Everything There Is To Say About The History Of Gas Prices


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everything There Is To Say About Going Indoors


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

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

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

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

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

[It’s just not pretty is all.]

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

[I’m not being lazy in this. ]

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

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

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

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

  • Go back indoors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything There Is To Say About Going Out Of Doors


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything There Is To Say About Mnemonics


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things There Are To Say About Astronomy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far From Everything There Is To Say About Upgrading Operating Systems


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

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

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

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

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

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

What There Is To Do About E-mail


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts About How To Fix Walking


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Excerpt From The Me/iTunes Conversations


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

Me: OK, iTunes, resume.

iTunes: Happy to!

Me:

iTunes: What?

Me: Resume my podcast.

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

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

iTunes: Happy to!

Me:

iTunes: What?

Me: Resume it now.

iTunes: Resume what now?

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

iTunes: What’s that word?

Me: ‘Synecdoche’.

iTunes: How do you pronounce it?

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

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

Statistics Saturday: The Seven-Day Forecast


  • Sunday: Seven day forecast
  • Monday: Six day forecast
  • Tuesday: Five day forecast
  • Wednesday: Four day forecast, or as they say in the trades “fourcast”
  • Thursday: Three day forecast
  • Friday: Two day forecast
  • Saturday: Gulp!

Reference: The March of Democracy, John Truslow Adams.

Everything There Is To Say About Grinding Coffee Beans


Before I get warmed up you might ask how I know anything about grinding coffee beans. I’m glad you don’t ask the equivalent about every one of these essays. That would hurt my feelings. I affect a quiet, almost stoic pose. But I do have, and use, six feelings. I admit one of them is that feeling of nuisance that my sock is not quite wet enough to justify changing.

But it does not hurt my feelings if you doubt my knowledge of grinding coffee beans. I’m not a coffee drinker. I don’t much like it. I usually get coffee because I’ve misunderstood the question. I prefer tea, which could also use some work but which I’ve been kind of used to for longer. The only time I get coffee on purpose is when I go vegetable-shopping at the farmer’s market on the westside of town. They have this complementary coffee bar with a rotation of eight different flavors. And then what am I going to do, not get coffee because I don’t like it? It’s complementary.

And yes, I could get a complementary tea instead, but they use the same tea bags we already have at home. I’ve paid for those already, out of the household budget. This is a real chain of logic I really follow in reality, for real. Also they always have flavored coffees. And coffee might not be anything much, but coffee-cake flavor coffee? That’s great. I should get something to eat with my cup of coffee-cake flavor coffee, but what?

Nevertheless I do make coffee at home for my love, and for guests we have. And people agree I make good coffee. So I have standing.

Coffee comes in the form of beans. This is great because they make this satisfying rattle when you accidentally spill them on the kitchen floor. It’s a noise like pouring some particularly sugar-glazed cereal into an empty bowl and a good reminder to clean the kitchen floor more often. But to turn this into coffee you need to grind the beans. This creates “grounds”. The name comes from when the Coffee Makers Association heard the naming session was right now, not next week like their calendars said. You can get the coffee ground for you by somebody … somewhere … and buy it like that. But then people who are really, really, really into coffee will stare at you. Again, I only drink coffee when I’m feeling proud for snagging a good-looking bunch of turnips for our pet rabbit. But I know if I were making a cup first thing in the morning, I wouldn’t want the dolorous gaze of coffee enthusiasts coming through the kitchen window.

Anywhere you can buy coffee beans has a machine to ground then on the spot. It’s this terrifying machine with at least four hand-written signs warning about settings you must not used taped to it. There’s a layer of coffee dust on it deep enough to grow half-caff bananas. Best to hide from that scene. You can get a coffee blender for home from any shop that sells coffee-making supplies, or “coffeterium” as they say in the trades. (“Coffeteria” is the plural, for if you need more than one blender.) These are great, though. You take the lid off, pour beans in, plug the machine in, press the button, get a spray of beans in your face, and learn to put the lid back on again next time. It makes a fun sound on the kitchen floor.

