seem to be available.)
How long have they coexisted? And were the great soap opera strips of the past living in the same intersection of reality and disbelief?
Since people are curious, here are the things I know about Kurt Cobain or Vitamin B-12:
- Intentionally struck out so as to not have to play little league.
- Was discovered by Mary Shaw Shorb, in the University of Maryland’s Poultry Science Department, who was investigating a concentrated liver juice product on a $400 grant.
- Had a great-uncle, Delbert, a tenor who appeared in the 1930 film King of Jazz.
- Can treat both pernicious anemia and cyanide poisoning.
- As a child, could, and did, accurately draw Aquaman.
- Developed the game show I’ve Got A Secret for Mark Goodson and Bill Todman in 1952, who instead of paying him for it made him one of the show’s producers.
- Is commonly known as riboflavin by people who’ve mistaken it for Vitamin B-2.
OK, dream mind, I don’t know why it was so extremely urgent last night that you had me explain at length Kurt Cobain and his meaning to Nirvana — who you’d think would have some idea about him and his legacy, although maybe they’d just forgot the true meaning of Kurt Cobain — and the cast of The Big Bang Theory — who, I don’t know, am pretty sure existed in the early 90s so what are they doing missing it — at an amusement park but I hope you’re glad I did. Especially since I’ve never really been that up with current news about music so I had to fill in things I didn’t know with information about Allan Sherman or vitamin B-12. They seemed satisfied and so they should.
Don’t go back to high school.
Maybe you weren’t tempted anyway since high school contains so many high school memories. But based on a leading dream I just had, high school has gotten more worse than you imagined. For one, everyone insists on doing these interactive exercises instead of just letting you sit quietly in your seat and wait for college, where you can sit quietly in your seat and wait for grad school, where you can sit quietly in your seat and wait for student loans to come due, where you can sit quietly in your seat and weep. No, now you have to go up to the board instead of sinking underneath your desk.
Second, your physics teacher isn’t that kind but slightly odd Mister Gregor, with the huge backlog of Starlog magazines he’s trying to get someone, anyone, to take for the eighth year running. Instead he’s comedian and voice acting legend Stan Freberg, who remembers you very well, possibly from that time you had a report due on space. He’s just going to introduce you to the entire class, you know, and point out what an outstanding student you were and how glad he is to see you back, and you’re going to face the collective scorn of dozens of 16-year-olds who don’t want to hear about masses on springs and certainly don’t want to hear about how good you were with them.
Third, after you get back from the bathroom — now one of those annoying fancy hands-free ones where the toilets don’t work until you awkwardly shuffle back and forth, and then they don’t quite really flush, and the faucets don’t notice you at all until you punch them, which your middle school principal for crying out loud watches without comment — you’re going to get called right back into the classroom experience which is not about the masses on springs you thought Mister Gregor Stan Freberg liked you doing.
No, what this project is all about is going up to the board, one of those agonizing super-incredible touch-screen thingies that responds and draws stuff far beyond your ability level, the kind cable news channels keep buying instead of paying for reporting. And Mister Gregor Stan Freberg wants you to draw a cover for an impossibly complicated science fiction/fantasy novel and won’t take your excuses that you missed the entire description of the novel and you can’t even draw a tree without your drawing pointing at you and laughing as excuses. “You’ll be fine,” he says, “You’ll inspire the students,” one-seventh of whom agree in a shrugging groan.
Fifth (fourth was that you’re picked as inspirational) when you do try drawing, sure, the magic cable news screen takes your little scribbly Y thing and turns it into a great rendition of a tree, and turns your little scribbled Ewok-y figures into fur-perfect renditions of the ranwor-level hunters of the Culakly tribe from Ageli, the fourth planet orbiting Iota Librae, but your efforts to catch the moment before the klent-lead conspiracy sets ablaze the ceremonial dousti tower leading up to the top of the sacred grove is foiled when the picture springs to life and the entire dousti burns before your eyes, though not those of the class. At least, you think that’s what he wants you to show because Mister Gregor Stan Freberg insists on mumbling the plot to you no matter how many times you tell him you can’t hear what he’s saying.
