Selections from the October Catalogue


Emotion-Sensitive Switches. It’s fine having the lights come on or go out depending on whether the room is moving. But what if you want the lights to stay on even when you’re just puttering around in place? Or you want the lights to go out because it’s really important to be sneaking up on the cat? Emotion-Sensitive Switches allow for electric control tuned to various moods, including: cheer, frustration, the nagging sensation you left the car trunk open, overwhelmedness, feeling just how much butter is “too much” butter, and the joy of finding a twenty-dollar bill you forgot existed.

Contact Information. If we know anything about the recent system update, it’s that it has made something worse. Not a major thing. Some tiny, little thing you didn’t even realize used to happen until now it doesn’t. Somebody decided to change that. Someone broke that. For a reasonable fee, you can find out who! And how to get in touch with them! And when to show up at their home to get an explanation. (Author’s note: I’ve already ordered this, selecting for me the person who decided that when I paste a URL in Safari’s address bar and hit return, the web browser reloads the previous page and deletes the URL I just posted in. That’s such an innovative way to just screw things up!)

Dog Flume Ride. This exciting amusement park ride comes home to you, in form convenient to assemble requiring no more than ordinary personal welding equipment. It’s worth it as you settle into the car, float your way forward to the lift hill, and at the top are set upon by a pack of enthusiastic Labrador retrievers and licked all over. Also available in golden retriever, water spaniel, mastiff, were-poodle, and non-vampire beagle.

New Roman Numerals. The Roman system of using popular letters for numbers and having rules about adding and maybe sometimes subtracting them was fun, but it doesn’t begin to handle all the complexities of mathematics since the discovery of multiple-entry bookkeeping. With highly original numerals we can handle digits the Romans never dreamed of, like 75,000, as well as negative numbers, decimals, and transfinite quantities. Finally the Praetor can work on his MA!

Inaccurate Lyrics. What’s more annoying than finding a tune stuck in your head? Not being able to get it out, certainly, but another annoying thing is not knowing what the lyrics to your song are. This leaves an unresolved, semi-complete tune wending its way hopelessly through your mind drowning out all thought. Thus the solution: given the tune, get lyrics that have nothing to do with the original song but will surely match well enough that you can’t get the tune or the new lyrics out again. This will help you more rapidly go mad. It’s also a particularly efficient way to lose the friendship of people who really know and love the song.

Special, Improved Hours. Nobody gets enough sleep anymore, not since the exciting example set by Napoleon Bonaparte, for whom it got him exiled to a desolate island in the South Atlantic Ocean. If you want to avoid that fate you’ll need to cut back your policy of invading every European nation real and imaginary, yes, but you’ll also need more time to sleep. Yet it’s almost impossible to find more hours for sleeping. The solution? Hours with more minutes in them. You may only be able to sleep from 1 am to 6 am, but if each of those hours has upwards of a hundred minutes in it, isn’t that just as good as sleeping over eight hours a day? Sure it is. Don’t worry about what happens to the seconds. Warning: do not get up in the middle of the night to pee.

Self-Propelled Halloween Countdown Calendar. It’s great tracking how long we have until Halloween sets in. But isn’t it better to have the holiday track itself down? Thus this calendar, which will zip around the house letting you know how many days it is until the end of October. Go ahead and try to catch it! Also available in Thanksgiving, Easter, and New Jersey Big Sea Day editions.

Advertisements

The Stages Of The Road Trip: Stage Five


Stage one. Before the trip.
Stage two. Getting started.
Stage three. Seeing malls and sheep.
Stage four. Trying to remember things.


OK, but is this the sheep district of the country or what because this is getting to be far too many sheep.

Dan tried to get away without calling it “Diet Pupsi” and couldn’t. But he did realize that over this trip everyone had tried, one time or other, just saying the name of it right. The implication is that everybody’s ready to let this in-joke go, but nobody wants to be the one to say it. Dan resolves to bring this up at a good moment, but hopes so very much that someone else brings it up first.

Sophie starts the practice of deliberately misreading the highway signs now. Taking “Williamsport” as the game of Williams promises some great fun, but all it really leads to is stories of times their satellite navigator had no idea how to pronounce a street name. “Malcolm the Tenth Street” is judged the best of those. There’s just not enough good towns in the area, though.

It seemed like this should be a good way to pass a few miles. But sharing the most important thing in their lives that they’ve given up correcting their parents about? Like, where it’s just too much effort to explain what’s really going on, and it’s easier to let them go about being wrong and correct people whom their parents in turn mislead? Yeah, so it turns out that for everybody it’s just “exactly what it is we do for work”. That’s weird itself. Like, you’d think for someone it would be a relationship or some important aspect of their personality or something. No, though. It’s just what everyone does in exchange for money. This seems like it says something important about modern society, but who knows?

All right, but that is definitely a two-story strip mall, putting to rest an earlier squabble.

Josh is irrationally offended by the name of the Creekside Inn Hotel, citing “redundancy”. His status is not helped when it turns out to be near the Riverfront Cemetery Memorial Park.

The historical marker turned out to be a surprisingly good stop. It’s just a note that this town was somehow too small for Lincoln’s Funeral Train to stop at, but they have this amazing picture of the train just going through town. It’s not a very good picture but for an action scene in 1865? That’s pretty amazing anyway. But the real question is how everything in town is covered in black crepe. Where did that all come from? The town isn’t anything today, and back then? It was so nothing it couldn’t even get the funeral train to stop. Why would they even have enough crepe to shroud all downtown? Or if they didn’t, where did they get it? Did they have enormous quantities of regular crepe and just dye it black all of a sudden? Amanda’s joke that maybe it was crepe of all colors and it just looks black is judged to be “too soon”. But that doesn’t answer the real question.

It’s become so tiring to read all the highway signs that the town or towns of Portage Munster are passed without comment.

Now it’s time for the search for a place to have dinner. This is a complex triangulation of where they are, how fast they’re going somewhere, and what towns of any size are going to be anywhere near dinnertime. The objective: find someplace genuinely local to go. And after fifteen minutes of searching, success! It’s a well-reviewed barcade and they even have a menu online with four vegetarian-friendly options, plus great heaping piles of fried things. And it’s been open since like 1938. It is closed today, and tomorrow, for the only two days it’s set to be closed between Easter and Thanksgiving this year.

By now the group has gotten past making up redundantly-named landmarks and is annoying Josh with oxymoronic names.

At least everyone can agree: after all this time driving, we’re all walking like badly-rigged video game models. This is what’s so good about taking a road trip. You get to enjoy everything in new and different ways.

The Stages Of The Road Trip: Stage Four


Stage one. Before the trip.
Stage two. Getting started.
Stage three. Seeing malls and sheep.


No, Dan, we are not stopping the car already just because you’re not sure you packed your toothbrush. It can wait. Yes, well, you know where it’s possible to get a toothbrush any time, day or night? Only in every store ever, including freaking Best Buy if you really need.

Sophia explains how you can just ask the front desk at the hotel for a toothbrush. Amanda and Dan insist they just will never have one. Josh says he’s read about how they will, it’s just nobody ever thinks to ask. Sophia insists that they may or may not, it depends on the hotel. All are willing to grant that it doesn’t hurt to ask. Then Josh explains about the time he did ask, and the “toothbrush” they had was just weird. Like, it was this credit-card-size flat thing that unfolded a tiny bit, and it had like eight bristles, and he probably would have been better brushing his teeth with his finger.

The discussion leads naturally to kind of bragging about the biggest glob of toothpaste everyone’s eaten. Also the discovery that Amanda is afraid of swallowing toothpaste because it turns out this is on the boxes? This is fun enough that everyone registers they just passed a funny city-destinations sign but can’t remember what was funny about it.

The party’s definitely travelled a good distance now. It’s not just the third-tier but the second-tier fast-food restaurants that they don’t have back home.

Amanda finds it very significant that this town’s Cheese House specialty cheese shop mascot is very much a ripoff of forgotten Famous Studios cartoon mouse Herman or Katnip, whichever one of them was the mouse. Probably Herman. That would be the less obscure joke to make in naming them. Anyway this is very important to Amanda and she’s not going to let it go until everyone agrees this is an important revelation.

All right, so Dan tosses this out: what if a place like the Outback Steakhouse, only instead of theoretically being Australian, it’s Scottish themed? Nobody actually knows offhand what Scottish food is. “Fried … bladders or something?” offers Josh, who admits he’s maybe thinking of what bagpipes were made of. Not the fried part. But that doesn’t matter. You could serve anything. Just put some fun stuff on the walls.

This feeds into the discovery that Amanda had been to the town where Andy Capp was from. Like, the comic strip Andy Capp. Also that it’s based on a real actual town. There’s a statue of him there and everything, a claim that threatens to be laughed at for miles except that they find pictures of it. With her newfound expertise the party is willing to accept Amanda’s claim that “Andy Capp” is supposed to be a pun on the word “handicap”. She blows it completely when she tries to claim that English newspapers don’t run Fred Basset on Sundays and those strips are made just for the American readers.

OK, but you can agree where it would be correct structuring of a joke if the mouse were named Katnip, right?

Everyone over-plans the next gas station stop. They’re trying to figure how to look casual while timing Dan to see how long he needs to remember to check his toothbrush. Everyone’s disappointed he remembers almost right away, before even going in to the bathroom. He does have his toothbrush, although it’s in the wrong plastic bag. The gas station chains are all weird around here too, although they take the same customer-loyalty card. This is disappointing.

Everyone agrees there is no satisfactory reason why these nachos should be soggy.

Josh finally explains that phone number on the no-longer-sticky note in his glove compartment: he doesn’t know what it is. But it looks a lot like his writing. It must be too important to throw away or else why would he have put it there? Could he call the number and find out who it is? No, absolutely not under any circumstances.

You expect to discover new places when you road trip. You don’t expect to find out how all your friends are freaks.

The Stages Of The Road Trip: Stage Three


Stage one. Before the trip.
Stage two. Getting started.


It’s still a lot of fun reading the names of the streets off the overpasses. “Fangboner Road” alone threatens to keep the gang giggling for hours. “Preventorium Road” inspires everyone to toss out out their ideas of what this could even mean. This goes on for so long and for such a merry time that by the time anyone can think to look it up they can’t remember what exactly the road name was. They know it wasn’t Vomitorium Road, but that’s as far as the consensus will reach. Amanda’s claim of knowing a “Squankum” are shaken off. It feels like a bad laugh although they’re not sure exactly why.

The fourth great field of sheep is not so much fun as the first. Dan insists the problem is the sheep aren’t trying to be interesting. Sophia asserts that few things would be worse than sheep that compel your interest. The menace of the hypnosheep masters keeps the group’s spirits up for the next two fields of sheep before they sink beneath all possible commentary.

Is that a strip mall with two yoga centers? Josh says it’s three, but he’s definitely mis-reading tea room as a yoga center. Right? We mean it’s one of those tea rooms too fancy to be comfortable. Well, there’s definitely at least two. Maybe this is just the yoga center district of town?

Well, this is a restaurant. All right, it’s not a vegetarian-friendly restaurant. It seems determined to put meat into things that don’t even need it. There’s a high-pressure gun in the kitchen. It injects chicken and processed lobster food product into everything. “We just want some garlic toast,” beg Josh and Amanda. “We don’t need animals to have died for the cause!” The restaurant tries to cope with the concept of someone who wants the tomato soup that hasn’t had a fist-sized chunk of pig flesh ripped off and unked into it. But the effort fails. There’s a mishap in the kitchen, and it sprays chicken cutlets, which are dug out even of the glove box up to three months later. At least that’s how the story goes. Really it’s more that the waitstaff has to come back to apologize that they don’t have a second black-bean burger patty, would a portobello mushroom be all right? And it really wouldn’t, but Josh would take it to not cause trouble for people who have to deal with much worse customers. It’s all right, since it turns out they don’t have portobello either. He gets a plate of melted butter with a scoop of mashed potatoes. Later he tries to insist that mashed potatoes would be a good substitute for the burger patty, earning him so much grief.

That’s a weird bunch of sheep but nobody wants to reopen the subject.

