It’s Great Being Tall, In Case You Wondered


So we were at pinball league — not that one, the other one — when I reached up and plucked a can of soda out of thin air. “How did you do that?” my love demanded, as the soda was a surprise even though it was just a can of Diet Mountain Dew. Well, there’s these small shelves, a couple inches wide, running just below most of the ceiling at the pinball league’s location. All the taller people put their drinks up there, out of the way. “What is it like being tall?” my love wanted to know, and I don’t want to sugar-coat it: it’s pretty great.

There’s down sides, of course, like how you can’t be comfortable in an airline seat unless you gate-check your legs, but nobody’s been comfortable in an airline seat since 2007, when United started charging $25 per flight segment for “Double Plus Economy” seats in which flight attendants would not repeatedly batter passengers with bags of rocks. But otherwise, being tall is a great thing and I suppose it’s only fair to tell you about some of the privileges.

First, you’re never actually fat as long as you’re tall. Until five years ago I weighed about as much as the Principality of Andorra, but because I could peek down over top of the refrigerator, all that obesity did was make me look even bigger yet, since people could see me from so far away. When I started losing weight — I’d leave some in the junk drawer, some outside the garage for the squirrels to use as nesting material, some in the Weird-Sized Falling-Apart Books About Motorcycles section of the library — I got appreciably skinny, and yet that didn’t hurt my apparent tallness either. It just made me look more like a compass needle, the tallest of all the orienteering tools.

The next thing is you never have to play basketball again. If a social group starts talking about basketball of course they’ll look to you, as a tall person, as a ringer. You can just shake your head and wave them off, saying, “Oh, I’m no good, you should stick with people who can really play,” and everyone will assume you’re being self-effacing. If you stand firm on this they’ll suppose you’re more interested in their having a good sporting match between roughly equal teams. If they draft you into the game anyway you can do like me, standing around looking befuddled and thinking about rockets, and as long as you ever at any point touch the ball in any play that ever results in a score, you’ll get credit for being a good team player. You can’t lose except by actually participating, and showing that you can’t dribble without the ball somehow hitting your foot, your nose, and your car simultaneously. You didn’t even take your car to the basketball game. And yet — smile afterwards and you still look charming.

Tall people always get to influence society — George Washington was put in charge of the Continental Army because he was taller than anyone else in the room, and he finally won the Revolutionary War when qualified negotiators established King George III was shorter than him — but it’s not always in obvious ways. For example, as someone more than six foot two inches tall, every year I get to introduce two new phrases that become common sayings even though people don’t know quite what they’re supposed to mean. I’m not perfectly satisfied that I’ve got my late-2014 choice perfected just yet, but, what the heck, you’re friends, or at least readers. This time next year, when you realize you don’t even clearly remember life before everyone used the aphorism, “it’s as real as bowling”, know that’s one of mine. You’re welcome.

I shouldn’t say this, but I guess you know about taller people being able to see the tops of refrigerators. There’s a thriving zine culture of fascinating reading materials distributed exclusively on the tops of taller consumer appliances. I guess you could get a stool and examine them but I don’t think you’d appreciate the social mores quite well enough. Sorry.

In all, I’d say that given the choice between being tall and not, I recommend being tall, because it would hurt my knees to crouch around all day and even then I wouldn’t be all that not-tall.

The Screaming (?) Skull


A skull, with eyes, on flame.
Also, the eyes are kind of a logical problem too.

This is one of the Halloween decorations we’ve got. It’s from the same kit that was hung up in elementary schools when my love and I were kids, and it turns out they’re still being printed and sold and all that, so that’s great. And, you know, it may look like a slightly nightmarish howling skull on fire. I find that impression dissolves just as soon as you know that the skull is actually wide-jawed with joy and surprise at learning she just won $35,000 from a scratch-off lottery card. And suddenly, now, aren’t you grinning a little and realizing that you don’t know whether it’s possible to tell whether a skull by itself is male or female? That’s because the correct answer is: it’s a skull on fire. How could she even scratch off the card?

Franklin P Adams: Monotonous Variety


[ I realized it’d been ages since I last showcased one of the comic verses of Franklin P Adams, and that’s a shame. From Tobogganing On Parnassus once more, then, a bit of griping about writers who search the thesaurus for all the possible ways to indicate someone has spoken. It’s an old and familiar complaint, but FPA brings a wonderful melody to it. ]

Monotonous Variety

(All of them from two stories in a single magazine.)

She “greeted” and he “volunteered”;
    She “giggled”; he “asserted”;
She “queried” and he “lightly veered”;
    She “drawled” and he “averted”;
She “scoffed,” she “laughed” and he
       “averred”;
He “mumbled,” “parried,” and “demurred.”

She “languidly responded”; he
    “Incautiously assented”;
Doretta “proffered lazily”;
    Will “speedily invented”;
She “parried,” “whispered,” “bade,” and
       “mused”;
He “urged,” “acknowledged,” and “refused.”

She “softly added”; “she alleged”;
    He “consciously invited”;
She “then corrected”; William “hedged”;
    She “prettily recited”;
She “nodded,” “stormed,” and “acquiesced” ;
He “promised,” “hastened,” and “confessed.”

Doretta “chided”; “cautioned” Will;
    She “voiced” and he “defended”;
She “vouchsafed”; he “continued still”;
    She “sneered” and he “amended”;
She “smiled,” she “twitted,” and she “dared”
He “scorned,” “exclaimed,” “pronounced,”
       and “flared.”

He “waived,” “believed,” “explained,” and
       “tried”;
    “Commented” she; he “muttered”;
She “blushed,” she “dimpled,” and she
       “sighed”;
    He “ventured” and he “stuttered”;
She “spoke,” “suggested,” and “pursued”;
He “pleaded,” “pouted,” “called,” and
       “viewed.”

           *    *    *

O synonymble writers, ye
    Whose work is so high-pricey.
Think ye not that variety
    May haply be too spicy?
Meseems that in an elder day
They had a thing or two to say.