If blending fails you can go try other ways. One good way is to set a cupful of beans in a strong plastic bag, tape it to the outside wall, and then summon the Kool-Aid Man. He not only crushes the beans into a fine powder but gets you something you like drinking right away while you’re waiting for coffee. That’s all great, but you can only do it up to four times, plus the landlord gets all tense.

So you have to stop using the Kool-Aid man. But that might not be a bad thing. Grinding beans is when they start to lose flavor, and we didn’t spend years getting kind of used to the flavor of coffee to have less flavorful coffee. But the logical conclusion is there: don’t grind the beans before drinking the coffee. Give in to the sound and eat the beans, like cereal, in a bowl full of chocolate milk instead. You can swallow a modest number of gizzard stones, like birds do, to crush the beans inside your crop and enjoy the perfect coffee experience.

It is possible guests are just being nice when they say I make coffee well.

Some Unconventional Beliefs


Here are some beliefs it is fine to have, even if you will never encounter a group of hundreds to thousands of people gathering in a hotel in some affordable hotel space on the outer edge of town for a weekend of merriment and panels and cosplay and frustrated attempts to get a group of six people together to go to the build-your-own-burrito place.

  • That if your mind insists on fusing the songs American Pie and My Brown-Eyed Girl into one massive, never-ending whole, that’s fine. Your mind is your own. You can put not just any songs but any experiences together you like. If you wish to merge Hotel California with the experience of hollering at the movie theater’s automated ticket booth because you just don’t care where you sit to watch Barton Fink reboot origin movie, that’s your right. I mean, of course, if you aren’t at your gig-economy job putting in a few hours being part of the collective massmind. But that’s a special case.
  • That it is the year 2019. By this I mean the ninth or maybe tenth year of the second decade of the current century. There is considerable evidence to suggest that we are instead in the nineteenth year, somehow, of the first decade of the current century. But consider: how is it that we still have eighties nostalgia? The 80s are now so long ago there’ve been, like, five movie Batmans since then? How can we possibly feel any warmth to a time so long ago? If we are still in the first decade of the 2000’s, then that’s just two decades in the past. It makes plausible how, say, people might have any specific warm memories of the Whammy. So let’s take that: we’re not in the year 2019 but rather in the nineteenth year of the 2000s.
  • That you just don’t have the emotional reserve to hang out with your fossa pal. That’s all right. Fossas are great, everybody agrees. They also have plenty of issues. It’s all right to let your fossa buddy march off to whatever it is they’re up to. You can recover your mental energies hanging out with a quokka or maybe a binturong. It’s not selfish to take some time not dealing with somebody else’s bizarrely complicated situation that’s somehow a fractal hyperfiasco, where every part of their fiasco is itself some deeper fiasco that’s just as impossible to deal with. Don’t feel guilty just hanging out with somebody who’s sleeping a lot and smells like popcorn.
  • All right, so the planet is a sphere. What’s so great about spheres? Maybe we just have a sphere because nobody involved in making it put any thought into the question. If we put our minds to it we could probably have a toroidal planet or maybe one that’s a great big Möbius-strip band. And it’d be fast, too. It would take, like, four days at the longest. There’s three-room apartments you couldn’t clean out for moving anywhere near that fast. Anyway nobody is saying this would solve all our problems, or any of them. It’s just an option we haven’t given serious consideration. No, we’re not doing Menger sponges. We’ve totally read the ending of The War With The Newts on Wikipedia.
  • That it would be a heck of a thing if it turned out vampires didn’t mind garlic. Like, maybe one didn’t, and everybody assumed all vampires were repelled by garlic? But it was just that guy’s preference? So what if it turns out vampires see garlic the way anybody might see, oh, Brussels sprouts? Where some just won’t eat them, and some kind of like them, and some love how it looks like they’re giants eating whole heads of lettuce in one bite? And it turns out that vampires actually have an issue with horse radish instead, which is why they only have lunch at Arby’s when it’s part of a long, serious meeting with their financial planner? Anyway you can have that belief and if need be donate that to a needy improv troupe.
  • That the messages that would be on the answering machine, if there were any, would be very interesting ones. They might even change everything, if they did happen to exist. It’s your answering machine. You can have any imaginary messages you like on it.

