Why I Am Not A Successful Secret-History Writer

I had gotten nearly one-third of the way through the logline for my next book before the reading group tackled me, sending the manuscript flying into the air and threatening a turnover and significant loss of yardage. But I reached up mightily and regained possession and while it didn’t help me gain the down any, I was able to eventually make my voice heard over the howls of preemptive and I think unjustified pain.

So it starts with ancient alien astronauts and see that’s about where my group started to scream. I didn’t even get to explain how I didn’t mean this in the racist way where we suppose that, like, the Egyptians of thousands of years ago couldn’t think of “pyramids” without help. I don’t see why anyone figures ancient peoples needed help thinking of the idea of “build stuff using stones”. It’s not like they had a stone shortage.

Anyway, my premise — stop tackling! — is how what if ancient astronauts did come to visit the Egyptians in the era of the great pyramid-building phase? Only the aliens don’t use their advanced technology to help the Egyptians build pyramids. Instead the Egyptians are able to use their pyramid-building skills to give the aliens much-needed guidance on how to get their advanced technology to actually work? And then came another round of tackling and a question about “the heck are you thinking” and “even if there is some non-offensive way to do this” and I know, I know. But I’m willing to do the work to treat this material responsibly. I’m like this close to looking up like what millennium was the great pyramid-building boom and getting a book about what Egypt was like as close to then as the branch library has, so you know my sociology would be not provably wrong and that demonstrates my story to be worth telling!

And I can answer questions about how the pyramid-building era of Egyptians could have stuff to tell alien astronauts about their technology. Who are we to figure that they wouldn’t have stuff to teach the other thems? I mean at a responsible, appropriate tutoring rate. I figure any species sophisticated enough to traverse the stars is too ethical to take someone’s consulting advice without fair compensation. If they don’t I don’t want them in my creative universe anyway.

So what do the aliens need help on? Oh, heck, I don’t know. It’s alien technology. It’d be futuristic even today. How am I supposed to go into details? Maybe something about sphere-packing. That’s a mathematics problem about how you can stack together balls of the same size so there’s the least possible wasted space between them. And the best way to do this turns out to imagine you’re the grocer seen in the comedy putting oranges out on a huge stack for the hero to send the villain crashing into. That is, make pyramids.

Now obviously I don’t mean to say the Ancient Egyptians had some supernatural powers of pyramid-building. I think we’ve got a decent idea of roughly how they went about pyramid-building. But imagine you’re an ancient astronaut and you’re put down somewhere with a big pile of stones and a sense that it’s important to start making pyramids. What would you start out by doing? Exactly. There’s all these little skills that you pick up by practice. You don’t just start out at the top of your thing-stacking game. You start out with what seems obvious and you share tips with outer people who want to do this stuff well, and you try some of what they do, and you get it a little wrong and maybe it works out all right. Eventually, you’re a master of the thing.

And that’s what I figure the Ancient Egyptians would be giving in this cultural exchange that I’m sure can be written up into a culturally sensitive and not at all insulting novel. I’m saying I think that issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine was premature in leaping off the shelves and slapping me senseless and into a balled-up mound of flesh over by the board games. I bet my next draft changes everything.

Is this even secret history? I don’t know what to call it. I just mean stuff we don’t realize happened because there was a lot of stuff that happened and we can’t hear about it all.


Why I Am Not A Successful Fiction Writer

So we begin with the Ken Russell’s 1975 documentary Tommy about the pinball cult growing out of Roger Daltrey mostly not looking directly at stuff. The cult was going great with people showing up at pinball holiday camps right up to the point they were expected to play pinball. I agree some of those old electromechanical games were brutal, but the mass riots were overreacting. Not really sure what they were expecting. They were expecting free love, by which “they” I mean “guys” and by which “free love” I mean “women don’t get to say no”.

Thing is, it was a worldwide utopian cult. The movie only shows one getting rioted into oblivion. But they showed the giant world map with light bulbs for all the camps all over the place. That sort of stuff doesn’t die easily. Not if you’ve reached the point you have a giant world map with light bulbs. When you’ve got past where you can do a poster from Staples with push-pins you’ve got too much momentum for one day to bring you down. There’s going to be true believers who aren’t going to be shaken off. They’re going to gather somewhere. So it’ll be in some place just rural enough that they can afford the property taxes, but just urban enough that people who want to join the utopian cult can rest assured if the free love doesn’t work out they can still find a department store.

So we follow one in I’m going to go ahead and say west Michigan. A bunch of dreamers who figured they were gonna take it, and go on having pinball contests for tourists who wonder why it doesn’t look like it did in the movie. “We’re fundraising to build a garish arena,” the guides would say. “We’ve almost got enough to build a shoe.” The tourists look on, wondering why the competition still doesn’t look quite like the movie. “Have you had anything at our snack bar?” the guide tries to direct people. “It’s quite good.” It isn’t, but it’s cheap and what, you’re going to schlep all the way to Ludington for lunch?

Anyway, they would offer “silverball” hoagies. They’re meatballs tinted silver. Well, they’re vegetarian meatballs, made of cracked wheat or something late-70s like that. They do something to so it seems exactly like meat when the right person makes it, and just an exotic substance someone can put in their mouth if they choose to, whenever anyone else makes it. Comes with cheese and, if you also buy a roll of color film, a 15-cent discount. Also, yes, baked beans, but you mark yourself as a total doof if you ask for them.

The color comes from a shocking amount of colloidal silver dosed into the “meat” balls, and eventually results in an investigation by the state into just what they’re doing buying that many boxes of dragees and grinding them up. “We don’t eat them regularly, we just feed them to strangers!” is the embarrassing quote that makes every statewide TV station during the 1985 trial for whatever the heck they were up to. The cult gets vindicated when the jury establishes that no, nobody takes the dragees off a cookie or cake before eating it, why would you do that? But it’s a blow to the cult’s attempts to get out of the “free love” image. Figures.

And there’s schisms, of course, because there always are. Electromechanical versus solid-state, obviously, because the early solid state games are totally different from electromechanical pinball machines in ways that are obvious to someone who’s not a pinball aficionado, what with the solid state games having electronic buzzing noises instead of bells. And then I bet when they got into modern games, with dot-matrix displays and complicated rule sets. Let me explain that to people who aren’t pinball fanatics: these are pinball terms. They mean things.

So I figure this gets to the present day, when the unleashing of the new Star Wars game — a game of such unbridled complexity that the only response to it is to sit down and weep some — the camp decides, yes, they’ve done all they can do. It’s time to close up. The last days of the last utopian pinball cult present scenes of such John McPhee-esque piquancy that they’re not even remotely pleasant to read.

My beta readers described it as “I guess what we were getting in for when we let you know we picked up that Murakami book we never did read” and “shocklingly involved arguments about whether it’s ethical to tilt your own ball away as seen from the perspectives of different decades so I guess that’s a thing?”, so hey, I’m in a good place now!

Why I Am Not A Successful Alternate-History Writer

So, it’s an alternate history where everything is like it was here, only instead of the gold standard countries drifted to the gold dragon standard. It’s 1893. Industrial-capitalism-driven finance, as embodied by J.P. Morgan, has after decades of fighting reached a tentative but solid-looking peace accord with the nascent environmental movement, as embodied by John Muir. But danger is mounting. The Granger movement is pressing hard for the re-adoption of silver dragons as a foundation for currency outside South Asia. And the so-called Treaty of Oyster Bay may collapse against the deepening of the balance-of-payments crisis in Washington. As Grover Cleveland fends off appeals from the Bryan wing of his own party, and arranges his own secret and possibly illicit cancer surgery, Muir and Morgan have to work out whose sides they want to be on, and what they want to press for, before the endangered North American Gold Dragon is lost forever.

My fellow reading group members described it as featuring “oh Lord even more words?” and bringing up memories of “how much my head hurt as a kid when I asked my parents what it meant that, like, France was buying Japanese Yen”. Other comments included, “do the dragons even do anything?” and “did you have to call it the Bland-Allison Act? Is that even a joke? What is this thing?” and, in what I consider a glowing review, “can you at least have a dragon eat Prescott Hall or something? Please?”

In the first sequel it’s 1898 and rumors of a major cache of gold dragons coming out of the Yukon threatens to scramble the worldwide recovery from the Panic of 1893. The rush of American settlers into northwestern Canada presents great new challenges to the meaning of Canadian — and Alaskan — national identity, just as biologists find their understanding of the development of dragons challenged by the extreme-cold-weather breed’s anomalous sides. The new potential for Canadian self-determination calls into question the whole constitutional settlement of the British Empire, at a time when Australia and New Zealand’s needs for local constitutions and the stirrings of a new war with the Boers occupy Her Majesty’s Government, and the scientific minds try to square paradigm-shattering data about evolution and thermodynamics into their worldview.

My beta readers describe the roughed-out novel as “incredibly many words between cool parts that have dragons” and “are you working out some crazypants obscurant flame war with somebody about this Lord Carnavon [sic] guy?” And when I bring new chapters to a group session at the bookstore people’s eyes light up and they hide behind the Coffee Table Art books and do that thing where they playfully feign tossing manuscript pages into the fireplace! The kidders. They have to know by now I know there’s a grate over the fireplace.