Worse, while the fire and panic wouldn’t be a bad idea, the scene catches almost dead-center the 1988 silver Chevy Celebrity of one of the production assistants from the movie based on the book, which just ruins the scene because a Celebrity looks like what you put in the scene to later be replaced with an actual car, and you can’t get the monitor to take a reverse angle. In fact you look foolish ordering the screen to reverse view, and one of the xiple-beasts clearly snorts at you before running off to the trumia-bushes.
All Mister Gregor Stan Freberg offers as advice is to whisper to you that the name of the novel is something like “Cumumburumbubmlemun” and that you should figure where to set the title for best aesthetic value.
Overall, the lesson is: don’t go back to high school. You’ll look like a total drell.
Some splendid news! The anthology, Oh Sandy: An Anthology Of Humor For A Serious Purpose, has come out. For just now it’s in Kindle e-book version only and the editor, Lynn Beighley, is working on some formatting issues so it’s getting a little bit fixed again. But it’s also to appear in print through CreateSpace which I admit I haven’t heard of before. The print versions are supposed to be available through Amazon and Amazon Europe in around a week. Proceeds are to go to organizations aiding victims of Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy. And I have a slice, a couple hundred words, out of the total collection.
The editor has talked about the need to promote it, which is something new to me. While I’ve coauthored two books before they were academic books, for which promotion just isn’t done because you really, really can’t sell someone an $80 book about statistical mechanics treatments of inviscid fluid flow. University libraries might buy it, but I’ve never been in one which had it. I’m skeptical there’d be much interest in readings about the book from my base in Michigan, but perhaps something might be worked up while I was back east for something. The editor also mentioned podcasts, which are a form of audio communication that it seems like I ought to be interested in, except I’ve just never got the hang of listening to them. I’m sure that my voice, combining as it does soft tones and a mushy, indescribable accent (“You don’t sound like you’re from … anywhere”), would be perfectly suited to MP3 formatting.
There’s many things each of us have in common and in these trying times (before 11 pm, although I note that before 8:15 am is an extremely trying time) I thought it worth reviewing some of them. We each believe that we’re in the last group it’s acceptable to ridicule and stereotype in public. We all believe that we’re better-than-average at Skee-Ball. We each think that we must have missed the day in middle school where they explained how to grow up to become a Muppet, which is a pity as we’re pretty sure we would have been a good one. We all think it’s kind of amazing that people talk so little about that time a couple years ago when the continents were depopulated by people using that exotic device on Jupiter to turn into giant telepathic monsters living on the surface of that world, giving whole nations over to the dogs and robots. And we’re all horrified by how many pictures of random groups of people from the 70s include some terrible, terrible thing we used to wear, possibly as late as 1994. That’s about everything.
I was having fun with bits of Mr Dooley’s Philosophy so here’s another round of quips from him.
To most people a savage nation is wan that doesn’t wear oncomf’rtable
Manny people’d rather be kilt at Newport thin at Bunker Hill.
I care not who makes th’ laws iv a nation if I can get out an injunction.
All men are br-rave in comp’ny an’ cow’rds alone, but some shows it
clearer thin others.
If Rooshia wud shave we’d not be afraid iv her.
The Robert Benchley Society is a group devoted to the fandom of, well, it’s right there on the label. A little while ago, and I am late in catching up to them — I was interested in this year’s Benchley Society humor contest, but they don’t seem to have any announcements about it yet — they found a short piece that Benchley had written for Franklin P Adams’s “The Conning Tower” column in The New York Tribune. It ran on the 9th of September, 1914, and gives a quick glimpse into the early days of the Great War and what people who had friends coming back from Europe kept hearing about, and pretty efficiently captures a moment and a scene that rarely gets mentioned in histories. The Society’s article on this includes a scan of the original text, although it just looks like the sort of reproduced ancient newspaper microfilm you always see in this sort of thing.
Blank Form To Be Handed to Returning Tourists
Please fill in blanks and return with photograph showing yourself with mouth open.
The first inkling I had of the war was in _____. I was with my _____ (and my _____) at the time, and we had just come from a delightful trip through _____. One evening, the _____th of _____, we heard _____ and I said to our _____friend–, “_____?” He replied: “_____!” Immediately the streets were thronged with enthusiastic _____, all singing “_____.” We had time only to get our _____ and stand _____ hours in the station for the train to _____. We were grossly insulted on the border by a _____ who insisted on _____. On reaching _____ we had to stand like cattle before the _____ left for _____. I tell you, the old Statue of Liberty looked pretty good to me. I don’t know, of course, but take it from me, the war won’t be over until one side is victorious and that won’t be for _____.
