Sees The Day


Now this is interesting. According to surveys yesterday felt like a Saturday to nearly 30 percent of the population, but 34 percent said they thought the day smelled like a Tuesday. It had the sense of balance of one of those Mondays that’s used for an observed holiday, and it held water like the last weekend of the month. It had the sponginess of a late November day, which is about what it should have done, so at least that much of life in order.

What Spoons Mean


One of the great things about Thanksgiving is it’s a chance for us to get out the silverware and dishes and cutlery and all that that we don’t dare get out when it’s just us eating because we haven’t got near enough self-esteem to treat themselves to the good silverware. By the good silverware we mean the silverware that’s somehow gotten tarnished even though it was definitely cleaned before it was put away last time, eleven months ago, in a series of individually custom-fitting plastic wrappers, from which it was untouched by human hands and even forgotten about for that whole stretch between April and late October. By the good dishes we mean the ones that are kind of small but have that fancy lining we’re afraid is going to be scraped off by picking up whole-berry cranberries with the fork. By the cutlery we’re pretty sure we mean something. By all that we mean the things overlooked before.

The defining characteristic of the good silverware is we have no idea what most of it is for because the only things we eat anymore are sandwiches wraps, granola bars that are almost four percent granola and 90 percent chocolate-laced corn syrup, and extruded blocks of Colby/Monterey Jack blended cheese. So here’s some of the key pieces:

Forks. These multi-tined food implements were introduced to Western Civilization during the Carolingian Renaissance, although after the notorious Stabbening of Aix-la-Chapelle they beat a hasty retreat and didn’t come back until things had gotten a whole bunch more civilized and somehow the 17th Century counted. They started with three tines, then four, reaching five just before the rise of time-management theory and Fred Taylor’s theory that they’d do better with as few tines as possible. Things went absurdly far, reducing the fork to just one long dagger-like spindle in the 1930s, when nobody had any food anyway. In the good silverware they come in a small version, for salads, in a big version, for the meal, in a tinier still version, for pie, in an extra-medium version, for some reason, and in a tiny version but with one really thick tine that looks kind of like Popeye’s bulging muskles, for Bluto to stare at silently while contemplating the injustices of fate.

Mysterious Spoons. Spoons should come in multiple sizes and dimensions, including several that are nearly all holes. Those are used when you’re trying to serve something that comes in a juice, which you leave behind because of the holes, which raises questions about whether you need the juice at all and maybe it turns out spoons are really more complicated than we realized. The important thing is to use the sharpest spoon there is to slice the gelatinized cranberries because it’s just so, so pretty when it gets sliced into neat little polygonal wedges. So pretty. So, so pretty.

Yam Mauls. These triangular posts, were designed to allow the more efficient splitting of yams or sweet potatoes by the yam pirates of the Pine Barrens. While their success in that can be disputed, so can pretty much everything else, including on what day of the week Tuesday falls, so you can’t really go by the fact there’s a dispute possible. If nothing else having one person with a yam maul means there’s the chance to end the debate on whether yams are just sweet potatoes or if there’s got to be a difference if they’re called different things. This theory fails if there’s two people with yam mauls.

Poseidon’s Trident. This long tri-tined fork is used to hold the main course in place and where needed to condemn impious seafarers beating about the wine-dark sea. Leave it in the hands of the most responsible person, which can be determined by seeing who has the longest beard of those white poofy curly things. (They’re allowed to be rental beards.) You don’t want this kind of power being put in the hands of someone trying to run the carrots aground on the Island of Circe.

Plates. There should be one master plate for the main meal, and a side plate for the salad, and a little bowl also for the salad, and maybe a tinier bowl yet for a soup, if you make soup, and if you don’t you can just use the littlest bowl as something to take out of the way before you start eating. There should also be enough glasses that some migrate to your seating partners and are never seen again; more upscale ones will send postcards relating their adventures tersely.

Don’t ask about the tablecloths. We don’t need that kind of trouble.

Robert Benchley: Opera Synopses I


[ Since it’s such a busy week all around why not return to the pages of Robert Benchley’s Love Conquers All and to the part where he summarizes some opera for our convenience? Here, his notes explaining Die Meister-Genossenschaft. ]

DIE MEISTER-GENOSSENSCHAFT

Scene: The Forests of Germany.

Time: Antiquity.

Cast

Strudel, God of Rain Basso
Schmalz, God of Slight Drizzle Tenor
Immerglück, Goddess of the Six Primary Colors Soprano
Ludwig Das Eiweiss, the Knight of the Iron Duck Baritone
The Woodpecker Soprano

Argument

The basis of “Die Meister-Genossenschaft” is an old legend of Germany which tells how the Whale got his Stomach.