There are more things you can believe even if they are not commonly held. Good luck.

Everything There Is To Say About Updating Your Computer’s Security


The major reason to update your operating system these days is security. Computers are insecure and only getting worse. We can see why by considering any given program. If you have a program, it’s because someone wrote it to do something. (We are not going to see natural, farm-raised software for another three, three and a half weeks.) Do you know how many different ways there are for a program to do a thing? There are four. The programmer has doubts the right way got picked.

If the program doesn’t do a good job at that thing, the person who wrote it feels insecure. They have to explain how they know this thing isn’t right, 68 times a day. You can only apologize for the same thing 67 times in a day without it hurting your self-esteem. If it’s a little thing that’s wrong then that’s worse. They figure, this should be easy to fix! Why can’t I do it? So the person writing the program feels like a rank fool. That slips into the code, and your computer feels the insecurity.

If the program does whatever it should do well, you’d think that was great, right? Except no. Then the programmer has to think about how they can make this better. If they don’t, then they have to go work on something else. If they knew how to do that they’d have finished that program instead. So the writer has to work on making this good enough thing better. And you try thinking of an idea that’s even better than the one you had that worked. Do you know how many ways there are to improve a thing you ever did? There are four. Yes, again. So the person can do a couple of updates and make things better. After that every update makes the program a little less good. And then the program knows why you’re putting up with it. It’s because that’s less bad than trying something else. More insecurity.

You know who doesn’t have insecurity? The people who design hammers. Hammers are there to hammer a thing into another thing. If you feel fancy, you can include an option where it un-hammers a thing from another thing. The hammer designer knows the result should do. Once they’ve got a hammer that’s good at doing a thing — hamming — they’re happy. There’s nobody expecting some kind of improvement. If the prospect of an improvement comes along, that’s fine. Then they can go back to the Hammer Design Room. It’s a cheerful reunion. They get to see old friends.

“Dan! Kelly! We haven’t talked since we got that new niobium alloy! That was such a great hammer design time! What have you been up to?” This is the sort of merry little small talk I imagine they get up to. I don’t know what actual small talk is like. But I imagine it involves acknowledging that people have names. Then that you used to interact with people in some way. And then mentioning something you might interact with them about. I don’t know if you would alloy a hammer with niobium, but you know? I don’t know any reason not to, either. “Put your niobium in any hammers you like,” that’s what I say, when nobody else is in the room. And now I’ve said that I should explain that so far as I’m aware I have no financial holdings in the niobium trade. I’m not using my platform to manipulate rare-earth-metal prices. It’s not a rare-earth-metal. And there’s a 25% chance I made up the word “niobium” anyway. I’m pretty sure I didn’t make up the name “Dan”.

Anyway, the Hammer Design Room gets the gang back together. After they catch up there’s talk about whether this is actually going to make better hammers. And if the hammers are better, or what they’re better at. And then there’s hugging all around and promises. This time they’re going to stay in touch. Everybody goes back to making hammers. And there’s no upgrading the hammer until it can’t hamm anymore. You never see a security update for a hammer, not until some fool puts a computer in it. And if someone tries sneaking a computer into your hammer, you can bonk their fingers with it.

So if you’ve neglected your computer’s security updates, try hitting a thing with a hammer. Let’s say that’s my thesis here. Thank you.

Please Send Floss


1st February. The toothpaste is getting pretty low.

