Statistics Saturday: Is There Such A Thing As Excellance?


For the convenience of the people who compose surveys of my customer experience, I offer this list of some activities and whether or not I can imagine having a truly excellent experience doing it, and so they can save time trying to get me to figure out my emotional response to having done a thing.

Activity Have I Got A Conceptual Theory Of What An Excellent Experience In This Activity Would Require?
Buying a DVD box set from Best Buy No
Flying Economy Class between Detroit and Newark No
Visiting a Bar on Karaoke Night Yes
Renting a Kia Soul for Five Days No
Buying a 10-Pack of British-Made Kit-Kat Bars No
Visiting a Bar on Competitive Spelling Night Yes
Registering a Domain Name No
Searching Microsoft’s Online Help System for Ways in C# to Convert an XML file to a DataSet Data Structure, then Use the Output as part of an Inner Join operation in a LINQ Query Dear Lord No
Getting a Bag of Rat Chow from the Pet Store No
Joining a Roller Coaster Tycoon Online Forum No
Getting a Grilled Vegetable Hoagie from a Penn Station Sandwich Shop, Eating It (The Hoagie) Yes
Flying Economy Class between Detroit and Trenton, New Jersey No
Tire Rotation at the Dealers No
Sailing Around The World With LeVar Burton Yes
Adding Money To My Prepaid Cell Phone No
Visiting Battery World (Store) No
Visiting Battery World (Theme Park) Yes
Having a Service that Calls Me About the Time of Day I Feel Most Sluggish and Plays the Theme From Shaft Could This Ever Not Be Excellent?
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Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in: Coney Island


So, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The quickest refutation of the saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Remembered as he is as some silent-movie-era guy who was in a scandal, it’s easy to forget he was prominent enough to produce a scandal because he was a really skilled physical comedian, someone who could just move with that dizzying flow which humanity seems to have lost since talkies came in. He was also a director, of both silent and talking pictures. My little video for today is 1917’s Coney Island, in which he stars and directs, as a man trying to get away from his wife and make time with another man’s girlfriend, though since he stole the woman away from Buster Keaton’s character. (Arbuckle and Keaton were in, if I’ve not overlooked something, eleven films together, and they just fit together so very well.) So to get the crossfire of chases straight: Arbuckle’s wife is chasing him; Arbuckle is avoiding his wife; Buster Keaton is chasing the man who stole his girl; and the man who stole his girl is chasing Arbuckle. I may have missed some chases.

Like many silent movies it’s a bit hard to just see the movie, because it serves as an accidental documentary of where the thing was filmed. Since this was filmed in and around Coney Island’s Luna Park there’s something really worth documenting in the background. Before the movie gets to the bathhouse you get good views of the Witching Waves — one of those Old Coney Island rides you never hear anyone imagining making these days, the one where cars drift along a surface that’s rolling up and down — and the Shoot The Chute, the latter including a shot that makes me wonder how they could have taken it safely. (I see a lot of references claiming it also shows the Whip — TCM’s page about the movie even includes a still of it — although in the versions I found uploaded to archive.org or YouTube I don’t see a Whip scene. It’s plausible, mind you, I just don’t see it.) I admit, given my interest in amusement parks, the movie loses something when it does get away from showing Luna Park and focuses more on the bathhouse, but it picks up with some nice raucous fighting and, ultimately, the Keystone Cops getting into the action.

The other male lead in the film, the one that isn’t Roscoe Arbuckle or Buster Keaton, is Al St John, who might have gotten his start in movies by being Arbuckle’s nephew, but who earned his career on his own merit. He’s credited with being one of the type definers for the comic sidekick character actor and made, if I’m not misreading his filmography, about three billion westerns, many of them alongside Buster Crabbe and then Lash La Rue, or for Sam Newfield (a director many Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will remember).

I’m sorry to give short shrift to the female leads, but the movie does that too. Arbuckle’s wife is played by Agnes Neilson, who has about a dozen IMDB credits, most of them in 1917 and 1918; and the woman he pursues by Alice Mann, who has about two and a half dozen, most from 1916 to 1921. I’m afraid I can’t say much more about them.

The Journey, By Train


4:52 am. Passengers assemble at the East Lansing Train Station. Passengers will be screened for having gotten more than three hours of fitful, oft-interrupted sleep the night before. Those which have will be assigned a 25-page term paper on the subject of late 19th Century United States presidents and their understanding of how the emerging science of thermodynamics affects railroad painting, worth forty percent of the class, no makeups.

5:18 am. Passengers board the train to East East Lansing where the train service stops and they all get aboard a bus to take them to Toledo, arriving somehow at 3:12 am that same morning, only crankier. Through the bus trip the TV screens will be playing Something, Probably A Romantic Comedy Or Something, with the lower half of the screen glitched out and the audio just loud enough to hear the helicopters and explosions but not the dialogue. Three stars.

7:30 am. Bus arrives in Toledo to transfer to the train station, but immediately gets lost because the driver attempts foolishly to follow “Route 2”, a highway of legendary and purely notional existence.

2:18 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard retrieves the bus from Lake Erie shortly before the desperately paddling passengers manage to cross the border into Ontario and thus provoke an international incident as many of them failed to bring adequate supplies of Canadian currency and someone is trying to pass off a FunZone Game Token as money.

10:40 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard finally gets the bus paddled to shore and after hiring sherpas brings the bus to the train station, whence the train zooms towards Pittsburgh, stopping only after fourteen minutes in order that a freight train with higher priority can be constructed and loaded with freight, a cargo consisting of passenger train cars headed the other direction. On-train Internet WiFi service is reduced from “sluggish” to “laughable”.