ACT I

The Rhine at Low Tide Just Below Weldschnoffen.—Immerglück has grown weary of always sitting on the same rock with the same fishes swimming by every day, and sends for Schwül to suggest something to do. Schwül asks her how she would like to have pass before her all the wonders of the world fashioned by the hand of man. She says, rotten. He then suggests that Ringblattz, son of Pflucht, be made to appear before her and fight a mortal combat with the Iron Duck. This pleases Immerglück and she summons to her the four dwarfs: Hot Water, Cold Water, Cool, and Cloudy. She bids them bring Ringblattz to her. They refuse, because Pflucht has at one time rescued them from being buried alive by acorns, and, in a rage, Immerglück strikes them all dead with a thunderbolt.

ACT 2

A Mountain Pass.—Repenting of her deed, Immerglück has sought advice of the giants, Offen and Besitz, and they tell her that she must procure the magic zither which confers upon its owner the power to go to sleep while apparently carrying on a conversation. This magic zither has been hidden for three hundred centuries in an old bureau drawer, guarded by the Iron Duck, and, although many have attempted to rescue it, all have died of a strange ailment just as success was within their grasp.

But Immerglück calls to her side Dampfboot, the tinsmith of the gods, and bids him make for her a tarnhelm or invisible cap which will enable her to talk to people without their understanding a word she says. For a dollar and a half extra Dampfboot throws in a magic ring which renders its wearer insensible. Thus armed, Immerglück starts out for Walhalla, humming to herself.

ACT 3

The Forest Before the Iron Duck’s Bureau Drawer.—Merglitz, who has up till this time held his peace, now descends from a balloon and demands the release of Betty. It has been the will of Wotan that Merglitz and Betty should meet on earth and hate each other like poison, but Zweiback, the druggist of the gods, has disobeyed and concocted a love-potion which has rendered the young couple very unpleasant company. Wotan, enraged, destroys them with a protracted heat spell.

Encouraged by this sudden turn of affairs, Immerglück comes to earth in a boat drawn by four white Holsteins, and, seated alone on a rock, remembers aloud to herself the days when she was a girl. Pilgrims from Augenblick, on their way to worship at the shrine of Schmürr, hear the sound of reminiscence coming from the rock and stop in their march to sing a hymn of praise for the drying up of the crops. They do not recognize Immerglück, as she has her hair done differently, and think that she is a beggar girl selling pencils.

In the meantime, Ragel, the papercutter of the gods, has fashioned himself a sword on the forge of Schmalz, and has called the weapon “Assistance-in-Emergency.” Armed with “Assistance-in-Emergency” he comes to earth, determined to slay the Iron Duck and carry off the beautiful Irma.

But Frimsel overhears the plan and has a drink brewed which is given to Ragel in a golden goblet and which, when drunk, makes him forget his past and causes him to believe that he is Schnorr, the God of Fun. While laboring under this spell, Ragel has a funeral pyre built on the summit of a high mountain and, after lighting it, climbs on top of it with a mandolin which he plays until he is consumed.

Immerglück never marries.

The Book-Categorizer’s Lament


This book is just madness. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t think it’s fiction. It’s certainly not fact. The history books hissed when it was brought near. The religion books gave it this hostile sneer. New Age turned its back; Philosophy wouldn’t even give it that. The text spills out round pictures meeting some need; the exposition plunges on as a panicked steed. It can’t be filed as a kitchen appliance or set of magnetic poetry blocks. We just have to put it on a little table by itself under signs reading “?”. If someone comes in saying they just need a “book” we can point them to this and wish them good luck.

Charley Chase: A Versatile Villain


I’d like to offer another silent comedy here, this one 1915’s A Versatile Villain, starring Charley Chase. You probably don’t recognize the name and that’s honestly fair enough as his heyday was 85 years ago and he wasn’t in the top tier of silent (or early talkie) comedians. Even his name sounds like an attempt at the mockbuster equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. But he still did some fine work.

A Versatile Villain is also pretty neat in being the sort of parody of Victorian melodrama that’s pretty near the only way anyone sees Victorian melodramas; it’s easy to see the conceptual heritage to, well, Dudley Do-Right, down to the shacks of crates marked DYNAMITE and all that. It’s enough to make you wonder if there were ever a time that this sort of story was being told except for the comic thrill of finding it all ridiculous. I’m inclined to believe that no, these stories have pretty much been absurd exaggeration from the start, or pretty near, that curious sort of entertainment that spoofs something which doesn’t quite really exist, or at least exists nothing like its spoofs do.

The video is available at archive.org, but since I can’t embed that, here’s a YouTube version:

Robert Benchley: How To Watch A Chess Match


[ I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve beaten a grown-up in a chess game as recently as 1990, when he had to run off and catch a bus. I know how to play chess in terms of being able to move the pieces around in ways that don’t actually break most of the important rules, which is a skill that I’m surprised has ever impressed anyone ever. In Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley thought to give some useful advice to people who want to watch a chess game even if they aren’t sure just how. Meanwhile, apparently “Ohio State Michigan jokes” is a search query bringing people to my disapproving of a recent Pearls Before Swine strip, so if you’re looking for that, go over there. Enjoy ]

HOW TO WATCH A CHESS-MATCH

Second in the list of games which it is necessary for every sportsman to know how to watch comes chess. If you don’t know how to watch chess, the chances are that you will never have any connection with the game whatsoever. You would not, by any chance, be playing it yourself.