2nd February. Yes, there’s somehow even less toothpaste than there was yesterday. This would be worth doing something about except who wants to sully Groundhog Day with talk of something as sordid as toothpaste or something?

3rd February. Despite all the toothpaste being used there’s still less of it than there was the day before.

4th February. Dwindling of the toothpaste supply continues. It is beginning to look like it will not correct itself.

5th February. Now the toothpaste is basically out. Rolling it up from the end will get another day or two out of this, but that’s the end of things.

6th February. Never mind the blizzard and the bitter cold and just how tiring it is to do anything anymore. The only choices are to go to the store and buy more toothpaste or to wake up with teeth that feel like I didn’t brush my teeth the night before.

7th February. Forgot to get toothpaste at the store, which, there you go. Chance to go out tomorrow probably. It’s not quite out and there’s probably one or two more days’ worth, right?

8th February. All right, there’s another day’s worth of toothpaste left in the tube.

9th February. All right, there’s just one more day’s worth in the old tube. It’s not like the new toothpaste is going to be spoiled if it sits around another day or two.

10th February. Sure I already rolled the tube up, but it turns out if I roll it up again there’s just enough for one more day.

11th February. Well, now it seems like there’s moer toothpaste in the tube than there was yesterday. This has to be a clerical error of some kind, hasn’t it? I bet if I go back and check the logs this will all make sense.

12th February. Well, now the toothpaste tube holding out is starting to get ridiculous.

13th February. Definitely throwing the tube out tomorrow even if it hasn’t somehow given up the last drop of toothpaste.

14th February. But that would be wasteful.

15th February. You know if I “accidentally” knock the toothpaste over into the wastebin nobody could fairly blame me for not bothering to pick it up.

16th February. Now it’s reaching a dangerous spot. Like, some part of me is thinking of how one day’s toothpaste has lasted now all of February, which is a short month, yes, but it’s not all that short. All your name-brand months have at least sixteen days. It’s some kind of very oddly focused miracle. But then another part of me thinks, boy, this sounds like I’m making a joke about Hanukkah. And yeah, I’m just thinking about something a bit silly and whimsical in a weird little silly situation. But it also feels like there’s something here that’s insensitive at best and maybe offensive. And that’s the worst kind of joke to make. You can make a joke that you don’t mean to offend anyone. If you screw it up and do anyway, you can own up and apologize and if you went in with honest intentions most people will forgive you. You can make a joke that you do mean to offend someone, if you know who it is you want to offend and why you want to offend them about this point. And if you make a good joke that offends some definite person for a definite reason people will be okay with that, too. But a joke that you toss out there not really knowing if anyone should be offended, or why? That gets everybody in trouble. Nobody can form a coherent argument to have about who should be upset or whether they should or shouldn’t be, and so we all end up angry and annoyed and tired. This is just me repeating the wise advice of Machiavelli, from his classic The Prince Of Comedy. You know his analysis of offensive humor got Machiavelli a three-week residency in front of a brick wall outside the Piazza della Signoria, after which they hurled rocks (the ancestor of popcorn) at him.

17th February. All right, so I have to move the wastebin a lot closer to the sink before there’s any chance of my “accidentally” dropping the toothpaste into it. Also maybe I have to hold the toothpaste with the wrong hand.

18th February. Beginning to regret not keeping the receipt from that new tube of toothpaste so I could return it and put the $2.29 into more pressing needs. Pretty dumb to have sunk all my liquidity even into tartar-controlling goo.

19th February. You’d think having a tube containing an infinite volume of toothpaste would be able to make you some money, even if it is Aim. There is no way I can see to it, though.

20th February. Foot hurts too much from stepping in the wastebin by accident to think about why the toothpaste hasn’t run out yet.

Some Things To Understand About The 1980s


Here are some things worth explaining about the 1980s, or that are getting explanation anyway.