Day 2. 2:15 am. The train arrives in Pittsburgh and is immediately taken out over the Monongahela River and dangled by its couplers or whatever they have until every passenger has been subject to a review of the stuff left in the backseat of his or her car to be cleaned out “later, when it’s convenient”. The winner is the one who has the most obviously later-inconvenient item, with bonus points awarded if it is some kind of mould for the fabrication of solid metal objects.

3:20 am. The train just sits outside the Kennywood Amusement Park for a couple of hours to make everyone feel bad that they’re at an amusement park and they can’t go in, plus everything’s closed up. A conductor goes around reminding people they have 23 and a half pages to go and have barely thought about paint.

6:75 am. The train discharges its passengers that they may catch their connecting service, at the far end of the railway terminal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or maybe Charleston, West Virginia. Check signs for details.

8:26 am. Connecting service on the line to New York City departs wherever, with the conductor reminding people they have 22 and three-quarters pages and the font may not be larger than fourteen point. New sound-dampening cushions allow most of the ride to be soft and quiet except for the guy ranting about you’re not sure what except it’s definitely political and somehow it gets into what you do for your career and he gets that so wrong it’s hard to resist answering.

9:14 am. Thorough investigation of the train establishes that nobody is actually producing the rant. Clearly the problem is a quarrelsome ghost of annoying conversations gone by. Internet service upgrades to “pages load, but only the banner ads and that swirling dot pattern web sites started doing like two years ago in place of showing stuff”.

11:57 am. Start of a four-hour delay so we can sit by the side of a large pile of rocks. Inspires several passengers to include a section about presidential rocks, which falls apart when nobody can remember the name of Gustav … uh … Mount Rushmore Guy without the Internet.

6:12 pm. End of the four-hour delay.

8:55 pm. Train approaches Hoboken, pauses so that passengers can be dangled sideways until the blood rushes to their wrists.

10:10 pm. Arrival, Penn Station, New York City. Technically, legally part of New Jersey because of the lease NJ Transit has on that platform. We are given extensions on the paper.

Can I Believe In Iowa?


You know what I haven’t talked about in a while? The flame wars going on in the Star Trek web forum where I like to hang out and find myself in oddball flame wars. The best one going right now concernes the 2009 movie, where you might kind of remember in an early scene the young James Kirk drives an antique car over the edge of an enormous rock quarry, establishing the important point point that he’s a incredible jerk who doesn’t know how brake pedals work.

Anyway. One of the posters in the forum is quite upset about the depiction of a rock quarry in Iowa. You might think this is because there aren’t rock quarries in Iowa, if you have less knowledge of the rock-quarrying industry of Iowa than the poster thinks I should have. Here I confess my ignorance: you could make nearly any claim about the rock-quarrying industries of Iowa, ranging from “there is none” to “it is entirely owned and operated by packs of robot wallabies made of wood, and is focused on the pulling up of agates which can be eaten by tactical assault pillows” and I would barely be able to say where you had gone wrong. But, no, the complaint is that rock quarries in that part of Iowa are not nearly so large as the one depicted, which apparently was an actual Vermont-based rock quarry digitally inserted in corn fields meant to represent Iowa. And that it’s as ridiculous to show a Vermont-sized rock quarry in Iowa as it would be to, say, pass off the Empire State Building as part of the skyline of Wichita, Kansas.

So now I’m left with the question of whether, in this story of time-travelling Romulans using liquid black holes to make Spock feel very, very bad for not stopping a supernova, I can swallow the idea that three hundred years from now Iowa could have rock quarries somewhat larger than it has today. It’s a tough decision.

Some Comics, Plus A Confession


Over on my mathematics blog is a fresh round of comic strips which have mathematical themes, or that I can drag in to having mathematical themes. I hope you enjoy.

If you don’t, please enjoy this utterly true confession: I laughed at Ziggy today. And on reflection, I believe that laugh to be correct and appropriate and I stand by it.

The Harshness of Sidewalk Nature


It was a terrible scene, there on that little strip of lawn that’s between the sidewalk and the street, where stuff that’s going to be thrown out gets put. Also trees. It was a pair of sofas, battered, smashed up, their backs fallen off, their cushions piled over one another, the uncomfortable metal frames exposed to the elements. I could understand it, I guess. It’s been a hard season, and clearly, the two sofas destroyed one another in what should have been nearly ritual combat ahead of sofa mating season. It’s tragic seeing nature be so cruel to her own furniture.

Apartment 3-G Has Just Stopped Existing Or Something


I realize it’s easy to make fun of story comic strips, because there’s like two of them that have any idea how to tell stories anymore, and one of those is a spoof of story comics. But Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G has somehow recently managed to become so full of nothing that the sheer total of nothingness is compelling.

Tommie and Carol are drawn in many different and not quite matching poses while nothing happens.
Tommie and Carol will be in stitches over the stories of how all her boyfriends turn into fiancees and then get killed!

The current story: back in winter after her most recent fiancee death, Tommie Thompson hit a doe on the road and took its baby, which is some kind of horrible deer-kangaroo-fox-nightmare hybrid, back to Apartment 3-G because there’s no animal rescue shelters in the New York metropolitan area or something. After months of this and being somehow even more a nobody at work she takes the fawn to some upstate veterinarian who’s all gruff and angry and puts her to work appearing in scenes with a horse or the deer-kangaroo-fox-nightmare until he left to confront his own tragic past and maybe escape the strip altogether.

You're really better off for seeing the alternate text than whatever the deer-like entity is supposed to be.
Apartment 3-G for the 13th of July, 2014: Tommie and Carol chase off town gossip Tina with the aid of some kind of deer-kangaroo-fox-nightmare manifesting in the house or somewhere.