I know some very nice people that play chess, mind you, and I wouldn’t have thought that I was in any way spoofing at the game. I would sooner spoof at the people who engineered the Panama Canal or who are drawing up plans for the vehicular tunnel under the Hudson River. I am no man to make light of chess and its adherents, although they might very well make light of me. In fact, they have.

But what I say is, that taking society by and large, man and boy, the chances are that chess would be the Farmer-Labor Party among the contestants for sporting honors.

Now, since it is settled that you probably will not want to play chess, unless you should be laid up with a bad knee-pan or something, it follows that, if you want to know anything about the sport at all, you will have to watch it from the side-lines. That is what this series of lessons aims to teach you to do, (of course, if you are going to be nasty and say that you don’t want even to watch it, why all this time has been, wasted on my part as well as on yours).

HOW TO FIND A GAME TO WATCH

The first problem confronting the chess spectator is to find some people who are playing. The bigger the city, the harder it is to find anyone indulging in chess. In a small town you can usually go straight to Wilbur Tatnuck’s General Store, and be fairly sure of finding a quiet game in progress over behind the stove and the crate of pilot-biscuit, but as you draw away from the mitten district you find the sporting instinct of the population cropping out in other lines and chess becoming more and more restricted to the sheltered corners of Y.M.C.A. club-rooms and exclusive social organizations.

However, we shall have to suppose, in order to get any article written at all, that you have found two people playing chess somewhere. They probably will neither see nor hear you as you come up on them so you can stand directly behind the one who is defending the south goal without fear of detection.

THE DETAILS OF THE GAME

At first you may think that they are both dead, but a mirror held to the lips of the nearest contestant will probably show moisture (unless, of course, they really should be dead, which would be a horrible ending for a little lark like this. I once heard of a murderer who propped his two victims up against a chess board in sporting attitudes and was able to get as far as Seattle before his crime was discovered).

Soon you will observe a slight twitching of an eye-lid or a moistening of the lips and then, like a greatly retarded moving-picture of a person passing the salt, one of the players will lift a chess-man from one spot on the board and place it on another spot.

It would be best not to stand too close to the board at this time as you are are likely to be trampled on in the excitement. For this action that you have just witnessed corresponds to a run around right end in a football game or a two-bagger in baseball, and is likely to cause considerable enthusiasm on the one hand and deep depression on the other. They may even forget themselves to the point of shifting their feet or changing the hands on which they are resting their foreheads. Almost anything is liable to happen.

When the commotion has died down a little, it will be safe for you to walk around and stand behind the other player and wait there for the next move. While waiting it would be best to stand with the weight of your body evenly distributed between your two feet, for you will probably be standing there a long time and if you bear down on one foot all of the time, that foot is bound to get tired. A comfortable stance for watching chess is with the feet slightly apart (perhaps a foot or a foot and a half), with a slight bend at the knees to rest the legs and the weight of the body thrown forward on the balls of the feet. A rhythmic rising on the toes, holding the hands behind the back, the head well up and the chest out, introduces a note of variety into the position which will be welcome along about dusk.

Not knowing anything about the game, you will perhaps find it difficult at first to keep your attention on the board. This can be accomplished by means of several little optical tricks. For instance, if you look at the black and white squares on the board very hard and for a very long time, they will appear to jump about and change places. The black squares will rise from the board about a quarter of an inch and slightly overlap the white ones. Then, if you change focus suddenly, the white squares will do the same thing to the black ones. And finally, after doing this until someone asks you what you are looking cross-eyed for, if you will shut your eyes tight you will see an exact reproduction of the chess-board, done in pink and green, in your mind’s eye. By this time, the players will be almost ready for another move.

This will make two moves that you have watched. It is now time to get a little fancy work into your game. About an hour will have already gone by and you should be so thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of chess watching that you can proceed to the next step.

Have some one of your friends bring you a chair, a table and an old pyrography outfit, together with some book-ends on which to burn a design.

Seat yourself at the table in the chair and (if I remember the process correctly) squeeze the bulb attached to the needle until the latter becomes red hot. Then, grasping the book-ends in the left hand, carefully trace around the pencilled design with the point of the needle. It probably will be a picture of the Lion of Lucerne, and you will let the needle slip on the way round the face, giving it the appearance of having shaved in a Pullman that morning. But that really won’t make any difference, for the whole thing is not so much to do a nice pair of book-ends as to help you along in watching the chess-match.