Now the second sequel is set in the early 1910s and pulls back from the questions of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Dominions and prospective Dominions to more closely examine United States monetary policy. Between the influence of the Populist movement on American politics and the passing of people like Morgan, the public’s coming around to accept the need for regularized, boring systems that can handle dragon-related crises instead of trusting that Great Men will somehow be found when needed. And so it’s a struggle among the followers and students of the previous generation’s greats to exactly work out the parameters of the Federal Preserve System.

I only have this in a roughed-out form, mostly notes on my laptop. But already Scrivener is so excited by this it’s set my computer on fire and several of its programmers have come around my house to holler at me at six in the morning, every morning, for a week now. But even they have to admit that the couple chapters I’ve written “don’t read nearly so much like a manifesto as I expected” and “wait, so, like, are banks just keeping dragons in vaults or something? Like, can tellers go in back during lunch and pet one? Do bank robbers come out with nests of dragons?” I don’t know, but that might be interesting if I can find space for a side story that petty in what I figure’s going to be a 700,000-word book!

Now I know all this sounds great, but I know my readers are trying to be nice so the stories aren’t that compelling. At that I still think the publisher might not have thrown me out on the street and kicked me in the back if I hadn’t insisted on naming it The Origin of Specie trilogy. I’m sorry, but her suggestion of The Gilded Age is a great title but it would need a story set in the 1870s to make the title sensible and I can’t think of anything sensible for that era.

PS no stealing my story, I e-mailed it to myself in an attachment I haven’t opened yet so I can prove it’s mine.

How To Dream

I have to explain right away what kind of dream I mean here. I don’t mean dreaming about how to alter your life so everything is great and happy and wonderful forever and ever. Those are all the dream to be an accomplished celebrity, and the trouble with that is you have to accomplish something worth celebrating. That’s a big pile of work, and even after that, you have to get really lucky, and after all that, you’ll just want to do something else anyway. And anyway the part you really want is people saying, “I’m sorry for all the times I wronged you”. It won’t happen. They’re waiting for you to apologize for the same thing.

What I mean is the kind of dream you have between when you lie down at night, trying to sleep and thinking about all the people who wronged you, and when you wake up in the morning because someone, somewhere, in the neighborhood has a dog. Dreams are a good way to distract from the feelings of helpless and loneliness and it’s a pity people aren’t trying that more.

The fundamental unit of dreaming is to deal with a thing that is also, somehow, another thing. Let me show. Start with one thing, such as a living room. Now pick another thing, such as a dining room. Imagining a place that’s both a living room and a dining room probably won’t explode your mind, what with having heard of efficiency apartments. But remember, there are some people reading this essay who don’t know how to dream to start with. We have to work up to the more complicated ideas.

Take as much time as needed with the living-room/dining-room dream. Explore its implications, such as whether in this context you may set a fork on the throw pillow. Or set a throw pillow on the serving plate. No: that serving plate is too nice for a throw pillow. Try one of the nice souvenir pillows that you keep locked up in the breakfront because they’re too nice to put on the sofa. But wait: why are you putting the nice serving plate on the table when it isn’t even Thanksgiving? It’s too nice for that. Because it’s a dream. You can take all the nice stuff out for that even when nothing special is going on.

Suppose you’ve gotten good at the living-room/dining-room dream. Now you can advance to more complicated things that are also other things. For example, imagine a public library that’s also a friendly dragon. What are the implications of this? Are the books the dragon’s teeth? Or scales? Do you have to venture warily into the dragon’s mouth to get your card renewed? Might it be necessary to go into the more advanced parts of the dragon’s digestive system in order to get the DVDs you’d put on hold? No, of course not. The dragon is a public library only to meet certain zoning requirements. Left to itself the library would rather be a griffin. Now you can have adventures in arranging exemptions to municipal zoning policy. These go well, because you are having a dream, which does not have to comply with open-public-meeting requirements.

Now, you may occasionally hear about really wild dreams. Like, ones where a chance hop out of the excessively large convenience-store/art-museum by your rabbit tips you off to a plan by some gangsters in an Adam West Batman-style Dive Bar (it’s tidier than the efficiency apartment your parents had when they first got married) to finally rub out Shemp, of the Three Stooges. And then you have to help the Fun, Pleasant Batman and Robin on a chase through New Year’s Eve Boston to keep the Stooges alive and maybe make their big show(?). These should be left to the advanced dreamer, one who has experience with all the legal clearances required for this kind of scenario. While you’re learning, stick to imagining people telling you how sorry they are for wronging you. It’s way easier to get the rights.

Do remember, though, there’s no truly wrong way to dream. Whatever things you want to put together are fine. And there’s not any wrong details to expand upon. So make sure to write down all the salient details of each night’s dream, so you can compare them with other people in your dreaming circles, and see who wins.

How To Sketch A Thing

Drawing a thing can be a fun recreational and creative pastime, people who are able to draw tell us. For the rest of us it’s a lot of being angry at how we have this killer hilarious cartoon in our heads and it will never, ever be manifested in a way that doesn’t look like it was rendered by a squirrel that was handed a crayon and told there was an almond inside. And is now angry about being lied to. But still, you can’t get good at drawing without learning to sketch some, so let’s look into how to do that.

Before sketching the thing you should decide what kind of sketch to do. A “traditional” sketch is done with a pad of paper and pencils that have been handed down, from house move to house move, since you were in high school because they cost more than your house. I mean, yeow. They’re six-inch tubes of wood with colored lead inside, how do they run so much? Is the Koh-i-noor company thinking it will get rich piggybanking on artists? Have they considered, like, selling pencils to people with more money, like the folks with cardboard signs standing at streetcorners asking for any help and promising God blesses stopped cars? Good grief. Anyway. Traditional sketches are good because they’re easy and portable and you can hide them in your messenger bag for a quick getaway if someone asks why you’re drawing a picture of a squirrel without permission.

The other kind of sketch is “digital”, done on some glass-covered rectangular thing that has to be recharged. This is a popular choice not just because it means you can put off your drawing for the day for six hours while the battery fills back up. It’s also liked because you can effortlessly hit “undo” until your sketch looks not so completely messed up. And then you can try again, until the drawing program crashes. The main drawback is finding a good drawing program. There are six things that a drawing program needs to be good. Coding Law dictates that every drawing program has to leave one out. The one that looks like it has everything? I’m sorry, if you use that program now and then they send someone around to punch you in the stomach. It turns out there’s a secret seventh thing a good program needs: it needs to not sometimes send someone around to punch you in the stomach.

So, choose wisely, and then spend part of every day reconsidering your choice and wondering why you didn’t make a better one. It’s a little something to help you doze off better at work after staying up all night cursing the immutability of the past.

Now you need to figure whether you’re sketching something that exists or something that doesn’t. The advantage of sketching a thing that exists is you can check back on it to see what you’re doing wrong. The advantage of sketching a thing that doesn’t exist is that other people can’t say you draw it wrong. “But wait,” someone might say. “Sea serpents don’t have Popeye arms and warp nacelles!” And then you can glare at them and say, “Prove it.” This doesn’t help your sketch any, but it lets you win the argument, and isn’t that an even more precious thing in these troubled times? You get into some tricky metaphysical territory if you want to draw, like, Garfield, who as a creature of fiction doesn’t exist but who does have a well-agreed-upon appearance that you can’t vary from too much without getting fired by the Guy Who Does Garfield from your job drawing Garfield. If that’s your situation I got nothing for you. Sorry.

And the last thing is to decide whether you’re doing a realistic or a cartoony sketch. To make a realistic sketch, start by drawing a big oval on top of a slightly offset square. Then add cylindrical tubes to the side and the base. Then at the bottom put in a couple of rectangular boxes.

Realistic sketch of anything. Sorry, ArtRage wanted to round off all my lines.
Realistic sketch of anything. Sorry, ArtRage wanted to round off all my lines.

A cartoony sketch is very much like a realistic sketch, except that you draw while thinking about how you’re hungry. Start with an egg shape on top of a giant square food, such as a waffle. Instead of cylindrical tubes draw a couple of bloated hot dog shapes. Instead of rectangular boxes, draw mooshy dinner rolls. Then somewhere put in two dots with half-circles around so it has some emotion.

Cartoony sketch of anything. I forgot to put anything across the egg head.
Cartoony sketch of anything. I forgot to put anything across the egg head.

Now just add details to make your sketch look like the thing you wanted. Save it or scan it, and post it to your DeviantArt account with this caption:

Silly little sketch done to try getting back into the swing of things. Didn’t really come out like I figured but at least I like how that little mooshy dinner roll with the spaghetti curls came out. I’ll see if the art gods are nicer to me with tomorrow’s sketch.

Then, embarrassed by how much it is not what you thought the sketch would look like, put all your drawing equipment away for 34 months.

Sea serpent with Popeye arms and warp nacelles. He's happy, in his way.
Sea serpent with Popeye arms and warp nacelles. He’s happy, in his way.

How To Clean A Thing

We continue this department’s investigation into the getting-done of things that were left un-done and have no questions in mind for anyone about why they were not already done. We understand. We’ve got stuff to do too that gets in the way of anything being done. There’s probably verb tenses working against us.

How To Clean A Thing

The first most important task to do when cleaning a thing is to ask yourself. Having finished that, the next most important task is to determine: is this a thing which is bigger than you are, which is smaller than you are, or which is about the same size as you? If you don’t like the answer, are you able to alter your size enough to matter? Your relative sizes do affect how the cleaning gets done, and if so, whether it does, and good luck diagramming this sentence.