R. C. B.
So we got the band back together for our first rehearsal, and that went pretty smoothly. I’m really sure I’ve never met any of these guys. They looked at me with the sort of natural, easygoing acceptance you give to a deer that’s in your laundry room. I don’t think they know each other either.
Besides me on the training violin (it still has wheels) we have one guy with a pair of sticks (not drumsticks, just the kind of sticks you might find in the woods ready to poke people with), one guy with a sheaf of ISO 9000 documentation paperwork (according to the label), another with a long-running quarrel with lyrics web sites about how they’re the most awful web sites in the universe (they are), a bazooka (the other kind), and a bass guitar. The guitar isn’t any of ours. It just appeared there, staring, accusingly, possibly warning us that Terpsichore is not happy with us. This is unsettling since it’s so rare that an ancient Greek god would be offended by something humans were up to. Maybe we shouldn’t have mixed her up with Euterpe.
We tried optimistically to play The Beatles’ “Getting Better”, and soon found that we never actually noticed the lyrics before. We’ve had to consign that to the pile of Peppy Beatles Tunes With Lyrics That Actually Horrify You, alongside “Run For Your Life”, “A Day In The Life”, and every other song the Beatles ever recorded except “Twist and Shout” and the theme to “What’s Happening”. (It was a private session.) Actually most of the day was spent on paperwork. Should be a concert for the ages. Still no idea who I’m playing with.
Some good news out of the cooking world: the two-piece rotary cheese grater has been rated the most kitchen-y implement of them all, for the seventh year running. According to an article I read on the subject, you can’t even pick it up without feeling like you’re a master of the cooking arts, even if you aren’t doing so well remembering how to get the little box-like end folded over the cylindrical part and the plate that pushes down into the box and aaargh.
Winner of the title “least kitchen-y implement” this year is the lawn roller, which dethroned longtime favorite, the offended scowl.
I’ve been reading Reporting the Revolutionary War, by Tod Andrlik, reprinting newspapers, Colonial and British, when stuff was just happening. One paragraph from the Portsmouth New-Hampshire Gazette of July 20, 1764, read so:
A giant, 14 feet high (who was the same at nine years old) arrived the 14th ult at Dre[ can’t tell; it’s lost in the binding of the book ] from Trent, to make a shew of himself.
The next paragraph reports that an Ambassador discussed fishery stocks. Isn’t that a glorious treasure-trove of information about the world of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the days before the Flood of ’42 swept its hyphen away and probably didn’t do the fishery stock any harm besides putting it up higher? Consider the article’s implications.
For one, the writer doesn’t mention the name of this giant. Why? Maybe they guessed a person who was fourteen feet high didn’t need any further identification, and that’s true in my circles. I know dozens of folks who’re over sixty feet high, but fourteen is a distinctive number and if there were any I knew, you’d just have to say “that person who’s fourteen feet high” and I’d know who you were talking about without any further bother. It’d probably go very well for me that way, really, since I’m not very strong on remembering names. I can’t remember a guy’s name I’ll just guess he’s probably a “David”. You’d be surprised how often it works. All the guys I met from 1996 through 1999 were named David, or are now anyway, and the pattern’s holding up well to today.
Here’s the next thing: our giant, David, wasn’t making a shew of himself in Portsmouth. Whatever might be going on in Portsmouth in the summer of 1764, watching giants was not drawing a paying crowd. David didn’t just have to go outside Portsmouth to earn a living, too: he had to leave Trent. Now we have a scene, somewhere near the village green of Trent, New Hampshire, in early July, as a farmer or smithy or tar-featherer or coopers-blunderbusser or something talks with his wife about David’s disappointing performance.
“Did you see, Martha, that poor David was trying to make a shew of himself by being fourteen feet tall in the public square.”
“Aye,” he says, pausing to throw a rock at something he heard was a Stamp Tax collector (who in fact preferred collecting other Coercive Acts, finding that everyone was into Stamp Taxes in those days). “Fourteen feet tall and he thinks that’ll be an entertainment for us.”