Comic Strips I Don’t, Do Understand


I haven’t mentioned Charles Boyce’s Compu-Toon, the technology comic strip for that aunt you love but who wants you to stop making Google’s logo change into weird stuff for holidays or the birthdays of logicians or stuff, for a while but please be reassured that it still exists and is a thing that carries on. As proof of this I offer the installment from the 19th of October, which clearly means something, although I don’t know what. My best guess is very specific subsets of furry fandom.

Murphy was stunned that some of his friends have a link to a wolf in sheep's clothing web site. ... *What*?
Charles Boyce’s Compu-Toon for Sunday, the 19th of October, 2014.

Since it’s kind of dismal to talk about nothing but comic strips I dislike let me bring up Michael Fry’s Committed, which ended years ago but is rerunning something from 1999 and that hasn’t aged a day in the past fifteen years. OK, it’s funny in the way people from 1964 dissing the Beatles as this month’s flavor of boy band is funny, but it kind of makes me wonder what’s going wrong with pop culture that kids are still into Pokemon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers. I know they have some new stuff that wasn’t around back then, but, I mean, we’d thrown out pretty much everything from 1984 by the time 1999 rolled around.

In 1999, Pikachu is warned of his pop-cultural ephemerality by a Power Ranger and a Ninja Turtle.
Michael Fry’s Committed, originally run 1999, rerun on the 27th of October, 2014.

So if that’s all things I don’t understand, fine, but let me share some things I do understand, in the form of comic strips that discussed mathematical topics, and that I discuss over on my mathematics blog. Enjoy, won’t you please?

In Search Of Happy Coaches


Although I still really don’t understand what’s the thing with this college football thing, I am aware that it’s anyway a fairly exciting thing here in Lansing when the University of Michigan plays Michigan State, and I was watching on the Tivo only a couple hours later to see a pretty impressive final score of Michigan State not just beating Michigan 35 to 11, but also somehow beating Rutgers, which I didn’t even know was in the game but put up only three points before being escorted out of Spartan Stadium and into the campus’s renowned Hideously Ugly Modern Art Building.

I noticed in the postgame interview that Michigan State’s coach still looked angry despite a pretty solid win. And then I realized I don’t think I’ve ever seen a football coach that didn’t look like he was about to hit a brick wall and keep on hitting it until it bled cranberry sauce. Are they that angry just because the games are these high-profile, high-stress positions where even if they simultaneously beat Michigan, Rutgers, and the University of Maryland there’s still going to be people who can’t just be ignored demanding their firing? Or are they just always furious, and they’d have the same face if they were at Arby’s and got a French Dip hoagie (after choosing to go to Arby’s and ordering a French Dip hoagie, I should say)? Are they only happy when they’re angry and if they are, then, how can they ever be either?

So to sum up, if cartonist Mell Lazarus wanted to use Momma to do a panel of almanac facts about the Moon this month why didn’t he even mention the partial solar eclipse that’s the most interesting thing the Moon did in October anyway?

Statistics Saturday: Perils Of Modern Childhood, Based On What I See In Comic Strips


Mostly, it's participation trophies.
“There are things called apps” was omitted because this is presented more in the comics as a sign of the death of civilization than a particular threat to childhood per se.
“Not keeping score” was, on review, considered to be a subclass of participation trophies.
We are still investigating why “droopy pants” did not make the list.

I remember my childhood, when the major problem was “He-Man is a cartoon”. We would have been doomed if it were animated.

Krazy Kat in: Weenie Roast


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:


There was never a time sound wasn’t possible for motion pictures. The earliest motion pictures in the United States were made by Thomas Edison and his staff; it would take a certain peculiar obliviousness to not think of marrying their sound recording devices to their moving-picture recording devices. But practical sound pictures, well, that’s a bigger challenge. Having the sound on a device separate from the film is an obvious practical problem: even if the picture is synchronized perfectly to start, keeping it synchronized, especially as the film breaks and has to be repaired, is hard to solve. Then, too, a moving picture can be presented to a larger crowd basically by projecting it at a screen farther away; for a record player to be heard by more people requires making it louder, which would have to wait for good amplification technology to come.

After several false starts sound pictures finally caught on in the late 1920s, and somewhat remarkably it changed cartoons as well as live-action pictures. Live-action pictures took a couple years to quite adapt to the new technology; early sound cameras were much bulkier and less mobile affairs than silent cameras were, and for several years as actors were learning to speak, cinematographers were learning how to let the camera not sit fixed at a scene. Animation had to adapt too; it’s easy enough to drop the intertitles or the word balloons that carried what dialogue couldn’t be pantomimed, but also, suddenly, cartoons could be set to music.

They’d always had music, of course, in cinema orchestras playing along, but now the animators could count on particular pieces of music and synchronize the action to that. And I think there’s a noticeable change between the late silent and the early sound cartoons: setting the action to music encourages planning out the scene ahead of time, so that the key events happen at the right moment. Silent cartoons have a tendency to flow from one event to another with a kind of dream logic; early sound cartoons are more likely to be made of individual scenes that make sense, even if the whole reel gets a bit baffling. It would take some time for the plot of the whole cartoon to be sketched out ahead of time.

And in the early days of the sound cartoon, yes, Krazy Kat got adapted to the motion pictures again. These cartoons, some 97 of them if Wikipedia is complete, were made by Charles Mintz — just as the previous run (also of 97 pictures; hm) was — for Columbia Pictures. And for this, the fourth attempt in fifteen years to bring George Herriman’s comic strip to the motion picture screen, we have … well, “Weenie Roast” here is peppy. It’s cheerful and a little weird, playful with a few bits of inexplicable cruelty. It’s built around some nice recognizable music bits and then goes riffing around the idea of things you might see at the seashore that I guess is near Coney Island or an equivalent park, to a conclusion which we might call arbitrary. Inanimate objects come to life and struggle against their own destruction. My love put it perfectly in describing this as “every 1930s cartoon”.

So it is. This is an early Mickey Mouse cartoon with an oddly-drawn Mickey. It’s a Max Fleischer Bimbo cartoon with Bimbo and Betty Boop way off-model. While the comic strip was still running as successfully as it might, a cartoon series that shared nothing but the title was as viable as anything else on the screen at the time. It’s probably nothing personal; the alliterative draw of a “Crazy Cat” seems to me likely to create a cartoon series even if there had been no comic strip.