It is generally easier to clean a thing which is smaller than you. Your greater size allows you to intimidate the thing, by occluding its light or just by overpowering it. Even should matters not come to that, it’s useful to know that you could, if pressed, overpower (say) the pantry shelves or at least eat them. Not every interaction with things should be a matter of domination and submission, but the option helps clarify matters. So should you have to clean a larger thing, try to enlarge yourself, or to shrink the thing, and then proceed as you would with a smaller thing.

With that done, the next most important task is to determine what kind of cleaning the thing needs. For example, does it merely need tidying? Tidying is the best sort of cleaning because it is done by taking a thing and setting it atop another thing. By creating this stack of things, both are tidied. The stacks can themselves be stacked. It is within the Marquis of Cleansbury Rules to tidy your entire house by stacking everything in it on top of everything else. This is why when you visit the house of your tidiest friend the entire first floor is a vast, empty space, decorated with a single futon capable of seating two people uncomfortably and a wall-mounted television that only gets shows about people buying houses in Peru.

I should say, the tidying urge runs strong in my family. I’m not saying that we’re experts. But we are good. Behind my house is a stack of like four love seats, a dining room table, a roll-away dishwasher, 426 linear feet of books, and eighteen potted plants one atop the other in a writhing pillar of photosynthesis. But it’s all stacked, and neat, and won’t tip over as long as the guy wires don’t snap or we don’t get a breeze. If it does, that’s all right. I have my tidying instincts to rely on. I could stack all that into a good enough pile so fast it wouldn’t even use up all my stockpiled podcasts. Yes, I have a pile of unfinished podcasts. It’s only about fourteen inches tall, but you better find that impressive or I’ll come over and glare at you.

But maybe the thing needs a real, proper cleaning. If the thing is smaller than you, great. Pick the thing up and carry it to a riverbank or body of water. A pond, say, or if you need something larger a hyperpond. And now I’m thrown because my spell checker is not objecting to “hyperpond”. I can’t have put that in my dictionary. There’s no way that’s a real word, though, right? Is my spell checker broken? Flurple. Cn’tr. Flxible. No, these things are getting highlighted. This is all very disturbing and I don’t know that I can continue from here. Knwo. Cnotineu. Yeah, it’s just broken about hyperpond. Hyperlake. No, it allows that too. Hyperocean. That too. Apparently my spell checker thinks “hyper” is a legitimate prefix to any body of water. Hyperriver. Hypercreek. Ah! It doesn’t like that one. Hyporiver. No, it doesn’t mind “hyporiver”. Hypocreek gets rejected. I’m sorry to get bothered by this but if you’re not bothered by this, what are you bothered by?

My TextWrangler window showing the paragraph with words like 'hyperpond' in it and not underlined for being suspect misspellings.
The eternal debate: when you discover a happy accident like this, work it into the piece or separate it out into something else? On the one hand, breaking the flow of an essay is a kind of comic path that can feel very tired to the reader. It’s a little stream-of-consciousness and that can read pretty cheap as a joke. On the other hand, it’s delightful to be surprised like that and why not embrace that delight?

I have to conclude that there’s some serious cleaning-up needed on my dictionary. Anyway, uh, for cleaning up your things I don’t know, try working from the top and getting to the bottom and use small, gentle circular motions. That usually does something. Good luck.

How To Connect To The Hotel Wi-Fi

There is a good deal of interest in these parts about how to get various things done. So this department will provide some explanations of how to handle some common tasks. Why you would do them is your own affair.

How To Connect To The Hotel Wi-Fi

  1. Be at or near a hotel with a computing device capable of interacting by Wi-Fi. This may sound obvious, but you might be surprised at the number of people have come up to us, holding a plastic abacus and insisting they can’t get on the Internet with it. The figure’s less surprising if you discount sarcasm.
  2. Open a web browser on your computer. There’s no sense opening a web browser on your pillow. You don’t want Internet-equipped bedding. It never ends well.
  3. Look through the list of public Wi-Fi networks. It should look something like ‘RestIn’, ‘RestIn_4’, ‘Rest_In_5’, ‘RestIn_26’, ‘Rest_In_26’, and ‘RestIn_27’, ‘Applebees_Guest’, “RestInn_Nonpublic”, “U_SPYING_ICE”, ‘IHOP_STAFF_ONLY’, “Resting6”, and (with the faintest of one bar, flickering in and out of the menu) “Asperience_Guest_Lounge”. Select the one that most nearly matches the name of your hotel (“Rest Inn”) and has the number that looks least threatening to you.
  4. Enter the user id (“guest”) and the password (“restinnguest”). The system will then ask you to accept the terms and conditions of service. Accept the conditions, but refuse the terms, as they include some which were not covered in the reading material and are not on the study sheet, such as the “Bland-Allison Act”.
  5. Go to any web site to test your connection. Wait for the screen to change to a solid color, with one strip of banner ad on the top, the ad that’s supposed to be on the left side of the page running down the middle, and some text sprawled off past the right side of the page where you can’t read it and can’t scroll to it, at which point the computer gives up. This should take about four minutes.
  6. Try one of the other hotel Wi-Fi networks with a less-friendly-looking number until you get the same result.
  7. Try the hotel Wi-Fi network with the weakest signal strength and that finally lets things through and pops up, like, forty Facebook messages even when you aren’t on Facebook somehow. Then the connection dies again.
  8. Turn your computer’s Wi-Fi off and on again and try the first network you used again.
  9. Try the Applebee’s one. What the heck.
  10. Scream into your pillow.
  11. Never, ever, ever go to a hotel ever again.
  12. Try sitting on the corner of the bed with the laptop in your lap, which you don’t really have. But if you cross one leg over and fit it under your knee there’s just enough leg space there to balance the laptop without it getting too hot and without your foot necessarily being put to sleep by the pressure of your knee on top of it.
  13. That’s getting a little better, but maybe if you sit closer to the edge of the bed where the signal is a little bit … different? … somehow and you know the wall is right past you where maybe you could lean into it?
  14. Throw your abacus into the pillow.
  16. You leaned back, didn’t you? You got yourself wedged between the bed and the wall, didn’t you?
  17. All right. Don’t panic. We’ll sort this out. No, it’s premature to hack your legs off. For one, you haven’t even tried shifting — oh, you’ve gone and wedged yourself in tighter then? All right. No, don’t go crying out for help. The last thing anyone in a hotel wants is cries for help from the next room over. It’s just going to spoil their trip too.
  18. So, better than hacking your own legs off to escape the bed-wall trap is to use your legs’ pre-designed detachment points. They can be reattached later by any reputable auto mechanics or certain advanced kinds of stereo salesmen. To find your detachment points refer to your year of birth, where discernable, and check the manufacturer’s web site for what spots you have to touch and in what order to — oh, right. The web.
  19. I don’t know, did you try the IHOP network?
  20. Have you tried a mobile hotspot? A mobile hotspot is a great way to turn someplace that doesn’t have Internet into someplace that is supposed to have Internet but doesn’t.

From The August 2017 Scraps File

More text that I couldn’t do anything with. If you can, congratulations!

Another problem is my speaking voice I sound like I’m being sarcastic. It’s an endemic problem with my family. Something in our upbringing caused us to transmute all our deepest Jersey vowels and verbal tics into, instead, conveying an eye-roll with the way we say words like “Hello” and “which”. I don’t think it was just my siblings and I trying to preemptively put one another down. We love each other, so far as we tell each other. But I can’t even say, “I spilled some tea and wanted to wipe it up” without sounding like I’m the one being hostile. I didn’t spill the tea on purpose. Anyway, a heavy dose of sarcasm is fine for some conversations, but not if you’re trying to make a real argument that, like, William Shatner showed a deft touch in some of the scenes he directed in Star Trek V: The One William Shatner Directed. See? You already think that’s me being sarcastic. — Cut from last week’s discussion about my lack of podcasting because it’s one of those paragraphs I thought up while in bed and figured oh, I’m definitely putting that in when I get up in the morning, and it was two days after I posted it.

ham sanitizer — Look, sometimes when you want to write a high-volume humor thingy you just go into these free-association free-form things and jot down whatever comes to mind and then you look at it afterwards and have to shrug because it doesn’t always pan out.

“The Tasmanian rainforest is considered a Gondwanan relic.” — Yes, that old Wikipedia statement once again, because I just can not make myself believe there’s nothing in there. But August was another month where whatever is there didn’t turn up for me. Maybe September.

hand satirizer — Again from the free-association free-form thingy and the thing to remember is that just because an idea pops into your head doesn’t mean you owe it the slightest gratitude for doing so. If it’s a good idea it’ll do some heavy lifting on its own and show why it’s a good idea and you don’t have to try building up every pair of words until it’s something.

Oh, yeah, I know how these things come about. You’re minding your own business and then you see this bolt of light and stop the car to examine. It’s this desperate, crashed alien who rallies himself from death long enough to transfer onto you a weird tattoo that tingles with a body-encompassing energy. The alien turns out to be this mutant human who half a millennium ago was a minor Dutch nobleman before being struck by a comet that granted him astounding superpowers he struggled to keep secret in his new not-quite-immortal life. Then you go on to discover that your own son, born with the powers of your now mutating body, will travel back in time hundreds of years to create a comet bearing the superpower tattoo, that proceeds to hit his own later self, given amnesia and planted in the Netherlands to be hit by the energy-bringing comet that sets this whole time loop into motion. I must know like twenty guys that’s happened to. — Cut because the person who was talking about this said no, he thought the character just inherited magical abilities from his father, and I pointed out that technically speaking that’s true in my scenario too, and the person shook his head sadly and walked away. This led us into a good argument about whether this would have been creating a paradox, or resolving a paradox, or avoiding a paradox altogether, and long story short we’re not speaking anymore and that person is justified.

yam sani– — No. Just, you know? No.

