Everything There Is To Say About Keeping Your Hands Warm


With the arrival of winter expected soon it’s worth thinking about how to keep hands warm. The first thing is to worry about your own hands. If it’s someone else’s hands, make sure you have standing. It’s fine to worry about the warmth of the hands of some loved one who’s right there. Or to worry about the hands of an exposure victim while you’re some sort of medical professional. Going up to strangers and telling them, “Hey! You’re keeping your hands warm the wrong way! This is what you should be doing instead!” is a good way to get slugged. For further ways to get slugged please visit this department in two weeks for the essay “Everything There Is to Say About Good Ways To Get Yourself Slugged”.

The surest way to keep hands warm is to keep them someplace where it’s not cold. Please feel free to jot down this note and to return this essay when ready. I have some projects I can be doing in the meanwhile. Warm places for hands include locations such as Singapore, outside of over-air-conditioned convenience stores; active saunas; the surface of Venus; right above space heaters; and in bed two minutes after the alarm clock has rung but it’s still dark outside. There are unpleasant side-effects to being in some of these locations. Like if people hear you’re in Singapore they want to know how you’re going to get to your 2pm shift at the Jersey Mike’s sub shop on Hooper Avenue in Silverton, New Jersey?

If you can’t keep your whole self somewhere warm, it’s tempting just to keep your hands somewhere warm. That’s great for your hands. But it leaves the rest of you stuck, since then you can’t zip up your jacket before going outside. Also you have to open the door by some undignified method, like by grabbing the doorknob in your feet or your mouth. Maybe you’re experienced and you zip up your jacket and open the door before setting your hands down in the sunlit window. But then you have the trouble of what to do when you get wherever you’re going.

Wearing gloves is a great way to turn hands that are cold into hands that shouldn’t be cold but are. Scientists have many hypotheses about why it works out like that. One good thought is that maybe you just need a more insulating glove. This lets you have hands that shouldn’t be cold but are, and are wearing more expensive gloves. One time I read the suggestion that what you really needed was to wear a thin disposable rubber glove underneath the real glove. My experiments with this that winter revealed it was a great way to make the back of my hand smell like that talcum-ish powdery stuff you get from disposable rubber gloves while still being cold.

If gloves aren’t working, have you tried mittens? The hypothesis here is that sure, any isolated finger resting in a fabric sleeve is going to be cold on its own. But if you put four whole fingers together in a fabric sleeve, then they’re going to be cold together. In exchange for this convenience, you’re less dextrous, true. But it does help you get into character pretending you’re a giant plush doll that’s somehow gotten the job of leaving the bed and going out to work a shift at a Jersey Mike’s or something, to support the family. You know, to an extent, whatever story gets you to doing what you need to do is all right.

Looking over all this I realize it sounds like I’m not very good with keeping hands warm. I’m not sure my hands have been warm since I left Singapore, except for brief periods when I was standing in the direct sunlight at the height of summer. For this I apologize, to you, and to my hands. I will try making it up to them by keeping them under warm-to-hot running water, toweling them off, and then dunking them into five-gallon jugs full of skin lotion through to about April. It’s the best I can do. Summer in 2019 is projected to be eight feet, two inches high.

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How To Remember A Fact


Remembering things used to be an essential skill. But these days it’s only really needed by podcasters who are recording in front of a convention audience a live episode where they discuss whether Star Trek V was a bad movie or not. Everyone else can mostly just look stuff up or decide that they don’t need to remember a thing after all. In the old days, you needed a certain kind of person who could tell you, oh, what the code words were to trigger Shipwreck’s hypnotically suppressed memory of a formula to make water explode in that one episode of G.I.Joe where he wakes up seven years in the future. Today, we have Google to tell us whether water ought to be exploding. It ought not.

But it remains a fun hobby, among a certain kind of person, to have things that they just remember. And there are different kinds of things to remember. There are things that you are expected to do or to not do. I don’t mean to talk about that, even though it seems like that covers everything possible. That breaks down quickly when I ask if you’ve ever written a note to yourself so that you potholder. I repeat the admonition to your confused face. Then we get into a debate about whether ‘to pothold’ is a verb and, if it isn’t, then is ‘potholdest’ a comparative? In the confusion I can sneak out undetected.

But I don’t. I want to discuss remembering facts. Any literate, well-informed person could encounter nearly 96 facts worth remembering by their age and decaying range of knee mobility. But how to keep them available? How to keep them from turning into this, a typical remembered fact:

By the time he was 42(? 44? 32?) years old, Ludwig von (van? van der?) Beethoven had been part of over (nearly? under?) 120 (20? 220?) without once [ something ] except for the ~one time(s?) in [ Bonn / Vienna / ^W with E T A Hoffman ].

Reference: Harpo Speaks!, Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber.

There are two good ways to ensure you will never forget a fact. The first we know from that time you were in fourth grade, and were prepared to give the most thoroughly awesome presentation on “water” that your science class had ever seen. And you even had real actual cubes of ice stored in the thermos bottle to show off alongside some water you got from the one water fountain in school that didn’t just dribble a tiny trickle of warm, indistinctly smelly water down the spout. And how you began by declaring how aitch-two-oh was the technical name that scientists gave the water “molly-cah-loo-la-lee”. And how since that day you have known the generally agreed-upon pronunciation of “molecule” with the thoroughness that somehow everyone else in your class knew because why would they laugh so much? And you know it with such thoroughness that you feel jabs of embarrassment whenever you see the word “molecule” in print, or hear someone talking about molecules, or you make use of a molecule of something.

So tying a fact to embarrassment lets you remember it easily. Indeed, oppressively, to the point that you cannot possibly forget even facts you wish to. This is what makes mnemonics work. Bind a fact you wish to know to something too dumb to let anyone know you know. Once you’ve composed:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sulfuric acid is
Formula aitch-two-ess-oh-four

The terror that someone will learn about the meter of that last line will ensure you’ll never mistakenly put roses in your heap of “things which are blue”.

You don’t need to use embarrassment to commit facts to memory, no. But the second way to sear a fact into your eternally-present memory is to tie it to shame. And, you know, look around your country. Whichever country you’re in right now. There’s enough you’re ashamed of as is. We don’t need to add to that heap of shame by trying to use it to remember which chemical element is abbreviated Ci. It is cinnamon. You’re looking at a “periodic table” of spices. Stick to embarrassment.

Shipwreck’s hypnotic activation phrase was “frogs in winter”. I’m not going to try to convince you Star Trek V was good, but I will insist William Shatner’s directing was solid. If you find your water starting to explode try smothering the blast with the good, stern look your fourth-grade science teacher gave the class after she finished smirking. That’ll help.

Spelling And Why Not


I want to talk about spelling as we know it. I don’t mean the kind of spelling where, like, you end up with a potion of eternal width or with magic shoes that won’t let the person wearing them stop dancing. I mean the kind where you end up with a word, by putting together word components. You know, consonants, eyes of a vowel, gizzard of gerund endings, that stuff. Please adjust your expectations accordingly and report back when they’re settled down.

Spelling as we know it began in 16th century France, where the regular consistent coding of words served as a way for persecuted Hugenots to acknowledge one another without detection by the King’s agents. With the Edict of Nantes temporarily resolving that whole fight about how much everybody loved God more, the need for the secrecy faded. So the idea went looking for more exciting spots. It spread first to Holland. Then to Poland, where it got lost and ended up back in Holland. Next time around it set out for Italy, but misunderstood the directions through the Swiss Alps and ended up right back in Holland. Having had enough of ending up in Holland, spelling jumped into the English Channel and swam furiously west. Fourteen days later it washed up in Holland, where it threw up its arms and said, “Fine, then,” and got all sullen.

Spelling might have remained in the United Provinces forever except for the Great Fire of London of 1666. Samuel Pepys, renowned for his diaries and how fun it is to say his name and probably other stuff I’m guessing, realized the use of regular, consistent spellings during this disaster. His first warning of the fire came from a young boy of laddish age who ran past yelling out, “Taike kare! Taykke kaire! A graette Fyren cowmes here frum Puddenge-Lain!” Pepys had no idea what the kid was talking about. He asked the kid to repeat it, and it didn’t get much better. The child added, “Rayce the allarum! Phire raigges throo the Citty!” This left Pepys feeling awkward. So he let the child go and figured if it was all that important he’d hear about it.

The still-smoldering Pepys figured nobody needed that kind of brush with death. So he figured maybe the city could be built fireproof. Also maybe write things down in consistent ways so it doesn’t take four tries to understand people. His friend John Evelyn considered this series of events, pointing out that if the child had said all this, the spelling shouldn’t matter. But why would the child have written out such a message about the Fire when he was running around and talking to people about it? Pepys eloquently shoved his friend into the Tyburn river. Evelyn conceded the point.

And so consistent spelling caught on in English. It did well, thanks to early breakthroughs like “silent E” and “n-apostrophe-t” charming the population with their elegant whimsy. “Onk” was also a big selling point. We still live in a world where it would be fun to see many people get a bonk on some appropriate bonk-absorbing part of their person. For a while there was a market in switching out “ks” for “x”, or vice-versa, but that’s gotten to be seen as old-fashioned. And don’t get me started on how you can’t just write “connexion” anymore without being accused of cheating. Also everybody follows the “q is followed by a u” rule, but they don’t understand it. It’s a pun. Once you see it, you’ll never un-see it. I hope to see it myself someday.