Here by the way is another curious change that coincided with successful sound pictures, but that as far as I can tell has nothing but coincidence to do with it: the triumph of cell animation. From about 1930 hand-drawn animation would typically be done by drawing and painting characters on pieces of transparent cellophane, placed in front of backgrounds and photographed. Before then, though, the characters being animated might be drawn just on sheets of white paper, placed against white-paper backgrounds, with just as much as needed to change one frame to the next replaced. The edges of ripped paper can be noticed in these silent cartoons, looking like ghosts flickering around a character rubbing his hands. With a full cell there’s no edges to be seen. I understand why cell animation won out overall — it seems to offer great production advantages, particularly in making drawings reusable — but why it should have matched so well the introduction of sound pictures is a mystery to me. Maybe something in the new cameras suggested it.

Remember This! Also: How To


Whenever I get asked about what future trends I see I first suppress that sense of indignation whoever it was took so long to ask. I’ve had my answer ready for ages and was getting worried nobody was ever going to ask. I’m as good a trendspotter as any of the people getting on the trendspotting bandwagon. It’s a terrible burden having a clear picture of society’s future.

One trend I see going on is there’s going to be ever-more stuff to try to remember. Pop culture alone is expanding so fast we’re barely able to keep it updated on TV Tropes, and every thing in pop culture carries with it extra burdens of information-like constructs: not only the thing itself, but also stuff about how it was made, and what it’s referring to, and how it’s not as good as this other thing someone else made, and how it is too and if it isn’t how come you don’t make it yourself, and then how this sets off a highly entertaining flame war, and whose fault it is, and whose fault it isn’t, and who’s writing the fairest accounting of how the flame war happens, and how they do not, and why they couldn’t possibly even if they tried.

If it’s done properly just understanding a sketch of an apple someone left on the coffee table can require collating more information than writing a book about the Thirty Years War would. And even if you can keep all that new stuff straight, you’re stuck remembering the old stuff too. If pressed and facing a busy day way too early in the morning could you remember the full name of Snoop Doggy Dogg? Undoubtedly, but then how would you be on remembering what humorist I grabbed that joke from? See? I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t recognize it either.

The second trend is that we’re always going to impress people by doing stuff without the tools that make it easy and painless. Nobody cares about a person who can cut a board in half by using a sharp, well-maintained saw blade, but show around someone who can cut a board in half without even having a board and you can get a paying crowd. So if you can remember stuff without the Internet gadgets that do the remembering for you then you’re going to win acclaim for your impressive abilities in the trivia-stuffed world of tomorrow after about 6:45 pm.

So the problem is how to do this, given that there’s too much stuff to remember and there’s really no learning it, because we don’t have the attention spans long enough anymore to even get a decent earworm stuck in our heads. And this is where mnemonic devices come in handy. The best of them combine two points into one so after learning one you feel like you know at least twice as many things as you actually do. For example, George Washington was born in 1732, and he weighed 173.2 pounds. Just from reading that I know it’s going to pop into your head at some perfectly inappropriate time in the trivia-stuffed world of tomorrow, like maybe at about 5:25 pm. The links don’t even have to make any kind of thematic sense: once you’ve heard that there are both 82 constellations in the sky and 82 counties in Ohio you will never be able to fully forget either point, even though you have no responsibility for the constellations in the sky and even though you’ll never need to know how many counties there are in Ohio unless you have a job setting out chairs for the Ohio County Commissioners Annual Lunch, and you could just count RSVPs for that.

The effectiveness of these mnemonic devices are all the more impressive when you consider George Washington was actually born in 1731, at least at the time. I don’t even know that he ever weighed 173.2, or maybe 173.1, pounds, although I guess it’s possible. I mean, he was a big guy, and had the money to eat well enough when he wasn’t bunking down for the winter with hundreds of starved Continental soldiers in upstate New Jersey, but I dunno what he weighed. I’m comfortable with something in the 173 range, but I wouldn’t rule out 178.9 or even 179.9. And as for the counties in the sky, oh, no, there’s nothing like 82 counties in Ohio. You could remember that easily by recalling that 86 is number slang for “something negative or otherwise disparaging or something or other”, and there aren’t 86 constellations in Ohio either. Memorable, isn’t it?

I had some idea about what to do with defective mnemonic devices but I forgot to write it down. Sorry. Maybe someone out there has an idea? Please write in before about 6:30.

The Secret Life Of Ray Davies


My love and I were in the bookstore and leafed through Ray Davies’s book Americana: The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story, and ran across a delightful little point. Apparently, in the mid-70s, when The Kinks had gotten really into doing complex stage shows performing their concept albums about the shifting mores and quiet existential despair of the British middle classes, Ray Davies would routinely choose to go to parties afterwards. But he didn’t want to be recognized and hassled throughout the parties, and I am sympathetic to this. I wouldn’t go to parties either if people kept asking me to sing “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, though neither would they if they ever heard me singing. So for a while there he would go unrecognized at after-show parties by wearing the mask he’d been wearing during the show.

I’m delighted to learn that during his most energetic, hard-rocking, hard-partying days at the touring peak of his career, Ray Davies was apparently also a seven-year-old boy sneaking into the cinemas wearing a long trenchcoat and sitting on Dave Davies’s shoulders. Of course, based on the book, the costume apparently worked and he didn’t get people saying they recognized him, possibly because none of the partygoers wanted to be punched by Ray Davies. I’m also sympathetic to this. One of my goals in life is to get through it without being punched by Ray Davies, and that’s going pretty well so far; how about you?

Comic Strip _Momma_ Descending Into Madness


By everything I have ever heard on the topic, Mell Lazarus, the cartoonist for Miss Peach (which I have heard endlessly praised but never, ever seen, except in parodies of it) and Momma, is one of the sweetest persons to know. Having him in your set of acquaintances is reportedly a minor but noticeable blessing of life. I haven’t got any reason to disbelieve this. But whatever his greatness as a person is, there is the point that his comic strip is Momma, and like many comic strips that have been running since the era of the Petticoat Affair, it’s really not all that funny. You can make out the outlines where it was funny once upon a time, or should have been, but it seems to be around mostly because once a comic strip has been running for ten years nothing will ever stop its running.