If you have any scruples against burning wood, you may knit something, or paste stamps in an album.

And before you know it, the game will be over and you can put on your things and go home.

Pants Check


Sometimes I even remember to check the “suspect” comments WordPress catches because they can’t figure whether it’s a legitimate comment or not and want me to approve it. Here’s one that delighted me:

they’re already imitation pants

You can see why WordPress’s software wasn’t sure about the comment, since I think we all have at least three people among our friends who’re here to warn us about their being imitation pants already, as opposed to when we had expected on the original time-table for their imitation pants status to be fully completed. And yet I’m sincerely grateful that WordPress didn’t just junk the comment on its own, because … well, goodness, who wouldn’t want to get that warning directly, even if it is just meant to sell me something which I assume to be a device which identifies what people around me are actually imitation pants.

Pole Barn Update!


There’s been some good news about the company that was behind that pole barn controversy a while back. The company’s put the whole business of their place being called a pole barn behind them and decided to expand in the area, this time near the airport where people are only going to give them a hard time about not looking like an airplane hangar enough.

But what delights me is the noon news reporter explained that “what they do is somewhat mysterious” and offered that, basically, it’s “a high-tech business that works with electrons”. This has been bringing a smile to me ever since. It’s got the vision of a company finding troubled electrons and counseling them back to success in school and a stable home life and maybe work out some of the problems that come about from feeling like they’re just one in an innumerable crowd and hardly even an individual fermion.

Sticking In The Head


At any given moment about two-fifths of all people have their brains under attack by some catchy tune, which gets called an “earworm” because somebody thought that was a catchy term and didn’t think we had enough trouble. Another two-fifths of all people are slapping their hands over their ears and yelling frantically to “shut up shut up shut UP” because some poor child of the 80s was remembering how the thing about a Bon-Bon is it’s almost always gone-gone.

But there’s a deeper question, which is, why should there be earworms at all? What advantage can there possibly be to having your brain occasionally taken over by a melody you like in about the same way you despise it? When did earworms get to be a thing? It seems like they have to have been invented sometime after music was invented, since it’d be kind of funny to have a song caught in your head if you haven’t got songs. It’d also seem like they’d have to come from after heads were invented, for similar reasons.

Maybe they didn’t, though. Maybe people were getting what they thought was music caught in their heads when it turned out it was just the wailing of people bemoaning their horrible, pre-music-based existence. But that seems like it would explain why earworms are popular in this music-enabled era, though, since we surely don’t want to have our existential dread hammering itself into our heads outside of its appropriate designated times, such as birthdays or the anniversaries of when we graduated college or Sunday nights. It’s surely better to be one of the roughly one out of four hundred people who are at any moment kind of remembering commercials from the late 70s are trying to work out whether it was “Nair for short shorts” or “Nair for short skirts” without giving up and just going to YouTube to see it because they can’t face the moment of admitting they were looking for Nair commercials from the 70s on YouTube.

I’m gratified to learn there’s serious study of earworms since it’s got to be a difficult subject to study. I have it hard enough because I can barely finish telling people that I have an advanced degree in mathematics without their telling me that it was their worst subject in school, and they could never understand what it was about, and occasionally their algebra teacher would transform into a 150-foot-tall giant and rampage through the city, requiring the national guard to deploy an security corridor of directrix and latus rectums to subdue. (They’re things used for making parabolas in case you live in an area where parabolas don’t grow naturally.) My spouse, the philosopher, has a similar problem with people describing how their philosophy courses inevitably resulted in their being captured by headless Zombie Jeremy Benthams and locked in a dank warehouse forced to press Joy Buttons all day and night. It’s pretty annoying to get.

So I figure someone studying earworms is probably bombarded day and night by people who think they’re being sociable or even interested but who really just want to know who to hold responsible for “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago”. (It was Doctor West’s Medicine Show And Junk Band.) I’m wrong, of course, because investigation has revealed that I’m the only person born after 1970 who’s even heard of this exemplar of psychedelic jug-band music, and probably Doctor West doesn’t even hear the song haunting his dreams anymore, though he’s probably wondering why if that Purple People-Eater Song can get sucked up into the vortex of Monster Based Songs I Guess Are On Theme For Halloween why his didn’t. Maybe it’s too much eggplant. And anyway the song fails as an earworm because I’ve dug the song up and played it for people and all they have lingering after the experience is a diminished opinion of me.

Here’s something else I wonder: an earworm is based on the idea of something getting stuck in the head and not getting back out again. But thanks to the Internet we can’t pay attention to anything long enough to have it stuck in our heads anymore. Does this mean the earworm is going to vanish as people can’t remember the entire phrase “itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie something or other” before staring at their phones for a status update? Or are we going to have to preserve the earworm by turning it over to technology and leaving our MP3 players to pick some catchy but infuriating snippet of song and play it to itself? I don’t know, but I’m sure the answer will be obvious after I’ve forgotten the question.