This is not to say that spelling in English is perfectly consistent. It couldn’t be, not given the need of aristocracy to show itself as better than real people. Thus would Spelling Book authors compose all sorts of new and exotic letter patterns. This led to many never-before-suspected innovations, like “hiccough” or “untowardsmanship”. Long after the fad for ostentatiousnessocity had passed, we were left with the remains. Most of the worst offenders slid out of the English language, owing to foreign tourists taking oddities home with them. And the rest are a reminder of how far we have come, or have yet to go, or have ended up where we are. Granted this describes many things, but only because they are like that.

The Big-ish Idea


We all know about the largest things. They’re those structures extending through the cosmos, made of trillions of super-galaxies, themselves made of trillions of galaxies, themselves made of so many stars that it all seems vaguely sinister. Try not to think about it. A super-galaxy is a pretty big thing, but we have almost no responsibility for it. “Hey, super-galaxy, call if you need help,” we might say to it, trusting that it’ll never really call. We just want credit for being nice enough to offer.

But what about the generally-largest-thing? That is, not the biggest thing, but the biggest thing you could expect to have to deal with? The question is inspired by many needs. For example, what’s the largest amount of wrapping paper we might need at any time? Or if we needed to get something through a door, how big should that door be? And there’s definitely thousands of other problems that could be solved if we had a generally-largest-thing to run experiments on. “Is this,” for example, “enough thing to deal with the generally-largest-thing?” If it turns out not to be enough, we can get more of the thing. Or we can decide we don’t need to do the thing at all. It’s important that we have a process for figuring out what to do with this kind of thing.

Oh, I know what skeptics will say. “Even if you have a generally-largest-thing,” they’ll start, “by wrapping it, you’ve made an even generally-largerest-thing. And then you have to deal with that!” The skeptics really think they’ve got me on this one. Not so. Why, for example, would you take a generally-largest-thing that you’ve already wrapped and go and wrap it again? The premise makes no sense. I’m not going to waste my time addressing it. And I won’t even hear about wrapping up a generally-largest-thing and then trying to fit it through the door. Obviously you would only wrap it once it was set in place. You’d tear the wrapping paper trying to move it afterwards.

And hey, I thought of some more applications. Grant me that we’ve got a generally-largest-thing. Then we’d pretty quickly know just how much paper it took to wrap the generally-largest-thing. Still with me? If not, please go back to the start of this paragraph. I’ll wait. Okay, so. If we had the paper to wrap up this generally-largest-thing, then we’d have a solution to the problem of wrapping smaller things. We would make the smaller things larger until they fit the size of wrapping we had already.

It would also offer great prospects for roadside tourist attractions. The roadside tourist attraction industry has been hurting lately, since nobody has gone out driving just for the fun of it since 2003. It’s all been commuting, shopping trips, and people trying to finish listening to their podcasts since then. Going nowhere particular, and stopping because you figure you could take a picture of a thing? It’d be terrible if we lost that entirely. Having an exact idea of the generally-largest-thing would let us set the thing up, for photographs. And set up a backdrop picture of the thing, for pictures when the crowds around the original thing are too big. Maybe a counter where they sell those strange candies you don’t ever see in real stores. It’d be great.

It just remains to say what the generally-largest-thing is. I want to say that it’s a parallelepiped. This is because I trained as a mathematician, and it’s so much fun to say. The rhombohedron just can’t compare. But I do seriously propose that it’s a roughly rectangular-box-shaped thing, maybe five feet front to back, six feet side to side, and about eight feet tall. And there’s maybe a bit of a blobby part on one side. It looks like you could tamp it down, but if you try it just ends up looking worse somehow. Better to let it be. I would be interested to hear about the results of others’ research.

Everything There Is To Say In Explaining How Computer Graphics Work


This office has received a number of letters asking it to explain computer graphics. “What about computer graphics,” they’ll say. “Explain yourself, if you are a computer graphics. If you are not a computer graphics, then why or why not?” It’s a bit stressful. I had thought we were to take a multiple choice question. “But,” reads one follow-up letter, “an essay answer is a multiple choice; there are just a Borgesian infinitude of possible answers.” Who among us would dispute this charge?

The first images produced by computers were by our standards low-resolution affairs. The earliest known images used the technologies of old-time radio, or as they knew it in the old times, “time radio”. In this the computer would just describe what the image should be, trusting to the “theatre of the mind” to fill in the details. “It’s a calendar for February 1949, but with Snoopy beside it,” would come the voice from the warm glowing hearth of a Harvard Mk II. The listener could fill in all the perfect little details of which days of the week were in February, and which Februaries were in 1949, and what this Snoopy fellow was all about. It extended naturally to more serious applications. “Here’s a wireframe cube rotating as if it were three-dimensional,” UNIVAC famously reported on Election Night, 1952. It was so plausible that critics came to ask whether the demonstration was rigged. It was not, precisely, but UNIVAC was warned ahead of time that the topic of shapes in dimensions would come up.

The first digital images were formed by taking photographs of the pointer fingers of the lead programmers and aiming them in different directions. This finger was chosen for the ease of indexing. It was a great format for pictures of fingers. It was also decent, if you had a big enough screen, to make for pictures of strange-colored grasses. Maybe the fur of some animal that had a lot of jointed fur with the occasional fingernail. So resolution was a bit of a problem.

Everyone understood this to be a transitional phase, just something to prove out the technology that would let them use numbers instead. Well, everybody but Ray, but you know what he’s like. Which numbers were a great debate. 1 was an obvious choice, since it already looked so much like a finger. It would need almost no new code worth mentioning, especially if you used a font that was easy on the serifs. The other number, though? That took a lot of fighting. 0 seems, today, to be the obvious choice. But a good argument was made for -1, on the grounds that then they could keep using fingers for both the 1 and the – sign. The dispute continued until a standard was finally agreed to, last year, in which everyone uses a 3 and a 4. The argument took some weird turns. Vestiges of the old system remain in how computer systems do not speak exactly of a three, but rather of a “quarter-dozen”, or “quatre-vingt” as they say in French, incorrectly.

A fascinating variation developed in the 1960s when research indicated there were maybe six things we needed a computer to show anyway. So why not set up a computer with a filmstrip containing six or, for deluxe systems, seven images, and simply have it show whatever seemed most relevant? People were indeed happy with this, especially if they got to work the projector, and doubly so if they were allowed to make a “beep” noise whenever it was time to move to the next slide. These slides were: Abraham Lincoln, a brontosaurus, a Mercator projection map of the world, a diagram of the heart, Snoopy, the Pioneer 4 space probe, and in the deluxe system, Times Square.

This is still at heart how computer images work. A modern computer image is a gathering of millions of colors, represented. Admittedly, some of the colors get reused. But to keep all these sorted out and in the right locations we have to simplify some. A classic organization or “compression” scheme is to break the original image up into millions of pieces, then individually wrap each piece in a protective medium, and then forget where they were. This is known as a “lossy” image format. When called on to show the image, the computer panics and puts together what it can using the same original seven base images, plus — since 1989 — that picture of astronaut Bruce McCandless spacewalking using his cool rocket backpack. There are also “lossless” image formats, but these are annoying to use because every time you do beat them in a game they insist that it was best-three-of-five, or best-four-of-seven, or best five-of-nine, and on and on until you give up.

Further questions to this office may be sent in care of this office at this address. Thank you.

On This Date


  • 1452. The Byzantium Area Public Library System issues its final notice to the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos that he has accrued $4.00 in fines on a copy of So You Think Invading the Balkans Will Make You Happy Now, Do You? and if he does not return the book and the fine promptly they will turn matters over to Mehmed II’s collection agency.
  • 1492. Christopher Columbus, sailing three ships whose names were lost to history, arrives on the shores of the Guangdong area of China. The Chinese people, sensing both trouble and gullibility, spin a tale that this is actually the West Indies, thousands of miles east of where anybody wanted to be. They are delighted to find that the idea catches on, and there are no follow-on consequences that anyone has any reason to regret. The ship names were later found by history, in the junk drawer next to four pens that don’t work.
  • 1582. Nothing happens. People in Italy and Spain feel a great sense of unease. Mobs of people resolve to figure out just what’s going on when they wake up the next day, but nothing happens then either.
  • 1664. Saturn enters the house of Aries. Aries is not present. Saturn takes the chances to playfully rearrange the dishes, leaving the coffee mugs on the wrong side of the cabinet. Saturn was all set to sneak out undetected, but gave in to the temptation to go through Aries’s refrigerator and turn all the condiment bottles so the labels face the back. Aries finally arrives home, and they have an argument, and Aries doesn’t forgive Saturn for over two hundred years and a month.
  • 1805. Napoleon Bonaparte announces he intends to build a stone-arch bridge that encircles the world. His subordinates acclaim this as a bold, challenging accomplishment that will prove French greatness to the world for centuries to come. Napoleon then announces he’ll make the problem less challenging by building it as a ring just under a kilometer from the North Pole, a great distance farther north than anyone has ever been, never mind where any stone bridges have been. His subordinates nod slowly but agree this will also capture the imaginations of history, especially when they point out how hard it is to get construction-great stone up to the North Pole. Napoleon then says, you know, the Earth is round, and his subordinates ask where this is going now. He says that since it is, you could say there’s an axis through any points on the Earth. So why not declare there’s an imperial North Pole that pokes its way through the suburbs of Paris, with the actual North Pole offset from that by about 31 degrees of latitude, and build the arch around that. This leaves his subordinates pretty sure he’s messing with them. They’re honestly relieved to hear the British are attacking something, anything, at this point.
  • 1868. Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia, announces his intention to unify the states of North and South Dakota. He is finally convinced by his wife that he is getting way ahead of himself.
  • 1903. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford, racing in a car of his own design, crosses the finish line to win the New York City-to-San Francisco Driving Contest of 1902.
  • 1959. Argentina and Japan, following the discovery in June that they had never signed a peace treaty after the Crimean War, take the chance to sign one now. The purely ceremonial affair in Paris is dignified and pleasant and quite merry. It’s only spoiled near the end when a nosey Art Buchwald asks whether either of the nations had anything to do with the Crimean War in the first place. He is locked into a broom closet.
  • 1978. The first time that otters are seated in the Italian parliament. This follows elections which many say reflect a public desire to check the influence of fish in the lower house. Their first speeches on the floor are acclaimed by the press as “damp”.
  • 1996. I publish to Usenet my thesis that in the well-worn prank, the person who insists on seeing that the dictionary does indeed contain the word “gullible” is not displaying the gullibility implicit in the premise because it is an act of skepticism to insist on proving whether a possible-but-unlikely state is true, and am immediately showered with acclaim and recognition for how I am completely right and everyone arguing this point with me any further is wrong and stupid and foolish and a bad person.
  • 2015. The Byzantium Area Public Library System apologizes, saying it found that So You Think Invading the Balkans Will Make You Happy Now, Do You? had been filed wrong. It was on the shelf right next to Art Buchwald all this time and they were wrong to send the matter to collections. Whoops!