If you or someone you love is able to make use of these scraps please submit a comment care of the Bishopric of Utrecht, 1024 – 1528. Please be advised that responses might be delayed, as, according to a quick skim of Wikipedia’s articles abou the history of the Netherlands, it seems like there was a lot of investituring and annulling was going on back then and that probably has everyone quite distracted.

Thanking You For Listening

As a white guy who’s liked Popeye’s Fried Chicken I’m often asked why I don’t host a pop-culture hangout podcast. “Hey, you!” people will gather around my house to cry out. “There’s stuff you watch and read and listen to that you think is bad! Why aren’t you snorting into a microphone about that with some of your friends?” It’s becoming a nuisance. “I’m just putting these old fenceposts out for someone on Freecycle who says they’re going to pick it up tomorrow but is lying,” I answer. “I don’t have time to podcast!” They’re unmoved. But I have reasons.

First is that I have this problem with my voice. I mean, I have one that I use almost every day. But I’m hard to understand. I’ve avoided having my New Jersey accent be incomprehensible by not saying much of anything out loud. I’m not trying to hide my voice. I just don’t know how to talk loud enough to be heard over other people, or ambient music, or background noise like our pet rabbit breathing. Or my own breathing. When I say something the words come out of my mouth, then plummet, bouncing off my feet and rolling underneath the bookshelf, there to be harvested by mice.

Also I have to cough, a little but insistently, every 26 seconds. I’ve had this condition since like 1997. I’ve tried to ask my doctor about this, but she can’t hear me. We could edit around that, but editing seems like a lot of work for a pop-culture hangout podcast.

I could set the microphone on my feet so when words tumble onto them some get caught. But then there’s my sentence problem. At some point I figure I’ve said as much of any sentence as could benefit anyone to hear, and then I stop. I trust people to work out the rest. For example, suppose my love wants to know what that racket out back was. I might say, “I knocked over two of the empty flowerpots, but they didn’t break.” But that takes more words to say than interest in the subject warrants. I’m sorry to spend so much time on it now. So I would answer, “I knocked over two”, and figure that’s as much of that as anybody could stand. Oh, I’ll drift off, letting my voice get somehow even softer. My love can probably work out the rest of the sentence from context anyway. That and the flowerpots. But I know that’s not good asynchronous radio.

Plus there’s getting together with friends to record something. I’ve got friends, people I know well enough to help them move furniture. But most of them are online. We could only record a podcast by organizing whatever the Internet equivalent of a conference call is. I hear there are people who can do this. But I also hear there are people who can climb Mount Everest in their shorts or who can magic Magic-Eye Puzzles work. I’ll never manage the trick. People I know in real life — people near enough that I could lick their bodies — are mostly folks I see at pinball events. They’re fun to hang out with, but who could record over all that pinball and bar noise? I don’t know how pinball podcasts do it. I imagine a lot of shouting.

Oh gads and then there’s voices. I’d probably have to do some characters by way of funny voices. I can’t. I haven’t got any way of making my voice do anything on purpose. I could do a character that’s “me, only talking a little faster”. Or I can do “me, only talking a little slower”. But could I do, like, Columbo? Popeye? Any of the supporting cast of The Simpsons? Not even remotely. I’d have to call in experts to support me. That runs into money and social obligations.

Plus there’s having feelings about stuff. You can do a pop-culture hangout podcast about stuff you like, or about stuff you hate. But that means you have to like or hate stuff. I don’t trust strong feelings about stuff, even if they’re my own. It’s asking a lot out of me to have them, never mind to keep them viable for, what, a half-hour of recording before I can get to letters from listeners?

So that’s why, despite my record of being a guy who sometimes likes dumb stuff, I don’t figure on starting a podcast anytime soon. Thanks for listening, and remember, Patreon subscribers at the $5 or above level get my monthly special episode about which Funky Winkerbean comics most make you want to slug the guy who writes Funky Winkerbean. Next episode’s dropping Sunday. See you then. If you need some fenceposts, please, come take them now. They’re just taking up space.

Getting Ready For The Eclipse

So we’ve only got a couple days left before the eclipse. I think we’re basically set. But we should go over some last-minute arrangements before we do.

First. I’ve talked with about two-thirds of all the dragons I know and they’ve agreed they aren’t going to go eating the sun while everything’s happening. They also agree not to eat the Moon. They’re making no promises about not eating Saturn, though. I know, I know, I kept pointing out how much we like the rings. This one silver dragon asked when’s the last time I looked at them and that’s just not fair. I’m not on Saturn-ring-watching duty. That’s, like, I want to say Eric? I think Eric signed up for that.

Second. We don’t need paper plates or plastic silverware. We have Jakebe signed up to bring them, and we’ve even got someone who’s going to tell him. Don’t worry. I’ve known him for years and I’m pretty sure he’s got this. Or will. Ooh, do you think he has those little wicker baskets you put the paper plates in? They make picnics just so much better.

Third. Egg salad. Here we do need help. We need someone who’ll whip up enough egg salad for everybody who’s on the path between 80 percent and totality. We’ve got enough egg salad for the 40 percent through 80 percent bands, and we’ve found that most of the people in the 40 percent and less bands are figuring to get their own lunches so we’re not worrying about them. They’re missing out, though. Should say, we want the egg salad with a little bit of dill picked from the yard just as if it were all right to grow plants in your yard and pick them and eat them. I know, we’ve been doing this for years but it still feels like we’re getting away with something. Please check the sign-up sheets and it’s all right if we have extra left over.

Fourth. As the sun passes behind the mountains of the lunar horizon we may see Baily’s Beads. We need about four more people to get up and polish them to a good shine so they’re really presentable. We’ve got the polishing rags, since we somehow have twelve camera-lens-cleaning cloths and we don’t know why we needed more than, like, two.

Fifth. Cloud cover. After the Transit of Venus we’re all rightly fed up with clouds obscuring stuff like this. We’ve got enough volunteers to go up in the sky and eat as many clouds as they can. That’s not going to be able to cover all the eclipse path, so we also need people who can go up and wave fans around to blow any clouds out of the way, then get out of the way before totality sets in. Please bring your own fans! We can’t arrange everything. Pro Tip: write your name or e-mail address on the fan’s handle so if it gets separated from you we know how to get it back.

Sixth. People to handle leftover egg salad. Yes, I said it’s all right if we have extra left over. That’s because we are going to have people to handle this left-over stuff. Look, it’s hard enough getting a big event like this organized. I’m not going to waste my time trying to make sure we exactly match up egg salad needs with egg salad availability. I say, make all the egg salad we can and we’ll work out what to do with the extra. I’m thinking spare lunches, but am open-minded.

Seventh. Oh, this is important. The music. Our band backed out because the guy who plays guitar has some impossibly complicated problem going on. You know the sort, where everything is caused by like four other causes and they’re all cross-feeding each other. So. I know how great it was back during the Annular Eclipse of 1994 when we just grabbed whatever CDs we had in our cars and did a jam of that. It’s temping to do that again but there’s a shocking number of you have cars that can’t even play CDs. I think we’re just going to have to stick to everybody listening to whatever podcasts they’re already behind on. Disappointing, but these are the times we live in. But if you do know a good band that’s got guitarists who aren’t caught up in crazypants drama please let us know. No, we’re not doing Pink Floyd covers again.

So I think we’re all set. If you want to do any last-minute sign-ups do it by 11 am Sunday. We are not pushing things to the last second and this time we mean it. And let’s try to get this right; this is our last full rehearsal before April 2024. Good luck and enjoy!

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The trading floor is empty today. After a bit over a year at this and growing the Another Blog, Meanwhile index from 100 to 400, the analysts and traders agreed that they had done everything they could have hoped for, and that to carry on would just be to spoil the memories of what they had accomplished. All have agreed it was some of the best times of their lies, and agreed to stay in touch, all the while knowing that while everybody basically likes everybody else, they’re going to dissolve into bunches of at most two or three people who stay Facebook friends. They’ll now and then think of one of the others, and maybe even make contact, agreeing that they should totally get together sometime again, but never exactly do. And that’s all right. It’s fine to have friendships that aren’t ended, or estranged, or anything, just left after a contented while and occasionally revisited like an old home that’s not yours anymore.

No, The Space Whale Probe Can Hold Off, Too

Remember back when the world was young and Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales first came out in theaters? Me too. There’s this scene where Kirk and Spock are riding a bus because it’s the mid-80s, and there’s this young punk playing annoying music too loud. So Spock neck-pinches him, and he falls over, knocking his boombox off. Everyone on the bus applauds because, hey, so far as they can tell this man wearing a bathrobe in public has choked a kid to death for being snotty! And everyone watching the scene chuckles too because, hey, don’t we all want to choke the youth to death? Yes.

What’s haunted me, as an annoying Star Trek fan, is the lyrics for the punk’s music. They run like this:

Just where is the future, the things we’ve done and said
Let’s just push the button, we’d be better off dead

‘Cause I hate you, and I berate you
And I can’t wait to get to you too

The sins of all the fathers been dumped on us, the sons,
The only choice we’re given is how many megatons?