All right but serious talk. Or anyway, comparing the bathroom stuff that different hotels give you. Everyone takes turns asserting they’ve seen the most preposterous blend of things. Sophia claims to have been at a long-term hotel once that had a single tube which claimed to be soap, skin lotion, shampoo, hair conditioner, toothpaste, mouthwash, energy drink, makeup remover, transparent nail polish, shoe polish, stain remover, windshield fluid, transmission fluid, and fish ick treatment. Two miles later she says she thinks she went on too long for the laugh she could possibly get. Dan says that a combination mouthwash and energy drink is a great idea and she should patent that. Amanda questions whether you could patent … what, coffee with way too much mint? This allows everyone to learn a little bit more about each other, as they say what kinds of things they can or can’t eat right after brushing their teeth. This causes everyone to realize their friends are daft. This is worse than when they learned what podcasts everyone else listened to.

All right but is that a two-story strip mall? Is it possible to be a strip mall if it has got a second story? Yeah, we know about that strip mall with the two-story Borders that used to be there, but that was just the one place. If the mall has a second floor with different shops upstairs isn’t that … well, we clearly don’t have the words for this concept. What is it and how many yoga centers can it have?

The Stages Of The Road Trip: Stage Two


Stage One. Before the trip.


The gang is ready to set off. It’s going to be a long trip. Maybe the longest they’ve ever made. Maybe the longest there ever will be. Anyway it’s at least two hours longer than the last one the group’s managed. Dan is not saying that if he were in charge he would set up a definite rotation for driving. He’s just saying that a definite rotation for driving would be good. After the third iteration of this Sophia answers that if they rotate too much they’ll end up right back where they started. Amanda has the bad luck to mention 180 degrees in this. This brings lively but unproductive talk about the differences between 180 degree, 360 degree, and 720 degree turns. Dan attempts to propose a 270 degree turn just to lighten the subject.

Still, better if we set out sooner rather than later. No, sooner than that. Maybe a bit earlier than that. After three different chat rooms have settled on five different start times Dan proposes that everyone set out the night before and meet up at the park-and-ride twenty minutes out of everywhere. He’s being facetious, everyone tells themselves.

The compromise is to move the start time 90 minutes earlier. The morning of the start everyone is running about an hour late, so they agree to just start 30 minutes ahead of the original start time. Then somehow just getting everything in the trunk and one last trip to the bathroom takes 75 minutes. Josh insists that by starting 45 minutes late they’re running ahead of schedule. Dan is not convinced by this. It will be until the state welcome center before the topic has been debated enough that everyone lets it drop.

The seat belts are locking up. Just the ones in back. They do that. There’s a trick to it. You have to sit so you’re facing forward. No, not that forward. Dan, just … no, you need to … there, see? Now it’s pulling out. All right, now it’s locked up. Maybe you should get out and get back in the car the correct way this time. No, the other correct way. Look, both feet on the floor, that’s the first thing you need. Now face forward. Not that much forward. All right, why don’t you try the other side? That’s right. Now sit facing forward. Not that much forward. Don’t pull the seat belt out that fast. All right, let it out and back again. Not that slow. You want to go medium speed. More medium than that. Not that … look, this is before your turn but why don’t you try the front seat? Oh good grief. All right, let’s try where you started again. Right. You know most of us can use a seat belt. Yes, try facing forward. Not that forward.

Fine, we just won’t crash the car this time.

There is a great sense of thrill and delight at finally being off. And then stopping again because Sophia needs to stop at the convenience store ATM for some overpriced money. Dan does too. Also Josh. Amanda doesn’t need any but, you know, it wouldn’t hurt to get some Combos. This turns into getting sour cream doughnuts instead. And then there is great thrill at being off again.

There is also great thrill at seeing the trip’s first group of sheep. Who knew there were sheep and they were just standing there, tending sheep tasks, off on the side of the road, just like that was a normal thing? So, sheep. Yeah.

This is the time when everyone learns their friends have the worst taste in podcasts. Josh is partial to three guys laughing at each other, with occasional guest hosts. Dan prefers one guy trying to remember all the things he wrote down in the notes he doesn’t have. Sophia likes one person interviewing three people about something she never heard of before and will never hear about again. Amanda likes hyperbolic descriptions of movies and TV shows she never really watched, they were just on. Sometimes two or three can find a podcast that satisfies them, but there is no hope of all four enjoying what they’re listening to. The shows keep getting interrupted for explanations of the in-jokes that don’t need explanation.

It’s pointed out that if the trip doesn’t ultimately have a 360 degree turn then they can’t ever get home again.

The Stages Of The Road Trip: Stage One


The gang agrees a road trip would be great. It’s been so long since the last one. There’s not going to be many more good chances this year. The weather’s getting to be more of itself. Work is getting busier. There’s the chance the state might discontinue roads for the rest of the year. No telling. If we don’t get to it soon we might never start at all.

Which car to use? There’s the obvious choice. That’s the one that would reach its scheduled service mileage about one-third of the way through the trip. That’s … something we could handle? … Right? … Daniel insists he can handle it. Nobody believes it. The cashier at Pita Pit asks Daniel if he’s all right, or if he’s lying about something powerfully important to him. The guy at the car wash just leans in and hugs him, saying, “I don’t know why but, man, something about you says you need this. Whatever it is, it’ll get better.” Amanda’s the first to admit this won’t work, though, even after finding car dealerships roughly along the planned path.

It’ll be Josh’s car instead. It’s less comfortable. But Josh insists he’s glad to host the trip. “It’ll be great! I can finally get updates to all my state maps!” Nobody’s sure whether this is serious. But in that little cubbyhole in his car doors are a lot of maps. So many maps. Gas station maps. Maps from Esso gas stations. A map of the Washington, D.C. area that still shows “Lee Family Estate” where Arlington National Cemetery should be. A map showing the Colonie of Nieuw-Nederland. It’s pristine. His car is three years old. There have always been things about Josh nobody understood. Now, knowing a little more, everyone knows him less.

Road snack purchases are a hot debate. There’s the faction that wants things bought ahead of time, so the gang can set off without false starts. There’s the faction that sees the false start as tradition. There’s the faction that insists there’s rest areas on the highway for a reason. Amanda tries to be the sensible one and insists road snacks aren’t necessary if everyone just eats good meals. There seem to be more factions than people going.

Fourteen hours of heated debate spread over three chat groups, none of which have all the participants in it, agrees at least to go to the same convenience store and stock up. This after ninety minutes of argument about the supermarket being cheaper. Or the neighborhood grocery store being better for the long term economic health of small business all right THANK YOU we get it. It’s twenty-five bucks’ worth of Fritos, economic justice doesn’t enter into it.

The cooler issue will not settle. There’s good economic reasons to get bottles of soda, even small bottles, and keep them in cooler. This crashes into the faction that fresh-poured fountain drinks taste better. A hard-shell cooler works better but bangs the knees of everyone in back. A soft-shell cooler fits between people but Sophia’s read things about breeding bacteria? Somehow? It’s all very tiring.

The day before the trip the low-tire-pressure light comes on. Josh has a pressure gauge for just this problem. It’s not the front driver’s side tire. It’s not the rear driver’s side tire. It’s not the front passenger’s side tire. It’s not the rear passenger’s side tire. Two hours of increasingly cross words follow in three of the now-five group chats. Fourteen separate web searches for symptoms follow. Eight of them end up on Yahoo Answers. Despair sets in. Sophia has the breakthrough insight: could it be the spare tire? Yes, it could, but it is not. Thirty minutes later the low-tire-pressure light stops lighting. Daniel offers it was his suggestion to put electrical tape over the dashboard that did it. The real explanation remains unknown. Perhaps the tires just wanted some attention.

“Fritos are not a matter of economic justice” becomes the newest in-joke for the group. Three and a half years later it switches to being Cheetos not being a matter of economic justice. No one is able to explain this phenomenon. It becomes a matter of great angry debate when anyone tries to insist that it was originally Fritos.

Why I Figure You Should Write Your Own Web Browser


It’s getting about time we should all write our own web browsers again. We’ve been through this before. There was a time in the 90s when anybody could write their own web browser, and they did. I know this sounds intimidating, but back then it was easy. All a web browser had to do was show HTML, which is just text with lots of ampersands. This is easy to produce.

A couple years later web browsers got Java. This required us to put a little grey box in the middle of the screen which read “Loading applet”, and then nothing would happen. About this time we added in Javascript. This required web browsers to include a little status bar at the bottom which reported “Javacript has encountered an error and crashed”. These were good times. The only thing a web browser really had to do was give us a way to turn off blinking text. Once blinking text was turned off everyone was happy, except for the inventor of blinking text, Haply “Hal” Blinken.

Anyway it was fun when everybody was writing a web browser, because we all had ideas about background images. I started out writing “very funny ideas”, and then decided “funny” wasn’t adding anything to the sentence. But then I left it as “we all had very ideas about background images”. This is true, but I couldn’t leave it like that or you’d think I made a mistake. But ask people. It was so. Anyway, we went from everybody having their own weird little web browser to everybody using Netscape or Internet Explorer and that was it. This winnowing-down process took about twelve days. Then we cut it down to just Internet Explorer. That took another eight years.

Like a decade ago this got changing again, and everybody started making new web browsers. This was fun because of the new innovation where web sites stopped showing you a menu bar. You could turn it back on, if you could find where the thing that used to be the menu bar went. But suddenly all kinds of companies were excited to stop showing things and maybe get themselves a brand. So if you wanted a web browser that wouldn’t tell you what web site you were looking at, but would have Garfield’s face watching you.

By then web browsers had to do more complicated stuff, like give you the option to turn off pop-up windows. The browser then warned you this might stop windows from popping up. Users agreed to accept this risk. This allowed every web site to ask you for permission to be the exception, which you denied, right before they opened a window anyway. Also around this time we got tabs. This solved the problem where we used to have 62 web browser windows open waiting to be read. Now we could have two web browser windows open, each with 86 tabs, some of them playing the Median Hits of 2007.

With all this potential we got like 800 new web browsers, which over the course of two weeks settled down to Firefox, Chrome, and Microsoft’s Thing You Use To Download Firefox Or Chrome. That’s been stable for about a decade now so I figure it’s time for a new explosion of web browser options. Last time the diversity of web browsers was fed by the need to remove menu bars and give people the option to turn off pop-up windows. Now we have many new things people can choose they don’t want to do.

For example, web sites now ask permission to send you notifications. You know, in case this oral history about the making of Barry Levinson’s Toys has a hot bit of news. (It would be embarrassing to be in the last 35 million of people on the planet to know the latest about the “Happy Workers” song.) So we could have an option to turn that off. There’s also those videos that start playing automatically, and don’t stop until you’ve scrolled the window so the video is hidden, which makes the video bubble up and float into the middle of the window. We need an option to turn that off, and also to bap the people responsible for that with some funny bludgeon-y thing. (You won’t see that part after “with” if I have a better idea before deadline.)

There are many ways we could set things up so they should be better but aren’t. Let’s get to work!

Everything There Is To Say About Procrastination


Procrastination is a way to turn things we need to do into things we feel lousy about not doing. Procrastination surrounds us and envelops us. Logic tells us there has to have been a time people just knew their cars had back seats, for example. They wouldn’t have felt like they should Do Something about them.

Everyone procrastinates, to some degree. Oh, you encounter people who insist they never do. They’ll give you advice on how to not procrastinate, too. “If you know something will take less than two minutes to do, just stop and do it right then,” they’ll say. These are miserable people. They’re trapped behind their reputation for efficiency and accomplishment. They’re hoping for release. By release they mean “get stuffed into a plastic bin in a storage locker someone means to organize someday”. Nobody will ever get around to doing them this mercy. You know if you die at e-mail inbox zero you don’t get to hang around as a ghost. You’re just gone.

It would be interesting to know why we procrastinate. It seems counterproductive. Without procrastination, we’d just have, say, coffee tables. With it, we turn those coffee tables into balls of explosive guilt. “I have to get some sleep before that big presentation at work location tomorrow! I only have four hours! Why am I thinking about how the coffee table still has the wristbands from the county fair and that three-month-old free weekly newspaper on it in untidy piles?” This is all right. You haven’t started writing that presentation anyway. It’ll definitely help if you lie awake two and a half more hours cursing yourself for not Doing Something about the coffee table. In this way we have a cluttered table, a lousy night’s sleep, and a work presentation so bad they tell you that you never have to present anything again, ever. So it’s not all bad. You at least become legend. They talk for years about how the quarterly presentation slide went. But we can’t expect such good results every time.