Regarding The Time When I Had Too Much Desiccant


So a couple years ago my love got a bag of desiccant. By legitimate means. And for purposes society would generally approve of, too. I’ve had enough of these scurrilous rumors. I don’t know how these things get started. But then I also don’t know how to spell “desiccant”. I’m going with what Wikipedia tells me. Wikipedia also tells me “a desiccant is a hygroscopic substance that induces or sustains a state of dryness in its vicinity; it is the opposite of a humectant”. I haven’t even been awake an hour yet. What’s Wikipedia doing talking to me like that? Have some consideration.

Anyway, this was only a bag of desiccant. Like what you get in a tiny paper envelope that you’re warned not to eat with your new shoes. What stands out about this is we had a lot of it. A big bag full. I should manage expectations. I’m prone to hyperbole that people take literally, like when I said the styrofoam packing-peanuts incident covered the green-roof part of campus to a depth of eighteen inches. So when I say it was a big bag of desiccant I realize I’m leading you to think it was something at least twelve percent outlandish. Like, a bag of desiccant large enough to roll down the street and crush the auto-care place with its inspirational despair sign.

Auto Surgeon Inc: 'No one is rich enough to buy back their past'.
They’re still warning us about buying back our past. I hope the person in charge of picking a message that’s inspirational yet filled with dread at life hasn’t gone on sick leave or something.

This was a much more reasonable-sized bag. Big enough to hold comfortably with one standard-issue hand. About what you would need if you wanted to make a loaf of sourdough bread all wrong. Still, it’s a lot, considering how little desiccant we need. It was more than we would need at once even if we were eating all our shoes. So we had trouble once the bag came to our attention and we figured we should do something about it.

I had a working plan. I was figuring to let it rest on a horizontal surface until it broke. (I mean the bag. I can’t bear it when horizontal surfaces break.) The dinner table looked like a good choice. The bag was a decent prop for holding trade paperbacks open, at least if I wasn’t too near the center of the book. But understand that I have a condition where I have to stack stuff on horizontal surfaces. I’ve sometimes stacked stuff on top of books I’m currently reading and have left open to page 184. It runs in my family. Neither of my parents have ever gotten to page 186 of a book without a major cleaning project either. My love does not put up with this nonsense. This is good, as otherwise I would someday die in a tragic desiccant-and-book avalanche. Once it was clear I was fine with leaving the bag on the dinner table until I died of old, dry age, the quest for what to do with it was on.

The obvious plan: put it up on Freecycle. Freecycle is a great web site that lets you match usable stuff you don’t need with people in your city, even in your neighborhood, who will never pick it up. We’ve used it before. It’s given us many chances to argue the morals of someone who made the cruel false claim they would take a couple pressure-treated wood 4x4s “Tuesday”. They were our pressure-treated wood 4x4s and we had the receipts to prove it, so let’s stop with the rumors. They’re on the side of the driveway if you want them.

So what did we have to lose by trying? Not the bag of desiccant, for one. Someone in the neighborhood promised to come by the next morning and pick it up, and we promised to pretend to believe them. We didn’t figure on getting up to meet them. It takes time for us to get ready to have Wikipedia tell us stuff. Never mind how hard it would be to give a thing to a person who would like that thing. So my love set the bag inside a plastic freezer bag, because it was raining pretty steady. We didn’t know what would happen if we exposed a full bag of desiccant to an autumnal rain, but also figured we didn’t need that kind of trouble too. We set it between the screen and front doors where our imaginary Freecycle partner could pick it up.

And yet! The next morning there was some kind of noise at the door. And the bag, and the bag inside it, and the desiccant inside, were gone afterwards. We have no explanation for this phenomenon. But we do have our suspicions.

Rusty but newly installed streetlamp on the side of the street.
This doesn’t have anything to do with the bag of desiccant, or the rain, but it turns out posting any picture at all seems to make stuff more popular and I’m still not sure if I want to include that photo of the auto care place’s sign above.

Deep suspicions. Because we’ve been in the rainy season. The day we set the bag of desiccant out the area got an inch and a half of rain. The goldfish in the pond were asking if we needed quite this much rain. But a couple hours after parties unknown to us took this bag, the rain stopped. I’m not saying there is someone altering the mid-Michigan weather using a not-that-large bag of desiccant. I only ask how we can say for sure that’s not going on.

A Report On The Series Of Disasters


The eruption of the smallcano was a surprise. There were rumblings, yes. But they were tiny ones. Even those nearest the eruption site just thought maybe they were hungry. Or there was a truck on some street nearby. Or the truck was hungry. Anyone would need great foresight to realize what was coming.

But then once it surfaced! People who found themselves in the active caldera-minima zone couldn’t help it. They would shrink to as much as one-tenth their ordinary size, if they found themselves somehow unable to escape the microclastic flow. Which, since the flow never got faster than a quarter-of-an-inch per day, you’d really think they would be able to. Heck, at its maximum the whole effect zone was maybe eight feet across, and that the long way.

You hate to say it. But you have to suspect at least some of the affected wanted to be caught up by the smallcano. You can see some of the appeal. Be small enough and you can have bunnies push you around. Be smaller still and you can see whether it’s possible to ride on a fly, like in a cartoon. Be just the right size and your liverwurst-and-onion sandwich can last you months, even years. The only other way to get an effect like that is to not like liverwurst-and-onion sandwiches very much but feel like you shouldn’t let that go to waste. So apart from people trying to make these sandwiches last, it’s hard to explain the people rushing toward the scene except those hoping for a little more smallness in their lives.

Now, when the tallcano erupted, that was a different story. You can’t blame anyone not being able to outrun its effect zone. Not unless they were already gigantified enough. And if they were, well, there’s only so many ways to explain how they got that way. And sure, the caldera-maxima got pretty crowded but that’s what everybody expected so what’s one more person making the joke about how the average person was now 2.3 persons? (This was a funny joke because the average was actually closer to 2.2 persons, but 2.3 is a funnier number, according to a study that compared it to 2.2, 1.75, and 1.0625, but did not test it against 3.7.)

The ballcano, well, that was different. Just this fount of baseballs, basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, beach balls, medicine balls, pouring out of the mountain’s top? Balls bouncing and rolling for miles? Many even landing in the sea? That was just great for everybody except the sporting-goods manufacturers. Oh, they weren’t all regulation size or stitching, yes. But they were good enough for casual play. Or to fill the need people didn’t realize they had for spherical toys. It wasn’t even thought of as a hazard until it started shooting hockey pucks. This was seen as an unforgivable variation from its brand. But the ballcano insisted that it had to follow its creative energies where they lead and that it didn’t have time for the haters. We all agreed we could learn something from it, except we didn’t want to be anywhere a hockey puck could bonk us on the head. People who came in hoping to be turned into volleyballs were disappointed yes. Worse, when people asked them what they were expecting, and told honestly, got looked at like they were the weird ones. Kind of tragic, really.

The mallcano should have been seen as a greater threat than it was. The hillside just spewing out Foot Locker Juniors and Spencer Gifts and shuttered Radio Shack storefronts and kiosks demonstrating toy drones wasn’t at all economically sustainable. The flow just didn’t have enough anchor stores. And the flow was steady enough to keep a proper food court from congealing. Signs that there might be somewhere to get a pita, or burrito, or something else that’s food wrapped inside dough never panned out. Even so, people flocked to the epicenter, since “Epicenter” sounded so much like the kind of name a mall ought to have.

All things considered, it was kind of a strange week in town. And all that before the open-floor houseplans of a whole subdivision were ruined by the wallcano.