Now, Tommie and Carol, who’s got some kind of connection to the gruff and angry vet, have been appearing in an endless series of two-shots with one another, often promising to explain something or other to each other, in two or three panels a day since the 14th of July without interruption. I’m not exaggerating this; literally, no other human has appeared on-screen in six full weeks, during which time nothing has happened, if time can be said to exist when no discernable events happen.

At this point my best guess about what’s going on in Apartment 3-G is that Tommie was accidentally caught in Wesley Crusher’s experimental warp bubble and things are vanishing from the universe she’s created from her imagination as the bubble slowly collapses. Except that suggests that things are still happening, which I’m not sure is even right.

Also, now, to the extent that something is alleged to be happening, we’re going to start with Tommie talking about her pile of dead boyfriends? The strip isn’t long enough to describe all the male suitors who’ve gone from meeting her to meeting death.

Statistics Saturday: Battle of the Network Starship Captains


Actor Starship Captain In Number Of Times Was A Battle of the Network Stars Team Captain
William Shatner Star Trek 4
Richard Benjamin Quark 1
Greg Evigan Babylon 5, if you’ve mistaken Greg Evigan for Michael O’Hare 1
Mark Harmon From The Earth To The Moon (1998), if you count Apollo 7 as a “starship” since he played Wally Schirra 1
Patrick Stewart Star Trek: The Next Generation 0
Avery Brooks Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 0
Kate Mulgrew Star Trek: Voyager 0
Scott Bakula Star Trek: Enterprise 0

I know what you’re all thinking: What about Telly Savalas, two-time captain for CBS and cohost of the November 1977 Battle? And I’m sorry, as while he did once portray Magmar, the leader of the evil faction of Rock Lords on the planet Quartex, Magmar was never properly speaking in control of a spaceship of any kind, much less a starship, so far as I can tell from reading the Wikipedia description of the plot of GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords, and thus does not qualify for this count.

Happy Hooligan: A Trip To The Moon


So, back in the first third of the 20th century, the cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper created a comic strip featuring a hobo named Happy Hooligan. I admit knowing the name mostly because it was one of those archaic references occasionally passed down from my father or old cartoons or the like. (The character’s way too old for my father to have read in the papers, although he did reappear in the short-lived Sam’s Strip by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas.) Like many comic strips it got adapted into a cartoon, and this A Trip To The Moon is an example of the set. It’s only half a reel, as I make it out, and I think the ending a disappointment, but it’s got that engaging oddness I appreciate silent cartoons for.

I’m not certain who produced the short; the Big Cartoon Database claims it was animated for the International Film Service by Walter Lantz, later of Woody Woodpecker fame, and that seems plausible enough. Don Markstein’s Toonopedia says the various shorts were produced by “at least” three different studios.

When I First Knew It


It was my natural enemy: the whiteboard with the “Did You Know?” fact of the day written on it. Ever since I was a kid I prided myself on knowing stuff, and after I found out that shows like In Search Of Mysteries Of The Supernatural World of Charles Fort in His Merry Pyramid Spacemobile: The Toltec Electro-Ghost Computer Years were not perfectly reliable I’ve been aware how most anything listed as a neat factoid suitable for posting on a “Did You Know?” board is usually right only if the answer is, “I did not because that isn’t exactly right because, for instance, it was the Cahokia that had Electro-Ghost Computers, which the Polynesians brought them from the North Pole.”

And yet, this was a fact which if in fact a fact — I’m sorry, let me start that again — this was a fact which if a fact is in fact — that’s not getting better — if this is right, then, “57% of people report having felt déjà vu”. I would think this was based on a trustworthy survey of qualified déjà vu survey experts coming up to people and asking, “Have you ever felt déjà vu?” except then the answers would be much more nearly a hundred percent “What?” and “Who are you?” and “Did you say something?” Maybe that’s just me. I’m usually lost in my own little world when out in public so it takes some time to warm up to noticing someone’s asking me a question.

I need people to warn me they have questions for me, by a process of approaching slowly and not from my blind spot, being preceded by a stout man waving a large red flag and perhaps a signal flare, and saying hello first. If someone just asked me without warning whether I experienced déjà vu I’d think maybe I heard something, stumble over my shoes, and stumble right into the Panda Express counter at the mall. I’m assuming we’re doing this at the mall. If we’re not I’ll stumble into somewhere else, but let me know where we should meet.

But never mind my wondering about how the survey was done. Let’s imagine that it’s right and 57 percent of people report having felt déjà vu. What the heck are the other 43 percent of people feeling? I thought déjà vu was one of the universal feelings, something that every person experiences at some point or other, alongside such commonplace emotions as the sense that you are the last person in the world with any idea how alternate merges work, the fear that you’re just imagining that you imagined hearing some gurgling noise from an unauthorized point of your anatomy and that it’s actually the first warning sign of a major catastrophe, the belief that if you really had to you could probably write a successful score for a silent movie, or the sense that someday you’ll lose a game show because you don’t know what an “anapest” is. Not experiencing déjà vu just never occurred to me as something people could even feel, or not feel.

Maybe the trouble is people don’t know what déjà vu is. I could understand denying the feeling if you thought déjà vu was, oh, the feeling that you’re only really alive while discussing things over a conference call, or the secret glee you experience in knowing something obscure about North Dakota that the majority of the public never even suspects. I could easily imagine two-fifths of a representative sample of the public feeling there’s nothing they know about North Dakota that’s all that unsuspected. “It’s pretty darned rectangular”, for example, or “its capital is not Pierre”, or “its statehood papers were signed by President, uh, Woodrow … Grover … … Presidenton at the same time as South Dakota’s, with the names covered up so nobody knows which was really admitted first”. No glee attaches to knowing those facts. Maybe they thought déjà vu was something embarrassing and they shouldn’t admit to this kind of thing in public. There’s no way to tell without an exact provenance for this alleged information.