I guess the trouble is that to get something done, we have to do it. And that would be great. There’s few things in the world that feel better than having a thing done. Having a barber shave the back of your neck with a straight razor, that’s about the only better thing. But getting a thing done just means that you get something else to do. Nobody knows where these things come from. The universe just slots some new task right in front of you, just as you’re enjoying being done and how that hot shaving lotion feels. So what if you never do that thing? Then you have the same outcome: you’ve still got a thing to do in front of you. And you’ve saved the effort of having to do it. And all you lose is the feeling of joy that you’ve accomplished a thing. It just costs you turning everything in your life into something that makes you feel bad. I should probably make a better guess. This won’t work.

To procrastinate is easy and you can do it most anytime. You will need:

1. A thing to do.
2. Absolutely anything else in the universe to exist.

To procrastinate, remind yourself that there is this thing to do. Then let anything else exist, right in front of you. Then just do what comes naturally. This will be any other thing. Some readers may think this sounds a lot like Robert Benchley’s Principle, “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment”. This was explained in his classic essay “How To Get Things Done”. You should definitely read it, by which I mean, you should mean to get around to reading it. You can find it on the Internet.

The Internet is a great way to remind you that things exist. Also that most of them are terrible. This gets you a head start on feeling guilty about this all. You shouldn’t go out looking for things to feel terrible about, because that could crash the whole scheme of procrastination. We’d have to replace this weirdly miserable, faintly self-destructive habit with something else. And whatever we come up with would be worse. You’ve met people. You know that’s true.

If you do need to get something done, without losing the guilt and shame attached to procrastinating, there are compromises. You could, for example, get something mostly done, but quit doing it while there’s some small but noticeable piece undone. This way you never have to

Everything There Is To Say About Pool Safety


I realize it’s late in the swimming season to write this up. I’m sorry. I have a good reason for not writing this up when it might have been more useful: I didn’t. So this is late for where I am in North America, where we’re not looking at much more pool weather. We’re in the season where the pool toys are all explaining “winter” to each other, and get it wrong. You know they think Santa is a deer made of water who sits on the lights and ornaments that go missing from the attic in November?

Worse I know I’m early for the swimming season in the southern hemisphere. I saw pictures where somewhere in Australia was getting snow and kangaroos. You expect in the winter months to get snow, but kangaroos? Who expects that? Australians, but they have problems with their nature. I bet Australian snow has, like, enough venom that one mouthful could knock out every laser-guided exploding wallaby in New South Wales. Maybe I could save this and re-post it in like early May. Or whatever May is in the southern hemisphere. Oh, or I could save this until May in the southern hemisphere, and then turn it upside-down for northern hemisphere readers. Readers on the equator (hi, Singapore!) can read it while laying on their side, unless that should be lying.

The most important aspect of pool safety is inspection. Examine the pool before you get too close. Leave any pool area that looks too much like it’s from The Sims, and never get more than one metropolitan area closer to it.

The second-most important lesson about pool safety applies to pools that are fake natural ponds lined with sand. Do not try to dig a little canal all the way from the pool up the hill and over to the drainage pit from the chemical plant nearby. The lifeguards will not stop asking you questions. Also there’s this chain link fence that’s a hassle.

Worse, the hill rises like fifteen or twenty feet from sea level. There’s no connecting the pool to the drainage pit except by making a series of powered locks. This is fine if you brought canal locks to your day at the pool. I have a hard enough time remembering to bring swim goggles, glasses, and a Star Trek novel I can leave by mistake on a hammock. I don’t even know where to get canal locks. The dollar store in the strip mall nearest the pool? I guess. But I don’t know what shelf. You’d think it would be in pool and swimming supplies, but no. As far as I know. I’m not even sure what they look like. It could be I’ve been staring at them and didn’t even realize it. Well, this is getting off the point of pool safety. Back to that.

If there is a floating raft in the middle of the pool or pond do not try building a suspension bridge to it. The raft is not stable enough to support construction. Trying to drive piles into the foundation of the pool to serve as base will get you annoying questions again. I realize I’m talking a lot about avoiding questions here. But this is safety-related. I know the danger I get into when I’m asked a question I’m not prepared for. These can be questions as perilous as “did you want to eat now or after we’ve gone swimming?” Even if I did answer that we’d get into questions about the scope of the eating to do.

These days we’ve learned that it isn’t dangerous to go swimming right after eating, or vice-versa. It’s still bad form to go eating while swimming, since few swimming strokes accommodate forks or knives or finger foods. It’s quite bad form to eat other swimmers. And you should not eat the entire pool, whether or not you’re swimming, for the obvious reason. Why screw up someone else’s trip to the pool? It’s a jerk thing to do, so don’t do it.

Above all, use common sense. Common sense should be applied to all exposed portions of the skin (yours), at least once every three hours, or one hour if you’ve spent it in the water. Common sense can be found in cream or spray-on form in aisle twelve.

Everything There Is To Say About The History Of Technology Companies


Technology companies usually go through a couple distinct phases. There’s the one that gets all the fun legends. That’s the step where a small team of like-minded idealists realize they’ve been gathering in a garage workshop for like four years now and finally have a salable product. This is a thrilling moment. It comes none too soon, since the garage’s owner nearly caught them last time. It’s all fun adventures. First there’s the challenge of getting something to work. Then there’s the challenge of getting it to work when they just moved it to the other table. It’s not even four feet away from where it was. It’s a computer program. What is there even to break? But that’s solved. Then there’s the challenge of getting it to work for anybody else. Everyone agrees this is the good part of any technology company.

Much later comes the phase where the company has lots of employees. This means that they can worry about different issues. Like, there’s worrying about how to get the right ice cream cake for the birthday party for the person who’s out sick today anyway. There is no right answer, which is all right. This phase usually comes after the one where the staff realizes they’ve got something with a name like “zMyRiLX System Service Provider” on the servers. It’s critically important. They’ve upgraded that to a version nobody knows how to set up anymore. It isn’t even the current version. The old version, someone had poked with sticks enough that it didn’t break anything too important. This new version has taken away the sticks. It all seems hopeless. This is when we move on to the birthday ice cream cake phase.

There are intermediate stages too. For example, after creating the first product, there’s the question of what to make as the fifteenth product. This will be the thing you had wanted to be the third product and that never really came together. It will flop. No technology company has ever had its fifteenth product succeed. The best they can hope is that it’s seen as ahead of its time, and a noble failure. The most innovative technology companies fail in ways that other companies hope will fail for them in ten years.

Technology companies have issues that are unique to the industry. Like, a company that rakes leaves doesn’t have to worry about digital rights management. They just have to worry that employees aren’t spending all their time having light saber fights with the rakes. At least until a technology company comes in and screws things up. At that point, though, it doesn’t rake leaves anymore. The name will change from, say, Pine River Lawn Care to something that sounds like a medication or an 80s boys’ cartoon villain. Chloronax, say, or Verderant. At that point it doesn’t do anything. It just updates databases. Those databases contain mean stuff said about you.

Some technology company problems are common to every company. Like, when should they mistakenly not diversify? Eventually people forget why they needed whatever the company’s old products were. But the other choice a company has is to mistakenly diversify. This is a fun one because whatever it is you’re doing, it seems more fun to do something else. So going from one business into another always seems like a great idea. Eventually your company can be so diverse that it doesn’t do anything, but does it in a lot of fields. Then you should be ready to suddenly collapse in one of those fascinating yet boring business implosions, and re-emerge years later as a snarky Twitter account.

So what’s the right course? Hard to say. You can read histories of companies in similar circumstances. This will show how for every course of action there’s at least four other companies that did that and were so very wrong. The conclusion is to just not do anything, really. This explains that time in 1968 when, facing the rise of Electronic Data Systems, Remington-Rand just spent August rolling down a hill.

The best guidance is to look up the history written several decades after the company goes out of business and sent back in time to you. When you come across a chapter with an ominous title like “The Fateful Choice” read very carefully and try not making that choice. This might create a logical paradox destroying time and space, but perhaps the book was wrong anyway.

Everything There Is To Say About Eclipses


Eclipses are an amazing phenomenon. There’s almost nothing else that can unite so much of the planet with an overcast day. Eclipses happen pretty near any time something gets in the way of something else. The Moon gets in the way of the Sun. The Earth gets in the way of the Moon. Jupiter gets in the way of Venus. Venus emits a elaborate string of subtweets. Triton, misunderstanding, gets hopping mad. The Trojan asteroids, who find angry Triton the funnies Triton, stir things up. Before you know it there’s a rain of meteors being sent every which way. This is why we try not to have Jupiter eclipse Venus anymore. We’ll just stick with the two biggest eclipses, solar and lunar. People wanting more exotic stuff can fundraise for it themselves.

A solar eclipse is when the Moon gets between the Earth and the Sun. This means that large portions of the Earth aren’t being pushed away from the sun by the pressure of sunlight anymore. However, the Sun’s gravity remains exactly the same. This means that the surface of the Earth underneath the eclipse drops towards the Sun more than it usually does. This is usually not a problem. If it starts to be one, we take care of it using leap seconds. During a leap second everyone on the affected hemisphere is supposed to get up on top of their tallest chair and leap to the ground simultaneously. Shame on you if you haven’t been doing your part. You can make up for it during a skip minute. These are rare than leap seconds, but run longer, and involve more skipping.

Each year the Earth experiences at least two but not more than 110,575 solar eclipses. You’d think we could narrow that range down a little. It’s hard. There’s a lot of mathematics involved figuring out eclipses. Be kind to the eclipses. It’s not like eclipses are the only things in our life trying to understand what they’re doing.

Still, there are only a finite number of eclipses each calendar year. Use them wisely. Any given spot on Earth can expect to see only one-370th of an eclipse per year, too. This explains those weird moments when it’s the middle of a bright day, then it gets dark a second, and then it’s bright again. No, different from how it looks when you blink. This is more when it looks like you’re worried someone went and broke the sun again.

This highlights one of the major uses of eclipses. During the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project back in 1975 the astronauts and cosmonauts and testtronauts actually created an artificial solar eclipse. They used this to switch out the Sun with a new fluorescent-based lighting fixture. It promised to save incredible amounts of energy, important during the oil shortages of that decade. So much so that it was even worth leaving the Sun on all night. But there were problems, of course. For one, people insisted they heard this irritating buzzing. And this even from people who insist they can hear it when old-style computer monitors are turned on, even when you know the computer monitor was turned off.

The more serious problem is what it did to colors. With the alternate light spectrum, you had to change the way you did colors, and that’s why the late 70s looked like that. We were doing our best under weird circumstances, which again, you are too. But the original Sun, which had been put back in its wrapper and was in great shape after some time off, was replaced during the STS-9 space shuttle mission. People got their first look at what colors they had been using the past eight years and there was a lot of screaming. Again, different from how we’re screaming these days. And anyway then we went on to produce the fashions of the mid-80s anyway.

There are no plans to tinker with the Sun during any of this year’s solar eclipses. But do remember, one of the other major uses of solar eclipses is by desperately unprepared time-travellers who hope to set themselves up as wizards or gods to unsuspecting peoples. If you spot anyone promising to make the Sun go away if their friend isn’t released soon, be wary! They might not return the Sun and we’re still using it sometimes.

Eight Things There Are To Say About Mealtimes


Mealtime. It’s a great-sounding word. It pairs together two great syllables. Well, the first syllable is great. The second syllable is that thing that reminds us we should have got this all done before. Still, “mealtime” together? That’s some nice stuff. Even better if the stuff includes, like, a gravy of some kind. Less good if the mealtime includes one of those Very Internet Persons who wants to argue about whether chili is a sandwich or hot dogs are soup.

How much do we really know about mealtimes? Not as much as we could, surely. The average person knows only about 95% of everything they might care to know about mealtimes. This could be improved, one way or another.

Mealtimes may seem like traditions fixed since time immemorial. It turns out that “time immemorial” usually means something a lot closer to 1956 than people admit. Also it’s not so much “fixed” as it is “it would make someone else’s life easier if we tried a little harder”. That person also deserves a lunch sometime they could predict.