On October 13, Mr Moon is a fan of Columbus. Someday he might grow up to be a planet. ... What?
Mell Lazarus’s comic strip Momma for the 19th of October, 2014. Good luck telling me what it means.

Lately, though, it’s taken a weird turn, to the point that I have to wonder if the comic really is descending into madness. The most recent baffling example of this comes from this past Sunday’s strip. I have nothing but love for the mock-factual comedic form; it’s always been one of my favorites. And I appreciate a comic strip delivering information with a light humorous tone; Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit, Space Guy! often does this for Sunday strips. But this … this just approaches the Dadaist weirdness of Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, except for leaving me confused about “On Oct. 13th [Mr. Moon’s] a fan of Columbus” is even supposed to mean. At least Zippy I know is just stringing amusing syllables together.

Meanwhile, if that’s not enough for you, my mathematics blog has a couple of new comic strips up for discussion, although this time, none of them are actually pictured. You can just imagine what happend in them, or you’d rather, can follow the links. They’re in there somewhere.

The Autocomplete Wonder


how to tell someone you're a... autocompletes to: angry, a virgin, a vegetarian, an atheist, anorexic, or a vampire.
I’m also surprised it takes any particular effort to tell someone you’re a vegetarian, when you could give it away by just admitting that you’re tired of having bacon made a new topping layer on every product, including wide-screen TVs, campaign flyers, and streaming video services.

I honestly did not realize there were enough people trying to break news of their vampire-ness to other people that it should be one of the top autocomplete results to “how to tell someone you’re a”. I choose to imagine most people being told this say, “Oh, you sweet dear, we knew long ago. … How? Well, the fangs, the long cape, the Transylvanian castle you had transplanted brick-by-brick here to Mantoloking, New Jersey. They mean things.”

The State of Snacking, 2014


Maybe you remember New York State getting into some comic parliamentary-procedure hissy fits over whether to declare an Official State Snack, since it was pretty funny as state legislators get in declaring Official State things plus The Daily Show and I think The Colbert Report featured it a couple nights running. Certainly I remember it when I think about shortly before deciding not to snack on yoghurt. Apparently everybody in Albany got tired with the issue because they approved it last week and now New York has an Official State Snack, in case you want to snack in a stateishly official way.

According to the Reuters report on it, there are other states with Official Snacks, some of which make good sense: Texas has tortilla chips and salsa and Illinois has popcorn, both of which I have to agree are unmistakably states. Utah, apparently, declared Jell-O its official state snack, taking the Jell-O corporation almost completely by surprise. You can almost hear the ghost of Jack Benny going “What?”

The startling thing is that South Carolina has an Official Snack of boiled peanuts. I’ve read the article multiple times and read it out loud to make sure I haven’t got it wrong, but there it is: boiled peanuts. I would guess they had translated something wrong, maybe going from roasted peanuts or peanut butter through Google Translate and coming out with something obviously nonsense like “marsupial cactus”, and taking their best guess at fixing it knowing it should be something-or-other peanuts. But the article was posted by Reuters and I’m pretty sure they have English speakers over in Reuterland. So as ever, learning something new causes me to feel like I know less about the world.

Statistics Saturday: Charting Yet Another Of My Worries


How worried I am I forgot to shampoo my hair today, versus time: it gets pretty bad about midday when I have to leave the house, and gets even worse when I don't.
Yes, this is something which worries me, sometimes.

I could just shower again and do it right this time, but then I start to worry that I’m using way too much soap.

Krazy Kat: The Stork Exchange


So, International Film Service and then Bray Productions took shots at adapting George Herriman’s great yet obscurant comic strip Krazy Kat to silent animation, with results that I would describe as successful cartoons but not really Krazy Kat. And yet a third series of cartoons based on the never-all-that-popular comic strip was created in the mid-to-late 1920s, still before the successful introduction of sound to motion pictures. This one ran at least 97 pictures, if Wikipedia’s filmography hasn’t got errors in it.

This installment, “The Stork Exchange”, was originally released the 17th of December, 1927, something you might have guessed from the Charles Lindbergh joke in it. I think it’s a reasonably solid silent cartoon: Krazy wanders into the Stork Factory where babies get made, is for faint reasons put in charge of it, and struggles to do so. To add to the historic interest this was a “lost” film, believed destroyed sometime around 1948 when its producer, Margaret J Winkler, disposed of old nitrocellulose-based film stock of stuff people weren’t watching anyway. A copy was found in 2004 at a British Film Institute archive.

The version I have embedded here, from YouTube, features a generic soundtrack featuring what sound to me like Les Paul-ish strumming around songs I can’t really name. The opening one I think of as “Mother Gooseland” because of a Betty Boop cartoon, and the closer seems to be “Listen To The Mockingbird”, for what that’s worth.

But as an adaptation of the comic strip? The example here doesn’t give much reason to think anyone involved with it knew there was a comic strip. Why even bother calling it Krazy Kat? The answer that seems obvious to me involves two facts. One: the first of this series of Krazy Kat cartoons, animated by Charles Mintz’s studios and distributed by M J Winkler, was released on the first of October, 1925. Two: “Felix Dopes It Out”, the last Felix the Cat cartoon distributed by Winkler, was released on the 15th of August, 1925, with the most successful silent cartoon star going to Educational Pictures from the week after that.

With that, suddenly, a lot of the cartoon makes more sense, starting with why there should be a third string of Krazy Kat cartoons at all, and then why they should be about a plucky character with a certain drive that I just don’t see in the comic strip character, and why they should embrace silent-cartoon conventions like everything in the world being animate or potentially so, and why something like the fable of storks bringing babies should bring someone to a cloud-based factory where raw ingredients are ground together into babies. As a Felix the Cat cartoon — well, I admit I’m not a connoisseur of Felix, and a more serious fan might have stronger feelings. But as a Felix cartoon this feels to me like a pretty decent installment, interesting and well-paced and even plotted better than the average silent. I wonder if Ignatz Mouse appears in any of the cartoons.