Yes, I Am Aware Of The Historical Irony


I am not perfectly sure whether I’ve read The Bicentennial History of Ingham County, Michigan, a local history published in 1975 and written by Ford Stevens Ceasar, before. I recently got it from a used book store, yes. And it seems like the sort of thing I might have borrowed from the library, since I have tried to learn some of the local history of my new home. I can’t go trading forever on stuff like how much of New Jersey’s 19th-century state government was funded by the Joint Companies, who monopolized railroad and canal travel across the Garden State. I couldn’t even do that when I lived in New Jersey. Still, I’m stuck on a couple of points:

  • Wait, his last name was “Ceasar”? Not “Caesar”? Are you sure, book? I mean, really, really positive? Because you put that on the cover and on the author bio on the jacket’s back flap and I mean … oh, it looks like he signed the front page and he spells it “Ceasar” there and … I mean, he can’t be spelling his own name wrong? Right?
  • Ingham County, which contains most of Lansing, was named for Samuel Ingham, Andrew Jackson’s Treasury Secretary. Lansing also extends into Eaton County, named for John Eaton, Jackson’s Secretary of War. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re correct. That is the John Eaton of the Petticoat Affair. I know, isn’t that great? Anyway Ingham and Eaton hated each other, Ingham even claiming that Easton tried to have him murdered, a charge which Ingham substantiated by fleeing to Baltimore. Kind of an ambiguous argument, I think, but you know what it was like in 1831. Anyway, wow, I’m living in a place connected very loosely to Peggy Eaton. This excitement. This. This is why I’m not a popular humor blogger.
  • Number of words used to explain how Malcolm X was a drug-dealer and numbers-runner and burglar and totally lied when he said his family home in Lansing was burned down by white men and that a white guy shoved his father into a trolley car’s path, and the official records don’t say white guys did anything particular to his father or his home: 162.
  • The first (Western) doctor known to live in the county was named Valorous Meeker. The town he lived in was called Meekersville, until at the prompting of a Doctor A J Cornell it was renamed for a family named Leslie that lived in eastern New York State. I think there’s a story not covered here.
  • Number of words used to explain the Lansing General Strike of 1937: 146, of which 32 were giving the names and credentials of some academics who wrote about it for the journal Michigan History 28 years later.
  • Oh wait, OK, I guess the township was called Leslie to start with and the village Meekersville until they stopped calling it that and … look, just, what did Cornell have to do with this? Why did he go messing up a decent enough name? And how did they not start out by calling the town Valorous, anyway?
  • Number of words used to explain the fallen streetlamp next door, which isn’t attracting so many sightseers as it used to, but which they have got the traffic cones both set level on the ground again for: none, which is fair enough since the lamppost fell over 43 years after the book was published. Really it’s unfair to expect them to have any words about it at all.
  • Fallen lamp post with two traffic cones, both upright, flanking it.
    I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t the grass look particularly verdant right now? And that’s because the morning of this photograph, we got all the rain we were supposed to get for the whole month before, all at once, in about two hours’ work, and the ground really shows it. I’m assuming “verdant” is the word I want there.
  • So the chapter about the city airport starts with a page about this announcement made the 10th of June, 1921, about how the Michigan Aero service of Lansing would start running sightseeing tours on the 25th, and even have a parachute drop above the Pine Lake amusement park and everything, and then it says “Monday’s paper indicated the airplane failed to show up, and the Michigan Catering Company was embarrassed”. Which is the first that anyone mentioned the Michigan Catering Company in this anecdote at all. It’s not even clear we should have expected them to have anything to do with it. It sounds like the Michigan Catering Company was just standing nearby when they noticed there wasn’t an airplane and started to blush. I understand, I’m a little like that myself. I just wouldn’t expect a county historian to be writing about that embarrassment 55 years later, which just makes it all the worse somehow. You know?

Anyway, sorry, I’m still hung up on Ceasar with an a-e. And yes, I have about a 45% chance of someone hearing my name going on to spell it correctly. And somehow that percentage is declining as fast food workers want a name for my order and they don’t know what to do with “Joseph”. And it’s crazy for me, a person who lives with recognizing my name being called out more for the weird little awkward pause people make before attempting it, than actually hearing it, to think someone else hasn’t got their name right. Still.

Note about methodology: in counting the number of words used to explain stuff I have counted repeated uses of a word, such as “the”, separately, since there are only a certain number of ways to say whatever it is exactly the word “the” means and that’s, like, one, maybe two if you’re doing eye-dialect and can write th’ instead.

In Which It Turns Out The Collapse Of Western Civilization Could Be Surprisingly Easy To Avert


I mean, if anyone still wants to at this point. I understand if you’ve just decided to write off the whole project. I’m not convinced that starting from scratch wouldn’t be less work myself. But then there’s this letter just run in the local alt-weekly:

Your August 22 issue highlighted an amusing dichotomy in Lansing City finances: on page 6 you report that residents of various neighborhoods are upset with the City’s continuing failure to enforce its overnight parking ban, and that the Mayor says, “We don’t have the resources to have a police officer dedicated specifically for overnight parking.”

Yet on page 5 you note that the City budget this year is giving the money-sucking black hole that is Common Ground Music Festival $140,000 — easily enough to fund TWO parking enforcement positions.

We recall that in the heyday of the Roman Empire, there was a reliance on bread and circuses to keep the rabble pacified. It’s heartwarming to see that over the millennia, a few things have not changed.

T E Klunzinger, Haslett

I had not seen the spotty enforcement of the municipal ban on overnight parking as a serious issue. I’m a little excited to hear that we do have law again. I’d like people not to be parked on the street if they’re going to be plowing the snow. But I live on a tertiary street. This means can only expect the snow to be plowed on the third day after the third storm of the third year after the last time our street got plowed. So it doesn’t matter whether there’s any cars in the street, not before February 2020 anyway. And I’m not complaining about this. I understand there’s higher-priority roads. I only need my street to get down to the corner anyway. (That line sounds like it should be a joke, but I can’t defend it. I think if you read it exactly the way I imagine delivering that line in my head it has enough of a joke shape to pass. I apologize if it’s not passing you.)

I also haven’t been to the Common Ground Music Festival in a couple years, but that’s just because they seem to schedule it when we’ve already got a week out of town planned. Maybe they’re avoiding us. I enjoyed it last time I was there. We watched the Violent Femmes performing their renowned album “Why Didn’t I Get To Have Sex”. We also heard, wafting in from over the gentle hill that divided us off from another pavilion, MGMT playing their instant classic “That MGMT Song That’s Always Playing”. Also a Michigan-area band named Flint Eastwood because that’s just the way we make band names anymore. Anyway if it’s not snowing, I don’t much care if people are parked on the street overnight, since I’m not on the street overnight either.

Still, if all it takes to avert the imminent collapse of civilization is cutting the city’s underwriting of the music festival and hiring two parking-rule-enforcement-cops? That seems like a small enough effort to make. Heck, I could even be coaxed into hiring a third parking-rule-enforcement-cop, as long as they understand they’re expected to issue, like, eight-dollar citations for parking, and are not to issue reasons they had to gun down that black person.

Except. This week one of the lights on our street fell down. It looks to me like it was knocked down. I would assume by a careless driver, but it’s just one house away from ours and I didn’t hear anything. This signifies nothing. Back in college I slept through when they set off fireworks in the dorm hallway, I am told. Anyway Tuesday I looked out the window and there was the lamppost, fallen over, with the glass dome rolled over on the sidewalk, and some guy at the next house over re-blacktopping the driveway. I don’t think he had anything to do with the lamp.

White lamppost that's fallen over, laying across the grass extension and a slight bit onto the sidewalk.
Oh yeah, I didn’t pay attention at the time but it really comes across in the picture how our street has this portal to the Darkside and some giant monster with glowing red eyes was curious about all this attention. Don’t worry. Giant monster’s cool. Having a giant monster with glowing red eyes is one of those signs a neighborhood might be getting ready to gentrify. It’s the step just after “guy on a recumbent bicycle putters past every day at 5:35 pm” and “having a coffee shop with a twee name and nitrogen-brewed coffee” but before “ukulele festivals”.

And here’s the thing. People keep going out and taking pictures of the lamp. I did. My love did, too, which is how we learned the glass dome covering it was actually plastic. This discovery left us feeling like we had been ripped off somehow. People walking up the street have been taking pictures. People have stopped their cars, parking on the wrong side of the street — of course, the No-Parking-This-Side sign was on the lamppost, so people can fairly claim there’s no way to know they were on the wrong side — to photograph this fallen lamppost.

So getting back to that bread-and-circuses thing. Our neighborhood must have a major circus deficit if a fallen streetlamp is this interesting. I’m not saying that we need to have MGMT coming around every few weeks. But it does look like we need some entertainments.

Anyway they’ve rolled the lamppost off the sidewalk, and put orange traffic cones on either side of it. And I’m figuring to set up a souvenir shop and go into business as my own little roadside attraction. I don’t figure the boom time for my street’s tourist trade will last, but there could be something good while it does.

If I Were To Find Myself On The Constitution-Writing Committee


I got back to thinking of my old childhood fear. I mean the one I wrote about last week. The one caused by my misunderstanding. I mean about parliamentary governments. Back when I didn’t understand the difference between “the government has fallen” in a parliamentary government and “the government has fallen” in any given Latin American country that had decided a United States corporation should pay a tax, prompting the United States to send in some helpful young men with guns who would correct their mistake. But as a kid I misunderstood when I heard how Italy had, at that point, had more governments than years since World War II. Got the background?

So here’s what I said, describing what the young me thought about all this:

I tried to imagine how you could write even that many different constitutions. If I were on the constitution-writing committee of the Provisional Government I’d run out of ideas of what to even do differently. About four governments in I’d start submitting what we used three Republics ago and hope nobody noticed. I’d be so scared I forgot to update the number and someone would ask me why this was the Constitution for the 52nd Italian Postwar Republic when we were on the 54th.