Still, meals have been a lot more flexible in their scheduling and content than we realize. This until we notice that we’ve been “a couple minutes late” on dinner every day for the last six years. Also that by “a couple minutes” we mean 95 minutes. Also that by dinner we mean “two items taken, at random, from the freezer and heated up”. This most recently included a chunk of orange juice concentrate dating to the 2008 Financial Crisis. That usually makes people aware of what they’re doing with mealtimes, momentarily.

Still, there are common patterns in the times of meals. Dinner, for example, used to be a midday meal, had somewhere around noon. This shifted in the early 19th century, when the busy residents of New York City found it was too much bother to get home at that hour. Dinner moved first to 2 pm, then to about 8 pm, then back to 6 pm. In 1934 it moved back to 11:30 am the next day. This had the neat side effect of ending the half-day of work on Saturdays, since otherwise Saturday dinner would interrupt Sunday brunch. And thus the modern weekend was born.

Dinner kept moving later and later, though, and people reasonably got fed up having to wait so long. Oh, that exciting day in 1955, though, when the whole population started to say, “you know, I am fed up with waiting for dinner” and then heard themselves say that out loud. So they started having a quick, supper-like meal, eaten at dinnertime. Dinner as we originally knew it faded away, except for historical reenactments. It’s currently estimated to be around 3:35 pm, two days after.

Lunch has often been around noon. The trick is when noon happens. Yes, we think of noon as being at that 12:00 that has a morning just before it. But that’s just the chance result of the French Revolutionary Calendar. What noon is supposed to be is “nine”. This is not necessarily nine in the morning, nor in the evening. It’s supposed to be nine hours past the moment that’s nine hours before noon. How that ended up at 12:00 remains a mystery. Anyway I usually eat lunch late myself.

Breakfast is an interesting meal to time. In the old days, sure, people were fasting all the time. It added some panache to the famine going on. But even when food was plentiful there were problems. You could see, for example, religious prohibitions against eating meat on Fridays or Tuesdays. Or against eating milk on unseasonably warm days. Against eating eggs that haven’t been kept in a pot of water. Against eating things with the letter “r” in them before the Apocalypse. The trouble with finding a thing to eat was resolved in the 13th century, when a series of church councils came around to the idea that when the letter “r” appears in “breakfast” it is serving as a kind of devotional bread. Happily these councils got the matters settled first thing in the morning, first day of the meeting. And so we have breakfast right at the start of the day.

Will there be new mealtimes yet invented? It’s hard to say. Most of us have settled into a modern pattern where we kind of keep grabbing small things and ingesting them. And we don’t have any time to do anything properly anymore. But what if research projects to inject new hours into the day, such as the experimental R o’clock, works? We might get something good yet.

Some Astounding Little-Known Facts About Apollo 11


Most of us know three or even four astounding facts about Apollo 11. And yet these do not exhaust the subject. There are over twelve different things about this legendary space mission. Let’s review some of them.

Did you know, for example, that Apollo 11 had the first automatic dishwashing machine brought into lunar orbit? The Westinghouse corporation was proud to make the cramped Command Module at least as livable as an efficiency apartment is. Unfortunately the system failed shortly before the first midcourse correction burn. This was after breakfast but before full testing. Still, we owe the development of dishwashing gel packs to NASA’s need not to have powder floating all over the cabin. Thanks, Moon landing!

Many of us think of the poignancy of Michael Collins, remaining alone in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface. But do you ever consider poor Ronald Evans, who had to remain in earth orbit on the S-II stage while the rest of the crew went on to lunar orbit? Do you remember Ken Mattingly, who had to stay behind on the launch pad while everyone else from the mission went on to earth orbit? And that just because he wasn’t willing to split the tolls. And then there’s poor William Pogue, who had to stay behind in the room where they put all their spacesuits on, because he misunderstood the question. He felt awful about that for years. He can’t even remember what he thought they were asking at the time. “What could it have been, besides `do you want to come to the moon with us?’ he said, in the 1974 debriefing. `Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid’.” Well, live and learn.

The date for the landing was not settled until late in mission planning. The later the landing, after all, the more chance to train, although the less time to launch another mission in case something went wrong. All they knew was it had to launch before the 31st of December, 1969. And for that there was a heated debate about whether that meant Washington, DC, time or Houston time. “What if we need that extra hour,” was the point of contention. Anyway the date was set in May of 1969 when someone pointed out they had already inscribed on the plaque that men first set foot on the moon in July 1969. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that settle the hardest questions.

Do you know what held the crew and some people exposed to lunar dust for three weeks after the end of the flight? It was the Mobile Quarantine Facility. And it’s still out there. It’s still roving, too, and no one can stop it. If you encounter it, know that you are not in specific peril. But you aren’t going to have any in-person encounters for 21 days except for whoever else it’s caught. The facility got Wi-Fi in 2004, but it’s not good enough to stream HD video.

Not a single one of the crew returned from space transmogrified in any way. Granted, nobody seriously expected major changes. Like, someone coming back as a cool gelatinous blob. Something. There could be some cool field of strange energy. They could pass through and grow these cool retractable antennas. Maybe eyes some weird, brand-new color like neopurple or techneteal. I know what you’re thinking and no. We know they weren’t a weird color only while they were in space and we were watching in black-and-white. They were checking.

Also a disappointment: while, again, nobody was seriously expecting it? A lot of people hoped the astronauts would make contact with some incredible species of, they don’t know, magic otter aliens. Beings with technology and concepts of space nudity as much as five centuries ahead of anything known to Earth science and pants. No good, though. Despite the breakthroughs of the early 70s we still just have taking off clothes.

It’s true that the Lunar Module touched down with less than a minute of fuel remaining. They avoided this problem on following missions by launching them a minute later. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that sooner,” said Buzz Aldrin in the 1989 debriefing. “But, hindsight, you know?”

While Apollo 11 was seen as quite the big deal at the time, the opinion of space historians has changed. While it’s still seen as important, that’s less for what it was by itself. Most in-the-know now see Apollo 11’s real legacy being its service as full dress rehearsal for the legendary Apollo 12 mission. So we’ll come back in November and do this again.

How Time Works And What You Can Do About That


Over twelve percent of the population has noticed this phenomenon. You suddenly turn your eyes to pay attention to clock of some kind. Preferably one one of those fancy non-invisible clocks. The important thing is it shows time to the second. And the clock takes its sweet time getting around to advancing that second. It can take as much as a half minute to start, and then it goes puttering on at about one second per second. But flick your eyes away and back and you can have it go back to not moving.

So what’s going on here? And what’s with the people who aren’t always checking that their clocks are counting out seconds? Do they not worry about their clocks getting lazy? Do they not worry their clocks are just wrong when nobody’s looking at them? Do they figure it’s all right for clocks to slack off? Would you slack off if you were a clock? I have no idea how to get from this point to where I meant to go. Give me a second. This could take as many as eighteen minutes.

OK, I think I’ve got it now. Consider something else that we’ve all done. You go to Wikipedia to look up germanium. A couple seconds pass. You’re reading about Saul Wahl, who may have been King of Poland for the 18th of August, 1587. The important thing is after this you look up and it’s twelve days later. You’ve missed, like, four Kings of Poland, three Hapsburg Emperors, and the odd Apostolic King of Hungary. How did all that much time pass without your noticing even a little bit?

Consider another phenomenon. Remember as a child being able to finish watching the cartoons at 9 am, then spend about eight hours on experiments like lying on the floor trying to breathe so that a tennis ball rolls out of and back into your belly button before a sibling comes over and sits on your face? And when you were done with that it was still fifteen minutes until Password Plus started at 10 am?

Here we get to the structure of time. The only real way to know time has passed is to see that something’s changed. Like, the clock’s rolled over some seconds. Wikipedia doesn’t have any clocks on it. Web pages don’t, usually. There was a time in about 1996 when web site designers discovered Javascript. This let them turn a boring lifeless web page into one that loaded slowly, tried to put up a clock, and then crashed. Now we don’t try having a clock at all, and when you look at a web site and then look back up again there’s no guessing how long it’s been. It could have been ten seconds. It could have been since 2012.

And think of being a kid. Back then you didn’t have a clock. All you had was the inaccurate clock on you parents’ car dashboard. This is why you had the greatest accumulation of time when you were being driven somewhere. If you did have a clock it’s because you were one of those freak kids who was really really really into clocks. You had a watch that you had to wind, because that made it even more clock, and you forgot to wind it after three days. Which was fine because it had that little panel that showed the day of the month, from 1 to 31. You couldn’t imagine how it would handle the problem of February. No one has ever found out.

So what practical applications does this have? Well, for one, it means that if someone asks you to do something for just a couple seconds? If you don’t have your eye on some kind of timepiece, then there is no guessing how much time their project will consume. It might be half a second. It might be a four-year expedition that takes you to a foreign planet such as Mars. More often it’s having a meeting about coffee mug policy. But if you keep your eye on a timepiece and are clear about when a “couple seconds” have passed, you won’t have such unpredictable demands on your schedule. This will be because people will sigh and roll their eyes several times, and then finally stop talking to you altogether. This is what you wanted? Well, it’s your time, if you do it right.

The Quick Start Setup Guide To Your New Laptop Computer Purchase Experience


Thank you so, so very much for your purchase of a 15-inch Abulnza Detranna 480q personal laptop computer. For any personal laptop computer really. We know there are many consumer electronic for you to purchase. This is one of them. (TIM: shouldn’t it be ‘consumer electronic options’ or ‘choices’ or something? Fix before sending copy to print.) Heck, we’re just amazed you’re buying a computer instead of a smart phone. But your new … we’re going to say PowerCom Asperia? … has many advantages over phone technologies. It can offer a world of convenience in long-form serious social media like LinkedIn or … Livejournal or … uh … Joombla? Snorlax? HorkPiks? Snorboldine? (TIM: delete any things that are not things.)

STOP! IF YOU DETECT A PROBLEM WITH THIS COMPUTER AND ONLY THIS COMPUTER DO NOT RETURN IT TO THE STORE! YOU WILL HURT THEIR FEELINGS AND PROBABLY NOT GET A WORKING COMPUTER. Instead restore the computer to its original packaging. Then leave this on the middle of a hastily cleared-off table and dial any 800 number that feels comfortable and supportive. Following this flee your home or office. (TIM: advise, know 888 and 877 numbers are things; are 866 numbers anything? Why not 899?) Leave the door open in case your coworkers or pets also need to escape. Flee to the woods, where you should then roll in a pile of loamy leaves, and climb into a tree to evade pursuers. Our representatives will be able to advise you on living off the land. You may distill rainwater, but not for drinking or washing.

Remove the computer safely from the box SAFELY WE SAID and wash the twigs from your hair. It is not necessary to repeatedly apply shampoo while washing, but it will feel like this should help. This will remind you how many things should work and somehow don’t quite. That done, set the computer on a level surface away from the shampoo bottle which you knocked over.

Inspect the computer for obvious damage, cracks, strips of transparent plastic adhered to featureless expanses of plastic, whimsical anecdotes (TIM: agreed in meeting this was ‘antidotes’ for the medical applications market), and giggling noises. Many computers of this model are ticklish and may be all wound up from the plastic foam packing peanuts. It is over-tired. Allow time for it to settle and for the peanuts to get lost inside your clothing.

Included in the package should be a power bric (TIM: again explain why not brick of power?), adaptable worldwide plugs, between four and six bluish-grey cables of miscellaneous lengths and widths that fit no sockets, between three and seven greyish-blue cables of miscellaneous lengths and widths that almost fit every socket, a complimentary keychain, and four bumper stickers. Put the bumper stickers in a secure place on the grounds they will someday be valuable. That day will be eight years from now when you are trying to get clutter out of the house, and you find these and think of this day, and how happy you were and innocent and optimistic the world seemed. Try not to find that horrifying now. Under no circumstances put these on any car’s bumpers. (TIM: why don’t cars have bumpers anymore? what happened? are we better off now that bumpers are behind us?) Over the coming year lose all the remaining cables, at your convenience. The keychain comes pre-lost for your convenience. (TIM: on reflection half all bumpers had to be behind us so disregard half of last note)

Fit the cylindrical end of the cord from the brick of power (TIM: thanks for fixing) and plug that into the power socket of the computer. Look outside to identify which continent you are on, and pick the power plug appropriate for that one. Plug that into the other socket of the brick of power and might (TIM: too much?) and the power socket that’s twenty percent less accessible than you thought. If the plug is of the wrong configuration try a different plug before you try a different continent.