“Land o’ goshen, Vermont, Henry, but isn’t that exactly the same thing he was trying to do when he was but nine years old?”
“To the inch and third-barleycorn, Martha,” cracks Henry as he indentures a servitude. “Not even a half a pottled king’s earlobe higher.”
“My, my. Someone should tell the lad, just being very tall isn’t going to get you an audience in these parts. Maybe he could attract a paying crowd in Dre[ mumbled into the folds ], but this is Trent. This is the big time.”
“We’ve got experience looking at people who are large. David has to get some kind of special advantage if he’s going to find work here.”
“Maybe he should learn to juggle or somesuch, then he can put on a proper shew.”
And around the corner of the farm tavern print-shop coffee house, a lone tear runs down David’s cheek and sees how far it is to drop to the ground. David considers finding some apples, but as Johnny Appleseed won’t be born until 1774, he makes off with a couple rocks and steals away to Dre[ something or other ], hoping he can refine his act and work his way back up to Trent, and maybe someday Portsmouth or even Worcester. He does, finally reaching the last town in 1839, as he’s ready to retire, which is just as well as he’s upstaged by the first giraffe brought to North America.
And this is why the marginalia of old newspapers is so grand: we get to see a past we’d never otherwise suspect. (PS, the United States won the Revolutionary War, sixteen feet to thirteen and a hog’s plunder in height.)
We’ve got a really tall flowering plant here. I have to say it’s an amaryllis, because deep down, I can only think of four names that sound like flowering plants, and those are the rose, the daisy, the amaryllis, and the hypochondria, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t a rose or daisy. Anyway, this plant has been growing so much that if I told you, you’d think I was comically exaggerating. It’s grown about five feet in the last three days and the petals open just enough that it can try grabbing the UPS guy. We’re leaving it beside the window and hoping it doesn’t make demands. Also it’s staring at me.
I like comic strips, a lot, and thought I’d talk about one of them. That’s Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena, presently running at Gocomics.com. The strip is updated weekdays. I’ve always been partial to both simple absurdity, such as today’s Grand Whiffle Dam project, and to the mock explanation which gets the rhythms of imparting knowledge while being nonsense down. So this strip sates several of my tastes regularly.
And now that stand-up comic I hired to keep squirrels off the bird feeder is causing problems. I agree, there’s only so many jokes a white guy can tell about southern bog lemmings before you start feeling like the guy has a weird agenda. I want to give comics a fair chance at exploring edgy material, but you can’t argue with letters of protest from over 36 Ogilvie Mountains collared lemmings. It’s controversial material that isn’t working, and now I have to spend time dealing with it. Everything would be so much easier if the squirrels would just eat out of the squirrel feeder instead.
Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were a vaudeville and early movies comedy team with at least one vocal hook that’s still sort-of remembered-ish, in that if you see a guy wearing big, Harold Lloyd style glasses and going “WhooOOO-oh!” that’s Woolsey getting referenced. Their movies feature a lot of moderately aggressive, Groucho Marx-ish dialogue in which conversation gets reduced to nonsense. They’re not as sentimental as the Marx Brothers(!), which results their rampaging chaos being more surprisingly mean-spirited when it gets taken out on an undeserving victim, so they’re harder to enjoy, but I do.
This is an exchange from 1934’s Kentucky Kernels, with Woolsey courting Margaret Dumont, who’s playing against type as the Margaret Dumont character.
Woolsey: Good morning, Mrs Baxter, you look perfectly charming this morning.
Dumont: Oh, do you really think so?
Woolsey: No, but I had to say something. And I always say it with flowers. [ He takes a rose out of his jacket and gives it to her. ]
Dumont: Only one rose?
Woolsey: Well, you know me; I don’t talk much.
“We’re getting the band back together,” said the person phoning me.
“I’ve never been in a band,” I protested.
“You can’t be the holdout! What are we going to do without bass guitar?”
“I’ve never touched a bass guitar in my life. I only ever played a three-quarters scale violin.”
“See?” said the voice. “That’s what gives us that unique Suburban Jersey sound!”
“The only songs I was ever okay at were the theme to Masterpiece Theater and `Memories’ from Cats. And I was never that solid at the part where I have to finger the strings. Or pluck them.”
“It’s `Memory’. That’s what makes us such an accessible sound!”