So what I’m saying is this is why I spent all weekend crouching by the whiteboard trying to catch the person who brings the day’s new “Did You Know” fact.

Found At The Farmer’s Market


Apparently now they sell plastic bags full of bright orange cheddar dust, the kind you mix in to make macaroni and cheese that glows bright enough you can see it from inside a black hole. It was just sitting there on the shelf, next to the Wheat Germ Or Stuff Like That and the Powdered Flaxseed Food Product I Guess and things like that. I didn’t buy it, but if I can think of something to do with it I will. I don’t need it for macaroni and/or cheese purposes, but I haven’t ruled out something like hooking it up to the tire pump so that I can have a backyard filled with cheese-dusted trees. But trying that is sure to attract attention from the squirrel community and I don’t know if I want that, exactly. I just want the magic of having some solid reason to buy a large plastic bag filled with powdered cheddar the color of public art sculptures.

Compu-Toon, Math Comics are Compu-Toon, Math Comics


I grew up watching mostly cartoons, heavy on the Warner Brothers and Tex Avery catalogues, with probably too big a helping of Hanna-Barbera’s stuff from the 60s and 70s. That’s my way of saying that I’m kind of pre-adapted to laugh if a wrecking ball appears on screen, even if it isn’t doing anything wrecking just yet. I know its time is coming.

'Upgrading can sometimes be misleading', which is why a wrecking ball is following this guy.
Charles Boyce’s _Compu-Toon_ for the 17th of August, 2014.

So this is why Sunday’s Compu-Toon has me baffled, because the idea that someone puttering around his computer would get a wrecking ball for his trouble ought to be funny and then the caption goes and confuses me. I feel like I can almost work out the joke, that an upgrade always breaks stuff and sometimes it’s just worse than just leaving things like they were, I guess, but then … I don’t know. On the other hand, a guy looking warily at a wrecking ball pursuing him ought to be a pretty easy giggle.

Meantime, there’ve been a bunch of comics, mostly Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, that talked about mathematics subjects, so I talked about them. They don’t talk about me.

While I Was Watching Some History Channel-Type Show


I’m not sure what the program was. It was just on. They were talking about string. They asserted it was one of the keystones of human evolution, one of the things that sets humans apart from the animals, besides our ability — almost never seen in the animal kingdom — to lose our keys by leaving them in the microwave oven. They found a professor to say that the development of string was one of the things which enabled humans to dominate the world. And the thing is, they made a fair case for the proposition, because with string-based technologies such as clothes people could develop Abercrombie and Fitch stores.

And then, somehow, they came to this sentence — which I repeat as precisely as I’m able to, without exaggeration or distortion: “There is evidence of cheese from four thousand years ago.” I do not know why this sentence makes me smile, but the thought not just that there was evidence of cheese four thousand years ago, but that someone wrote and someone recorded the sentence, “There is evidence of cheese from four thousand years ago”, bids fair to make me happy for a long time to come. Probably not four thousand years.

I know what you’re thinking, but no, they said nothing about when they have evidence of string cheese.

Robert Benchley Society doing it again


I defer to maybe like four hundred people in my appreciation for Robert Benchley, although most of them aren’t people I know personally. Among my acquaintances I’m in the top six, definitely. Anyway, the Robert Benchley Society has opened up its 2014 Humor Writing Competition, to be judged this year by Mark Russell. It’s for an original “Benchleyesque” essay, not more than 500 words long, wide, or high, and has to be delivered to them (along with a $14 entry fee) by the 15th of September. Past winners of the award do not include me, although I reached the finalist stage a couple years back.

Folks who have a general interest in Benchley may want to follow the Society’s blog, which may not be a very chatty one but is pretty well on point. The society also has a slightly busier Twitter feed that you might also consider.

Paul Terry cartoons: Dinner Time


It’s hard to make an easier mistake, in writing about history, than to proclaim anything as the first time anything was done. When you look closely at anything interesting or intricate you realize that it becomes difficult to say what, exactly, are the defining traits of the interesting happening, and you realize there’s almost always a prior case that’s at least as strong a candidate for “the first”.

This is why I bring up the Paul Terry Aesop’s Fables-series cartoon Dinner Time, released to theaters in September and October 1928, which comes in comfortably ahead of Steamboat Willie. This is an important point, as Dinner Time is unmistakably a full sound cartoon, and properly, predates the cartoon everyone thinks of as the first. It’s easy to see why Steamboat Willie so overwhelmed Dinner Time; while Dinner Time is mature in some ways — particularly, it’s staged much more as a sound picture, without written-out words or floating music notes or other holdovers of silent cartoons — it’s not as fun a cartoon as Steamboat Willie, and of course Disney would be a somewhat more significant corporate entity than the Fables Pictures, Inc, company proved to be.

It’s recorded in RCA Photophone, one of the four systems of synchronized-sound recording developed in the 1920s, and one that would be used through to the rise of stereo sound recording. It isn’t the first sound cartoon either: even if we limit the discussion to commercially released films, the Fleischer brothers made a series of Song Car-Tunes from 1924 to 1926 using the DeForest Phonofilm recording system, and I don’t doubt the search for “a” first would lead us into a fascinatingly complicated world of early technology.

(The Aesop’s Fables series itself started out as a set of animated stories with morals included, although either the versions I’ve found lost the moral or by this point in the series Terry had given up on the gimmick.)

Big Changes On Campus


As we approach the start of the academic year, sneaking up from the side which has not got sharp teeth this time, we in the alumni association would like to present our side of campus developments to everyone who glances at this article while looking for the columns where they see how many of their classmates who seemed destined for really interesting lives have settled into horribly boring fates where they aggregate content or tell you how to position your brand or something.