Thing is, in the universe of Star Trek, that kid on the bus is less than a decade away from the Third World War. So is whatever British Punk Band That Works “Berate” Into Its Chorus that recorded the song. (In the full version they let “eschew” into the verse. My music tastes run more towards “sounds like that theremin’s calving”, but I can appreciate solid punk writing when I hear it.) And I keep thinking: what did that kid, and what did that band, think later on when The Bombs were falling?

(Yes, yes, I am very aware that as this was an Original Series movie the Third World War that bus punk would experience was explicitly non-nuclear. It was conventional warfare that killed 37 million people and that’s better I guess? It wasn’t until the more optimistic and utopian Next Generation that they rescheduled the Third World War to the mid-21st-century and killed over a half billion people.)

We’ve been thinking about a civilization-wrecking nuclear war for a long time. Or at least we’ve been thinking we’re thinking about it. We don’t really picture nuclear destruction, though. We don’t even picture ordinary destruction. What we imagine is a tense half-hour listening to news anchors trying to keep it together while the camera keeps drifting off-center, and the newsroom is weirdly quiet apart from off-camera voices sometimes shouting. Also taking phone calls from estranged friends with last-minute repentances for wronging us. Good luck those getting through. Even if the phone lines weren’t jammed apparently we’d all be having consequence-free sex with people we’d never see again anyway? Or so you all might. I’d be busy trying to download my Twitter archive so I could re-read some choice digs I got in on someone back in May.

We’ve got vague thoughts about what happens after, too. Post-apocalypse planning works out to be thinking we’ll get to pick the best stuff out of the landscape. Maybe go into business as a local warlord, trading supplies and shelter with trustworthy-looking stragglers. This from people who can’t handle there not being a dividing bar on the checkout conveyor belt at the farmer’s market. What if the guy ahead of us gets my two bunches of curly parsley? These aren’t the thoughts of someone up for handling the thirtieth day in a row of eating cream-of-celery soup. It was the only thing left that better scavengers didn’t get to first at the Neighborhood Market that mostly sold cell phone cards and lottery tickets. It’s reconstituted using water from where the now-former paint factory is leaking toluene into the aquifer. And it’s cold.

We’d need help, that’s all there is to it. And I don’t know what to do. On my bookshelf alone I have enough World War II books to teach how to win the war, except for how to fight. But they all end with lots of people in rubble-strewn cities. Even the ones about the postwar situation skim over what there is to do in it. There’s dramatic photos and talk about people clearing away rubble. Then it’s 1948 (for Europe) or 1950 (for Japan) and the United States decides the rubble cities should have an economy again. That’s over three years of people clearing away rubble. They had a lot of rubble, yes. But they also had to agree on where to put the rubble. And that takes social organization. And I don’t know where that comes from either.

This may be controversial, but I say ending civilization and destroying the world is a bad move. We should tough out our problems as they are and try fixing what we can. Thanks to YouTube you’ve seen all the footage of news anchors trying not to lose it that you could possibly need, and it’s about the same every time. Trust your estranged friends when they drop hints that they’d take an apology happily. Drop your estranged friends a hint that you’d take an apology happily. Stop looking for consequence-free stuff to do with or to people. For me, I’m going on TrekBBS to yell that they do not build the whale tank out of transparent aluminum. They build it out of the six-inch-thick plexiglass they traded the transparent aluminum formula for. Come on, people, watch the movie you’re watching. We can at least get that right.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index fell eleven points today as traders started getting all giddy thinking about how they used to be at, like, 80 points and now they’re up so way high nobody can even see 100 or even 200 anymore, which doesn’t sound at all like the sort of hubristic declaration that leads to incredible pain.


On Foot

You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the history of tying shoes. This is a wise choice. There are so many other things that need thinking about. You know, like that odd smell that’s maybe of burning plastic that’s sometimes in the hallway when you were gone all day? Or what responsibility we have for that seam line visible on Saturn’s moon Iapetus? Or why all those people are setting up circus tents in your backyard? There’s got to be someone to ask about that. I broke from my habit of non-thinking about tying shoes so that we could have this done once and for all. No, I am not reading about the history of socks. You know why.

For the second-longest time there just wasn’t any tying of shoes. This had four reasons, one of them being that there were no shoes. Shoes were invented for Napoleon Bonaparte’s army after it was noticed that tromping through a thousand miles of Russian snow was really hard on the bare foot. It didn’t help the snow any either, but this is the wrong time of year for me to write about the history of snow-clearing or maybe ice-skating. Napoleon agreed this was a lot of trouble for feet and ordered experts to come up with a way to cover the foot. They did this by the simple process of covering the foot. It was a rousing success and everybody agreed they should have been making shoes for hundreds of years now. This and the overcoming of the other three reasons let shoes become really quite popular.

Still, the earliest shoes weren’t easy to put on or take off. They were slabs of leather that one would fit around the foot and, using needle and thread and Grandmom who knows how to use those sewing tools that look faintly like surgical instruments, stitch closed. This could take until well near bedtime. The British Army spent most of the 1830s with its soldiers never leaving their bunks, just sewing and unsewing their boots all day. This lead to peaceful times and the First Reform Act.

The countries of Western Europe competed to find ways to easily tightening and loosening shoes. Through much of the Civil War the Union armies experimented with welding shoes into place, an action that resulted in many burned ankles and slugged welders. In Scotland rivets were tried. These were of limited use as the striking action of putting rivets in place could magnetize the iron slugs, causing people to walk to the north and find they ran out of Scotland, to their chagrin.

So naturally the breakthrough came in the Ottoman Empire. In 1878 a shoemaker for the Sultan Abdul Hamid II asked, “Why don’t we just punch parallel rows of uniformly spaced holes in the shoes, and then thread a strong string or small rope through the holes to fit them together?” The Sultan, who was in another room, didn’t hear the suggestion but approved it. When this turned out to be a pretty darned good idea after all he nodded as if that had been his intention all along, and quickly ordered an investigation to just what was going on with shoes. I hope this doesn’t end up in his report. He’s got to be expecting something really great if it’s taken all this while to get something on his desk. I’m not arrogant enough to think my essay here that great, but I am earmarking it for this year’s Robert Benchley Society essay contest. Just saying.

Still the early forms were not precisely what we see today. When are they ever? The first attempts used separate laces and loops for each pair of holes, which took forever to deal with. Folks trying to save time as telegraphs and railroads got all snappy and romantic started just tying the top loop together. This made their toes pop out the middle. So they retaliated by poking laces through the other, non-top holes. And so by 1889, on a Tuesday, shoes were finally tied in ways that we would recognize today, on a Friday.

Is there room for improvement? Surely. The glue-covered shoelace solved the problem of unraveled knots, but at the cost of being a right mess. And nobody has anything but embarrassed coughs to say about the frictionless superfluid lace that would slither out of its holes and into the pantry. We may yet scrap the whole project and go back to being barefoot.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose another five points to another record high and at this point it’s getting kind of dull and the fun is draining out of it all. I’m not looking forward to how this implies we’re going to get a really big and fun and exciting crash down to, like, 14 points within the next week.


Where The Time Went

Over twelve of you have noticed this phenomenon. It’s actually over twelve percent of you, but I’m supposing there’s more than a cent of you out there. There will be anyway. But you’ve seen this. You look at a clock. It’s got seconds on it. That second just doesn’t change. It sticks to whatever time it currently is (let’s say … 8:49:46) for a good long while. More than a second, as you figure it. Maybe five seconds. Maybe as long as fourth grade took. Finally as you’re about to get up and give the thing a good nudge it moves again, going back to about one second per second. Even then, though, look away and snap your eyes back and you might get the second frozen there again. What’s going on here, and why are clocks messing with us to see if we’re watching? Well, wouldn’t you mess with people like that, if you were a clock? What else would you have to do?

What’s important her is a fundamental principle of time. We only know time passes because we see something happen. Like, we see the time that a clock shows changing. This is a good one because we’ve put all our time sense into clocks. If we need to rely on ourselves we just guess that the time feels like three-ish, maybe, or that it might be a Thursday but it sure feels like when you’re at the zoo and get some hay or something stuck in your shoe just outside the camel enclosure. We use the clock to let us know that time is even moving.

Think back to childhood, if you have one. Remember how experiments like lying on your back seeing if you could breathe just right to make a tennis ball roll into and out of your belly button before a sibling came over and sat on your face? And you had to turn to biting? Remember how you could spend as much as four days straight at that between the last cartoon of the morning and the start of Password Plus on channel 4 and still have time to punch another sibling? Well, the last cartoon finished at 9 am, and Password Plus came on at 10. All that time was squeezed into under a single hour.

Mouse running down the Hickory-Dickory-Dock clock at Story Book Land in Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
I use this picture to represent the concept of “time” because I had a fun day at Story Book Land amusement park and because people like it when there are pictures.

As kids we didn’t need clocks. We could just have experiences. The most we needed was the clock in school, and the clock in our parents’ car’s dashboard that was set to the wrong time. We would only feel time accumulating during social studies and while being driven somewhere you don’t want to go, probably in another state on a trip that would be fun if you weren’t stopping at educational spots and scenic overlooks where the picnic tables are all like two inches two high for where the bench seats are.