The Mysteries of Leaves


I was trying to figure why waking up today felt like such a foolish idea, and why when I did wake up it still felt like my back and my arms had been pummeled with large sacks of fatigue. They still feel a little bit like I’m wearing thick rubber pads buried under my skin. I have a hypothesis.

There was a heavy storm Sunday, the sort that doesn’t just blow all the leaves off the trees but that also finds wherever it was last year’s leaves were carted off to and brings them back for a fresh go-round. But with the yard’s drain plug pulled, the leaf levels had receded to the point they could be dealt with, so, we spent some of yesterday raking up the survivors. I didn’t think it was all that much, when we started, but we got fourteen lawn bags full just out of the little strip between the garage and the side fence. This is a strip maybe 26 inches wide, but it still took three-quarters of an hour to rake out and produce a pile of leaves large enough to leap my car into. (Lest I be accused of exaggerating, I must point out I have a sub-compact.) While I know suggesting there’s a link between doing one thing and experiencing another leaves me open to commenters reminding everyone that “correlation does not imply causation”, I think there may be a connection between hours of yard work and tiredness.

Community Calendar: Pronunciation Day


Come on down to the Deer Mouse Street Library to enjoy the fifth annual pronunciation-off at 3:15 pm Thursday. Main Auxiliary Room. Participants are hoping after the preliminary rounds to make it through most of “oryctolagus”. Attendees are asked to specify when they arrive whether they believe “snuck” to be a word so they may attend the correct session. We don’t want a repeat of the quarrels which broke out last time, although we admit it was kind of great when Ms Windling, shaking with rage, demanded the judges tell her whether they thought “tuck” was the past tense of “teak”.

Not Since I Pried The Stuck Window Open


I don’t truck much with stereotypical guy behavior. Mostly that’s because the stereotypical guy behavior is to select something that could be done and to then do so much of it that someone breaks down in tears. Thus we get bad-movie marathons, hazing, nuclear brinksmanship, pun cascades, contests to drink the entire bottle of hot sauce in one gulp, comments sections, World War I, middle school, and other deeply problematic parts of society. I don’t need that.

However, I admit that I do too have to carry all the groceries in with one load or know the reason why. (It’s because we have three twelve-packs of soda cans.) Also I spent a lot of Sunday staple-gunning tar paper to wood, and feel much more confident that I could go into Home Depot, stride down the aisles as if I knew what I was looking for, and just buy anything at all I looked at and even have the clerk ring it up by saying “So, whadda I owe ya for that anyway?” It’s a heady feeling.

Georges Melies: The Devilish Tenant


It’s been a while since I had a movie around these parts so let me point you to George Méliès’s The Devilish Tenant, a 1909 short that gives us Méliès as the star, of course, here unpacking and packing up a room from his trunk. This may be a fairly basic premise, but it shows off the stop-motion tricks that Méliès so delighted in, and even when you know how the trick is done it’s still fun seeing. And, yes, it’s in color despite being from 1909.

The link above, from archive.org, is probably the more archive-ready. Unfortunately if things haven’t changed much there’s not a good way to embed archive.org videos on a WordPress site, so, let me include a YouTube link that’s vulnerable to disappearing over copyright claims or the other ways the Internet is a vague and ever-shifting thing.

Some More Interesting Comics


Over on Gocomics.com, the feature Origins Of The Sunday Comics which is exactly what it says on the label ran a strip of some historical significance: the first Sunday comic George Herriman did for the New York World, from late September of 1901. Herriman would go on to Krazy Kat, which directly or indirectly influenced pretty much everybody doing comics except Berkeley Breathed, although I have to confess this installment doesn’t really get across why.
The feature also has another early Herriman example, from early November 1901, which shows that I guess in those days everyone just had to do their own Katzenjammer Kids.

Meanwhile the mock history of Working Daze which I like for its craft and research even if I didn’t like the overall strip continued through the 40s and (with today’s installment) the 50s. Naturally I liked the riffing on They’ll Do It Every Time — I remember that comic as being one of the things that awakened me as a kid to irony and the little ways we’re hypocrites even to ourselves — but the 1950s and “magazine cartooning” style really gets me. Partly that’s because it’s a graphic style I might as well have been programmed to like; partly it’s because over on dailyink.com I’ve been reading the vintage 1950s Hi and Lois, (which unfortunately it’s not easy to link to so as to give people a sample) a comic strip more broad in scope than its modern version, and one rich in 50s anxieties, including the fear of electric brains.

Dream Job at Kennywood


It’s a touch belated but I wanted to thank the Kennywood amusement park of my dream world for hiring me as a special investigator, and I appreciate their putting me up in their hotel while I solved the mystery of whether their rivals next door were putting in a new roller coaster. It’s a mystery to me, though, why you even needed me to work for you, since anyone could see they were putting up a roller coaster by looking out the windows at the end of the hotel corridors, where you could see the towers of the new coaster going in place.