And then just today I realized what I should do, in that case. I should look at the person who noticed me reusing the old constitution and say, “You’re wrong!” (In Italian, if I spoke Italian, although if they’ve put me on the Constitution-writing committee they’re probably willing to put up with some of my eccentricities, like not being able to speak Italian and being very afraid that the restaurant staff resents the way I said “gnocchi”.) “This is the 56th Italian Postwar Republic!” Or 57th, or whatever. Any number that wouldn’t be either of our Republic counts. The point would be to confuse the matter about just how many Republics there had been. Ideally, my accuser would realize it’s so very easy to lose track of how many governments we’ve been on, and demonstrate sympathy. Or if there were several people accusing me, we might get a good argument going between them about the count. Maybe I’d say it was the 58th. I could sneak out in the confusion.

Ah, well. It’s decades since I’ve had to worry about this particular scenario, now that I know a little more of parliamentary governments. But it’s always nice to work out what you should have said in a situation however long it takes. The French have a word for it, l’esprit de l’escalier, which is three or arguably five words. I don’t know what the Italians call it. You’d think something in Italian, but what the heck, I call it something in French. And I don’t want to brag about the two years in middle school and two years in high school I spent learning French. But when I was in France for a week a couple years ago, you know who got us successfully through every social interaction? My love, who had a couple years of Spanish in high school. All I could do was affirm that the convenience store with the really great four-cheese paninis was closed on Tuesday even though its name was 24/7. All I could suggest is that maybe they meant to promise the store was open three and three-sevenths of the days of the week. There was something we weren’t understanding, and it was in French.

Also the long-time reader may have started to suspect I don’t have any life-coping strategies besides “create a distraction” and maybe “hide underneath the bed”. This isn’t so. Hiding under the bed is a privilege I temporarily have because we had a rabbit who quite liked rooting around under there and we wanted to have a chance of accessing her in case we needed to. When I talk about handling something by hiding under the bed, I am talking about hiding metaphorically underneath an allegorical bed. And good luck finding me there. I don’t even promise that there is such a thing as a bed, and I’m not sure I want to confirm to any of you that I’m here, either. I am also able to procrastinate until I can write a thoughtful enough memo, which is different from merely creating a distraction because I will either get to a point you admit is good or I’ve gotten all literary in this discussion about how to set up Microsoft IIS.

In any case, I am content to have this ancient fear resolved, and what have you done this week that was nearly as good?

The Long-Term Forecast


So Australia’s looking like they’re committed to not asking me to prime ministrate for them. Fine, all right. It’s time for some long-term planning. If you don’t agree it’s time for that, come back in ten minutes and see if it’s time then. If that still doesn’t work, come back in 1,425 years and then we’ll see who’s saying what. No, that’s not me tricking you into long-term planning. I’m thinking of something that’s really long term. Like, longer even than 1,430 years.

If we keep looking forward we find the Sun’s going to keep shining. This just makes sense. The costs of constructing the Sun have been nearly completely amortized. Replacing it with something else that would provide the same services would be fiscally irresponsible. Just complying with the changes in zoning regulations would make the whole project economically dubious. If you disagree I can put you in touch with the Comptroller, but do be warned, he’s a hugger.

The thing about the Sun shining that’s relevant here is that it puts out all sorts of light. A bit of it presses down on our ground. The rest goes off somewhere, we don’t know where. It’s probably harmless. But while light doesn’t have mass, it does carry momentum, as it had the idea that this would make it more popular in middle school. This worked as well as every plan to be more popular in middle school. Nevertheless, when light hits the surface of the Earth, it delivers this momentum, pushing down on the planet just like tennis balls hitting the ground would, only without the benefit of line judges.

Imagine the Earth were made of Play-Doh. This is a simplification for the purpose of planning. It’s really made of a Silly Putty alloy. Nevertheless, if you take a gob of Play-Doh out of its can you’ll quickly get distracted by that weird not-exactly-polymer smell. Push past that, though. Roll the thing into a ball and set it on a table. It doesn’t stay round forever. The pull of gravity will spread it out. This takes time, but that’s all right. You can let this run for billions of years, if that’s what it takes. You don’t have plans that far out, even though you somehow don’t have the time to do anything either.

The Earth isn’t just sitting on a table, which is a relief, since it would probably leave a stain on the tablecloth. But the pressure of that sunlight has a similar effect, except for going the opposite way. As the sunlight presses on the Earth, the planet’s also rotating, which implies we’ll eventually have the planet rolled out into a long and skinny pole, several inches wide and unspeakably long. It’s astounding enough to think of it twirling around the solar system like an enormous baton. But imagine the size of the matching cheerleaders and marching band. All Jupiter would barely be enough material to make the tuba.

What can we expect for life on this Pole World to be like? The obvious supposition is that it will serve very well the descendants of modern large cities. People who’ve gotten very used to standing on crowded buses and subway cars would be great at clinging to a pole for stability. This is too facile an analysis. It overlooks that, obviously, subway service will have stopped long before the Earth becomes a rod only a couple inches across. Bus service can continue a bit longer after subways become impossible, of course. But even that will have to end no later than when the Earth is a cylinder at most ten feet in diameter.

Without subway or bus service most large-city commuting will be impossible. This will require a major restructuring of the economy. But given how much demand there’s likely to be for hooks or straps that could catch onto the Pole World, for stability, this restructuring was probably going to happen anyway.

It’ll also be tough for burrowing animals. But they’ll evolve adjustments to these changes gradually. This means we will most likely not get a great moment where a groundhog shuffles off, confident it’s going to get away from whatever is annoying it, and starts digging, and then accidentally pops out the other side of the planet and looks stymied and confused. Reality does have a way of spoiling the cool stuff like that. But animals that cling to branches or vines seem set to do well. Two- and three-toed sloths may find the geography extremely comfortable except when someone’s trying to pass.

But who really knows? As the city-dwellers example shows, the full reality of something can have weird and counter-intuitive results. This is why it is so hard to predict the distant future. Well, we can check back in a couple dozen gabillion years and see how it’s all turned out.

In Which I Offer To Help Fix Australia’s Political Crisis


I want to talk about a political situation in another country here. So I acknowledge how I’m coming from a position of weakness. I’m from the United States, where yeah, everything is on fire. Actually, everything’s on some kind of hyperfire. The hyperfire doesn’t just occupy volume and duration. It reaches into strange other dimensions previously only suspected by research geometers. And it’s some kind of fractal hyperfire, since each flame itself contains another hyperfire. And each flame of that hyperfire contains a tiny hurricane. And that hurricane is made of buckets of rabid turds. And the buckets are themselves actually killbots. And each killbot is poorly electrically grounded. And I suspect the situation is even worse than that.

But. Do you know what’s going on in Australia? I mean besides the wildlife. The wildlife is adorable (the greater microcuddling woomera). Or deadly (the laser stanthorpe, which has has enough venom in each ankle to render the world’s mammal population and most of its fish flabbergasted six times over, and has eight ankles somehow despite having no legs). Or both (the trinitrootoluene kangaroo). I’m talking about the political situation. I’ve got a bunch of Australian friends who can not believe what’s going on. So let me explain what’s going on: I don’t know.

The thing is Australia runs a Westminster Parliament-style government. This is a standard issue of government. But again, I’m from the United States, where we just … don’t? And it’s hard wrapping my head around the thing. My introduction to how parliamentary governments work was as a kid hearing Italy had gone through like 48 governments in the forty years since World War II. I thought this meant, like, they’d had that many revolutions in that time. It staggered me. I tried to imagine how you could write even that many different constitutions. If I were on the constitution-writing committee of the Provisional Government I’d run out of ideas of what to even do differently. About four governments in I’d start submitting what we used three Republics ago and hope nobody noticed. I’d be so scared I forgot to update the number and someone would ask me why this was the Constitution for the 52nd Italian Postwar Republic when we were on the 54th.

Now I’m better-informed. When they say a parliamentary government has fallen, all they mean is the lower house of parliament planned to vote on something and didn’t. So then they have to go have a general election. If it was something important they didn’t vote on they hold a snap election. This wraps everything up in six weeks. If it was something boring they didn’t vote on they hold a more leisurely regular election. (They also do this if nothing didn’t get not voted on, but parliament had gone on a couple years and everyone was getting tired of the same old faces.) That wraps up in eight weeks. Anyway during the election everybody hopes there’ll be a hung parliament, because that sounds weird and exciting. But what happens instead is some big boring party teams up with some tiny right-wing party. This forms a coalition, and whoever runs the big boring party goes on being prime minister.

There’s also an upper house. It’s made of deceased wealthy representatives from each of the political subdivisions of the country. Its job is to have a huge, fancy, well-varnished wooden stick called a “mace” on a table up front. Any important legislation must spend a couple days in the upper house before it becomes law anyway. I think the legislation is to observe the mace and work out that if it laws badly it will get hit with a big stick. That’s just a guess. Anyway it seems important to do. The upper house members are expected to every few years produce a scandal about how they use their travel allowances. This keeps the government balanced.