The most important change on campus has been the stepping up of the historicization program. We hope by these renovations and reconstructions to bring a world-class sense of historic appearance to our campus and find some pride in the many incidents to have happened on or around here.

The second most important change on campus has been the adoption of a spell checker that allowed historicization to proceed. That can’t be right, can it? There’s no way the program stumbled onto a word like that on purpose. We have to suppose the spell checker was a block of feral code adopted by the public relations department and so overly kind to it.

The major goal of historicization, which just can’t be a thing, has been to locate points on campus in which noteworthy things have happened and find ways to denote them. For example, it has long been a part of campus legend that Marian Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly once pronounced the Rathskeller in the fourth floor of the Biology Laboratory “confusing”. This historic site has been noted in excessively detailed histories of old time radio as “a thing that exists” and that it “probably happened, I mean, why not?” We are proud to be bringing it out of this obscurity by completing the demolition of the Biology Laboratory and the installation of a concrete fountain with an interactive touch-screen video monitor able to explain in nearly more than 24 languages that a server error has occurred and this interaction will be shut down.

The Werthram Class of 1867 Hall, believed to be the largest building on campus imprecisely named for hard candy, has been almost fully demolished to allow street traffic better lines of sight to the rest of the main quadrangle, and the plans to demolish the main quadrangle to allow for better lines of sight to the Werthram Class of 1867 Hall have been put on hold while we look into the controversy about which demolition we were supposed to do. Maybe we were supposed to demolish the traffic. Anyway the location of the former building, believed to be a spot where legendary bad vaudeville act The Cherry Sisters never played, is now marked by a WiFi hotspot.

Several alumni, and we’re sure you know who you are and will stop asking already, will be glad to know the results of the inquiry into the deconstruction of the Old Sig Ep House, the spot where Christopher Columbus first spotted land, where the transcontinental railroad was built, the battle of the Marne was fought, and where John F Kennedy challenged NASA to land a man on the Women’s Campus and return him safely to the Rathskeller. As a result we have added to the historical plaques one explaining that it turns out our source for these events turned out to be a spoof issue of the student newspaper. Probably that it was called the Campy Push Dizzy Snooze should have tipped us off sooner. We tracked down one of the co-authors of the piece and he tweeted back to us a link to his essay on six ways to tell whether you’re managing your career brand.

The news on the campus beautification front has been no less mixed. The restoration of the 1974 Sculpture Garden saw the chance to add part of the artist’s original plans which were too technically challenging to be part of the original Brutalist installation. While the heat rays, the swinging mallet, and the swarm of bees carrying sharpened cocktail swords have proved controversial they are doing wonders at speeding pedestrians along.

Any questions? Please let us know. It’s important that we be able to make ourselves believe we’re doing valuable journalism work.

Robert Benchley: A Romance In Encyclopedia Land


I haven’t featured a Robert Benchley piece in a while, so I’d like to return to Of All Things and a short story that can only come from falling into an endless research spiral.

A ROMANCE IN ENCYCLOPEDIA LAND

Written After Three Hours’ Browsing in a New Britannica Set

PICTURE to yourself an early spring afternoon along the banks of the river Aa, which, rising in the Teutoburger Wald, joins the Werre at Herford and is navigable as far as St. Omer.

Branching bryophytu spread their flat, dorsiventral bodies, closely applied to the sub-stratum on which they grew, and leafy carophyllaceae twined their sepals in prodigal profusion, lending a touch of color to the scene. It was dear that nature was in preparation for her estivation.

But it was not this which attracted the eye of the young man who, walking along the phonolithic formation of the riverbank, was playing softly to himself on a double curtail, or converted bass-pommer, an octave below the single curtail and therefore identical in pitch and construction with the early fagotto in C.

His mind was on other things.

He was evidently of Melanochronic extraction, with the pentagonal facial angle and strong obital ridges, but he combined with this the fine lines of a full-blooded native of Coll, where, indeed, he was born, seven miles west of Caliach Point, in Mull, and in full view of the rugged gneiss.

As he swung along, there throbbed again and again through his brain the beautiful opening paragraph of Frantisek Palacky’s (1798-1876) Zur böhmischen Geschichtschreibung (Prague, 1871), written just after the author had refused a portfolio in the Pillersdorf Cabinet and had also declined to take part in the preliminary diet at Kromerice.

“If he could believe such things, why can not I?” murmured the young man, and crushed a ginkgo beneath his feet. Young men are often so. It is due to the elaterium of spring.

“By Ereshkigal,” he swore softly to himself, “I’ll do it.”

No sooner had he spoken than he came suddenly out of the tangle of gynmnosperms through whose leaves, needle-like and destitute of oil-glands as they were, he had been making his way, and emerged to a full view of the broad sweep of the Lake of Zug, just where the Lorze enters at its northern extremity and one and a quarter miles east of where it issues again to pursue its course toward the Reuss. Zug, at this point, is 1,368 feet above sea-level, and boasted its first steamer in 1852.

“Well,” he sighed, as he gazed upon the broad area of subsidence, “if I were now an exarch, whose dignity was, at one time, intermediate between the Patriarchal and the Metropolitan and from whose name has come that of the politico-religious party, the Exarchists, I should not be here day-dreaming. I should be far away in Footscray, a city of Bourke County, Victoria, Australia, pop. (1901) 18,301.”

And as he said this his eyes filled with tears, and under his skin, brown as fustic, there spread a faint flush, such as is often formed by citrocyde, or by pyrochloric acid when acting on uncured leather.