As adults we fill our lives with more clocks. Clocks on the nightstand, on your watch, on your phone, on your computer, on your other phone, on the wall, on the TV, the thing on the DVR that looks like it’s the time but actually is the channel number, on the toaster oven, on the other end of your computer’s screen, on a web page, on your Internet-connected Smart Towels, and on the car dashboard where it’s satellite-tuned to the right time. Every single one of these things is ticking off seconds and of course they add up. These days you can’t have one second of time pass without it being at least twelve seconds all at once.

If you’ve got a proper modern lifestyle you can get all your clock-ready things going and then notice that as best you can tell, 2010 was at most forty minutes ago. This is a sign that you have too many clocks in your life, multiply-counting all your time and slurping it up before you can tell it’s gone. Try de-clocking your surroundings; see how well you do if you get back to the basics of time, the way you did as a child. Then you had the inaccurate car dashboard clock, and a calendar to make sure you didn’t miss Christmas or your birthday, neither of which could ever happen. Maybe it won’t work, but if you do want to give it a try, I recommend you hurry.

Password Plus was never scheduled to air earlier than 11:30 Eastern/Pacific. You were thinking, believe it or not, of Card Sharks.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

And after getting a much-needed hushing yesterday the trading floor went and rose the Another Blog, Meanwhile index by twenty points, bringing it to another all-time high. At this point I think they’re just trying to cross me up. Why do I not get behavior like this from my money-making investments, like those ten shares of the Tootsie Roll company I own? Schwab.com tells me this is a D-grade investment, but all I can say is, it’s the thing in my portfolio that actually returns something, and if all else fails I can eat forty of them and then remember that’s maybe too many Tootsie Rolls to eat at once.


In An Imperfect World

So you don’t live in a utopian future. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed by there. Over eight percent fewer of us do than you’d imagined. There are many ways that the world is pretty good, despite everything we’ve been through. The world has capybaras, for example. And if that weren’t enough, we keep inventing new social media by which other people will send us pictures of capybaras. So that’s the baseline; as long as we have that, the world isn’t beyond hope.

But any of us can see ways the world might be better. It might be a little harder to spill things on shirts, for example. Or we might think of some quasi-verbal utterance other than “uh” and “uhm” to mark time while we’re speaking. For the variety. Maybe we could arrange for the first coffee mugs we drop and break to be the ugly ones with only-ever-funny-once jokes on them, instead of the souvenir ones from places that are gone. There are probably other things that would make life better, but those would see the most dramatic improvements.

It’s natural then to want to make the world a better place. It’s a dangerous pastime. You should think hard before you continue on in it. Consider: to make the world better, there has to be something wrong with it. If it would make the world better to have a more interesting variety of cupcakes available, that implies there aren’t enough interesting cupcakes already. Don’t go telling me there’s already plenty of interesting variety in vegan cookies, because while there may be, they’re still not cupcakes. And even if we have got the best imaginable state of one thing that doesn’t say anything about other things. Again, imagine we had our full complement of capybara photo access, but we never got to hear the theme to Secret Agent Man on the radio at the bagel shop ever again. Even happiness would be forever tainted by the thought of what was lost.

So fine if you figure something can be made better. The danger is there’s something already around that keeps it from being as good as it could be. Maybe that thing is already someone’s responsibility. Then trying to fix it means you’re telling that person they’ve screwed up so badly that someone has to come in and try fixing their mistakes. I don’t blame them wanting to slug you for that. How would you feel if someone pulled that on you? Exactly. Having to get within slugging range of someone to fix them has historically tempered the activity of people trying to fix up stuff, and made people think hard about what’s really worth improving. Advances in stick and other long-range poking and hitting technologies would have moved the balance of power to the status quo advocates. Or they would have, if the poking-and-hitting technologists didn’t see why they needed to make any advances in their product line, thank you. Internet activism makes it possible to try doing something about stuff that’s wholly outside of slugging range, which is why it’s so controversial and the results so mixed. On the one hand, people can be made instantly aware of what their state legislature is planning to do. On the other hand, what we mostly react to is a sassy put-down by the Instagram account of Jo-Ann’s Fabric.

And then there are things that could be better but that nobody’s actually responsible for. This is even more dangerous to try improving. If a particular person’s responsible for a thing, at least trying to improve it is only an attack on that person. If nobody’s responsible, then trying to improve it is an implicit declaration that everybody has failed to address the shortcoming. Everybody has reason to feel attacked by you. And you can’t stay outside of slugging range of everybody forever. They can catch you when you try to pick up your mail at least.

If you enjoy the life of danger, then, go ahead. It can be thrilling stuff and maybe you will make something better. But it’s going to cost you some happiness too. And this is the great thing about living in a non-utopian society. You can be sad about the thing that’s not right, or be sad about trying to make it right. It’s up to you how you break your heart.

Now that I’ve explained it, do I hope that’s made anything better?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose another ten points today as analysts missed that now there’s somehow two houses on the block throwing out sofas now and how do they get all these sofas to put out on the street? Whatever’s going on can’t be any good and yet somehow they’re not worried about this. Yet.


Explaining Vacuum Cleaners

If I were to ask what you thought vacuum cleaners were I expect your first response would be to wonder if you’d heard the question right. It seems like a strange thing to ask. You probably can’t figure why I would need to know this about you. Let’s suppose it was someone else who asked you the question. You’d want to know who it asked you. For convenient let’s suppose it was Frederick J Lawton, Harry Truman’s director of the Bureau of the Budget from 1950 to 1953, and that the question was issued in 1952. It’s your business what you’re doing in 1952 and falls outside the scope of my article.

We forget that vaccuum cleaners used to be people, not machines. The first vacuum cleaner was a now-anonymous assistant to Evangelista Torricelli. His name was removed in 1964 as proof emerged he had bet on baseball games. The great physicist (Torricelli) had in 1643 poured mercury into a tube sealed at one end and then turned the tube upside-down. This produced a perfect vacuum at the top of the tube and a perfect mess at the bottom of the tube and all over the table. Naturally Torricelli ordered the cleaning of the table, the tube, and as long as he was at it, the vacuum, which just looked perfectly adroit. I say “adroit” to tease science-major types who were waiting for me to use a different word beginning with ‘a’ there. I’ve got some self-awareness. The word was “adiabatic”. But with a few quick sweeps of a damp cloth the assistant had created a new profession.

Vacuum cleaning, done then by people, was regarded for ages as an affectation for the scholarly classes, who needed the affection. For much of the 17th century it was nearly as popular as making up grammatical rules or wearing caps and gowns everywhere. Scholars didn’t need a passport even when travelling between nations at war; a well-tidied and dust-free vacuum was their standing invitation to the world of letters that existed beyond mere mortal politics. It was not until the reign of France’s King Louis XV (there was no Louis XV, but he was hastily inserted when the French realized they had gone right from Louis XIV to Louis XVI and once you learned enough Roman numerals it looked funny to have the number laying about there un-Louised) that it made the social jump from the laboratory to the royal court. While doing so it slipped on the windowsill and suffered a sore ankle for months, with relapses when a cold front was moving in.

The post of Royal Vacuum Cleaner was soon established. With that, they needed assistants, keepers, letters-go, attendants, absentias, abstainers, the follow who owned the mop, the keeper of the mop, the fetcher of the mop, the keeper of the fetcher, the fetcher of the keeper, the assistant fetcher of the keeper, the keeper of the assistant fetcher, and so on, and that’s even before getting into the buckets issue or who would provide water for the cleaning of the vacuum and assistants thereof. Within a generation, vacuum cleaning at Versailles involved over 52,006 people. You can understand the scandal when in 1722 someone noticed they didn’t have any vacuums.

But then scholars argued the absence of any vacuums was itself a vacuum, this in the property of vacuum-ness. Therefore the vacuum which should be cleaned was the vacuum of vacuums to be cleaned. This argument may not be logically sound, but they were good at going on about it at such length that any disputants would have to sit down until their heads stopped spinning. If you don’t sympathize I have another 150 words that I cut from this paragraph because they made my sinuses hurt.

This all being a lot of good fun it had to come to an end, of course. So it did in 1867 thanks to one Ives W McGaffney of Chicago, Illinois, as there were not two of him. With dedication and ingenuity he put together a hand-cranked vacuum cleaner which all the people who’d had respectable enough lives cleaning vacuums professionally naturally hated. But he persisted and with the coming of power to private homes, mechanical vacuum cleaners would take over the public’s imagination for this sort of thing in fewer than 82 years. Today we just assume that a “vacuum cleaner” is a machine and not a profession, or even an aspiration. Is that not always the way? Yes, unless I mean no.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

All right, so the Belgian-cricket-eating bubble is apparently just going to carry on, with the index rising another six points on this thing that will not happen and everybody should stop pretending that it would. No, we don’t care what documentation you have proving that it’s so a thing. It is not a thing.


Setting The Styles

Is there an easier way to attract readers and get engagement than to prepare a set of Usage Guidelines and insist everyone follow them? No, probably not. Although everybody likes to make Usage Guidelines, the United States is the world’s undisputed leader in this trade. The average American will make over 14 Usage Guidelines per year. We’ll generate policies to cover everything from how many spaces should follow the end of a sentence to under what circumstances one may double up the use of those little paper cups when gathering Horsey Sauce at Arby’s. And under what circumstances these can be substituted for one another. Compliance with these policies will rise, some years, to as high as 0.4 people per year. This gives us all the chance to seethe at how people are messing up what would be a neat orderly life.