Next press the power button. This you can identify as the button in the corner that’s the last button you try. Its icon is a light grey shape on a dark grey background unless we’ve swapped that again and it’s a dark grey shape under a light grey background. Wait several seconds and then press it again because you’re not sure you hit it soundly enough the first time. It did, so you have now turned the computer off.

This completes our Quick Start Setup Guide. Please now turn your attention to the computer’s setup screen. (TIM: write setup screen, remind people to do something about our HorkPiks presence.)

Everything There Is To Say About Holding Bottles


Now that we have some time let’s consider how to hold bottles. Bottles are a popular, common way to hold things that need holdings. Most objects are content to be petted or rubbed. Some, such as carpets and carports (they are not interchangeable!) need to be hugged. Bottles, though? They have special talents. They can hold other things, which yes, many things can. But they also can migrate away from where they ought to be and into the path where people walk. The bottles don’t mean anything bad by it. They suffer from wandering lids, and do their best to keep up. You’ve had days like that.

You want to be careful about disturbing bottles. They might be holding laundry detergent, so that the cap on it is tight enough to fall off when you touch the bottle. This teaches us something about the importance of holding bottles well. It’s more important than alphabetizing your cats. It’s not as important as locking the front door before you go on a two-week trip to another continent.

Most of us think we have a good idea of what is a bottle. The question of what is not a bottle might be a little shakier. Start for example with soda bottles. There’s not much arguing their bottle-ness. But where does a soda bottle come from? Soda comes from soda bottles. Thus we conclude that soda bottles come from soda bottle bottles. Clear enough. Where then do the soda bottle bottles come from? The only answer is soda bottle bottle bottles. From this we can infer the existence of soda bottle bottle bottle bottles. And we carry on like this until it gets funny to slip a “bootle” or two into the repetitive list of “bottles”. You see how even I couldn’t resist.

But then think about these bottle (etc) bottles. Where are they all kept? How can there be any factory capacious enough to hold an infinite regression of container-style bottles? At the factory you get soda from, yes. The bottling plant. But still, how is there room for all this? And the answer lies in the economies of scale. They have a dragon. This sort of thing is key to almost all businesses. Try not to worry about it.

Bottles can take on all sorts of forms, too. A soda bottle has some resemblance to a wine bottle. I mean, if you squint. And you’re looking at a different wine bottle. Still, neither of those looks a lot like the bridge-spouted vessels of the ancient Phoenicians. I’m told those are bottles by people who don’t seem to want me to look foolish. I don’t know, myself. The description makes it sound like it’s some kind of ship. I know they had ships in the Phoenician days. That’s almost what defined Phoenician days. You had ships, you had some carnival rides set up in the agora, you had a face-painting booth. Maybe have a Pythagorean over to light up the place. Bottles don’t seem to be part of this at all. I apologize for that, but the topic was good for a hundred words of content, so that’s something.

To hold a bottle, apply your hands to the outside of the bottle. Under no circumstances should you apply them to the inside. There’s only three possibilities for the inside of the bottle. You might have no idea what’s inside the bottle. In that case it’s probably something you don’t want on your hands, like glitter paint or finger-remover ointment. Or maybe you do know exactly what’s inside the bottle. In that case if you wanted it on your hands you wouldn’t have put it in the bottle to start with. You’d have put it on your hands. Yes, maybe someone else filled the bottle with the something. But then why did they put it in a bottle, instead of on your hands? They must have had good reasons, which you shouldn’t just ignore. You should learn what the reasons are and only then ignore them. The final case is maybe the bottle is empty. That’s harmless, if it is. Is the risk worth it? I don’t see how.

I hope this has answered all your questions about bottles, except for the obvious one. You’ll have to work that one out yourself. I have no opinion about whether socks are merely bottles for toes.

Everything There Is To Say About The History Of Gas Prices


There’s little question about whether gas prices are rising. You can check whether the gas station signs are getting taller. But are the prices increasing as well as rising? Those varied collections of digits don’t grow on trees, not anymore. The last grove of wild price-berry trees grew in Maine’s upper peninsula until 1914, when spoilsport geographers pointed out Maine hasn’t got any upper peninsula. An effort to transplant them to the New Hampshire panhandle failed for similar reasons.

The history of gas prices traces back to the Babylonians. One fragmentary parchment a scant three cubits by five reads “DXXXIX OCTANE .XIXIX”. This shows how thousands of years ago, before not only the invention of unleaded but before leaded was a thing, it was cheaper to get 89-octane regular. The meaning was unclear to the Babylonians, because they hadn’t invented Roman Numerals yet. (Roman Numerals were invented by early Renaissance mathematicians to make their early work look more classy.) The Babylonians were pretty hazy on the concept of Rome and whether it would go anywhere too. It’s more sort of sprawled than gone anywhere.

Even once they found out what Roman Numerals were there was still confusion . For example, everyone was pretty sure that “D” is how the Romans wrote “500”. “Fifty” should be something else, like a letter φ. The sad thing is there’s no way to find out. We have to stumble through and tell ourselves if we’re confused it’s probably because we missed something. Maybe it’s a letter ‘T’. That seems like it ought to be a Roman Numeral for something.

Today, gas prices are generally obtained through mining. Most 9’s come from three former mountains in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Even digits, most often, are taken from Kentucky or the Ozark Mountains when the owners aren’t looking. The odd numbers 1, 3, and most 7’s are dug from former silver veins in Nevada. Other 7’s come from the lower Mississippi region, the onetime “breadbasket of numbers that look random-ish”. The mighty 5 is produced by the one remaining open plant at Washington state’s Hanford Nuclear Plant. This is a highly industrial process. It creates 5’s by fissioning off either a 2 from existing 7’s, or a 3 from an existing 8. A project in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in early 1994 fused a 2 and a 3. But the operation wasn’t practical, just pretty. There’s still sometimes talk about reviving the project and hoping it works out better. It’s nice to hope for, but don’t count on anything.

As long as gas prices have been for sale people have been trying to find ways around paying them. One one approach is to use prices that are not actually written down but are on electronic signs instead. These are easy to change, so gas station owners can respond to things like the crisis in vanadium. I’m assuming there’s a crisis in vanadium. It seems like the kind of element that’s always having crises. But there are disadvantages. A physically written price needs to be paid for once and then used however long the gas station owner wants. With electronic prices you keep owing typeface royalties to either the Caslon family or the Mergenthaler heirs. Cross them at your peril.

What of the quirk of ending gas prices with a 9/10? The United States has not minted a 9/10-cent coin except briefly in 1831. This was when the Second Bank of the United States was feeling all sarcastic towards President Andrew Johnson. It was a great moment of pettiness, but they looked foolish when they remembered Johnson wasn’t in office and they meant to snipe at Andrew Jackson. The modern uses of 9/10 traces to the Second World War. A War Production Board order of January 1943 restricted the use of the fractions between 91/100 and 99/100. For the duration prices went from ending in 99/100 down to 9/10. Then people got so comfortable with that they didn’t feel like changing back when fraction rationing ended in March 1945.

Many non-United States countries sell gas by the liter, rather than the gallon. Thus they use the same prices but at different times. This inspires curious feelings of nostalgia or a sense of peeking into the future, depending on when one happens to be overseas, and when one should be otherwise.

Everything There Is To Say About Going Indoors


Ooh, and hey, now I can publish an Everything There Is To Say About Going In Doors essay by taking this and running it backwards. This is great, I’ll finally be ahead of deadline a little, only to mess it up!

[OK, I know what you’re thinking and believe me, this is better.]

If you find that exiting doors until you get out of doors doesn’t work for you? Try opening a home-repair store and holding a good sale on doors and door frames. It’s a bit more work, but that’s what it takes.

[It’s not like I couldn’t reverse every word in every sentence like I said I could do last week.]

  • Look around for that free weekly paper they used to toss somewhere near your house but that you never see anymore. You don’t remember when they stopped tossing it nearby. Did they stop printing it? Did they get upset that you only read it to see what articles were made funny by copy-editing errors? You could write their editor to ask, but you don’t know their address, what with not having a paper. There’s no way to figure this out.

[It’s just not pretty is all.]

  • Start up singing “Everyone knows it’s windy” by the Association. Continue singing until you notice your neighbors looking at you, wondering if this is also talk about the weather. It’s not but you can understand where they’re coming from. It is from next to your place.

[I’m not being lazy in this. ]

  • Spend up to fifteen minutes examining that tree where last summer you saw a raccoon crawl out of a knothole that seems way too small for it.

[I tried reversing all the words and it just made me seasick.]

  • Test how far you can get from home before your WiFi stops being detectable. Alternatively, see if you can figure out where the WiFi signal with the really funny name comes from.

[I know, you’d think it would just make things sound like Yoda but that just seems like it’s hacky in a way I don’t like.]

  • Go back indoors.

[And I tried just reversing the sentences within each paragraph and that left me a bit queasy too.]

  • Agree with the neighbors that the weather is. This is a fun activity that improves relations with your neighbors. For some reason. Humans work all weird.

[It isn’t as if I can’t commit to a bit.]

What is there to do when you’re outdoors? There’s a world of things. Some options include:

[I mean, “baffling experiment in formalism passed off as humor” is almost my signature mode.]

If you find yourself indoors, you can get out of doors. Think hard of the last time you were outdoors, and exit at least as many doors as you entered to get where you are now. If you see a shortcut — some path that would skip some door or other — well, it’s your business. I wouldn’t risk it. You might overshoot the outdoors and get to the out-outdoors and that’s some weird space.

[But believe me there’s no way to make, like, “Detection outdoors in course advanced an need you’ll” readable at length never mind funny. ]

Thing about going out of doors is you can only do it if you start indoors. Thus, are you indoors? The way to know for sure is to apply a three-dimensional analog to the Jordan Curve Theorem. This is one of the foundational elements of multivariable geometry. So there’s no way to know. We have to infer from evidence. Check around you. If you find around yourself a fireplace, a cuckoo clock that is not oversized and does not feature comical figures poking out on the quarter-hour, a game show taping, or pictures on the wall of beloved yet vaguely identifiable relatives, there’s a good chance you’re indoors. If you find a herd of zebras or a ukulele festival or a golfatorium? These often indicate being outdoors. A giant cuckoo clock with comical figures poking out on the quarter-hour is often a sign you’re at an amusement park, and it might be indoors or outdoors. You’ll need an advanced course in outdoors detection.

[Anyway I won’t do this again unless it turns out that it worked brilliantly and everybody loves my weird mix of trying a thing that didn’t actually work.]

The outdoors is very like the indoors, with one fewer set of doors to go through. Also the outdoors offers weather. This is an exciting feature in which, instead of being comfortable, it’s too hot. Or it’s too cold. Sometimes you’ll be in a devious place and it’ll be too medium instead. There’s no guessing what the temperature will be like, except by checking a forecast. Plus weather offers the prospect of rain or snow or clouds of ladybugs or some other daft thing. There are places where you can say, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. This is everywhere except Singapore. In Singapore it’s always 92 degrees Fahrenheit and muggy outside monsoon season, which is 1:30 to 3:30 pm every day.

[I feel like such a fool except this easily took me like four minutes less to write than a wholly original piece would have taken.]

Going out of doors is very like going in doors, except it works the other way around. Now if I had written Everything There Is To Say About Going In Doors, I wouldn’t be behind deadline. I could just print that whole essay with the words in reverse order. Too bad.

Everything There Is To Say About Going Out Of Doors


Going out of doors is very like going in doors, except it works the other way around. Now if I had written Everything There Is To Say About Going In Doors, I wouldn’t be behind deadline. I could just print that whole essay with the words in reverse order. Too bad.