Anyway, right now Australia is going through a political crisis caused by I don’t know. I keep reading explanations but then they get to how the ruling Liberal Party is the conservative party and I ask my Australian friends if this is a bit and they act all innocent. Anyway, key thing is the Australian people don’t like prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. The Liberal Party doesn’t like him either. Turnbull himself has been staring into a closet asking why he should like himself. And the closet door keeps stubbing his toe. Firing him would be easy. Even easier on his feet. But there’s the problem of who to make prime minister in his place. Australia’s been trying out all kinds of prime ministers since 2010 and hasn’t liked any of them. Some have lasted weeks in office. Some haven’t been nearly that stable. The crisis is getting urgent. Last week it emerged that Italy and New Zealand were huddling together and cackling at these guys. There’s a real chance some of these countries are going to start pantsing each other.

So here we get to me. Australia, I want you to know, I’m willing to come over and prime ministrate you for a while. I know this might be controversial. I’m not an Australian citizen. I’ve never even been to the country-continent. But I have liked basically every cartoon with a kangaroo in it ever. And in the Singapore Zoo’s walk-through enclosure I once petted a wallaby who seemed not distressed by my attention. She looked back with an expression one could describe as “Yes, well, ah. So if you didn’t need anything further I had some projects to get back to so, if you could scoot over a bit.” Oh, and I like Violet Crumble. It’s this Australian candy bar that you can eat once and spend the rest of your life picking honeycomb-toffee out of your teeth. Also sometimes I get that Kinks song stuck in my head. These might seem like slender qualifications to be prime minister of Australia. Even slenderer if I can’t tell you what my every game of Tropico goes like.

Small kangaroo, possibly a wallaby, staring right at my camera. From the Singapore zoo.
Not the kangaroo I petted, but one I got a better picture of, because I didn’t have to go finding that picture.

But I’m not looking to rule Australia, mind you. I figure to lead what’s called a “caretaker” government. In a caretaker government the prime minister doesn’t try to start any major initiatives. They just go around bringing mugs of hot chocolate and giving hugs to people who need it. I can add to that expectation a certain number of back-rubs. At the risk of bragging, I’m pretty good for being completely untrained in back-rubbing. I’m not looking to do this forever, mind you. I only want Australia to have some breathing space to figure out what it’s looking for in a government, and go out and have an election and get one. If you need to take an extra-long election cycle, like nine weeks or so, I bet I could swing that. I’ll need high-speed Internet so I can keep up with my day job. And airfare, please. I want to help, but I do have travel expenses of my own.

[[[ NOTE TO SELF double-check before this posts to see if they get a new prime minister in the next four hours ]]]

[[[ ALSO NOTE TO ALSO SELF find out why spellcheck isn’t flagging ‘hyperfire’. could be important ]]]

Everything There Is To Say About Making Art


OK, first thing, the title’s a fib. This isn’t everything there is to say about making art. That would be two or even three whole essays, at 700 to 900 words per kilogram. But I already wrote the title down and it’s pretty snappy as it is and “One-Half or Even One-Third Of Everything There Is To Say About Making Art” reads as wimpy. And not in the good ways.

Also I don’t want to talk about making real art. Real art is too hard. It’s hard enough getting agreement on what “art” even is. “Art” is anything that, when you call it “art”, gets you into an argument about what “art” is. And that’s all great stuff. If you’re willing to get into the argument you get to seriously looking at 2,038 coats of paint brushed onto some wood salvaged from the Demolishing All The Buildings With Character Neighborhood-Revitalization Project and then gouged by a putty knife so you see about half of the colors. If you’re not willing to get into the argument, then you get to point and laugh at the people who’re seriously looking at the scraped over-painted rubble that some creamer-potato of an MFA has titled Renewal. Everybody gets something they enjoy! A “Building With Character” is one that has chipped asbestos and exposed live electrical wires and in each stairway at least two duct-taped steps.

Sidewalk with the chalk inscription on it, 'ART THIS WAY' and an arrow pointing inside a building.
Don’t tell me how to art.

I’m thinking more about low-argument kinds of deployed creativity. Stuff like painting, for example, drawing. Drawing is great because even without specialized tools you can get great responses. Right near you this moment there should be a decent pencil and a clean sheet of paper that you could draw on right this moment. There’s not. Everyone agrees there should be. The closest to either of this is a notepad from that Knights Inn Express Deluxe you stayed at overnight eight months ago. You know. When you were having too much fun in Findlay, Ohio, to get back home that night. The one with four sheets of paper, each dogeared somehow a different amount and bearing coffee stains. The only writing tool is one of those pens with the spring-loaded button up top that, when pressed, makes the pen fall apart. The writing stylus will roll under the heaviest furniture you have.

But you can imagine all the stuff you need to draw on hand. This takes one trip to an art supply store, where you can get a 60-page sketchpad. This will last you fourteen years and survive four major moves, one to another part of the country, and six garage sales. Also get a mechanical pencil with lead so soft that it feels like butter. It feels so comfortable and smooth that you have to be restrained from brushing it on your skin or rolling in a big pile of it.

Amateurs think that drawing is a matter of imagining something and then putting down lines that represent it. This is needlessly hard. I mean, you can sympathize with someone figuring they can’t draw a cool-looking basilisk by looking at a basilisk and then sketching really quickly before your death sets in. But most any drawing is done better with references. With references, you find a thing and look at it, and then you don’t draw that. To make it cool, add sunglasses and a confident attitude. This is expressed by thumbs up.

Like, suppose you want to draw a chair. Why is your business; I don’t judge. Take an example chair. Look hard at it. Then sketch in some rectangular boxes. I mean on your paper. Maybe add a circular box for the curvey part. There’s no boxes in the chair. Unless you’re using it as storage space which I would totally do if my love let me get away with it. But. If you draw the boxes that you don’t see in the chair, and then keep adding more lines, you get a drawing of the chair. It’s as simple as that!

(Yes yes, this simplicity comes with a cost. If you want to draw a box, you have to start out by drawing bunches of chairs. And now you know why you could never convince your friend who does art but for real to draw a box for you!)

Used bookstore shelf labelled 'How To Art Books'
I’m sorry, this essay is about arting drawings. Arting books is a different essay.

Putting in those lines that turn boxes into chairs takes experience, yes. But that’s no reason to be shy about trying. The wonderful thing about drawing is in lines. The more lines a drawing has, the better it is. So keep on putting in lines until it looks like what you want. Or until pressing the button to make more lead come out of the mechanical pencil causes the pencil to fall apart. This lets you learn what your heaviest furniture is now, after the garage sale. What’s important is how much fun it is to get to this point. It is about 58 units of fun. 62 if the chair looks cool which, again, you do by adding sunglasses and thumbs up.

Everything There Is To Say About Landing On An Asteroid


So you want to land on an asteroid. That is you, isn’t it? It looked like you from a distance. If it’s not you, keep these notes until you encounter someone who looks like you from afar. For now I’ll suppose it is you, and congratulate you. That’s the sort of public-spirited ambition that we don’t see enough in these troubled times. It’s the sort of ambition that is sure to get you somewhere. That somewhere is landed on an asteroid. If I have anything to do with it, anyway.

The first and most essential thing is to check that you have an asteroid to land on. If you don’t have anything to land on you’ll get stuck at the last step. Your foot will go swinging around freely and you’ll worry you look like a fool. You might, but who’s going to know? But let’s suppose you have something to land on. Make sure that it’s not a meteorite. That would land you, not on an asteroid, but on a dull argument with pedantic sorts who want you to know it’s very important to tell the difference between a meteor, a meteoroid, a meteorite, a meteoroceros, and a meteorostomy.

Even if you surrender and admit that it’s important to use exactly the right word all the time they might not stop. The truly dull know-it-all will continue to harass you for ever have been fool enough to get the terms wrong. As a recovering know-it-all I can give you this diversionary maneuver. Ask whether it’s better to say “three dollars and forty cents is your change” or “three dollars and forty cents are your change”. Whatever answer they give, point out the change was actually four dollars and fifteen cents and they’re out the difference. If anyone other than me mentions “minor planets” poke them with your largest regulation stick.

(Note that “other than me” slickly put in there. I know how some of these sentences are going to end!)

Suppose you’re already comfortably near the asteroid. Start with a clean desk and spread a tablecloth neatly across the surface, smoothing out any folds as you do. With this tidy workplace inspect the asteroid. You want to see any distinguishing marks or hazards, such as rocky terrain, a thin crust of ice over a great gaping nothing, or 30-minute parking spaces. Stuff starts happening when you’re satisfied you have a clear landing spot and that no competing spacecraft are trying to get to the same place.

Turn the spacecraft around and extend the landing legs. (Don’t tell me you forgot the landing legs! Fib if you must!) Back in slowly. Don’t worry about the warning beeps, which can’t be heard in space. It’s hard to tell how far you are above the surface of an asteroid, so look for clear signs of when to stop. These include the contact light coming on, the landing legs feeling stiff resistance, the landing party yelling that you’re on their foot, the spaceship going right through to the other side of the asteroid (this is really bad as your crew will be joking about you all the way home), or seeing a victory screen and credits listing all the people who worked on this space program. When you get to a stopping point, stop. Going any further will complicate your life and not in the good ways.

Just because you’re landed doesn’t mean you’re done. Most asteroids don’t have very much gravity, what with the cost of importing it all the way from Jupiter. It could be years before any new gravity comes in. Until it does, make sure your spaceship doesn’t hear any hilarious jokes that cause it to reflexively jump and slap its forehead and potentially drift away. Also discourage the crew from doing things like synchronized jumping jacks. Yes, they’ll want to synchronize doing something. Suggest they try out synchronized laying still, or if need be, synchronized worrying about how it has all come to this. They might be doing that already and just need the reassurance that to carry on doing this is as all right as anything can be in these troubled times and on an asteroid.