“Are you sure you have the right number?”
Anyway, we’re opening the 27th in the Loft in downtown Lansing for Aphasic Marsupials and also Made Yer Bows’ Amateur Hour.
So before the hamster wheel were people just trying out, say, putting a lever in their cage and seeing what a hamster made of it? “Look, I can shuffle cedar chips around some.” The inclined plane? Perhaps an Archimedean screw? Or were they thinking of more obviously useful tools, possibly as the first step in training hamsters to do all sorts of light carpentry and home repair, and tried putting in little shovels and rakes? And would a ladder fit in as just a general mechanical device or as a potential hamster tool? If even one hamster living in 1948 had shown some proficiency at using a screwdriver we might be living in a very different world today.
Do you like a thing? Do you want to regret liking it? Why not try fandom?
If there’s anything that can smother the joy you find in something like a full-on encounter with its committed fans I haven’t found it yet, and neither will you, because you’ll be too busy screaming and fleeing, sometimes into a wall. This doesn’t depend on what the thing is: books, theater, furniture, drapery covered in white chocolate, paint, web browsers, rare spices from the Maluku Islands, arcsecants, the Oxford comma, and birdbaths can all trigger it.
Don’t believe me? Think back to the last time you talked about Star Trek with that friend who was way too into it. Remember?
You: Hey, I was feeling like watching something Star Trek tonight. What’s the best Next Generation movie?
Fan: There isn’t one. But First Contact comes closest. That’s the one with the Borg.
You: Oh yeah! You will be assimilated. I should watch that again sometime.
Fan: That’s a not wholly execrable choice. You’ll have to watch “Best of Both Worlds” first.
Fan: Why? It introduced Locutus and assimilation and had that awesome cliffhanger where Riker orders Worf to fire.
You: Oh. Oh, yeah. I guess I can have a double feature night.
Fan: And you’re going to have to watch “I, Borg” in-between so you understand Picard’s lingering low-level telepathic link to the Borg Collective.
You: Can’t you maybe explain it instead?
Fan: I don’t dare spoil you! Oh, you’ve got to see Generations before you get to First Contact.
You: Can I just watch the movie I wanted to watch?
Fan: You’re adorably naive. You have to see how the starship from the TV show was destroyed so you can understand the implications of their being on a wholly new Enterprise.
You: I could maybe just listen to the director’s commentary after if I have any questions.
Fan: Frakes’s commentaries are not without their charms but — oh, that reminds me, you’re going to have to watch “Journey’s End” because that explains why Wesley Crusher isn’t part of the movie franchise.
You: I thought they sold Wesley to a dealer on Delta Pavonis III who stripped him for parts.
Fan: But that’s a time-saving episode to catch because that also explains the political situations between the Maquis and the Cardassians and the Federation so you’re going to have a leg up in the Deep Space Nine episodes that you need to see.
You: I thought the only Deep Space Nine episode I had to see was the one where they went back to the original Trek.
Fan: A pandering trifle.
You: A trifle with tribbles.
Fan: [ After making a disappointed face suggesting an awareness that a situation like this was predicted, but had not been believed could be anything but the worst imaginable case. ] Fortunately I think you only require three Deep Space Nine episodes to get all the necessary background regarding Worf’s presence on the Defiant but they are two-parters. And of course you’ll want to see the other episodes focusing on Wesley and the Traveller so you understand both how he was the helm officer at one point and then was absent from the movie, but that’s only two more episodes to the total.
You: I don’t have to have a little Star Trek night. I could just stare at birdbaths until they burn into my retinas.
Fan: Oh, and you’ll want to watch the series finale of Voyager.
You: Have I not suffered enough?
Fan: I fear there might be some aspect of the multiverse in which you don’t despise Janeway with every fermion of your being.
You: I don’t know. I used to watch Columbo.
Fan: Also you’re going to want to watch this episode where aliens trying to understand leadership abduct Picard and replace him with a duplicate who leads the whole crew in a drunken sing-along in Ten Forward, because nobody remembers anything about this episode and I have to prove I didn’t make it up.
You: [ After sighing ] Which episode is that?
Fan: I don’t know, I can never remember it.
And this is why you watched Empire Strikes Back, without mentioning it to anyone, instead.