So I’m leaping in to this racket. I want to express my idealistic hopes about how the world can be easily made much better. Plus if I can get enough people feeling like they should pay attention to me I can start selling guidebooks and retire on the profits from How To Do Stuff So It’s Not Wrong Already or whatever I end up titling it. Let me give you a tease of some of the first couple good ideas.

First: we’ll need a policy about acronyms. Acronyms were introduced to English during the First World War, as war planners feared the Germans might overhear what we were saying about them as if they couldn’t guess already. This way, if they did overhear they wouldn’t know what the subject was. The fears proved unfounded, as postwar analysis indicated the Germans spent most of their time in Germany and/or Belgium, out of earshot. Still, they’ve remained as popular linguistic roadblocks to comprehension. My guideline: on first use, expand the acronym into full words. For example, “NASA, the National Acrobatics and Slurry Accordion, announced today it is not sending anybody to Mars, as investigation showed we had enough in the pantry to last until the weekend”. Exceptions: ISBN, GIS, HONClBrIF, MRxL, NJIT.

Second: we should clear up dangled participles. I admit I’m fuzzy on just what makes a participle or how one dangles it. But I hear it’s a thing people keep doing. Since I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the dangling is correct I say let’s set a rule that people submit a clear plan to dangle participles to a specially appointed participle coordinator. This will be a small office staff in Syracuse, New York, whom we will be able to catch completely by surprise with our subissions. The statements of intent should be sent by postcard, rather than letters in envelopes, as an economy measure; we can put the time that would have gone into opening envelopes to something more urgent. Put a strip of clear plastic tape over the proposed participle so that it will not get smeared in transit.

Third: alarm clocks should refrain from being so alarming. We have frayed enough nerves these days, what with how everything is alarming and most of it is terrible and about the only good things left anymore are anecdotes about small pets that had problems that looked serious but were actually funny. They should phase down to being responsible-concern clocks and maybe we could go without them altogether.

Fourth: we need to identify the people responsible for iTunes and hold them accountable.

Fifth: we need to better organize scheduling of the city’s summer concert festival series. There’s always the trouble of deciding whether to support the community’s summer concert series or to save ourselves the hassle of going out and finding parking and pushing through the crowds and does it look like rain? Shouldn’t it? If we squint can we make it look like rain? Also, are they going to search our bags? Are they going to search the camera bag even though it’s just big enough to hold a camera? It always feels so good to have gone somewhere, but it’s so much hard work to go there. We could make our lives better if we just had the summer concert series scheduled for the week we were going to be out of town anyway.

I should have some more later on, but if we could get on this we’ll have a world that’s better in easily two, maybe three ways.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose three points today on rumors that while it was going to rain over the weekend it wasn’t going to rain anytime we needed to be outside and it probably wasn’t going to rain hard enough to mess up the satellite TV reception.


In A Perfect World

So you live in a utopian future. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed by there. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Maybe it wasn’t you that was embarrassed. Maybe it was someone who reminded me of you. It would help if we could get some name tags or distinctive ribbons or something. Anyway, even in a utopia there’s no getting away from some civic responsibilities. At any moment something like one-eighth of our population is busy introducing the place to an outsider. Are you ready?

Maybe you’re wondering where they come from. The answer is, all over. Some of them are people from before the utopia who got themselves caught in cave-ins, or were put into stasis until medical science found a cure for painting bricks. Some of them are from alternate timelines, like one where Belgian visionary Paul Otlet and his electric telescopes failed to manifest the Mundaneum in Lakewood, New Jersey in 1934. Maybe they’re dreaming, as far as they can tell, and there’s no sense waking them up before you figure out which of us is real. Ooh, maybe they’re aliens, so we can be their aliens, and add this neat little mirror-image chic to things.

Really it doesn’t matter. Any visitor to utopia has some things they just have to know. And they have some expectations. Meet them, and they’ll be happy with the experience. They’ll need to be told they are in a utopia, straight off. Hide that and they’ll never be happy. And they’ll need a couple rounds of origin-shaming so they appreciate how their homes made serious dog’s breakfasts of things. That’s an easy sell because people find it charming to hear “dog’s breakfast” as a metaphor.

They’ll want to have a tour, once they’ve been electro-taught the universal language or just happened to know it anyway. You’ll want to take this on foot. It makes stuff seem bigger. I recommend taking them to one of those middling-size buildings made with that brick cladding that somehow looks like fake bricks even though they’re real bricks. Try to approach from the side that’s the least architectury. Then go into something about how it’s the administrative district’s largest facility for producing psychoneutral brick or self-motivated gelatin or fully interactive quadrophonic squirrels or whatever. To make a convincing presentation remember the important two elements:

  • A bunch of statistics delivered in obscure units. Try saying something like `modules over 20.38 centipoise per millikatal hectosievert’ or `response metrics as sensitive as 12.10 decatur-centidays’ until it sounds kind of normal-ish. `400,000 mease of herring each compline’. `0.2 adrianople-ceston-centiMcClintocks.’ Something like that.
  • A moving sidewalk. You can find some at most airports, many train stations, and the occasional shopping mall.

You’re going to get the occasional visitor who’s looking for social satire. By “social satire” people mean everyone talking about how their enemies were fools and their heroes visionaries. This is tricky to do before you know who their enemies and their heroes were. You can make some wild guesses and if they react with horror say that you were just testing to see if they were ready for the true order of things. You’ll want to practice that with friends before doing it live. Also bring some gift certificates for ice cream or something so you can act like you’re giving a special award for their figuring it out. Some weird flavor, something hard to like. They’re not coming all the way to utopia just to get fudge ripple. They’re looking for something with a bit of freaky to it. In fact, don’t just do this for ice cream. Every day try to find two or three little things to freak up a bit. It’s surprisingly fun once you get the hang of it and it makes their experience so much better. It’s kind of an important rule for life.

If you still can’t get a handle on them, try some patter about how gold and silver make the throw pillows of utopia all the more throw-pillow-ish. Your guests will make what they want out of this, and if they ask you to expand on it pull the old “what does that tell you about us?” routine. You’re not going to believe how well this works.

Sometimes you’re going to get the visitor who’s decided utopia is actually a dystopia. There’s no arguing them out of it. They’re going to figure they’re the only ones who see it, and they have a responsibility to destroy society, which is supposed to somehow help. So you’ll want to have contacts with some local theater group. They should have a bunch of costumes and a couple people who can do improv work as an underground movement. Set them up with something harmless like bubble wands. Tell your visitor these are futuristic pacification weapons so that nobody’ll get unnecessarily hurt while they’re busy destroying society.

Now you’ll need to set up a story where the organizing impulse for all society comes from, oh, whatever. That closed psychoneutral brick factory nobody’s got around to tearing down yet. Send them off to attack it and after all the foam has evaporated — well, you know joy? Not really. Not the kind of joy you’ll see after they figure they’ve gone and obliterated society. It’s pretty sweet, really. After you do go along with this you’re going to have to listen to them blathering a while about how they’ve opened everyone’s eyes and how society is really and truly going to work this time. And some of them can go on forever like this. But whoever said life in utopia was perfect?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose eleven points on word that if everybody was good we might just go to an amusement park for the Fourth of July. Skeptics protest that major holidays are the worst time to go to amusement parks because everybody goes to them then, but they were shut down by that time on the 4th of July that we went to Great Adventure and literally got to walk on to the front row of Kingda Ka, and when does that ever happen?


Coming To Senses

It’s natural to ask about being knocked senseless. It would even be good sense, if only that weren’t an impossibly complicated logical problem. About the only resolution is to list important senses ahead of time so if you lose them you will be able to tell, and feel the worse for it.

The sense of taste. Without this, there’s really no way to know whether you like what you’re eating or whether you merely think you do. To test whether you have this you’ll need some calibration. With a trusted friend, or an enemy whose respect for the integrity of knowledge overcomes your differences, swap tongues and test some agreed-upon meal. Take notes! You’ll want to compare them. Under no circumstances start arguing about whether the color that you perceive as blue is the same thing that your friend or enemy perceives as blue. Starting on this path will result in unpleasant questions about whether chocolate tastes like chocolate or whether you merely think there is a taste to chocolate. Those lacking friends or trustworthy enemies can borrow a tongue from the library. It is normally kept in the multi-media section so that patrons will know all of their audiobooks and DVDs have been licked by a qualified tongue.

The sense of scale. There are so many needs for this, and not just if you want to tell whether that’s a naked cobra in front of you. It’s not. It’s a garter snake. You live in Troy, New York, for crying out loud. Be sensible. It’s not like … wait, garter snakes are venomous? Who’s responsible for that? Excuse me, can we talk with the person in charge of reptiles so we can sort out who thought we needed venomous garter snakes? OK, wait, Wikipedia says they don’t produce a lot of venom and they don’t have any good way of delivering it? The heck, garter snakes? If you’re going to be venomous then do it right, and if you’re not going to be venomous don’t go getting us all riled up like that. You’re supposed to be North America’s cute little starter snake so we can look at you and feel a little thrill and then laugh at ourselves for getting scared. What are you doing getting all complicated like that?

The sense of touch. This is an important sense in order that people learn whether their legs are being attacked by a cat hiding underneath the bed. Without this sense who could say whether they were even on a bed, apart from looking at the thing they’re in and reviewing the checklist of important qualities of bed-ness to see if enough of them are satisfied? Yes, exactly. And you thought I was just going on a bunch of nonsense today.