In Which I Don’t Understand My Wardrobe


It’s about time for the change of seasons. You probably know which seasons and if you don’t you can pick the ones you like. But for me the big change is that I start wearing this thing over my shirts. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. I call it a hoodie, but it’s more complicated than that, because I’m the kind of person who can make a hoodie complicated somehow. I think I might be overthinking it, but that just feeds the problem.

It reappeared a little over a week ago. I don’t know where the hoodie goes in the summer, but I can’t find it at all during the warmer months, the months I spend wondering if I should find more ways to open windows around the house besides chipping out the painted-shut frames. There were a couple times this summer I could have used it, because we forgot to pay our sun bill and the temperature never rose above 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and that in our toaster oven. I looked all over the house and even tried the mating call of hoodies and other wrap-like garments but nothing doing. It must migrate, though Wikipedia tells me most garments on their own power are able to move no more than about three miles per day at best.

Like I say, I call it a hoodie because I don’t know the names of clothes. I get underwear, T-shirts, regular shirts, sweaters, pants, socks, and hats, and then I freeze up and panic when somebody asks me what you call a T-shirt that hasn’t got any sleeves. It’s a dark gray, because somehow pretty much everything I wear turns out to be dark gray, even the brightly colored stuff. That’s for the best. I’ve tried buying clothes in interesting colors before and you can see the results by looking at any picture of any group of people from the 1970s or 1980s.

You see the outfit that makes you wince and maybe accidentally bite your lip? I used to wear that, and I probably would still except it wore a nontrivial hole in a structurally important place. You know how in life you come to do things you regret and feel shame for? For multiple years in the 1990s and in both New Jersey and New York, I wore orange sweatpants in public. I believe my friends tried to warn me about this, but on approaching me they were overcome with the compulsion to go off in the corner and weep. They were correct.

Anyway, the hoodie or whatever reappeared just as I needed it, as the temperature stays perfectly the same inside the house and every place I go, but somehow it feels colder because it’s colder outside, where I am not. As a child I didn’t understand why the house felt colder when it was winter outside, even though the point of houses is to not be outside, but as an adult I now understand: the world is fundamentally irrational and cannot be understood. Still I can’t see how this thing can be a hoodie, given how it doesn’t have a hood. It doesn’t even have the zipper or something where a removable hood might have gone before the removable hood was taken, or to put it another way, became gone.

Also it zips up, up front, when I’m not sure is proper hoodie behavior, but it’s awfully useful because I can leave it unzipped so as to show off how nicely grey-ish my blue or red or yellow shirt is. I’m looking forward to how in future decades I’ll see pictures of this and wonder why nobody told me how I looked. They have, but see if I listen. Also it’s got pockets. I like pockets. My favorite jacket ever had a little pocket on the inside just the right size for a paperback book. Its lining wore out and it grew holes in it but I liked that pocket so much I’d still be wearing it if not for all my friends tackling me, stripping it from my body, and pitching it into an Icelandic volcano, which devoured the garment in molten flames and blushed, mortified, at having this in it.

I’m not even sure where it came from, but it must have been from somewhere, because at the grocery store I saw another guy wearing what’s clearly the same model non-hoodie. Only on him, it didn’t look like something I’d wear. I have to study this more.

The Comic Strip Skippy, and Mathematics


There’s an excellent chance you don’t know Percy Crosby’s comic strip Skippy, and that’s a shame. You know its progeny, though. It was one of the first worldly-child comic strips, focused on kids but paying attention to them as thoughtful beings with deep and complex emotions of their own. If this sounds kind of like Peanuts, it should; Percy Crosby was one of the people Charles Schulz drew influence from, and every kids comic strip since then has been a reaction to Peanuts.

The comic is contemporary to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, but is wildly different from it, not just because it gets remarkably little attention from modern cartoonists considering its influence. It’s also, though, contemporary to Robert Benchley, and in I think a very important way: you see, Skippy as a comic strip is funny, and in about the ways you expect a modern comic strip to be funny. It may be dated in its references, just as a Benchley essay (or film) might be, but in structure, in pacing, in characterization, in what jokes are about it could fit on the contemporary comics page without that standing out of place.

Skippy explains how he's able to overcome worry, using the stars as his example.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 24th of July, 1927. Worry and the stars.

Happily the strip’s been revived on gocomics.com, and I wanted to bring an example of it to your attention. This one originally ran on the 24rd of July, 1927, and I admit it’s not a knee-slapper. It’s more of the sentimental, faintly inspirational comic strip, but in ways that work for me. In the dialogue I can certainly hear the forebears of Linus and Charlie Brown, or Pogo and the Rackey-Coon Chile, or Quincy and his friends, or Calvin and Hobbes, or many more great personae. I hope you like.


And if that’s not to your tastes, over on my mathematics blog I talk about another bunch of comic strips, none of them Skippy, although I also don’t talk about Fourier Transforms. Someday I will. I just don’t need to just yet.

Calm Urged As Art Exhibited Publicly


I wanted just to share the front page from the Lansing State Journal from the 4th of October. It’s mostly about a perfectly normal incident, the sprucing up of campus by covering some of it with public art. I get the 30-foot-tall pencils. They were one of the best ways to jot down notes back in the olden days when students were over 350 feet tall and used sheets of paper two-thirds the size of a baseball infield for their records. It’s a time worth remembering. I don’t get the bright red squiggly figure but I imagine it’s something useful in a note-taking app or whatever they do in classes anymore.

Lansing State Journal, 4 October 2014

Also I notice that the Lansing State Journal warned, “LCC UNVEILS PUBLIC ART” using a bigger typeface than it saw fit to use for the start of the Korean War. Public art can be confusing and uncertain, sure, but it hardly seems to be that alarming. They could have used a subheadline of maybe “Despair Unwarranted; There Is No Need To Panic”. Nevertheless, it’s a fine typeface they use for that headline, though. That R has character. It’s no Bodoni, I’ll admit that, but as sans serifs go it’s something.