What do you suppose the hamster community thinks of the person who invented the hamster wheel? It’s not an obvious invention, the way the cat motorcycle, the gerbil paddle steamer, or the wallaroo Quadricycle are. You need to have a vision of wheels alongside rodents, if hamsters are still rodents. They keep finding out different animals aren’t actually rodents. Just last month a report in Nature showed that the horse was definitely not a rodent, following an investigation by biologists who didn’t want to work too hard that day.
The first hamster to make the wheel work was some kind of genius among hamsters, too, though. I imagine hamsters to this day squeak her name when they want to talk sarcastically about the smart one in their group.
S J Perelman’s another of the great voices of 20th century humor. It’s easiest to find his writing as the scripts for the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and for the 1956 Around the world In Eighty Days. My selection today is his review of the debut issue of Captain Future, Wizard of Science,. That magazine was created in 1940 by Mort Weisinger, who would go on to edit those Silver Age comic books that all seem to involve purple-caped gorillas claiming they’re Lois Lane and asking Superman why he has to kill them, and largely written by Edmond Hamilton, one of the greatest early science fiction writers. Perelman’s essay also reminds us that carefully reviewing, half in awe, the goings-on of pop culture’s lowest rungs would inspire hilarious writing long before the Internet made it so easy.
I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws. You’ll have to leave my meals on a tray outside the door because I’ll be working pretty late on the secret of making myself invisible, which may take me almost until eleven o’clock. Oh, yes, and don’t let’s forget one more thing. I’ll need a life subscription to a new quarterly journal called Captain Future, Wizard of Science, a bright diadem on the forehead of Better Publications, 22 West Forty-eighth Street, New York City.
As one who triggered a disintegrator with Buck Rogers and could dash off a topographical map of Mongo or Dale Arden with equal facility, I thought in my pride and arrogance I knew all there was to know about astronomical adventure. It was something of a shock, therefore, to find out several days back that I was little more than a slippered pantaloon. Beside Captain Future, Wizard of Science, Flash Gordon and the Emperor Ming pale to a couple of nursery tots chewing on Holland rusk.
The novelette in which this spectacular caballero makes his bow to “scientification” fans opens with no fumbling preamble or prosy exposition. Into the office of James Carthew, President of the Earth Government, staggers a giant ape, barely recognizable by the President as John Sperling, his most trusted secret agent. The luckless investigator had been ordered to Jupiter to look into a complaint that some merry-andrew was causing atavism among the Jovians, but apparently had got badly jobbed. Before Carthew can intervene, a frightened guard drills the ape man with a flare-pistol, and in his dying breath the latter lays the blame for his predicament squarely at the door of a mysterious being he calls the Space Emperor. As you may well imagine, Carthew is all of a tizzy. He immediately instructs his secretary to send for Captain Future in the ringing phrase, “Televise the meteorological rocket-patrol base at Spitzbergen. Order them to flash the magnesium flare signal from the North Pole.” Personally, I think Carthew might have softened this whiplike command with “And just for the hell of it, why don’t you try the Princeton Club?” but perhaps I delve too deeply. In any event, the perpetual uranium clock has hardly ticked off two hours before Captain Future (or Curt Newton, to call him by his given name) appears on the escarpment with one of the most endearing speeches in my experience:
“You know my assistants,” Curt Newton said shortly, “Crag the robot, Otho the android, and Simon Wright, the Living Brain. We came from the moon full speed when I saw your signal. What’s wrong?”
Fiction teems with sinister escorts and everybody has his favorite, but Captain Future’s three-man mob leaves the worst of them kissed off and frozen against ths cushion:
A weird shape had just leaped onto the balcony. It was a manlike figure, but one whose body was rubbery, boneless-looking, blank-white in color. He wore a metal harness, and his long, slitted green unhuman eyes peered brightly out of an alien white face. Following this rubbery android, or synthetic man, came another figure, equally as strange— a giant metal robot who strode across the balcony on padded feet. He towered seven feet high. In his bulbous metal head gleamed a pair of photoelectric eyes. The robot’s left hand carried the handle of a square transparent box. Inside it a living brain was housed. In the front of the case were the Brain’s two glittering glass lens-eyes. Even now they were moving oh their flexible metal stalks to look at the President.