While I’m at it, though, and I don’t mean to seem ungrateful for this position that existed while I stayed in rem sleep, I don’t see why it was necessary for me to check into a hotel room, leave my suitcases there so as to look like I was still occupying the place, and then move on to sleep in such lounges or floor kitchenettes as the other wings of the hotel had. Really, a room at all wasn’t necessary because you could see the roller coaster towers even as you were driving in to Kennywood. Again, I don’t understand why I needed to be a part of this.

Anyway, it was a fun job while it lasted and they totally should have a hotel that exists in reality unless they had to remove rides or parking spaces to make room for it. The place was very comfortable except for my sleeping on the floor in a kitchenette for whatever reason. I don’t understand the job, I’m just glad to have had it. But it all seems a touch absurd to me.

What Is Art?


What is art? Is this some of it, and if it isn’t, then what is it? Is a painting of leaves art? Is a football game art? What about teams of men repairing asphalt? If not them, how about people going around painting asphalt? Can you artistically endure a snowstorm? If not, can you endure building a snowman? Is parking next to the university library? How can it be, if no one has ever managed to do it? Are hamsters art? If not, can they be part of art? And what of noise? In short, can we define art any more precisely than “I don’t know what that is but I know I don’t like it”?

These are questions which have plagued humanity since 1878, when the governments of western European nations found that art could serve a role in defining their national cultures, by telling the nations that they had a culture. With new forms of attempted art, some in fixed installations and some in public performances, people just got generally more confused and irritated. For example, cartooning looked promising, but it flopped when people discovered that there are about four poses total that don’t make the human body look ungainly and awkward and weird when drawn. Those four poses have since been fully explored and nobody can be bothered to look at them anymore. Some folks carry on drawing, because what else is there to do, and people still try standing around or sitting or lounging in the hopes of finding another pose in which they look attractive.

Initially this was seen as a good thing, as many public opinion makers were worried that the public wasn’t confused enough anymore, given the rise in literacy and the adoption of standardized time zones. However, now people began to wonder if this thing which was annoying them was some manner of art or whether, worse, these might be protest rallies from people trying to rally support to the idea that society could be made a little less horribly brutal in some fashion.

Some order was restored by the United States Commerce Department which in a series of meetings between 1925 and 1928 adopted a standardized definition of artwork which became as good as universal. According to this, art was officially standardized as “the stuff that was kept in museums where nobody had to look at it or have opinions about it through to 1925”. New art might be admitted if it fell into one of two accepted categories: watercolor paintings of sailing ships, or bronze statues of generals on horseback. These were adequate for most of the remaining 1920s, as people had not yet fully learned what exactly sailing ships looked like, and while there wasn’t all that much bronze to go around nobody really wanted to commemorate the generals of the most recent war anyway.

These standards are still in place, with the only major revision being a ruling in 1946 that the statues countries had put up to remember the horrors of World War I absolutely had to be repaired so as not to show any damage they sustained in the battles of World War II. But the old standards show their age: today it’s difficult to find anyone who didn’t know what a sailing ship looks like, and while the generals-on-horseback style was revitalized sculptors got fairly bored and tried horses-on-generalback and then the backs of horse generals before deciding they didn’t much like bronze anyway.

Meanwhile, municipalities started seeing their public spaces decorated with sculptures consisting of oddly-shaped jagged pieces of metal painted international warning signal orange, which serve as emblems of the way municipalities naturally form oddly-shaped jagged pieces of metal and how artists have a lot of international warning signal orange paint. These are generally harmless, with a few getting exorbitant price tags, good for a little scandal about the city council spending money for those times when there isn’t any real news to worry about.

Given this, plus two other examples I couldn’t think up right now, it’s best to fall back on the pragmatic definition of art. According to this, art is anything you see that it annoys you someone else gets to do. The definition isn’t perfect and it can be vexed by things you’re confident your niece and/or turtle could do better, but it will do until a new standard can be defined.

Comics Strips: Math and Michigan


Over on my mathematics blog I’ve got a fresh roundup of comic strips that mention some kind of mathematical topic, and my thoughts about the topics those inspire. Some of those are even comic strips that don’t use π as a pun on the concept of pie, so, do enjoy that.

If you don’t, then, here’s the Pearls Before Swine comic strip, by Stephan Pastis, which ran this past Sunday. It’s of a familiar enough form — Pastis setting up a shaggy-dog type story to build to violence — but it flops as a comic strip, and I wanted to do some public musing about why.

The setup is contrived, which isn’t inherently a problem. Many Pearls strips are built around transparently contrived setups, usually in the service of a pun or bit of wordplay. Typically I like those, partly because of the long setup and trying to anticipate where he’s going with this and sometimes getting surprised by where he ends up. (He usually then apologizes it away with a final panel of the characters telling him to “get help” or “stop it”, which is trying to deliver an awful pun and stand away from it; but, the structure does seem to demand some resolution after the punch line and an apology is, if not very clever, at least something.)