Anyway, once you’re there go ahead and take care of whatever you needed on that asteroid. I don’t know your business. You’re doing pretty well if you do.

Everything There Is To Say About The History Of Tying Shoes


There’s a good chance you don’t think much about the history of tying shoes. I don’t blame you. There are so many other things to think about. There’s that odd smell of burning plastic every time you walk past the bathroom between 9 and 10 pm and no other time of day. There’s what to do about the seam line on Saturn’s totally natural “moon” Iapetus. There’s why all those people are setting up a circus tent in your backyard without even asking. But still, tying shoes is something you could be thinking about, and aren’t.

For over 60 percent of human history there wasn’t any tying of shoes. There were many reasons for this. One was that there weren’t shoes. People in these ancient times might talk about tying shoes. But they were laughed down as impractical dreamers. Such is the fate of everyone who sees an obvious problem and fixes it a little too early. Shoes were invented in 1817, after everyone took a good hard look at how lousy the previous year had been on feet. The French Academy offered prizes to anyone who could invent a practical way to cover the foot. And teams across Europe and Asia did, by the simple process of covering it. The invention was a great success and by 1820 everyone agreed they should have been doing this for hundreds of years.

Still, these early shoes were not easy to put on or take off. To get a secure fit, one had to start with a couple pieces of shoe material. Or, as they called it in the trade, “shoeterial”. Then set your foot in the middle of that, take needle and thread, and stitch the shoeterial closed around your foot. Finishing this could take until near enough bedtime. And then there was nothing to do but un-sew it all. This was quicker, as you could use one of those sewing tools you never quite get the name of, but that you remember grandmom being comfortable with. It could undo the stitching in like no time.

So as happy as everyone was with shoes, they also figured, there’s some better way. Union armies experimented during the United States’s Civil War with welding shoes onto soldiers. This resulted in a great many burned ankles, and even more slugged welders. Rivets were tried in Scotland. But this got nowhere fast. The striking action of putting the rivets would cause the iron slugs to become magnetized. So people would walk naturally toward magnetic north, and stop at the shoreline, which isn’t all that far away in Scotland. They would have got farther if the rivets had started in southern England, but not all that much farther. Now, if they had started in Guatemala, that could have got really far. But they didn’t, and that’s just the history we have to live with.

The breakthrough came in 1878, in the Ottoman Empire. One shoemaker for the Sultan said, “What if we punched parallel rows of uniformly spaced holes in the shoes, and then threaded a strong enough string to tie them temporarily together?” Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who was in another room, didn’t hear the suggestion but approved it. When the hole-punching turned out to be a great success he nodded as if that was what he intended all along. But he still ordered an investigation into what was going on with shoes, just in case.

The first attempts at tying used separate laces and loops with each pair of holes. This took forever but you know the late Victorian era and how everything had to be way too decorative for its own good. We’re lucky the shoelaces didn’t come with doilies attached. For all I know they did. To save time people tried lacing only the one pair of holes they liked best, but then their toes would pop out the empty space between the laces. And you did not want to be a late Victorian with exposed toes. Not given the street-cleaning standards of the day, which held that if the street were clean it was jolly well time to tip over some coal sludge and even more unmentionable things.

So the compensation was to try putting the lace through enough holes that toes wouldn’t pop out, but not so many holes that it was too bothersome. and so by 1889, on a Tuesday, we finally had shoes and shoelaces tied in ways that we would recognize even today, on a Friday.

Anyway that’s how I hear. I wear loafers myself.

No, I’m still not learning about the history of socks.

In Which I Keep Score At A Baseball Game


Keeping a scorecard is a time-honored tradition of attending baseball games. It’s slightly newer than attending baseball games. But then attending baseball games is only slightly newer than playing baseball at all. This is a statement that can get you into a good fight about what people mean by “attending”. Consider this for sometime when you’re at a party and everyone has run out of things to talk about.

Still, it is a tradition. It lets participants combine their love of a game predicated on suspense and anticipation with the natural thrills of multiple-entry bookkeeping. An experienced scorecard-keeper can reconstruct, pitch-by-pitch, a whole game from 139 years ago simply by glancing at the card, working at it for 138 years, and then reading how the newspaper reported the game. Now and then I try. Here’s how it usually goes.

I get a pre-printed scorecard blank. This can be had for under four dollars if you have the special scorecard endorsement on your vehicle registration. There are people who create their own scorecards, using notebooks or such. But such people are wildly unpredictable in their ways and I don’t need that sort of trouble. At the top I would write the teams, the date, the weather conditions, the time of play, my own name in case I forget, my homeroom section, and my name again so that the columns even out. My pen runs dry.

The first batter comes up and I write out his name, letting me discover that the column assumed people had shorter names. So in the next box over I write the number from his shirt, and the number from his position. This I use interchangeably, because I forget which way I started and it’s too late to fix that all now. Each at-bat, real or potential, has a lovely little greyscale diamond, there to record the action. By the time I come out of the hypnotic trance these engender he’s already out. I guess he struck out, since it didn’t seem like all that many people were moving around, and write in a K in the column for his position number.

The second batter comes up. I write five letters that I incorrectly think are in his name. I thought I was looking at the scoreboard. It’s an advertisement for one of the metro area’s leading motorcycle attorneys, insisting they’re one of the area’s best. While I imagine attorneys motorcycling through the courtroom, scattering writs and stuff, he makes a base hit. I darken the diamond line from home to first base. It’s not dark enough, so I run the pen over several more times and break through the paper.

I’m distracted trying to figure if I can somehow make the napkins I swiped from the soda stand into a desk. There is not. But while trying, something happens that I miss. The runner leaves the field, though. So I write down that this was a Fielder’s Choice, off in a little box by itself where the graphic design is well-composed. I’ve always liked the name of the “Fielder’s Choice” as a thing that might happen in baseball. And I’ve never known anyone who knew exactly what constituted one, so perhaps this was one.

The third batter. I listen carefully to the loudspeaker to get his first name (Thorny). The echo makes me think this is his last name too. It would be odd to have a name like “Thorny Thorny”. But if he’s come to peace with it, then who am I to argue? I like my name, and nobody knows what to make of it except a nervous pause before pronouncing it wrong. He hits a foul ball that goes off to a fairly empty part of the stands. A young child 35 feet away from this screams and covers his head. This doesn’t need my scoring, so I write in an ‘X’. Thorny Thorny gets hit by a pitch and takes his base; I record this as ‘F’ as my backup pen dies. I don’t have a better idea for a letter to use in this context.

I try making little spirals to get the dead pen to write again while the next guy hits a grounder that makes shortstop, second base, center field, and right field converge. None of them bonk their heads into each other, a disappointment, and someone tosses a ball to first, where the runner’s tagged out. But Thorny’s on second.

My calculations say this should end the inning, but everybody’s staying where they are. They seem like reasonable professionals and like they know what they’re doing. On my card I draw a line from first to second, jot down the batter’s jersey number, and draw a circle around a 9 that I think is a position number, but has nothing whatsoever to do with whatever just happened. The next batter hits a fly to center field. I write down nothing, as I try to ponder how this has all gone wrong.

I have fun, in my way. But also don’t feel like I need to do this often.

Fairy Tales Are Why I Can’t Get Anything Done Today


I’m sorry, but I’m coping with what I learned from looking up the nursery rhyme “The Gingerbread Man” on Wikipedia. Apparently the story was first written down in 1875, in the Saint Nicholas Magazine. And its teller claimed they got it from a “girl from Maine”. What the heck? A bit of obvious silly nonsense like this is supposed to come from, like, some snarky pamphlet published during the English Civil War. And folklorists are supposed to not be perfectly sure what it all means, but they think it’s all about mocking John Pym’s management of the Providence Island Company or something. But this? This!

Hold on. Wait. That John Pym thing I completely made up and yet it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, it would kind of fit all the metaphors and see? This is why I have an enthusiastic readership of dozen of people. I know, I can’t help myself. I have the idea that somewhere out there are people who want to hear snide jokes referring to the English Parliament of 1642 and maybe there are. And maybe they’re going to just explode in joy when they hear a joke that isn’t completely far off. Big deal. There’s like twenty of them and they’ve already made all the John Pym jokes they need.

Anyway. Back to what primarily has me a quivering ball of impotent rage (non-US-politics division). “The Gingerbread Man” only being first published in 1875. I mean, for comparison, the first time “The Gingerbread Man” was written down, Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was already ten years old. P T Barnum’s American Museum had been built, burned down, been rebuilt, and been re-burned-down. L Frank Baum was barely 24 years away from writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’m sorry, I’m having trouble thinking of another circa-1875 cultural touchstone since I’m informed that 19th century superclown Dan Rice somehow does not qualify as known to anybody? Oh, here we go. Charles Dickens was already dead by then, and only after that does this story about a magic cookie running around teasing people about outrunning them gets written down?

You don’t suppose that could be causal, do you? “I hear Dickens died! Guess I’ll wait five years and then dash out that bit I was thinking of a gingerbread boy who runs off, but still gets eaten.”

Oh also apparently in the earliest versions the Gingerbread Man doesn’t call out “run, run, fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” Instead he taunts with saying “I’ve run away from a little old woman, a little old man, and I can run away from you, I can!” So besides its other problems an America struggling its way out of the Panic of 1873 was still trying to learn how to make a taunt scan. I’m all kinds of discombobulated about this. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to be functional again.