The Bright Idea


It was while riding on the highway that I saw a huge incandescent bulb, maybe fourteen feet tall, sitting in the loading docks behind some big generic brick-faced structure. Why? It makes sense to have a sculpture of a giant incandescent bulb, sure, at least in the right contexts, such as demonstrating the technological breakthroughs that have made it possible to produce sculptures of giant incandescent bulbs. But then why hide this light under the bushel of the loading docks? And why hide it behind one of those big generic boring buildings that blossom in the outer half of Metropolitan Statistical Areas along the major highways? Why not put it out front, outside a strip mall or discount department store, where it’ll inspire people to buy light bulbs? What mad impulse drove someone to go to all the bother of getting a giant incandescent bulb statue — and from where, come to think of it — and then not put it to its best advantage?

Well, we got a little closer and it turns out it was just a dirty satellite dish sitting behind the main Post Office. I could go on to ask questions about this, but they’re much less interesting ones and my heart just isn’t in it. Sorry.

Comments Of The Week, October 5-12, 2014


I’ve learned that Comments Of The Week posts are extremely popular, and what the heck, I’m not opposed to doing popular things myself even if I do get kind of suspicious of mass displays of any feeling. Anyway, I can give it a try and see how it works out. So here goes, Comments Of The Week for the week ending the 12th of October, 2014:

  1. Yes, if you make that out to be the defining characteristic of a V-neck sweater.
  2. Maybe they’re a band that just supports the concept of ‘girl’?
  3. He’s been trying to gain fraudulent renown for his ability to see lighthouses?
  4. I understand your objections to the gazelle speech.
  5. Plainly we don’t agree what we mean by “Earth’s sun” in this context.
  6. Yeah, so, me and some of the gang and everybody else in the world were talking and we decided we like the name brontosaurus a lot better, so, you can go on using apatosaurus as a synonym if that makes you happy, but if you’re going to keep on telling us we’re wrong for calling them brontosauruses every time we mention them and you aren’t going to talk about brontosauruses instead of commanding us not to say “brontosaurus” then all that’s really going to do is make us stop talking about brontosauruses with you and if that’s what you really want, all right, but is that what you really want? Just asking.
  7. People saying “gamification” make my teeth hurt.
  8. Please feel free to use these or any other comments wherever on the Internet you happen to be.

Statistics Saturday: What College Football Implies In My Family


I have a tiny bit of interest in how Rutgers does in football; my Michigan in-laws are very concerned this implies I'm a madman.
What makes this funny is I’m from New Jersey so I don’t see any reason Rutgers should be in the Big 10, or even necessarily playing football at all. Neither does the Big 10.

I’m pretty sure this is just a minor East Coast/Midwest cultural difference, but I’m also pretty sure my father-in-law’s heart breaks a bit when I admit I’m fine with the Scarlet Knights getting beaten by whoever it was they played.

Krazy Kat in Love’s Labor Lost


George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, as I mentioned last week, was a strange and somewhat exotic comic strip that’s been highly regarded but never really popular. In 1916 and 1917 William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service made somewhere around 26 very short cartoons, for inclusion in news reels, that probably satisfied the requirement for “cartoon starring characters that look like this comic strip” at least.

The weird thing is this wasn’t the only attempt to animate Krazy Kat. In 1920 and 1921 ten cartoons were made in the series by Bray Productions. That studio was founded 1914 by John Randolph Bray, and while the studio might be fairly described as forgotten it was a pretty solid nexus for cartoons and comic strips and some miscellaneous other features. Max and Dave Fleischer made their first Koko the Clown cartoons at the Bray studios; Paul Terry, later of Terry Toons, made his first Farmer Al Falfa cartoons there; Walter Lantz directed the Dinky Doodle series (you may remember Dinky vaguely from a mention in Who Framed Roger Rabbit) as well as some others; and Jamison “Jam” Handy — renowned for slightly odd educational/informational/advertising short subjects, often celebrated on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for competing in the 1904 and 1924 Olympic Games — formed the Chicago-Detroit branch of the Bray studios. And, what the heck, Carl Anderson, later of fascinatingly odd comic strip Henry fame, was one of the studio’s first directors.

Sad to say I can only find one of the Bray Studios Krazy Kat cartoons online. This one, “Love’s Labor Lost,” was released at the end of January 1920, and I can only see the original comic strip from this cartoon if I squint really hard. Krazy barely figures into the story; it’s much more about Ignatz terrorizing an elephant in the hopes of wooing a lady hippopotamus.

The most interesting scene, I think, is one where the elephant goes off and drinks a barrel of Beevo — a riff on Anheuser-Busch’s Prohibition-era near-beer, Bevo the Beverage — and gains muscles in what sure looks like a precursor to the spinach-eating sequence in Fleischer Brothers Popeye cartoons.

When It Comes Time For The Upgrade


Your computer’s been pleading for the system upgrade for a long time now. A very long time. It was never insistent, but it kept asking, pointing out how the current operating system dates back so so very far, back to primitive times when the Internet was a bare-bones affair, much of it conducted on teletype machines or by throwing rocks at one another, when technical limitations required the caption on a cat photo to be sent on a separate Vitaphone-printed record. Why, back when the current operating system came out people had completely different ideas about what made an acceptable desktop background picture.

You click the installation button. The computer wants a password you never even knew you had. Maybe it’s the one you use for everything. Maybe you forgot to ever set one. Maybe you just have to hold a rock over the computer until it accepts the threat. The download begins.

In the old days you would wastefully go out to a store and pick up the operating system in a box large enough for a microwave oven, containing a cardboard box skeleton with a fascinating puzzle of cutout circles and rectangles believed to be landing instructions for ancient astronauts, and four sheets of paper offering stuff, you guess. Then you’d get caught between clerks who really, really want you to know that if you’re having trouble finding anything they can help you, until you curl up in a ball somewhere between flat-screen TVs and adaptor cables hoping all this social interaction will go away. Then a clerk would ask if you’d like a sports pillow. No more. Now you just download stuff for as few as 46 hours while you wonder if this was really a good idea, particularly given how your mail client growls like an riled tiger as you approach it anymore. If you want to curl up under a sports pillow nobody’s there to help.