Far down in the valley the natives were celebrating the birthday of Gambrinus, a mythical Flemish king who is credited with the first brewing of beer. The sound of their voices set in motion longitudinal sound waves, and these, traveling through the surrounding medium, met the surface separating two media and were in part reflected, traveling back from the surface into the first medium again with the velocity with which they approached it, as depicted in Fig. 10. This caused the echo for which the Lake of Zug is justly famous.

The twilight began to deepen and from far above came the twinkling signals of, first, Böotes, then Coma Berenices, followed, awhile later, by Ursa Major and her little brother, Ursa Minor.

“The stars are clear to-night,” he sighed. “I wonder if they are visible from the dacite elevation on which SHE lives.”

His was an untrained mind. His only school had been the Eleatic School, the contention of which was that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being, or the All-ness of One.

But he knew what he liked.

In the calm light of the stars he felt as if a uban had been lifted from his heart, 5 ubans being equal to 1 quat, 6 quats to 1 ammat and 120 ammats to 1 sos.

He was free again.

Turning, he walked swiftly down into the valley, passing returning peasants with their baa-poots, and soon came in sight of the shining lamps of the small but carefully built pooroos which lined the road.

Reaching the corner he saw the village epi peering over the tree-tops, and swarms of cicada, with the toothed famoras of their anterior legs mingling in a sleepy drone, like so many cichlids. It was all very home-like to the wanderer.

Suddenly there appeared on a neighboring eminence a party of guisards, such as, during the Saturnalia, and from the Nativity till the Epiphany were accustomed to disport themselves in odd costumes; all clad in clouting, and evidently returning from taking part in the celebration.

As they drew nearer, our hero noticed a young woman in the front rank who was playing folk-songs on a cromorne with a double-reed mouth-piece enclosed in an air-reservoir. In spite of the detritus wrought by the festival, there was something familiar about the buccinator of her face and her little mannerism of elevating her second phalanx. It struck him like the flash of a cloud highly charged by the coalescence of drops of vapor. He approached her, tenderly, reverently.

“Lange, Anne Françoise Elizabeth”, he said, “I know you. You are a French actress, born in Genoa on the seventeenth of September, 1772, and you made your first appearance on the stage in L’Ecossaise in 1788. Your talent and your beauty gave you an enormous success in Pamela. It has taken me years to find you, but now we are united at last.”

The girl turned like a frightened aard-vark, still holding the cromorne in her hand. Then she smiled.

“Weenix, Barnaby Bernard (1777-1829),” she said very slowly, “you started business as a publisher in London about 1797.”

They looked at each other for a moment in silence. He was the first to speak.

“Miss Lange, Anne,” he said, “let us go together to Lar —– and be happy there —– happy as two ais, or three-toed South American sloths.”

She lowered her eyes.

“I will go with you Mr. Weenix-Barney,” she said, ” to the ends of the earth. But why to Lar? Why not to Wem?”

“Because,” said the young man, “Lar is the capital of Laristan, in 27 degrees, 30 minutes N., 180 miles from Shiraz, and contains an old bazaar consisting of four arcades each 180 feet long.”

Their eyes met, and she placed her hands in his.

And, from the woods, came the mellow whinnying of a herd of vip, the wool of which is highly valued for weaving.

Things I Didn’t Know Computers, Kitchen Science Could Do


I don’t want to be too chatty about work, because most of my time at work is spent remembering how when I was seven I wanted to grow up to be the astronaut responsible for drawing Popeye, but sometimes fate demands it. Today while trying to work out a problem that I believe will best be resolved by blackmailing our web servers, one of the co-workers had cause to try asking Google a question, so, yeah, here’s the autocomplete.

What we entered: 'can i substitute url for'. What Google offered: 'for baking soda', 'for eggs', 'for baking powder', 'for buttermilk'
Google’s auto-complete has gone completely mad.

Clearly, more people than I realized have been cooking for Tron.

I’m tempted to look at any of these auto-complete results, but I just know I’ll be disappointed, since somewhere a couple years ago Google decided that it’s just going to ignore some of the words you actually searched for in favor of the things it figures you ought to look for instead, and while I’ll probably be better off learning more about how to make buttermilk pancakes using web site addresses in place of the baking soda, eggs, baking powder, and buttermilk, I don’t want to give in to the peer pressure. Also, I don’t know if you need baking soda or baking powder for pancakes. Someone should make a web site that says whether you do.

Maybe We Should Just Skip To Second Contacts


A space alligator-cyclops makes ready to throw a boulder at things.
The cover to _Wonder Stories Quarterly_, Summer 1930, provided by PeterPulp of DeviantArt

The Peter Pulp account over on DeviantArt put up this cover, from the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, and I guess it just shows how poorly we all handled First Contact back in the day. Obviously, I don’t know who started the fight, whether the wide-hipped spacemen with the guns or the alligator-cyclops, but as things stand now, the brave spacemen of tomorrow have to figure out a way to carry on their mission despite the near-complete destruction of their Bounce House. I don’t envy them their task. I’ve never been able to recover from more than a goat-hydra chewing on the restraint bar of my Tilt-a-Whirl car.

You know, I am guilty of assuming this is a matter of the alligator-cyclops throwing rocks at the Bounce House. But from just the still scene I don’t know if he’s actually busy removing rocks from it. He might be the hero of this scene, freeing trapped spacekids within, and what is he getting for his trouble? All the bullets he can eat. I bet that’s what happened; isn’t it always like that when you try helping spacemen with Bounce Houses, in your experience?

Hit Radio


I should have written it down, but I was sure I’d remember it, and now I forgot one of the words of the pro-radio-station bumper sticker I saw in the supermarket’s parking lot. That’s forgivable, sure, except I wanted to have some fun based on the exact wording of the bumper sticker, and while I didn’t forget the words that go into the part I wanted to make fun of, the fact I can’t remember one of the other words exactly is just destroying my credibility in this.