The outdoors is very like the indoors, with one fewer set of doors to go through. Also the outdoors offers weather. This is an exciting feature in which, instead of being comfortable, it’s too hot. Or it’s too cold. Sometimes you’ll be in a devious place and it’ll be too medium instead. There’s no guessing what the temperature will be like, except by checking a forecast. Plus weather offers the prospect of rain or snow or clouds of ladybugs or some other daft thing. There are places where you can say, “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. This is everywhere except Singapore. In Singapore it’s always 92 degrees Fahrenheit and muggy outside monsoon season, which is 1:30 to 3:30 pm every day.

Thing about going out of doors is you can only do it if you start indoors. Thus, are you indoors? The way to know for sure is to apply a three-dimensional analog to the Jordan Curve Theorem. This is one of the foundational elements of multivariable geometry. So there’s no way to know. We have to infer from evidence. Check around you. If you find around yourself a fireplace, a cuckoo clock that is not oversized and does not feature comical figures poking out on the quarter-hour, a game show taping, or pictures on the wall of beloved yet vaguely identifiable relatives, there’s a good chance you’re indoors. If you find a herd of zebras or a ukulele festival or a golfatorium? These often indicate being outdoors. A giant cuckoo clock with comical figures poking out on the quarter-hour is often a sign you’re at an amusement park, and it might be indoors or outdoors. You’ll need an advanced course in outdoors detection.

If you find yourself indoors, you can get out of doors. Think hard of the last time you were outdoors, and exit at least as many doors as you entered to get where you are now. If you see a shortcut — some path that would skip some door or other — well, it’s your business. I wouldn’t risk it. You might overshoot the outdoors and get to the out-outdoors and that’s some weird space.

What is there to do when you’re outdoors? There’s a world of things. Some options include:

  • Agree with the neighbors that the weather is. This is a fun activity that improves relations with your neighbors. For some reason. People are weird.
  • Go back indoors.
  • Test how far you can get from home before your WiFi stops being detectable. Alternatively, see if you can figure out where the WiFi signal with the really funny name comes from.
  • Spend up to fifteen minutes examining that tree where last summer you saw a raccoon crawl out of a knothole that seemed way too small for it.
  • Start up singing “Everyone knows it’s windy” by the Association. Continue singing until you notice your neighbors looking at you, wondering if this is also talk about the weather. It’s not but you can understand where they’re coming from. It is from next to your place.
  • Look around for that free weekly paper they used to toss somewhere near your house but that you never see anymore. You don’t remember when they stopped tossing it nearby. Did they stop printing it? Did they get upset that you only read it to see what articles were made funny by copy-editing errors? You could write their editor to ask, but you don’t know their address, what with not having a paper. There’s no way to figure this out.

If you find that exiting doors until you get out of doors doesn’t work for you? Try opening a home-repair store and holding a good sale on doors and door frames. It’s a bit more work, but that’s what it takes.

Ooh, and hey, now I can publish an Everything There Is To Say About Going In Doors essay by taking this and running it backwards. This is great, I’ll finally be ahead of deadline a little, only to mess it up!

Everything There Is To Say About Mnemonics


Remembering things used to be a great pastime. It’s obsolete these days. We only need to remember things anymore while we’re recording special “live” episodes of our podcasts. And that just if we feel rude checking our phones in front of the audience except to check our notes. For the rest of us it’s an affectation, like learning how long division works or how to spell “carburetor”. But it can be a fun one. Please remember I think there’s a swell video game to be made out of drawing time zone boundaries. I’m not trustworthy in judgements of “fun”. I could be coaxed into stopping at a roadside attraction promising the state’s third-most-average ball of twine. That even before finding out whether they have miniature golf.

There is only one sure way to remember a thing. That’s for it to be the lyrics you’re pretty sure you heard wrong from a song you can’t get out of your head. And you’re not sure you have the melody right either. It’s great and reliable but there’s almost no way to pick what you remember. It’ll never help you remember, like, what model your car’s engine is long enough to get something from the auto parts store. It’ll just leave you asking your musically inclined friends, “what’s that song I heard in the 80s or early 90s that’s like, `dahdah dah dah dah, chipmunks and kangaroos dahdah’?” while they back away, through the wall if need be. You can try hooking some phrase you want to remember up to a song you like, but that just ruins the song for you. You’ll be in the middle of humming this book title about the French and Indian War you wanted from the library and realize that you’re Ray Davies and you’ve gone way off script performing “Waterloo Sunset” on live TV. It’s humiliating.

Which comes to the next great way to remember a thing: feel humiliated by it. You can have many things to ponder in life, but the last will be that weird, involuntary, somehow squeaking-bark laugh that your second-grade teacher emitted when you said “molecule” like that. Again, great reliability, lousy selection. Who needs to remember wrong ways to say words, anyway? Again, only podcasters doing the part of the show where they respond defensively to their e-mails. Many of us got to be this many years old without ever having to say “unguent” out loud and that’s not evidence of a mis-spent life, all right?

Next to humiliation is stories, though. The average person can remember over twelve stories, which gives us plenty to talk about again while on a long car ride. We can make up stories about stuff we want to remember and then we’ll never get it out of our heads again, so make sure you get this right. Here, it helps if the stories are dumb. This way every time it works you feel humiliated something that stupid helped you, strengthening the memory.

For example, the highway near me is flanked by a one-way northbound service road and a one-way southbound service road. One of these is Homer. One of these is Hosmer. This is a mistake. Hosmer is a road several blocks away from all this. The other of the service roads is Howard. Which one goes north and which one goes south? It would be great if Hosmer went south, since it’s got that ‘s’ in there, but Hosmer has no part in this. Stop remembering Hosmer already.

But then I had a great idea: that prominent ‘m’ in Homer is the clue. If I can just remember “it’s called Homer because it runs morth” I would never get that stupid idea out of my head. And now good luck you getting it out either. There’s only two problems. One is, isn’t Morth the name of Jonathan Winters’s character on the last season of Mork and Mindy? Second, why am I trying to remember which one is Homer and which is Hosmer anyway? What problem in my life will that ever solve?

So if anyone has an idea how I can remember that I’m not responsible for Homer or Hosmer streets and don’t need to know which one runs which way, please write in care of this address. Thank you.

Three Things There Are To Say About Astronomy


Astronomy is the practice of looking at the sky to see if anything interesting is going on. Then keep careful notes in case it isn’t. The sky can be located by the simple process of going out of doors. This should be about the same number of doors as you’ve entered, but in the reverse order. There are complications. I can’t deal with them all here. To see me deal with them please review my essay, Everything There Is To Say About Going Out Of Doors, which I’ll write one of these days.

The sky may be found by looking up, if you are in the northern hemisphere, or looking down, if you are in the southern hemisphere. If you are in the eastern hemisphere you’ll have to use your best judgement. If you are in the western hemisphere you’ll have to use as best judgement as you can find, given the circumstances.

The important thing is to look at the sky, wherever it is. To be an amateur astronomer, all you need to bring is your eyes. I use “your” to mean you have authority over whatever eyes you’re using. But you are allowed to use anything that collects light, which helps you see darker things. This is because a great whopping heap of darkness is easier to see? It seems like I got that wrong somehow, but I keep going back and checking and that’s how it comes out. There must be a trick somewhere.

You know if you ask an amateur astronomer they’ll tell you the moon is about as bright as a lump of charcoal. And yes, you asked what they were listening to that was so funny. Many amateur astronomers are socially anxious and will blurt out things so as to get through the conversation quicker. Please review my essay, Everything There Is To Say About Getting Through A Conversation, which I’ll write one of these days.

The night sky has over sixteen visible objects in it. You sound less foolish if you know what they are. The night sky like a mostly black thing spotted with bright dots. These are the exceptions:

  • Orion
  • The Big Dipper Or Maybe That’s The Little Dipper
  • The Little Dipper Or Maybe That’s The Big Dipper
  • The One That Looks Like A W
  • Square Wearing A Triangle Hat

These are examples of constellations, of which there are a number.

What number? There is no way to know. I have it memorized that there are 88 constellations. This is the fault of someone who told me that it was easy to remember there were 88 constellations because there are also 88 counties in Ohio. I have never lived in Ohio, and I have never had an explicit interaction with any aspect of its county governance. I have no knowledge of whether there are 88 counties in Ohio, either. I could not attest under oath that the number of constellations and the number of counties in Ohio are both numbers. I admit I would take a guess, though.

But I’ve got a mnemonic about this now. So I know my last thought before dying will be “there are 88 constellations and there are 88 counties in Ohio”. This even though I would prefer my last thoughts to be, “I’m so grateful that so much of my life could be spent with my darling in it” and “At last I have shown them all”. Mnemonics are like that. I could try shaking it up, make it “there are 88 constellations in Ohio”, but I’ll never let myself think that. I have a hard enough time writing it as a hypothetical. Anyway I explain this all in my essay, Everything There Is To Say About Mnemonics. I forget if I’ve written that one already.

But once you’ve learned all the things that are supposed to be in the night sky there’s some fun ahead. Because amateur astronomers can still discover stuff. Professional astronomers come out and say, “yup, they discovered that thing” and “they were right” and “they showed us all”. To discover a thing, simply catalogue all the things in the night sky and find a thing that’s not supposed to be there. This will be a tern, flying high enough it’s still in sunlight while you’re in darkness. That puts you under the jurisdiction of the animal-watchers. For further instructions please consult my essay, Four Things There Are To Say About Animal-Watching, which I have no idea how to write.

One Thing There Is To Say About How Language Evolution Helps Writers


If we know only one thing about the English language we’re probably counting wrong. Most of us know four things about English. Professors of English know even more. There are some who know well enough to explain to the lay audience six things. Still, one is the minimum number of things people know about the English language, if they know anything at all. And I’d like to see you get out of that one.

But one thing we know about the English language is that words change meaning. They often do this without warning, despite the custom that they do not do this without warning. That is, that they do it with warning. I’d like to see me get out of this one myself.

There are neat ways that words do change meaning. The most exciting way they change is through a graphitic fission. One thrilling example of this was in 1378. A team lead by Geoffrey Chaucer subjected the word “deer” to high-participle bombardment in a gerund-lined chamber. It split the word “deer” from its earlier meaning of “anything that isn’t a bird or fish but that people are still willing to eat, as long as it isn’t a plant or shoe”. All that remained was “Bambi-like life-form”. We’re left without a word for the earlier meaning of deer. We make do with the circumlocution “eh, I don’t feel like that” while standing in front of the fridge.

Still, the experiment was worth it. There were flurries of syntax over southern England for years, accelerating the evolution of the language. That’s not to say this is always without its perils. A 1752 attempt to fragment the word “meat” — applied back then to animal flesh, the innards of peaches, or large enough trees — resulted in war with Spain. In fairness, that sort of thing happened a lot in those days. Spain didn’t even know about the war for two more years. They just thought the English were being all snippy, again.

Another kind of word evolution is reverse mitosis. In this a word shoots out a cytoplasm-dissolving compound to envelop and absorb some other word’s definitions. The shorter words are better at this, wowing to surface tension. It might seem unfair to you that “run” has now taken over 80,954 distinct words and yet it doesn’t show any signs of breaking up. In fact, it is deeply unfair. There’s nothing we can do. But we aren’t expected to do anything either. That itself is a kind of relief.

And while this process can obliterate an old word, there’s no reason new words can’t join up. Any new conglomeration of letters can join the English language. The franchise fee is perhaps objectionably low. It hasn’t changed form its 1663 level of “five groat, a tuppence, and three cloves of onnyons”, which is obvious gibberish. A lost word can just re-form and try again. English is on like its fourth “gossip”, for example, and it’s not going to stop however hard we try.

Another bit of word evolution that’s a really hilarious freaking joke, guys, is protective camouflage. In this, we notice that a word means something. But if we actually meant that thing, whoever we called that would get angry and maybe slug us. So we use the word but get all arch and wry about it. This keeps other people from knowing whether they want to slug us or kiss us. The worst they’ll do is think we’re being witty. This frees up our time and saves us social anxiety. But it does mean that any word is at most three generations away from meaning the opposite of what it now means.

An awareness of this gives writers exciting new chances, though. Sentences are made up of words, I think you’ll agree. If you won’t then go ahead and make your argument. It won’t work, because every word in your argument will mutate to every possible meaning. I just have to look back at the right time and your literal words will mean what I want them to, so I win.

But the opportunity for writers. It’s hard finding the right words and stringing them along the right way. But it’s also unnecessary. Write absolutely anything and, someday, it’ll be what you wanted it to be. This should make all writers’ lives easier. It does not.