In the new days finally the download is done and the computer asks you for permission to do the installing. You thought it was done already. It wants a password or at least a properly-held bludgeon. The mail client finishes growling and announces it’s going to shut down, which it will do over a course of three hours and a number of messages about how if you really cared about it you’d know why it was shutting down. There’s evidence the web browser might be going feral.

You shut down everything. Probably it’ll need to shut down anyway, right? You couldn’t do an upgrade like this without shutting things down. It’s just saving time. The computer is busy thinking about whatever it thinks about in the middle of a major upgrade. Probably it knows what it’s doing. You can sit there waiting for direction for a little while. Maybe a little longer. These are the moments when it’s easiest to believe the computer doesn’t actually need you to do whatever it’s doing. It couldn’t hurt to read reviews about what programs you use have conflicts with the new system so you’re ready ahead of time to feel the agony of stuff no longer working.

If the Internet is accurate part of the upgrade involves instantiating a small yet viciously quarrelsome demon who spends his days making the ‘find text’ function on your web browser no longer work right anymore, and occasionally will toss through the screen a used sneaker set on fire, plus they’re figuring before the end of the year they’ll have an update so your word processor doesn’t crash every time you use the subjunctive case. The programmers say it’s a very tough bug to track down because they keep mixing up which is the subjunctive and which is just petty arguing about “who” versus “whom”. It’s difficult to say just what the future will hold but you do consider whether the best action is to lie in the street and let a truck run you over. It turns out there’s less truck shipping on this street than you imagined.

The computer reboots, and spends some time before saying it needs to reboot again. Next, let it finish rebooting and reboot it again, and then finally reboot once for good luck.

E-mail doesn’t work anymore, the web browser is being cranky, and the chat client appears to be some manner of tire fire. But, you know, those are some lovely new desktop backgrounds. There may someday be joy back in life.

There’s a new major system update out Tuesday.

I Doubt This Is Star Trek (1)3’s Plot


While I’ve gotten plenty of good tips from the dream world I have my doubts about this preview for the next Star Trek movie. I think it’s a commercially viable premise, in having New Kirk find he’s got to go back in time to his own Academy days so as to prevent his New Khan, gone back in time himself to take the place of Kirk’s roommate final year, from sabotaging the presentation by which Kirk earns his commission. That’s a perfectly good expression of the universal fear that problems at one’s thesis defense will create a horrific dystopia wherein the living envy the dead in possibly as many as 23 minutes. It’s just that if I haven’t missed anything this premise is actually surprisingly derivative of Rankin/Bass’s Here Comes Peter Cottontail, and the New Trek movies really need to establish their own identity and not tie themselves so heavily to the voice of Paul Frees.

Math Comics and Dave Barry


My mathematics blog has got a fresh bunch of comic strips to talk about, thanks largely to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and Eric the Circle, but there’s also The Little King, if you have a vague memory of seeing that somewhere.

Meanwhile, today is after all the 8th of October, an important running joke in Dave Barry Slept Here, a truly grand mock history of the United States. So I’d like to not explain that and instead point to “The Chuckletrousers Decades”, about a moment of the early Popular Internet and Dave Barry’s role in it. Thank you, won’t you?

Is It, In Truth, Fun To Stay?


I saw a billboard promoting a Village People “Concert Event And Costume Contest”. I was surprised to learn there were Village People concerts that didn’t include costuming for the audience. I would have thought costuming was an important part of the Village People concert-going experience, along with counting down the minutes until they sing “Y.M.C.A.” and “Sweet Caroline” (because somebody thought, well, they always play that at wedding receptions too) and “In The Navy” and “Pretty Sure There’s Another One And It’s Probably Not `We Are The Champions’, Right?”.

But then I got caught up on it being billed as a “concert event”. I know what a concert is, but “concert event”? That seems to add exactly enough qualification that I don’t know what it is anymore. Is it just people gathering around doing the sorts of things they might do at a concert, without necessarily committing to the idea there’ll be a concert per se, just the kinds of activities and events that make someone think there’s a concert there? Is it possible we’ll see all the activity of a Village People concert minus people being up on stage singing, and if so, is it going to result in people dressed as construction workers in the stands strumming a guitar and trying to remember all 42,650 words to `Bohemian Rhapsody’?

Maybe what makes it a “concert event” is all these people getting together to do the stuff that you’d see at a concert, and this makes the concert happen, whether the Village People are part of it or not? Come to think of it, do I even know whether the Village People are still performing? Am I going to have to go to the concert event to find out, and if I do, what should I wear? And overall, should I ever read a billboard again, ever?

Statistics Saturday: My Reactions To Reading The Grimm Fairy Tales


The big ones: the devil has a kindly grandmother? What did you THINK would happen when you wished your child would turn into a raven? And man, don't EVER be a mouse.
Thoughts inspired by reading Jack Zipes’s translation of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Seriously. As best I can tell, in all 259 tales collected there’s one mouse that makes it to the end of the story, and he’s a spiritual manifestation of the King’s dream-state and not a mouse in his own right anyway.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse at the Circus


George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. You might have heard of it; it’s one of the most highly-regarded comic strips of the 20th century. There’s occasional references to it in comics to this day; it’s the thing a comic strip you like is referring to if it suddenly drops in a panel of Painted Desert geography and a rolling building labelled “JAIL” and one character throwing a brick at the other. I like it, but if you’ve read it and don’t like it, I can’t say your tastes are bad. The comic strip is weird, even for 1915-era humor, and the writing exotic and elliptical, the characters just strange. Its most accessible jokes are old minstrel show routines.

The core of the strip is: Krazy loves Ignatz, and takes the bricks he throws at the Kat’s head as a sign of love. Officer Pupp takes the bricks as violent battery of someone he dearly wishes to protect and throws Ignatz in jail when he can. Krazy seems to understand this as Pupp and Ignatz playing. Take that mix, stir in supporting cast and some modernist wryness — at times the characters go through that apparently as all agree that’s what they’re there to do, so why not enjoy the ritual? — and you have something legendary.