Anyway, the bumper sticker gave the radio station — well, it gave a letter and a number, which is all radio stations use anymore to identify themselves, like “Q 26” or “112.3 the Aleph”. And then it read underneath, “Yesterday’s Hit. Today’s [ Something ].” I’m not sure what the something was. Today’s music would kind of make sense except for that yesterday’s-hit-today’s-something construction.

And you see the thing I wanted to make fun of, anyway: yesterday’s hit singular? Which hit could they mean? Al Stewart’s “The Year Of The Cat”, most likely, since that was playing in the supermarket, but it could really have been any hit: “Macarthur Park”? “In The Year 2525”? The Theme To Greatest American Hero? But look at the phrasing: it doesn’t have to be a one-hit wonder’s hit, it could be anything. “Let’s Get Physical”, perhaps, or “What A Wonderful World”, or maybe The Beatles’ stirring classic “Oh, Anything By The Beatles, Who Cares”? Maybe it’s a hit from even farther back, like the Romburg and Hammerstein standard “When I Grow Too Old To Dream”, on the theory that its listeners have had enough of this music that leaves them not feeling suicidally depressed. It could be anything.

Or it could have been, if I didn’t forget what the last word on the bumper sticker was, so you might believe me that I wasn’t making the whole thing up. I’m just sick about that. I’m sorry I mentioned it at all, really.

Hans Richter: Ghosts Before Breakfast


If I speak of that German sense of whimsy it mostly sounds like I’m making a mild ethnic joke. But there is such a thing and for today’s movie I’d like to offer Hans Richter’s 1928 dadaist piece Ghosts Before Breakfast. He directed a series of pieces like this — they turn up on Turner Classic Movies now and then — and they’re just magnificent.

It’s vey easy to do dadaist comedy badly because superficially you’d think it’s just a matter of throwing a lot of nonsense together. This is funny the first time you encounter it and boring ever after. If you put together elements that suggest a narrative — even if they don’t deliver — if they tease the audience by being obviously carefully planned and selected to start sharing a story, though, you can get a great piece like this. It’s whimsical, it’s funny, it’s difficult to summarize without just describing the sequence of images presented. It has hats.

The Shape Of Things (I’m A Thing)


I don’t want to brag, which is an opening that puts me at a disadvantage when I honestly don’t want to brag, because everyone knows what it means. Normally you only start a sentence “I don’t want to brag” because you feel like ending it with “but I am the youngest person to have won both a Nobel and a Pulitzer Prize in tweeting, and I only turned down the MacArthur Grant because I knew an adorably needy kid who’d be better able to use the money. Also, last month I put a video up on YouTube that’s attracted over two dozen comments that are relevant and that make you kind of glad there’s such a thing as human beings.” That’s so much bragging it’s not even a single sentence anymore.

The thing is that I’ve got a body that’s in pretty good shape, considering. I don’t mean that I’m in great shape: on my best-shape-day of my entire life I’m going to be measurably worse off than soccer star Pelé will on the worst day of his life, for example, but soccer star Pelé is a pretty high standard of fitness. Even his name outranks the fitness of my name. I imagine you could probably set a pretty substantial dead weight across that capital P and that l without compressing either letter. Yeah, that ‘N’ in my name looks like it should be load-bearing, but I bet if you tried you’d find all its structural integrity has been eaten away by my having kept too many old videotapes of Cartoon Network stored underneath it for like a decade after I even had a VCR anymore.

Still, my body is in pretty good shape considering that by rights it ought to be much worse off. The most serious complaint I can make about it is that I look awkward when I’m standing still or moving. I don’t blame you for thinking I’m just exaggerating my general social awkwardness, but please consider that the funniest thing I can ever do, based on how my love irresistibly laughs, is be the subject of a series of rapidly taken photographs of me standing still or doing a thing. We have a photo collage of me drinking an extra-medium size malted milk that we keep in a special box in the laundry room, as reserve against the most depressing days, like when the plumbing can only be repaired by tearing out the fireplace and gathering two dozen woodland creatures to be publicly mocked, or downbeat stuff like that.

But, for example, I’m not fat anymore, which is doing pretty well because I used to figure, say, I like poppyseed bagels, so for breakfast, I should have two poppyseed bagels so that I’m warmed up for the second, and I should finish it off with an onion bagel, and then maybe also eat a wedge of cheese the size of a guinea pig. I had good reasons for this: I wouldn’t be so cruel as to eat a guinea pig that was made of guinea pig. By rights, I should have reached the diameter of a minor planet, but I never did, and I’ve lost most of the weight by now thanks to what is technically abuse of the coat- and baggage-checking rooms at the renovated music hall downtown. (Don’t tell them. The lost-and-found notices they put up about it are great reading.)

And then there’s aches and pains. Again, I can’t boast about reaching an extreme age, but I am old enough it would be normal to suffer some pains after strenuous effort or after sitting still or lying down or standing up, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be spared that. I don’t have any serious pains, now that I made the executive decision to tell my doctor that the pain in my chest isn’t actually a pain but more a kind of friendly reminder about not twisting so very much.

To what do I attribute my remarkably good physical shape? Is it anything that I can share with people who hope to come away like I do without much to complain about? I have no idea, but if you’d like to suggest anything that might’ve been a cause I’ll accept nominations in care of this department.

What You Notice In Old Videos


So, do you ever go back and look at episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation for reasons other than that you’re hanging out in a Star Trek forum and there’s nothing to do but go over each and every episode and review them all one more time in case someone forgot to mention something? It’s interesting because sometimes you do notice something you never saw before. For example, look at this scene, in a screen capture from the episode “Future Imperfect” where Future Riker looks at his old home movies.