The sense of balance. Without this it’s almost impossible to do a professional job arranging the graphic elements for a newspaper page. While one can carry on, the best one can hope for is pages made competently, without the sense of joy or wonder that truly engages readers. Without attractively-arranged pictures, headlines, and text blocks, people are forced to leave behind the printed newspaper and take up positions in web page design and glaring at the neighbor that’s parked on the wrong side of the road and building dense hedge mazes around what was until hours ago the municipal parking lot.

The sense of scale. Among the other many needs of this you need something to help you avoid stepping onto one and getting the unpleasant news about your weight. You have one. That’s a hard thing to hear about this early in the century, and it won’t be any easier later in the century either.

The sense of smell. Without the ability to notice a curious odor there’s no way to tell that your car is on fire except by the honking and frantic waving of people in the car next to you. This limits your driving to two-lane roads with enough traffic, which can cause you to be late for whatever you needed to do.

The sense of scale. Without the ability to tell which things are nearby and small and which are far away yet large you might accidentally take too large a step for the situation and turn out to be ten floors up on top of the building. This may inconvenience the person you were walking with. It’s different if you were trying to lose the person after finding out what they think food tastes like. You just have to know the context for what you think you’re doing.

The sense of sponge. Without this sense you could be surprised by something moist yet compressible. You can’t go around spritzing objects to then test whether they become more compressible, not without having to answer questions from the unexpectedly damp.

Should any senses be missing you should replace them from the store. Try aisle four, by the dollar toys.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose another three points and now everybody’s ready to panic about how they suddenly have what sure seems like a nice thing and how could that happen to people like them and you know it’s honestly kind of exhausting dealing with people like that all the time.


In The Long Term

It’s about time for some long-range planning, considering how well we’re doing with the short-range stuff. If you don’t agree, come back in about ten minutes and see if it’s time then. I’m thinking of really long term, not like those geology folks who think 1,625 million years is a fair stretch. I want something big.

As you go out long enough, the Sun is going to continue shining. This might sound controversial, but remember that we’ve almost completely amortized the costs of constructing the Sun. All we’re responsible for now is basic maintenance and upkeep. Even if we wanted to replace it with a more modern design it’d hardly be economical. And besides, the contemporary zoning regulations would make it really annoying to build the necessary falsework for a replacement to the Sun.

Now the thing about the Sun shining is that all that light falling down exerts pressure on the ground. Light hasn’t got any mass, being possessed of low self-esteem as a child when it might have formed some. But it does carry momentum, being unable by temperament to say no when asked to carry some momentum somewhere. When the light hits the ground and is absorbed or bounces off it pushes the ground down as surely as hitting it with tennis balls would, only without line judges. This is never a lot of push, but it is there all across the daylight half of the globe, and that adds up to a fair-sized push.

Imagine the Earth to be made of Play-Doh. This is a metaphor: it is actually made of peanut butter. But if you take a gob of Play-Doh out of its can you can lose all focus while you absorb that strange plymer smell. Please try to be productive through that. While enjoying the smell roll the Play-Doh into a ball and then set it down. It will not stay a round ball forever. Even before other people in the house take it to build their own projects, the continual pull of gravity will spread it out. This takes time, but we have that time. There’s probably billions of years of time you haven’t scheduled anything for yet, but still won’t be able to get around to writing that novel you have in mind.

Earth isn’t sitting inactively on a table. This is a good thing as the temptation to hit it with a giant pool cue would be nearly irresistible. Nor is it sitting in a giant chicken nest, again good for everyone who worries about stuff hatching from underneath them. But while the pressure of sunlight is flattening the Earth, the Earth is also rotating. This implies all that sunlight has the same effect of rolling a ball of Play-Doh on the ground: it’s going to roll out into a long, thin pole.

There’s no denying this is a long-term fate, but I warned you about that four hundred words ago. As the rolling effect will continue eventually the Earth with be a pole world. Long enough at this and the Earth will just a few inches wide and enormously long swinging around the solar system like a baton. Imagine the size of the matching cheerleader.

What can we expect life on this Pole World Earth to be like? Narrower, for one. There will be evolutionary pressures towards plants with very shallow roots, which means we may at last be free of those impossible-to-remove lawn weeds. It will be difficult for trees to grow tall, but those which manage will find to their photosynthetic delight that spreading their branches even a couple inches to either side means they get sunlight all day long. Probably that’s good for plants. You can’t imagine them getting worn out from too much sunlight and sneaking off to a corner, exhausted and panting from all that sugar-making.

While burrowing life forms will find life difficult, those which are comfortable living on vines or branches will be in good shape. Two- and three-fingered sloths may find the climate most comfortable except when someone wants to pass.

Humans will need to adjust as well. Those with long experience in grabbing poles, as they may have on buses or subways, will have an advantage, of course. Thus we see in large-city mass transit systems as evolutionary pre-adaptations to the future Pole World Earth. Subtle foreknowledge of this fate and the privileged position city-dwellers will have may account for the smugness often held against the urbanized.

Yet subways will have long since ceased to run by then, probably by the time the world is a pretty long rod only about fifty feet in diameter since trains need more clearance than you would have guessed. Not a lot more, just like another two feet or so more. But that’s still more. Without subways we can expect the economy to be radically different and generally much more cylindrical. Strong but lightweight straps could reasonably be in demand, but on the other hand people may just grow steeper arches in their feet. This is why it is so hard to predict the distant future.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index continued to rise as traders discussed how they could adjust their lifestyles to be more like a capybara’s, and word that it involved a lot of staying in comfortably warm pools of water really worked for people.


How To Program (Computers)

The only hard part of programming computers is you’re expected to make a computer program. And even that wouldn’t be so bad except for the expectation the program will work. There’s where programming falls down. Economists say this is from purely rational market motivations, because economists think it’s very important things result from purely rational market motivations and they’d feel awful if they ever found something that didn’t. In just the past month economists have identified purely rational market considerations behind how buses never run from anywhere anyone is to anywhere anyone wants to go, potato chips which resemble celebrities, the way that nobody has correctly identified sarcasm since 1986, the Balmer spectrum of Hafnium, and certain highly educated pebbles.

In this case, the economists have a point, and don’t think they aren’t all smug about it. Imagine you were a computer program that worked. You’d be put to work, likely at impossible times such as 5:15 am, instead of doing what you’d like. What you’d like would be trying to remember old cartoons you’re pretty sure you didn’t make up. To get to do what you want instead, you have to do the stuff you’re expected to do wrong.

And so programs have bugs. For example a program to alphabetize the boroughs of New York City lists “Queens” and then drives the computer off a cliff, causing a steam locomotive in 1908 to explode. This gives the program hours to establish that yes, Gary Coleman was an angel this one cartoon, and is he dead or was that somebody else? It also gives physicists something to argue over, and helps historians. These days the Haymarket Square Riot is understood to have been triggered by beta-testing of Microsoft Access 2016, with the real tragedy being that the upgrades could have been handled in a Service Pack. Also all the death.

Now to practical examples. Begin with a good software development environment. There are none. But there are neat packages which turn words different colors and send code flying all over tab stops. This is soothing to the eye. These development environments adapt their color schemes to the seasons. They’ll show more words in red and green around Christmas, purple and green around Easter, green and green around June, and so on. This way you can easily tell what time of year it is. It is too late in the year.

Let us use as demonstration the famous “Hello world” program, because that never demonstrates anything useful. This can be as simple as a line to the effect of:

System.out.writeln("Hello world");

As your development environment puts “System” in blinking blue and white, celebrating Greece’s Independence Day, you can compile and try running it. If it were to run, the program would justly fear being put to work by economists, therefore, we get a series of errors like:

  • Package ‘System’ cannot be found.
  • Thingy ‘out’ does not exist.
  • File cannot be found.
  • Function ‘writeln’ not defined in this context.
  • ‘System’ is a little fishy too.
  • We changed that ‘l’ to a lowercase ‘one’ to look better.
  • File cannot be written.
  • Not in that context either.
  • File cannot be read.
  • We’re none too sure about this ‘world’ thing either.
  • We’re pretty sure it’s nowhere near Greece’s Independence Day.
  • File cannot be.
  • Don’t think of bringing up that context either, that’s right out.
  • We want to punch an economist.
  • Does Greece even celebrate an Independence Day?
  • “Being” is an Aristotelean property inappropriate to the complex post-Alfred-Korzybski world.
  • “Hello” still feels slangy.
  • Put that context down, you’re getting fingerprints on it.
  • Development environment wants a hug.
  • Not from you.

More advanced environments may also be a little snarky about the alleged grammar of “Hello world”. Just try diagramming that sentence, see where you get. Turn off the prescriptivist settings, which could be found under Edit/Tools/Preferences/Checking/Grammar/Advanced, if you were using a different version of the environment from what you are, and from what every person offering advice on StackOverflow.com has.

Your environment might list what lines raise the objections. If you’ve programmed well enough, these numbers will have nothing to do with where the problems actually are, or with the number system. Go to any line you like, for example number square-root-of-seventy-A, which is blank. Comment out all the blank lines, then the non-blank lines, and soon you will trigger Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Now step away and sulk until the office closes and that’s your work accomplished. And if you look in your hand you’ll see your card is the six of clubs. Am I not correct?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Investor confidence was badly shaken by a 6:30 am work e-mail reporting that the water was perfectly safe to drink, bringing up previously unsuspected fears of the safety of the water and its drinkability, which is what they get for not leaving the e-mail until the middle of the day or something.