Problems of Web Site Design


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.

Corrections


In this column recently we erroneously quoted Michigan state Senator Carl Levin as saying, “a mapping \phi: M \rightarrow M for a manifold M is structurally stable if any C^r perturbation is topologically conjugate to \phi, where C^r is a function \psi such that \psi is close to \phi and that the first r derivatives of \psi are also close to the respective derivatives of \phi ”. 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.

The Unbearable Sweetness of Sixteen


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.

The First No-Show


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.

Mammoth Engineering Works


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.

Was It Getting The Yard Muddy?


“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.

Comic Strips: The Heart of Juliet Jones


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?

What I Know About Kurt Cobain Or Vitamin B-12


Since people are curious, here are the things I know about Kurt Cobain or Vitamin B-12:

  1. Intentionally struck out so as to not have to play little league.
  2. 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.
  3. Had a great-uncle, Delbert, a tenor who appeared in the 1930 film King of Jazz.
  4. Can treat both pernicious anemia and cyanide poisoning.
  5. As a child, could, and did, accurately draw Aquaman.
  6. 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.
  7. Is commonly known as riboflavin by people who’ve mistaken it for Vitamin B-2.

Kurt Cobain? All right, Kurt Cobain.


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


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.

‘Oh, Sandy!’ now on sale


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.

What We Have In Common


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.

Finley Peter Dunne: (More) Casual Observations


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
clothes.


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.

Robert Benchley: Blank Form To Be Handed To Returning Tourists


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.

Can’t Stop The Beat


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.

Cheesey Developments


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.

Giants of the Colonial Era


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.”

“What, again?”

“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.)

I Like The Bloom On A Hypochondria More


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.

Comic Strips I Like: Unstrange Phenomena


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.

Problems of Squirrel Comedy


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.