At this juncture I took time out to moisten my lips with the tip of my tongue, retrieved my own eyeballs, and plunged on. Captain Future himself was somewhat more tailored than his comrades, in fact quite swagger. “His unruly shock of red hair towered six feet four above the floor, and his wide lithe shoulders threatened to burst the jacket of his gray synthesilk zipper-suit.” In pulp fiction it is a rigid convention that the hero’s shoulders and the heroine’s balcon constantly threatens to burst their bonds, a possibility which keeps the audience in a state of tense expectancy. Unfortunately for the fans, however, recent tests reveal that the wisp of chiffon which stands between the publisher and the postal laws has the tensile strength of drop-forged steel.
To acquaint the reader more fully with “that tall, cheerful, red-haired young adventurer of the ready laugh and flying fists, the implacable Nemesis of all oppressors and exploiters of the System’s human and planetary races,” the author interrupts his smoking narrative with a brief dossier. In the year 1990, the brilliant young Earth biologist Roger Newton, aided by the living brain of Simon Wright (“the greatest brain in scientific history”), had unravelled the secret of artificial life. Now, certain dark forces headed by one Victor Corvo were determined to appropriate Newton’s secret. To confound him, Roger Newton proposed to Elaine, his wife, and the Living Brain that they conceal themselves on the moon.
“But the moon!” Elaine exclaimed, deep repulsion shadowing her eyes. “That barren, airless globe that no one ever visits!” Elaine’s dainty disgust is pardonable; Far Rockaway out of season could not have been more painfully vieux jeu. A few weeks, nevertheless, see the little company snugly housed under the surface of Tycho crater upon the moon, where its number is swelled by the addition of the infant Curt and Grag the robot, whom Roger and the Living Brain construct in their spare time of neurons and nails and puppy dogs’ tails. Eventually, still another fruit of this intellectual union — Otho, the synthetic android –— is capering about the laboratory. Just as Newton is on the verge of returning to earth, up turns Public Bad Penny No. 1, Victor Corvo, and slays him and his wife. When the Brain assures him vengeance will be swift, Corvo hurls the taunt supreme at the preserved scientist: “Don’t try to threaten me, you miserable bodiless brain! I’ll soon silence you–—” He stops throwing his weight around soon enough when Grag and Otho burst in, and, directed by the Brain, rub him out effectively if none too tidily.
Dying, Elaine Newton entrusts Curt to the care of the trio in a scene which must affect the sensibilities of the most callous:
“Tell him to war always against those who would pervert science to sinister ambition,” whispered Elaine. “I will tell him,” promised the Brain, and in its toneless metallic voice was a queer catch.
The guardians justify Elaine’s faith in them to a degree; by the time Curt has attained his majority, he is one lovely hunk of boy, a hybrid of Leonardo da Vinci and Dink Stover. From then on, as Captain Future, Curt ranges the solar system with his pals in an asteroidal supership, the Comet 7 avenging his folks and relentlessly waging war on what the author is pleased to call “interplanetary crime.”
But to return to our muttons, if so prosaic a term can be applied to the streamlined quartet. Speeding outward into space toward Jovopolis, chief Earthman colony on Jupiter, Captain Future plucks haunting music from his twenty-string Venusian guitar while Grag and Otho tend the controls and the Living Brain burrows into textbooks for a clue to the atavism. Their snug Kaffeeklatsch is blasted when a piratical black space-cruiser suddenly looms across the Comet’s bows and attempts to ambush the party, but Curt’s proton beams force the attacker down on Callisto, outermost of Jupiter’s four biggest moons. The boys warp in alongside and Grag prepares to rip open the jammed door of the pirate craft so his master may question the miscreants:
Grag’s big metal fingers were removable. The robot rapidly unscrewed two of them and replaced them with small drills which he took from a kit of scalpels, chisels, and similar tools carried in a little locker in his metal side. Then Grag touched a switch on his wrist. The two drills which had replaced two of his fingers whirled hummingly. He quickly used them to drill six holes in the edge of the ship’s door. Then he replaced the drills with his fingers, hooked six fingers inside the holes he had made.