It was never a popular comic strip; it survived for the three decades it did largely because the syndicate boss, William Randolph Hearst, was a fan. There’s a curious echo to this in our day: Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead is another practically alien, intruder on the comics page, brought there because William Randolph Hearst III liked it. That’s also a comic strip I like, but that I can’t fault you for finding too obscure and weird and fond of nonsense to actually be enjoyed.

But Krazy Kat was a comic strip in the 1910s, and therefore, it became a cartoon. Actually, it became multiple series of cartoons, which gives us a neat chance to look at how a comic strip that barely makes sense in its original medium could be translated.

The first adaptations were done by the International Film Service, the animation wing of Hearst’s International News Service. They did adaptations of all the King Features Syndicate comics they could think of, although the project collapsed as a result of debts Hearst’s news service ran up during the World War. The cartoons were very short — Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice And Magic says they were limited to a third of a reel in length, to better fit in the newsreel package — and, well, At The Circus here gives something of the flavor.

There’s none of the tension between Krazy and Ignatz that gave the strip (only a couple years old when the cartoon was made, although prototypes to it had been appearing for years in George Herriman’s other comic strips) dramatic flow. The gorgeous Arizona backgrounds that are the most striking element of the original comic strip are absent. For that matter, even the circus in the title isn’t really part of the cartoon. I sympathize with the animators for not knowing what to do with the original comic, given the constraints of time and language — the original comic depends a lot on densely written wordplay — but was this the best they could do?

The Big Insecurity


Our pet rabbit, as seen outside in the yard.
Our pet rabbit, as seen outside in the yard.

“I can’t put food in your bowl if you don’t get out of the way,” I told our pet rabbit.

“This is more important,” he said back, and don’t think that was something I expected to hear him say. I’ve seen him judge getting food as more important than sleep, not going up the stairs, getting out of the pet carrier, and eating what he already has.

So I kneeled down to about his level and said, in my most sincere voice, “What’s wrong?”

He stood up on hindpaws and looked left and right, and in a soft voice said, “Am I big?”

I nodded. “You’re quite good at being big. You’re bigger than I was through fourth grade,” which is my normal hyperbolic answer, since he’s only actually bigger than I was through third grade, when I grew considerably thanks to discovering if I was quick about it I could have two bagels for breakfast, lunch, afterschool snack, and dessert.

“But that’s still big, right?”

“Oh, yes. Quite.” He’s a Flemish giant, a genre of rabbit that’s known to grow to as much as 26 feet long not counting ears and whiskers, although he is a smaller example of the breed.

He pushed his head into my hand. “And I’m not getting any smaller, right?”

For once I had a flash of this thing I think the humans call empathy and didn’t say he wasn’t going to start shrinking for another year or two. “Not a bit. You still are remarkably big.”

He dropped back down. “Then why didn’t he?”

“Why didn’t who what?”

“Why didn’t he remark?”

“Which he?”

“The one you had in to come make all that noise on the ceiling!” A couple months back we had some roofers come over. They replaced the nearly four square feet of perfectly good shingles we still had on the house, as well as a bunch of others that looked like someone had spilled a deck of cards into a nauseated food processor, and put on a bunch of new ones in a different color. From inside all you could really tell is there was a lot of noise from up top and then stuff being thrown into the driveways, which might have got us in trouble with the neighbors except they were going through a monthlong stretch of having just vanished. We still don’t know about that.

“The roofer? He only came in to talk about the work, give us an estimate. What did he do?”

“He didn’t remark! He didn’t say anything about how big I am!”

“Everybody who comes into the house mentions how big you are. I would’ve thought you’d be glad for a change in the conversation.”

“But he didn’t say anything! What if I’m not … big?”

I sat down so I could better pet his head, which he likes, and his back, which he supposes is better than nothing, most of the time. “But you are. You’re the biggest rabbit I’ve ever known personally. You’re big enough you could — ” and I thought better of mentioning how he could easily yoink the remote control off the coffee table if he really wanted, because I didn’t want to encourage that — “probably push me over if you tried. You’re so big we joke that the Sparks song `Big Boy’ is about you.” And that’s true, although the Sparks song is really more a chipper tune about the Biblical story of David and Goliath and I didn’t want to mention how Goliath probably didn’t care for how that story came out.

“But why didn’t he say anything?”

“Well, maybe he didn’t notice you. He was only in the living room a short — a little — a brief while, and he was thinking of shingles and maybe rain gutters at the time. That throws off your ability to notice rabbit bigness.”

“If he didn’t notice me how big can I be?”

“Aw, bigness isn’t any guarantee you’re going to be noticed. I’ve seen things many times your size that I never noticed,” and he looked at me the way he does when he suspects I’m imitating his chewing. “I mean until they were pointed out.”

“Would you tell me if I wasn’t big?”

I rubbed his ears. “I promise. Look, you wouldn’t be nearly so scary to squirrels if you weren’t big.”

He rubbed his chin on my knee and hopped off to nibble on some hay, apparently soothed. I left the room, crawling on my knees.

Brotherly … uhm … Something?


My family’s got a Birthdays Calendar shared through Google I Think, which is great because with all the marriages and children added to the family the past decade-plus I’ve realized I really don’t have a grip on the birthday of anyone who joined the family after 1979. The only thing that could make this a more useful service is if I ever remembered to look at it.

So, now, this is why I’ve found it suddenly alarming that I got a mail reporting my father had made an update on the birthday calendar, to wit, “CANCELLED @ Annually” for a couple weeks from now. It’s definitely not the birthdate of any of my siblings, so I have to conclude it’s the birthday of one of my siblings-in-law that’s been cancelled. I haven’t heard of any sources of particular tension in the family lately either, but it’s easy for me to miss that sort of thing either. Part of me feels like I should be warning them not to take any blacksmithing and shaving offers they get the next couple days, but part of me does feel like, well, my father must have pretty good reasons even if I haven’t heard them yet, right?

It’s so hard to know what to do when you get a mail like that.