But in this case I think the contrivance is deeply problematic, undermining the whole strip: to get to the punch, smash, and trample line, we have to suppose Pastis-the-character has bought a Brutus Buckeye costume for an upcoming speech at Ohio State University, and put it on to drive there, and gotten lost driving there, and ended up in Ann Arbor. I’ll waive my wondering whether it’s possible to dial a pay phone while in a mascot costume and while I haven’t actually noticed a pay phone in Ann Arbor it’s the sort of place I can accept as having some.

Now: buying the costume and wearing the costume to go driving are weird behaviors. Eccentric at minimum. Eccentricity isn’t inherently bad — if you’re trying to do comedy, really, and especially if you don’t have a lot of time to delineate your characters then being wildly eccentric lets you get a joke out in recognizable form — but this leaves me wondering who would even do that? The strip falls flat, to me, at the point of getting Pastis into costume and from there the whole thing is lost. Suggested rewrite: he was invited to play Brutus Buckeye at the Ohio State game and he didn’t have time to change at the stadium, which is absurd but at least some kind of motive.

The next bit: He got lost driving to Columbus, Ohio, and ended up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor really isn’t near Columbus. It’s a couple hours mostly due north. The only way you can end up in Ann Arbor if you’re driving to Columbus is if you’re driving from Michigan, in which case, well, you’ve heard of Ann Arbor. This can maybe be patched up a little, by supposing that Pastis flew into Detroit for something (perhaps that should be the speech he was giving?), bought his Buckeye costume (from where?) and then started driving to Columbus, which is weak but at least puts together a minimally plausible scenario where Pastis might be in a Buckeye costume in Ann Arbor.

Also, he should have had the strip published the weekend of November 30th, when the University of Michigan is to play Ohio State (in Ann Arbor, conveniently enough), so the implied buildup to the battery is the more credible.

Those Special Sparks


I got to go to a concert last week by Sparks. They’re a great pair, with wonderfully playful music and intricate lyrics and an odd sense of humor. Even better, they played one of the songs that they performed in their big-screen debut, the 70s thriller/disaster movie Rollercoaster, which is one of the nearly more than one big-screen movies about amusement park safety inspectors.

The thing with that movie is, really, what the heck was Sparks doing there? Why were they brought in as a band to play the opening day of a new amusement park instead of, say, a band that doesn’t have catchy tunes with accurate titles like “So I Bought The Mississippi River” or “Everybody’s Stupid (That’s For Sure)” or one about the guy who’s the stunt performer for Gone With The Wind and had to do that tumbling-down-the-long-staircase scene all day long but doesn’t really know what the movie is about? A band that would go on to record a musical titled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and write “Lighten Up, Morrissey”? Why did they want Sparks’s “Big Boy”, about David and Goliath, in their film?

Wikipedia as ever can explain without explaining, in that the movie makers had wanted to get Kiss, but couldn’t, and so went to Sparks. This implies one of two things, though: either they had a list of potential bands for the film in which Kiss and Sparks were grouped together — and then either the list was “1. Kiss. 2. Sparks” or else there was another band that fit on the list between those two — or else, when the Kiss deal fell through the movie producers wandered, forlorn, through the streets of Los Angeles, thinking of their imminent professional doom, until someone ran out from the record store, clutching a copy of Kimono My House, and shouting, “Mister Levinson! Mister Link! I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” And they went to the record store’s listening booth and looked at one another and said, “Yes, this is the band we need in Sensurround”? Neither way seems plausible, but something like that has to have happened.

The Leaves and the Fishes


Some good news on the yard front. With the help of a pilot boat that the chipmunks sent out I found the main drainplug, and pulled it, and based on the leaf level it should be drained enough to start raking within about eight days.

Meanwhile, the goldfish in the pond have taken note of the increasing cold and told me that I have until the count of ten to do something about it. I asked them to put me on my honor while I work out a solution to it all and they’ve allowed this so far, but, obviously, that isn’t going to keep them satisfied forever.

S J Perlman: Poisonous Mushrooms


It strikes me that apart from “Captain Future, Block That Kick” I haven’t shown off many of the works of S J Perelman. That’s a bit odd considering his influence, although I’ll admit that I’ve read less of him directly than I have of people who were influenced by him. Here, from The Best of S J Perelman, is a bit of thought about mushrooms.


Poisonous Mushrooms

Are We At The Crossroads?

Well, autumn is here again, and very shortly every Tom, Dick and Harry will be asking himself the question “Poisonous mushrooms—-yes or no?” In every mossy dell, in every nook of granny, these delicious little edibles are springing up. Only yesterday I happened to fall into conversation with a stranger in the subway, an extremely well-made woman of thirty-one with Dresden-dainty hands and feet, I noticed that she was eating a small umbrella-shaped object and asked her what it was.