The rest is brute strength, a department in which Grag is preeminent. Inside are Jon Orris and Martin Skeel, whose names instantly tip them off as wrong guys. Yet it is impossible not to be moved by Orris’s pathetic confession: “Skeel and I have criminal records. We fled out here after we got into a murder scrape on Mars.” They admit under pressure that they are creatures of the Space Emperor, though actually they have never seen him. “He’s always concealed in a big, queer black suit, and he speaks out of it in a voice that don’t sound human to me,” Skeel says.
Time, even on Callisto, is a-wastin’, and nimbly dodging a plague of creeping crystals which bids fair to annihilate them, the space-farers resume their course. On their arrival at Jovopolis, Otho the android disguises himself as Orris and repairs to that worthy’s hut to await the Space Emperor and overpower him so that Captain Future can steal up and clap the darbies on him. Arriving at the rendezvous, the Emperor promptly makes himself invisible and Curt leaps through him, only to sprawl on his finely chiseled beezer.
Recovering from this contretemps with his usual sunny equanimity, Curt hastens to the mansion of the governor, Sylvanus Quale, to reconnoitre. Here he encounters the heart interest, a plump little cabbage named Joan Randall, who is head nurse to the chief planetary physician. Lucas Brewer, a shifty radium magnate, Mark Cannig, his mine superintendent, and Eldred Kells, the vice-governor, are also at the mansion. It is apparent at once to the cognoscenti that any one of these worthies is the Space Emperor, and with no personal bias other than that his name had a particularly sneaky sound, I put my money on Eldred Kells. Fifty pages later I was proved right, but not before I had been locked in an atavism ward with Curt and Joan, flung into a pit by the green flipper-men, and nibbled by giant six-foot rats called “diggers” (a surprisingly mild name for a giant six-foot rat, by the way). But even such hazards, for all their jewelled prose, cannot compare with the description of the main street of Jungletown:
Here were husky prospectors in stained zipper-suits, furtive, unshaven space-bums begging, cool-eyed interplanetary gamblers, gaunt engineers in high boots with flare-pistols at their belts, bronzed space-sailors up from Jovopolis for a carousal in the wildest new frontier-town in the System.
And so, all too soon for both Joan Randall and myself, comes the hour of parting with “the big red-head,” as the author shakily describes Curt in a final burst of emotion. In the next issue, Captain Future and his creepy constabulary will doubtless be summoned forth again to combat some horror as yet to be devised. Meanwhile I like to think of his lighthearted rebuke to Otho the android, already chafing against inactivity:
“Sooner or later, there’ll be another call from Earth, and
then I hope there’s action enough for you, you crazy coot!”
There may be another call, Curt, but it won’t come from Baby. Right now all he wants is a cup of hot milk and fourteen hours of shut-eye. And if it’s all the same to you, he’ll do his sleeping with the lights on.
So it turns out customer support phone operators are evaluated on how long it takes for the customer to give up and agree to absolutely anything as long as he’s allowed to get off the phone.
In other news the resolution to our satellite receiver’s defects involve me being sent by UPS, in a box they’ll provide, to their main warehouse facility, where I’m going to and replace their aluminum siding and install new faucets in the bathroom. I have to bring the faucets.
It isn’t that I was deliberately avoiding them, or that I was particularly avoiding social gatherings where they might be shown. It’s just that it was very, very important that I watch a videotape of The Wrath Of Khan 316 times while I was still in high school, just in case it changed on us all or something. Sometimes I’d have to watch it two or three times in a night, but I think you’ll agree the effort was worthwhile.
1722: The village of Lesser Pompous Lakes finds the solution to its problem of chronic flooding when a visiting officer from the Royal Navy identifies the problem as tides. Over the coming year the village moves two feet farther away from Lousy Creek and the community is that much dryer. A statue commemorating the officer was ordered in 1725, but by then he had backed warily far out of town.
I was aware getting my hair cut would have consequences. It always does. The most important is that I don’t have two-thirds of my disposable income going to shampoo purchases anymore. But there’s always this period after the haircut where I’m still slathering on shampoo as if I had the former medicine ball full of hair, and that’s maybe 2,038 times the shampoo I actually need, so the rest goes into foam manufacture.
What I’m saying is, yes, I’m aware that there’s a mass of shampoo-bubble-foam the volume of an Olympic swimming pool that’s escaped from the bathroom and is making its way up West Shiawassee Street, grabbing cars and mopping them clean before setting the baffled drivers back on their way. I’ll deal with it.