Everything There Is To Say About Programming A Computer In The 80s


The earliest personal computers begged you to program them. Or they would, except the earliest personal computers weren’t sophisticated enough to do that. They’d print out a line like ‘OK’ and hope you picked up the hint. It wasn’t much to go on. It was like the computer wanted to say “WhatEVER”, except the computers didn’t have enough memory to be snide. Please remember back then it was spiffy that the computer had sixteen colors, three of which were grey. Anyway there was fun with programming.

You could write your own programs. These programs would print out the word ‘POOP’ and then repeat forever, filling the whole screen. This took under a second and then continued until you got bored. If you became a more advanced programmer, you’d add spaces to the end of ‘POOP’. This way as the screen scrolled you saw lines fluttering around instead of a long, static, column. This was less boring. Some of us got the chance to be forced to use Logo in school. This was a graphics programming language that let you draw a square. If you were an advanced Logo programmer, you could draw a square and then another square at an angle. Sometimes computer magazines would run an article about the language PILOT, which was a hoax.

If you didn’t want to write your own language there were magazines with programs you could type in. I mean computer magazines. Well, maybe there were computer programs you could type in from, like, Tiger Beat or Family Knitting ’83. I never checked. Maybe I am prejudging the situation. Anyone with specific information otherwise I ask to write in to Mister Food care of your local TV station.

But the type-in programs were great. You could flip open the magazine, set it in front of your computer, and then have the magazine close right back up again. Oh, there’s an ad on the back cover for some game that’s like Wheel of Fortune except all the contestants are aliens. I’m sure the graphics looked as great as the advertisement’s airbrushed art, only with more grey. Well, you flip open the magazine again, weight the edges down with some other magazines, and get to typing! It would be hundreds, maybe thousands, of lines, but that’s all right. If you typed anything wrong it would only make the entire thing not work at all.

Some of the magazines tried to help you out. They came up with these automatic proofreader programs. This make a little checksum appear each time you enter a line. The magazine listed what the right checksums were. So when they didn’t match you could complain the automatic proofreader was broken. I know what you’re thinking: since you had to type in the automatic proofreader how did you know you got that right? We didn’t. We had to hope. In hindsight we probably should have spent more of the decade crying.

You didn’t have to type programs in. You could load them in from a storage medium. Trouble is the storage medium we had was cassette tapes. For short programs it was faster to type them in again. For long programs it was faster to hold your computer up to the night sky and let cosmic rays randomly trip memory cells into the right patterns.

The typing could get to be fun. In like 1987 I typed in SpeedScript 3.2. It was a word processor that included advanced features. If you ended a paragraph by hitting shift-return, it put in a return, a blank line, and a tab to get the next paragraph off to a rousing start. I’ve spent the last 32 years looking for another word processor that would do this for me. It had other features, I assume.

A couple months later I found the magazine with SpeedScript 1.0, a worse version. And spent an afternoon typing that in because, hey, what else am I going to do? Not crush my median nerve against the carpal tunnel? But it was all worth it: after typing in SpeedScript 1.0 I could see for myself that it was kind of like SpeedScript 3.2, but not as good. I think it still had the shift-return thing, though. And I know what you’re all wondering: Wait, where was SpeedScript 2.0? I’ve spent 32 years fuming about that.

But don’t think all this typing didn’t have lasting effects, even if I haven’t yet completely destroyed my wrists. To this day, when I open a program and then close it right away I think about if this were 1988. I’d have had to spend like eighty minutes typing in that program and I just threw it away, only the modern version of it was good at its job except for the shift-return thing. Then I feel guilty.

So to summarize, I understand why everybody treated me like that in middle school.

Far From Everything There Is To Say About Upgrading Operating Systems


Every now and then it’s good practice to upgrade your operating system. This teaches you to stop trying to do daft things like that for a year or two. I here mean your computer’s operating system. You’re welcome to try upgrading the operating system on something else, such as your thermostat, your hips, or your frying pans. That’ll teach you an even harder lesson.

The earliest computers had no operating systems at all. Users, like you but more old-fashioned, would just take whatever you had and bring it to them. Primitive weather models, Pi written out to eight digits, those oscilloscopes they show you pictures of in saying this was somehow a video game, large blocks of nutmeg, military-surplus tennis rackets, whatever. Then the computer would put whatever you had in wherever something fit. They trusted this wouldn’t avalanche too often, not during working hours. It would anyway, and they’d blame it on a “tube”. These were heady, exciting times. It seemed like computers could do anything. A high point of this was during the Presidential Election of 1952, when UNIVAC stunned television reporters by tipping over and spilling 25,000 golf balls over the CBS Newsroom. They tried to make this more plausible by reporting it as only 22,500 golf balls.

But we couldn’t keep up that happy state of affairs for some reason. Probably respectability. Everything good gets foiled by people who want to be respectable. By this they don’t mean, like, being considerate of people. They mean boring. So we got the modern operating system. This takes everything that might go into a computer and tries to organize it. This starts out well, the way it starts out well when you put things in a new house. All the surfaces are neat and as clean as they ever get. And the computer, like you, stacks things in neat little containers. They’re marked things like “Music” or “Kitchen” or “Miscellaneous” or “Misc” or “Misc 2” or “Living Room/Paid Bills/Books/Saved Games/Movies/etc 4-A” before the organization breaks down altogether, later that day. If you’re wondering why you have the folders Games/Music/Saved/ToSort, Music/Saved/ToSort/Games, and ToSort/Saved/Music/Games, consider this: not one of them has anything containing music nor created by any game in it. They’re all the digital equivalent of that strange piece of metal that’s in your junk drawer. The one that looks like it might be this weird multi-tool? But also might be what’s left over after something fell off an airplane? And you don’t dare throw it out because how would you ever get another one?

And this organization breaks down too. Bits fall loose, perhaps because you’re using “lossy” data formats like JPEG and forgetting stuff. Frames drop out of those Let’s Play videos. You know, where you find some game you could never do anything with, and someone’s explaining it all? But you can only ever find, like part 28 of a 154-part series, and when you search for the start you get parts 26, 78, 55, and 184, and that’s it? The bookmarks you have rot, so when something reminds you of a web site you used to visit all the time, like, four years ago you look now and there’s just compost and a warning that you need to update RealPlayer. Support files for old software rolls loose, getting caught under the file cabinet, and then one day sitting in the middle of your desktop is a 45-second audio loop from when you played Zoo Tycoon 3: Ungulation Nation!. This e-mail from 2014 you’re totally going to answer someday has now declared it needs to be opened by the rxRawrSnag-CodeMaster tool, which does not and never has existed.

Thus the value of the complete upgrade. It wipes everything clean. Every program has to re-establish its right to be where it is, and to do what it does. Right after the upgrade there’s the promise of a new start. You get to fiddle with the desktop pictures and maybe how fast the mouse should respond to things. Your software goes through a land rush, each bit of code fearing that it’s now going to be declared obsolete or at least not really useful. Everybody ends up stressed about different things than usual, which counts as improvement.

Some operating-sytem makers are trying to get rid of the big upgrade. They would. How are we supposed to ever fix a thing?

What There Is To Do About E-mail


In a sense there’s nothing to do about e-mail. We have almost completely overcome the use of e-mail to communicate with people. E-mail is this decentralized, open service. It lets you use anything you like to send or to receive messages you can display and organize in any way you like and keep, or delete, at your leisure. We couldn’t keep using a scheme like that. We have to communicate by direct messages channeled through a social-media tech corporation. This lets them sell us quarrels and procedurally generated t-shirts.

But there are still purposes to what e-mail remains. Understanding them will let us understand this doomed system. What their purpose is depends on the context of the e-mail. For example, the first purpose of work e-mails is showing that you are working on whatever you were supposed to be working on. And how you can’t do that unless other people to work on whatever it is they are supposed to work on. The second purpose of work e-mail is to compile lists of take-out orders complicated enough that they can never be ordered or fully paid for. Past that work e-mail lets us know what silly Internet pastime is annoying the IT department. They want very much to tamp it down now.

The first kind of work-based e-mails is easiest to answer. In response to any e-mail of this type, assert good progress. And that you’ve been enjoying some breakthroughs. Still, though, you have to admit that completion is running behind deadline. But allow that it would be easier if not for the efforts of some other person. It’s better off leaving vague “who”, in case the boss tries to work out who. If you work for a large enough corporation, you can leave hints that point to a person who does not, and perhaps never has, existed.

The second kind you can answer by making sure that there is always an extra tub of sweet and sour sauce left over once the lunch is delivered. This lets everyone enjoy the unsettling feeling they have the wrong order. The exception to this is when everyone is ordering Chinese food for lunch. In this case there should be one missing tub.

The third kind of work e-mail is obsolete because it turns out people have phones. The IT department is still very cross about things, but they always will be. It makes them happy. Promise them you’ll never ever use your work computer to play Farmville. If you want them to smile, add that you’re swearing off Friendster, YikYak, and what the heck, Apple eWorld.

Another once-popular form of e-mail was the mailing list. These were created to let people who all liked one thing share talk about something entirely else. The working process here was to have one person notice a fact, real or imagined. When they determine the rest of the list has not sufficiently acknowledged it, they send it on to the list. The response here is then to contradict the fact as being either irrelevant or untrue. This has one correct response, which in the busy days of a mailing list would be sent by five people. That response is that no, the fact has been amply discussed in earlier discussions on the list. And furthermore this could be proven by consulting the archives, as soon as someone finds them.

The alternate use for a mailing list was to have people announce personal moments. These could include a marriage, a graduation, the discovery that one has a child, the announcement one is leaving the mailing list forever except that this time they mean it, or that someone else has been born. There are two stages to answering these. In the first stage send congratulations. in the second, send a cascade of the same twelve puns these threads always use. But you’re forgiven if you slack off. No one person has to respond to any particular messages. This is why every mailing list died out around 2014.

Commercial e-mails are sent by corporations. They believe that your staying in a hotel means now you need someone to suggest reserving a hotel room to you. You need this at least four times a day, so far, based on how little you do hotel-room-reservation-ing. It has to be some kind of insecurity. They realize that, like, a corporation isn’t even a thing. It’s the imaginary friend of someone with capital. Shake your head at the folly of humanity but do not encourage them any.

There are a number of other purposes for e-mail. This number is four.

Everything There Is To Say About Hurt Feet Except For What I Forget To Say


Do your feet hurt? And, come to think of it, who do your feet hurt? And if who, then what do they hurt? You might choose to stop them if they’re hurting someone else. Whether you want to do that depends on your history together. If your foot is emotionally hurting them instead things are also going to be more confused and difficult. Expect a long session of being scolded for not taking their side in your argument with them.

If your feet hurt you then the problem is more immediate. Giving your feet a good talking-to may be appropriate. There are times when you could want your feet to hurt. Those are when having a small but not provable ailment will get you out of something. For example, if there’s a spirit in the air that someone should move the fold-out couch up seven flights of stairs. If your feet are starting to hurt, then don’t waste time. Hang around eight-story buildings and make friends who have couches. You may as well get the credit for being totally willing to help, if only your feet allowed.

If you have got sore feet, there’s a process to follow. Check first that they are your own. Perhaps you were confused this morning and put on someone else’s by mistake. Perhaps you put them on deliberately. Are you one of those rotters trying to mess up a good thing for everyone else? We don’t need that. Why are you being that person? Did they hurt your feet so now you’re hurting your feet in retaliation? How does any of that make sense?

Which part of the foot hurts affects what to do about it. The foot has many parts, including the ankle, the toes, the arch, the support, the drawbridge, the toll booth, the pier, and the starling. Consult a team of expert engineers to identify structural weaknesses. If necessary they might design the complete replacement of your foot, perhaps with one of those elegant new cable-stayed feet. These can be most lovely with their long, graceful tapering curves of supporting wires. They’ll draw to your foot steady traffic of grateful tourists. You’ll want to dress appropriately. You’ll expect to find me make some crack about footbridges. That would be silly. It’s more profitable to have freight tunnels under your ankles. Fund this new foot with thirty-year construction bonds financed by tolls.