“An umbrella,” she replied shortly, descending from the train at Seventy-second Street. Needless to say, the incident did not pass unnoticed, and I retired in confusion amid the hearty laughter of several wealthy cattle-drovers who had come down to New York for the day on the steam cars.

I first became interested in mushrooms about ten years ago. Two friends of mine named Johnny had a little place, a sort of cellar, on Fifty-second Street where they kept coal and wood and ice. I was down there one evening bent on some coal and wood when Tony pointed to the ceiling and said “Corpo di Bacco, what’s that?” I looked up and there was a whole clump of mushrooms growing right out at me. Well, I let out a scream fit to wake a dead man–as a matter of fact, it did wake up a dead man who’d been in the corner for three days and he came over and tried to bite me. As I say, I stayed in bed nearly two weeks that time, but after I was well, I got this Frank and Johnny to put aside the place as a sort of permanent laboratory where I could study the mushrooms.

It will probably come as a mild shock to no one that there are all of four hundred different kinds of mushrooms. Four hundred and one, really, because when I looked up this fact in the World Almanac, I found a new variety growing out of Page 29. Now, what are mushrooms? Nothing more or less than toadstools, though why they are called toadstools is beyond me; I have yet to see a toad sitting on a stool, although I have combed all the books dealing with the subject. Of course I haven’t had a chance to study the books yet–all I’ve been able to do is comb them, but still, it seems a peculiar name to give an unoffending mushroom, doesn’t it? It was probably made up by someone who hated mushrooms and thought he could get even. But why should anybody hate mushrooms? The little fellow goes about his business quietly; once in a while he kills a family of twenty or thirty people, but then, what right has anyone to have a family of twenty or thirty people? I was wrapping up some laundry in a newspaper recently and saw a note about a man who had had thirty children. This sort of thing can’t go on indefinitely, no matter what the man says.

In the eleven years I have been studying mushrooms at my laboratory on Fifty-second Street, I have seen cases of almost uncanny intelligence among my specimens. I had a Peppery Lactarius growing in a glass right next to a Fistulina Hepatica, or Beefsteak Mushroom. (If you can imagine a purple beefsteak covered with short prickly spines growing out of a tree, you will easily see why science chose this name, and you can then explain it to me.) Well, one morning I made the rounds of my collection and found that during the night Miss Peppery Lactarius had moved into Mr. Beefsteak Mushroom’s jar. I woke up my assistant, put a little ice on his head, and quizzed him. But no; he had been right there on the floor since eleven-thirty the night before. To this day we have never been able to solve the riddle, and it is still referred to by superstitious folk in the neighborhood as “The Mystery of the Migrating Mushrooms.” I am thinking of bringing it out in book form, perhaps adding a mysterious puffy toadstool in a black hat who was seen skulking near by.

But how to tell the poisonous mushroom from the harmless variety, since both are found in the same localities, have the same habits, and the same dull look around the face? Ah–don’t be surprised—-the mushroom has a face, and if you look very closely and carefully, you will see the merest hint of an eye, two noses, and a lip. For purposes of identification, we have what we call the Alfred Zeigler test, named after Professor Schaffner of the University of Rochester. The mushrooms are boiled for twenty minutes and their jackets removed. They are then placed in a frying pan with a cubic centimeter of butter, a gram of pepper, and a penny-weight of coarse salt, after which they are subjected to 137 degrees of heat Fahrenheit in the laboratory oven, removed, and placed on antiseptic paper plates. Fifteen minutes after they are eaten, a reaction will be noted. If the mushrooms are harmless, the subject will want to lie down, remove his or her collar, and roll over on his or her face. If poisonous, the balance of the mushrooms should be thrown out, as they are
unfit to consume.

The mushroom often turns up in some really remarkable forms. Sir Joseph Mushroom, from whom their name is derived, tells an interesting anecdote. A cask of wine had been left undisturbed in a cellar for three years, in some country other than the United States. At the end of that time, the cask was found firmly fastened to the ceiling by a large mushroom which had grown as the wine leaked out. The cask was quite empty when found, and how the mushroom looked was nobody’s business. Sir Joseph, by the way, no longer raises mushrooms; he has settled down quietly in Surrey, where he devotes himself to raising bees, but there is still a reminiscent gleam in his eye when Irene Adler is mentioned.

Little else remains to be told. Fred Patton, the former Erie train boy, still continues to rise in Mr. Proskauer’s mercantile establishment on Ann Street, and Gloria Proskauer blushes prettily whenever Fred’s name is uttered. This, however, is all too seldom, as the unfortunate Fred was hit in the vertical cervix by a baked apple last New Year’s Day and succumbed almost instantly. And so we leave the little snitch right smack up behind the eight-ball, and a good end for the mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing petty thief, if you ask me.