While Riker watches his past self be attacked by a clown I can't help noticing he has a shiny ball on a glass table.

How many times might you have kind of caught this episode while you were doing something else before, like me, you noticed how much Future Riker was looking longingly at the time far in the past when he had a Giant Shiny Ball sitting on his glass table? “Those were good times,” you can imagine Riker thinking. “And it was just moments before the Space Clown attacked.”

Good times, really, good times.

Is This Fair?


We went to the county fair, because that’s a good way for someone like me who spent most of his time growing up not going out in the wild, or out of doors, or necessarily out of the bedroom, or out of bed, to experience the wonders of nature and be sneezed on by goats. I had a very goat-booger-free upbringing and I can’t attribute most of my problems to that, although my slowness at flinching away from sneezing goats can probably be attributed to that fact.

Inside the pigs exhibit there were, well, it’s right there as implied. One of the stalls had a pair of pigs in it, one lying on the floor, the other standing above and just spraying this horrible garden hose of urine right on the lower pig’s head. It’s terrible, but before condemning the upper pig I have to say that roommate squabbles can be terrible things, and this almost certainly wasn’t the start of the fight. A fight has to escalate to the point of public urination, or else the upper pig was doing it all wrong. Which might be, of course, since I’m sure that some pigs can be as much of a jerk as some people can. I just feel I need more to the story to properly feel disgusted.

You Might Also Like, Because, I Don’t Know Why?


I was looking at a photo gallery the (Camden, New Jersey) Courier-Post put up about Soupy Island. That’s a small park outside Camden with the historic Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel Number 93R (the Philadelphia Toboggan Company didn’t make it), opened so that kids from the city could experience fresh air and a carousel and soup provided by the Campbell’s corporation, and the park’s still there and having kids over and giving out soup. At the end of this photo gallery about a century-old park hosting kids and having charming-looking elderly people who’ve been affiliated with the park for decades came this:

Like this topic? You may also like these photo galleries:

You may also like a photo gallery about this standoff at a Cherry Hill motel, or the shooting in Winslow Township.
  • Standoff at Cherry Hill Motel
  • Camden teens camp in Pine Hill
  • Police involved Shooting in Winslow Twp
  • Kevin Ambrose Arraignnment

So from this, we learn that absolutely horrible people are designing the “you may also like” algorithm at newspaper sites. “Here’s a picture of a cute baby raccoon living in a mailbox! Maybe you’d like to see this adorable grandmom with discarded syringes jabbed through each of her fingernails! Did you like this video of a kid trying to order a pistachio ice cream and saying it wrong? I bet you’ll love seeing us try to spell `Arraignment’! Now, want to see this gallery of the kids who made a Santa Claus costume for the ferret at the rescue shelter? Are you sure you can live with yourself if you do?”

And I realize the joke I’m sounding like here, but can I point out the “Standoff at Cherry Hill Motel” was nearly four weeks old at that point? Wasn’t there some more recent horrible Cherry Hill news they could offer?

Statistics Saturday for a Monday: July 2014 on This Humor Blog


And now to return to the very funny question of how well-read I was in the month of July. The answer is very well indeed: I had my most popular month on record according to WordPress. My total number of page views climbed from June’s 495 to fully 704, the highest on record, and the number of unique viewers rose from 181 to a just plain enormous for me 332. I’m stunned. There’s three months since I started the humor blog that didn’t have 332 views total, never mind unique viewers. (The views-per-visitor dropped from 2.73 to 2.12, but that’s still respectable, suggesting most folks who stop in find at least something else worth reading.) By the end of July I’d gotten a total of 7,187 pages read.

The countries sending me the most readers the past month were the United States (562), Australia (34), the United Kingdom (32), and Canada (20). I got only a single reader each from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Kuwait, Mexico, Oman, the Philippines. Indonesia and the Philippines were single-reader countries last month too. And India, which I worried about for sending me just one reader in May and June, found three people who could find me not perfectly repellant in the past thirty days. That’s not so good on a per capita basis as Portugal (two readers), but, really, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

The five most popular postings this past month were:

  1. Questions Inspired By Great Science Fiction Covers of the Past, which involves a lot of Lyndon Johnson.
  2. From The Technology Centers That Brought You Towels, about a patent pending notice I saw.
  3. Five Astounding Facts About Turbo, That Movie About A Snail in The Indianapolis 500, always liked.
  4. Statistics Saturday: My Reactions To Everything After It’s Been Read, letting you know how much I like being liked, or not being liked, as the case may be.
  5. Theme Park Flashing from the Dream World, my subconscious giving out advice again.

I should say, though, there’s 21 different posts which got at least ten viewers the past month, which I believe is a high but I didn’t track that before. This is just something else I can start neurotically following, isn’t it?

Some popular search terms bringing people here include:

  • “ron|russell mael”
  • charles boyce compu-toon
  • captain future block that kick
  • mark twain a medieval romance
  • can a snail race in the indy 500 (people have got to be looking this up as a lark)
  • transdimensional dream other worlds
  • melies films with spider

George Melies: An Up-To-Date Conjuror


I forget how long it’s been since I brought the lovely films of Georges Méliès up here, and it would take whole minutes to check earlier videos and find out. Here, though, I offer his 1899 short, An Up-To-Date Conjurer. It’s a short film, barely a minute long, as the date almost implies. It’s almost plotless, too, another thing you might expect from the date alone (A Trip To The Moon was three years in its future), but that just means the action is all the camera-tricks and sight gags that define this style of silent movie. It’s just a minute of magic tricks, and a fun one at that.