Should there be spare money it’s also a good idea to bring in a team of inexpert engineers, who’ll be funny to watch. You can get a team of inexpert engineers going for hours by pretending to not be certain which ones are your feet. You can ask them to prove those on you are actually your feet. Make sure you have your original receipt on foot lest they nab you for Grand Theft Navicular. That last joke was researched and is therefore funny. Ask if you’re supposed to identify with feet simply because you were physically attached to them. Should they instead be your feet because of the strong emotional connection you have with them? If they say “emotional connection” then grin. You have them. Point out how good the cat’s feet feel when you’re half-awake and the cat is patting your belly. Watch the inexpert engineers try to claim they were supposed to help the person the next house over.

If you rule out complete structural replacement of the foot then it’s on to repairs. There are several routes to fixing a sore foot. For example, you can apply pressure to it. If that doesn’t work, try removing pressure on it. You can try applying heat to it. If that’s no good, try not applying heat to it. You can go on pretty near forever trying to be sure whether the other approach would work better. If it keeps you occupied and feeling productive that alone is an accomplishment and you shouldn’t ignore that. There are all sorts of body parts that you have that aren’t doing as much. What’s important is the sense of participation.

Above all else, though, do remember that in 1923 BF Goodrich sold almost half a million Zipper Boots. This has nothing to do with your situation, but it is something researched, and therefore, is also funny.

All Kinds Of Thoughts About A Bucket Of Water And The Universe


I should clarify I mean the bucket contains water, and is itself in the universe. If this is not understood then I will be confusing.

Newton’s Bucket is one of the innumerable great physics problems involving buckets. By innumerable I mean two. The other one is the problem of how many buckets you can place over the head of a person sleeping in physics class before they startle awake. But this problem is of only historical interest anymore. Now that they have cell phones students don’t sleep in class, or anywhere else. This has helped them reach the level of maturity where we’re all tired and anxious. That surely helps.

So this is the other great bucket-based physics problem. And the fun thing is that you can work on it without having a bucket of your own. You don’t even need your own Newton, which makes things easier on all of us. First, imagine if you had a bucket. If you really do have a bucket, your imagination is either quite vivid or it’s not good at all. I don’t have a preferred interpretation. You can fight it out with your friends. Make sure to bring up the time they volunteered at the improv night and froze up on stage. That will surely help.

But take your bucket, imaginary or not, and put some water in. You can get water by imagining that you’ve burned some amines and filtered out the carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides. Or you can use the tap if you aren’t any fun. Imagine spinning the bucket, though. As you twirl it around, your arm gets very tired and, if you don’t stop, it falls off. So we maybe imagine hanging the bucket from a rope or a chain that can twirl around without being your arm.

Bartender: 'Here's one. How many theoretical physicists does it take to change a light bulb?' Lard: 'No idea, Phil.' Bartender: 'Two! One to hold the light bulb. The other to rotate the universe.' The gnome who's there with Lard looks horrified by the punch line.
Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 10th of April, 2019. It’s a surprisingly timely comic strip given my subject this week, and it’s completely on-topic if you don’t actually read it! Or if you wonder how this advances the cause of world peace.

The question is: while you’re spinning the bucket, how do you know the bucket and water are spinning? How do you know they’re not actually staying still while the entire universe spins around them, like the way it works when you’re riding a carousel? For us this is easy to answer. As the bucket spins, it spills water onto your socks. This makes you growl and set the bucket down. You go to change into oh, it turns out those were your last clean socks. Great. Now the day is spilled. You mean spoiled, but it’s spoiled by being spilled, so maybe they’re the same word after all and just look different and mean different things. Anyway your setting the bucket down settles the matter. If the whole universe were spinning instead, it would have to be that your socks spilled into the water. And you know that didn’t happen, unless you stepped into the bucket.

That’s the practical matter. Now imagine this, though. What if there were nothing in the universe except the bucket and the water and the chain it hung from? Then how would you know it was the bucket and water spinning instead? And this is the question that makes cosmologists say “whoooooah” to each other. Meanwhile the other people in the physics department? The ones working on, like, the dispersal of shock waves in rarefied fluids near a phase transition? They’ll say things like, “Yeah, they’re not with us” and “that person with the physics degree and the post as physics professor with an office in the physics department is … uh … we’re going to say in Evo Psych.” The evolutionary psychologists, happy to have someone talking about them in a non-derogatory way, agree.

But this does nothing to answer the question, which we have to do for some reason. So if there was almost nothing in the universe. There’s no distant galaxies. No planets. No things that wiggle. No pillows with flower prints. No battery-powered plastic candles. No nothing except this bucket and this water, how would you know if it were spinning? And the answer is that you don’t know, because you don’t exist. Not unless you’re either the bucket or the water. And we can be sure you’re not the bucket, not with your sense of dignity.

Can we be sure you’re not the water? This is a harder question to answer. To say for sure that you’re water would require pressing yourself into a sponge, pulling back out, and seeing if you can’t. But as the question set out, there are no sponges in the universe. So therefore there’s no way to do this experiment and thus tell.

And so we see the importance of Newton’s Bucket. Thanks to it we understand how fortunate we are to live in a world with sponges, as we would otherwise have no knowledge of which things were spinning. This surely helps.

In Which I Imagine Having A Job I Would Be Very Bad At


I was thinking of something from a couple years ago. The alternatives are thinking of the present, or worse, of the future. But you know how it is. You read something and then you go and remember it. It spoils the fun of re-reading the thing. But it’s no longer possible to re-find a thing you once read anyway. Once you glance away, it’s gone. You can subscribe to our fun newsletter but you’ll never find it again.

So this is as best I remembered the thing. It was in Russia and like a decade ago. They were having this problem with groups holing up in bunkers and things and waiting for the end of the world. And, like, sure you understand that now. But this was like 2010, when all the Internet was furious about was how Apple sent everybody a U2 album. But there were enough groups holing up waiting for the end of the world that they had an office to deal with this. And that’s what I keep coming back to.

Because I try to imagine working for that office. I’d go out, find a group of people who are in a bunker or a cave or an abandoned factory or something, waiting for the end of the world. And then … what can I do to get them out? I assume I’m trying to get them out. If I weren’t, why would I even leave the office? Maybe there’s a good restaurant nearby I’d wanted to try for lunch. That’s not likely. I’m not an adventurous lunch-goer. It took me six years to try the Big John’s Steak and Onions sandwich shop. It’s like a mile and a half from home and I pass it every time I go anywhere. And that I had to approach slowly, feigning like I was going to the jewelers’ next door and peering at the menu while the cashier looked upset with me.

So grant that I’m there to talk them out. I have a reputation among my friends for being diplomatic. This is because they don’t know about the time I could not convince my love that I was not upset about making the asparagus with sweetened condensed, rather than evaporated, milk. It’s been years and neither of us has suggested having asparagus since. So you can see where I’d fall short handling this. What can negotiations be like?

“Come on out,” I’d probably say. “The world’s not ending anytime soon.” You can see why I have this reputation for diplomacy in my social circles.

But I haven’t made my case. “No,” they’re sure to say. “The world is coming to an end very soon and we’re going to hide.”

“What are you hoping to get by hiding, though?” Here I’m figuring that all I want is them out in the world. It’s fine if they figure it’s ending soon. “Did anything you didn’t like ever go away by hiding? Did school go away by hiding?”

An answer. “I never hid from school. I liked it, except for this algebra teacher in eighth grade.”

“You too?” I’d say. “I didn’t understand a word from my teacher that year. The only thing I ever learned was this two-week stretch we had a substitute.”

And here we have recognition. “She taught this little tic-tac-toe board thing? Kind of a weird magic square for factoring quadratic polynomials?”

“Exactly!” And now that seems good. The person has said something kind of friendly to me, so now I’m bonded. Experience indicates I’ll now take fifteen years of their berating me before I acknowledge we’re not friends, but we could be if they showed more consideration. So that’s all great. I have someone new I can get e-mails from that I’ll never answer because I feel too bad that I haven’t answered them already. But it hasn’t done a thing about getting the holed-up group out, or getting me in. I don’t see how this makes any progress.

And then another thing, if this is a group in Russia like I had read about. I have to trust someone in the group understands English. Someone has to be helping me along there. Oh, wouldn’t that be my luck, if whoever spoke English in the cave wanted to mess with all of us?

Some Thoughts About How To Fix Walking


Walking is a trendy way to get to where you should have been in the first place. But there are problems keeping it from enjoying truly widespread adoption. The obvious is that things are on average a little too far apart. That could be fixed by growth and shrink rays, if they weren’t all being used for merry pranks. Another problem is the weather. It’s often too cold to walk all the way to the thing. If it isn’t, it might well be too hot. If it’s too hot, there’s a great chance it’s so blisteringly sunny that it’s not nice to be outside. If it isn’t, that might just be because it’s too rainy. Sometimes it’s so blasted medium there’s no going outside.

But one further problem is the risk of collisions. This is mostly colliding with other people walking, or as they are known in the trade “pediatricians”. It’s annoying to collide with, say, a mailbox. But there’s no way to fix that problem except to set the mailboxes somewhere they can’t be walked into. This sets off compensatory problems, though. If we moved the mailboxes up like eight feet so we can just breeze on past them, fine, but then how do we send letters? Do we all just have to go to the second floor? No, that doesn’t work. If we dug pits so the mailbox tops are at ground level? Then we could only mail stuff after kneeling down and standing back up again, and nobody over the age of 35 has time for that.

My solution comes from the car industry, so don’t tell them. Anyway if they want royalties I’m going to tell them my solution comes from experience. You know how hard it is to turn around and go back where you started from without tapping your forehead? There we go. The solution is signalling. This way other people can react to what you figure to do, such as by filing injunctions. We can put a set of signal lights on people walking. These can be hooked up to the pediatricians’ shoulders. If they don’t have shoulders, we can set them on their belts. If they don’t have belts either we can set them on their ankles. If they also don’t have ankles I don’t know what to do. It’s a new technology. There’s always details to work out.

A pediatrician figuring to move towards their left signals their left light, unless they don’t remember left and right reliably. This suggests a side market for henna-rinse tattoos identifying left and right. I leave this market opening for anyone who wants to fill it. It will be hidden in back of the mailbox at the corner. My in back of, not yours.

A pediatrician flashing both left and right lights coming to a halt, or is starting mitosis. Either way people will appreciate the warning. A pediatrician already stopped who signals both lights, and who has already divided into two or more genetically identical daughter selves, is preparing to move again. This will warn people to be ready with cardboard boxes and packing tape. Several short taps on the same side indicate a desire to spin. The left light indicates a spin counterclockwise as viewed from above, right indicating a spin clockwise gain as viewed from above. Unless I have that the other way around. Matters are reversed in the other hemisphere, because it’s different in the Eastern Hemisphere. Also they’re different when two pediatricians are on the sidewalk and the signaller is between the companion and the curb. This part could use some clarification.

A short and then long tap on either light indicates the matching arm is about to be put out. Why, I don’t know. The important thing is being considerate.

I know you all want to shower me with praises and money for fixing walking. There’s no need, although I wouldn’t turn down a $560 million payout if you’ve got it. But I’ll take my reward in being the person who solves the problem of what to do when you’re walking right toward a person, and you can’t agree who moves to which side. Now, we’ll be able to not agree which side to turn to, but we’ll have lights and technology to do it with.

One Excerpt From The Me/iTunes Conversations


[ Translated from the gestures, modal dialogues, and inarticulate howls of boundless rage at my iPod Touch. ]

Me: OK, iTunes, resume.

iTunes: Happy to!

Me:

iTunes: What?

Me: Resume my podcast.

iTunes: I didn’t know you had a podcast!

Me: Don’t ever talk like an online nerd. Resume the podcast I was listening to.

iTunes: Happy to!

Me:

iTunes: What?

Me: Resume it now.

iTunes: Resume what now?

Me: That’s Grandiloquence. Three guys take turns pronouncing a word they only know from reading, and then get into a big argument about who’s least wrong. They’re doing their 40th-episode super-spectacular on ‘synecdoche’.

iTunes: What’s that word?

Me: ‘Synecdoche’.

iTunes: How do you pronounce it?

Me: Almost certainly wrong. That’s why I want to hear the podcast.

Continue reading “One Excerpt From The Me/iTunes Conversations”