All right, that’s not happening and not just because it’s 2018. Do you remember this episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph Kramden is feeling old, so he figures the thing to do is act all young? And he dresses up ridiculously and tries to dance to this ridiculous song called “The Huckle-Buck”? I do, because I’m of that cohort where reruns of The Honeymooners was the only decent thing on between reruns of M*A*S*H and reruns of Star Trek, and the song’s been running without stop in my head since 1986. Fine.

Yeah so it turns out this was an actual song and actual dance craze that actually happened in actuality. “Actuality” is what we call “reality” when we got the sentence started off using “actual” instead of “real” and have to commit to that for the rhetorical value but it’s easier to keep typing instead of erasing three words. Anyway, I had gone my entire adult life figuring “The Huckle-Buck” was just this catchy plausibly dance-craze-ish song made for The Honeymooners so it wouldn’t get in the way of Ralph Kramden’s discovery that to stay young you most need some stories about ridiculous stuff you did as a youngling. And now I find out he was actually doing something actual — hang on. Not doing that again. But now I find out he was genuinely trying to get in on the dance craze of … eight years earlier? Hang on, that would be like me trying to get in touch with the young by listening to whatever the dance craze of 2010 was. What were people dancing to back then? Lemme go and check.

No, Wikipedia, I do not believe the summer dance sensation of 2010 was Lady Gaga’s “Gingerbread Dance”.

I’m going to bed and hide under it.

If The Dick van Dyke Show‘s “Twizzle” was a real thing I’m never coming out again ever.

How To Have A Small Business


There are over nine ways to get your own small business. The quickest to start is to locate some large business that nobody’s paying particular attention to, and hit them with the full might of your shrink ray. If you then have a large enough bottle you can keep the business in your home as a convenient profit-generating center. If you do this make sure to poke some holes in the lid to let fresh air in. But this approach, while it skips many of the harder parts of getting set up, does have its lasting costs, not to mention the trouble of dropping in needed business supplies like shrunken lunches and miniature dry-erase markers and ISO 9.001 certification. Plus if they develop superpowers in the shrinking you’re in for all sorts of headaches. Small headaches, yes, but they might be persistent.

Taking a medium-size business and shrinking it a little bit is generally safer. But this, ironically, requires a larger floor plan to fit the appropriate scale. Putting the businesses close enough to HO scale means the disparity will be noticed only by the most exacting train enthusiasts. Three-quarters of all model railroad layouts are former commercial districts plucked out of their original communities by train enthusiasts running their own businesses. Utica, New York, was formerly a bustling megalopolis of over two million people before it was dispersed into thousands of model sets, and there are concerns the city disappeared in 2014, but we haven’t had the chance to get back upstate to check. Its residents have suggested they could swipe Rochester which is somehow a completely different upstate New York city, but they haven’t had the chance to get over there and check either. Anyway, check whether your business district is right for you before shrinking it.

When it comes to starting a small business of your own the basic idea is to provide some goods and, or, or services. Goods, though, are right out. The trouble with goods is you need to extract them from wherever they come — the ground, probably — which is a lot of digging and hard work for stuff that turns out to be worth as much as stuff found in the ground around your home would be. There is a market for moldy leaves and sun-faded empty cans of Diet Dr Pepper Cherry Vanilla. But it’s not one that pays well to the people who actually find stuff. And unless you expand your resource-gathering territory vastly it just won’t bring you that much money. If you don’t extract them, then you have to make them out of something someone else found. And that seems like it should be workable, except that it turns out anything you have to do a lot of, a robot can do better and cheaper. So they’ll cut you out of the doing of it and then where are you? Goodless, that’s where.

Services, then, look a lot more promising. In services you don’t necessarily find or make anything that can be definitely traced back to you. You just do something, and trust that someone else will realize they need to pay you for it. Where this breaks down is that you need to convince someone who has money that they should give it to you for that. But there are already plenty of people earning a living by rhetorically asking the television whether the people who make the News at Noon understand how they look, or engaging convenience store cashiers in elaborate stories about how much change they have, and there’s no need for more of them. What you need is your own niche.

A niche is a little spot where your project can thrive, kind of like Mrs Frisby’s cinder block home, in the vast farmer’s field of capitalism. A good (not goods) niche should be several paces from one side to the other, be reasonably dry, close to good sources of food, and should come with a team of genetically modified super-intelligent rats who can put together a block-and-tackle system to move it from peril. You can carry on without rats for a while, but the crash will come. Many observers credit the collapse of Pacific Electric Railway and the disappearance of Pan Am to well-intentioned pest controllers who relocated their rats to the American Broadcasting Company and to Cisco, respectively.

If you can’t stand the rats you might make do with a couple of guinea pigs with master’s degrees. But that’s really only appropriate if you regard your business as a bit of a lark (not the bird). And if you don’t mind when it comes to a sudden tragic end as the guinea pigs look on indifferently and squeak. The lesson is clear, and should really be made plain by someone or other.

On Looking At The Liberty Bell


Go to the next person you see and ask if she or he knows the shape of the Liberty Bell. Odds are the person will be taken by surprise. Probably, having expected a question like “how’s it going?” or “hot enough for you?” they’ll reply, “just exhausted” or “I got up this morning and the elm tree had melted”. This is why the most important rule in a conversation is to never just start talking about whatever you want to talk about. You have to lead up to it. Start with little cues, as much as four days ahead of time. Some shy people hire flag-bearers to approach. This is why in the introvert district of town you see all those people with bright orange banners that read, oh, “CAR TIRE” or “THAT SEMESTER YOU SPENT IN SPAIN” or “PEAK FREANS COMMERCIALS” or the like.

Anyway, so try again and this time after having given some clues you want to ask about the shape of the Liberty Bell. Then warn that you mean to ask a question about its shape. Try not to be frightened if your partner wants to know why you’re thinking so much about the Liberty Bell! Just explain that it’s for a school assignment. If challenged on the grounds that you’re not in school, plead that you do tend to procrastinate. No one will challenge you on that point. In any case, I’m willing to bet that your partner agrees that the Liberty Bell has a shape, and that they know pretty much what it is. It’s rather distinctive and pretty memorable. It’s kind of bell-shaped.

But there’s all sorts of things to notice about it. There’s, yes, the overall bell-ness of it. There’s the famous crack in it. There’s the know-it-all who would like to remind you how the big crack everyone remembers isn’t the actual crack. It’s instead a much bigger crack. They drilled so as to keep the small actual crack from turning into a much bigger crack. This plan worked with an extreme level of brilliance, except for how they couldn’t do anything about the original crack anyway. And there’s other stuff too. There’s the funky bits at the bottom where people stole metal off of it. There’s the way in the moulded text up top it includes most of the letters you really notice in ‘Pennsylvania’ at least.

Yoke and upper portion of the Liberty Bell, showing the wooden frame and the hoops of metal attached to them. Also, engraved text around the top: '... THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE ... ' and '... OF THE PROVINCE OF PENSYLVANIA [sic]'.
Since you maybe don’t know what I mean, here’s the top part of the Liberty Bell and where the metal pieces get all weird. I guess when you really look at it the shape isn’t all that weird, but it’s still kind of weird. Also this is the part where they swung and missed at spelling ‘Pennsylvania’.

And yet. Consider this. Where would the Liberty Bell be if it weren’t for the wooden yolk on which it hangs?

Well, a bit lower down, probably. Wouldn’t be surprised if they left the thing on its side, to save drawer space. Then it would roll around in these funny little spirals every time the ground shook in one of those notorious Philadelphia earthquakes. People would stumble across it in the midle of the night. Then probably one of the cats would wrestle the clapper until that fell down and the cat fled into the city’s laundry room.

And now at last I have reached mey point say my rough notes here. Without the yoke, we’d have much less of a Liberty Bell. Plus everybody would pay more attention to how weird and ungainly the top of the metal part looks. Seriously, take a picture where you can really see how weird the top looks. Pretty weird, huh? Thank you. You can find all sorts of discussions online about the bell and its metal and whether it ever actually rang. But the yoke? Nothing.

It’s made of American elm. Hm. So, imperfectly-cast British product brought overseas, re-cast and re-cast again by apparently, anyone in eastern Pennsylvania who had a bright idea and no expertise in bell-making between 1752 and 1860. And then, hung on American wood, it was finally a swell icon for bell-ness without actually being useful as a bell. I’m not sure if we can tighten this metaphor up any before the writing group reviews it. Maybe have a carpool of security guards going home for the day accidentally smash through the front porch of some Lenape family’s home.

Liberty Bell icon on what is labelled as a 'Butter Pat Wrapper, circa 1976'.
This picture hasn’t got anything to do with even what little the rest of the article has to do with itself. But it is a reminder that when they open or expand a museum, anything that any of the docents have that they can’t get rid of just might turn out to be an artefact! So if you can’t bear to get rid of stuff, make it work for you and open a museum. Also I hope to someday write something as amusing to me as is the ‘circa’ in the description ‘Butter Pat Wrapper, circa 1976’.

Anyway the yoke, for all it does to give the Liberty Bell shape and structural support, is just there. It’s got a nearly perfect record of not growing new cracks and needing to be re-casted. And they guess it’s the original, as far as anyone knows? So here’s to the pieces of wood that are important but don’t get much attention: this is an important lesson about something and darned if I know what.