The decade was heralded by an argument between seven-year-olds who were friends, yes. But the question was whether the year following nineteen-seventy-nine would be nineteen-eighty or whether it would be nineteen-seventy-ten. And whether the decade would have to get all the way up to nineteen-seventy-ninety-nine before it flipped over to nineteen-eighty. The party taking the nineteen-seventy-ten side was very cross at the calendar-makers for not leaving the matter up to the public to dedide.

The President had a press spokesman whose name was Larry Speakes, and it seemed like it was amusing that he had a first and last name that sounded like you were describing what your friend Larry did for his job. His middle name was ‘Melvin’, but nobody could come to an agreement about what it was to Melvin a thing, or whether ‘Larry Melvin’ was a credible name. There was similar but baffled delight when we noticed that Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name was ‘Moon’. This was very important because lists of trivia about people and their names could point out that Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. And while it’s possible he walked on his mother, we’re pretty sure she wasn’t a maiden when he did it. There was also a bit of a flap about how if you took Neil Armstrong’s name and discarded the ‘rmstrong’ part, and then spelled it backwards, you got ‘Alien’. This seemed like it ought to have something to do with his job, although by the 1980s, Neil Armstrong’s job was “chair of a company that made drilling rigs”. This seems highly significant.

Although we had pop culture, it was seen as really swell to make a kid version of popular. Looney Tunes as kids. The Flintstone Kids. Scooby Doo, but a puppy. The trend reached its peak with the 1989-90 Muppet Babies Kids, the exciting follow-up adventures to the animated adventures of the toddler versions of the live-action-ish Muppets. The show was a computer game, because why not? You know? Why not?

With the advent of the pizza-on-a-bagel American society finally handled the imaginary problem of not being able to get pizza anytime. But by putting pizza-related toppings on a bagel we did finish off the problem of bagels not being terrible. I think the problem is bagels had just got introduced outside the New York City metro area. I mean, there was a little stretch in the late 30s when Fred Allen was talking about them. But that was in joking about people who mistook bagels for doughnuts as part of the surprisingly existent controversy about dunking doughnuts in coffee. So explaining them as a pizza-foundation technology let people understand bagels in terms of things we had already accepted, like putting pizza on French bread. Also we could put pizza on the bottom halves of French bread. We don’t know what was done with the top halves. There’s an excellent chance someone at French Bread Pizza headquarters is going to open a forgotten cabinet door one day and get buried under forty years’ worth of abandoned French bread tops. People will call for rescue, but however many times they explain it to 9-1-1 the dispatch operator hangs up.

We had movies, back then. They were a lot like movies today, except everybody’s cars were shoddier. I mean, not that they were 80s cars, although they were, but they were more broken-down 80s cars than you’d get in a movie set in the 80s now. It was part of the legacy of 70s New Hollywood. We might have gotten rid of the muddy sound and action heroes that looked like Walter Matthau, but we were going to keep the vehicles looking downtrodden until 1989. And there was usually a subplot about smugglers who’re after some stolen heroin diamonds. Anyway, when going to the movies it was very funny to observe the theater had, like, six or even eight whole screens. For example, you could say “I’m going to the Route 18 Googolplex” to describe how amazing it was you might see any of four different films that were starting in the same 45-minute stretch of time.

The decade closed with an argument between seven-year-olds about whether the following year was nineteen-eighty-ten or not. These were different seven-year-olds from before. It would have been a bit odd otherwise. You’d think they would have remembered.

Do not dunk bagels in coffee.

How To Clear The Snow On Your Sidewalk


Do you need to clear the snow on your sidewalk? That’s not a trick question. If you have both snow and a sidewalk, yes, you do. The question is how.

The best solution to snow on the sidewalk is to live inside a domed city. Within this sparkling beautiful environment you don’t have any kind of weather, just a steady mediocrity. If you want to have snow, you can get it delivered. It’ll be placed thoughtfully on your property by a team of specially developed snow-bots, working under the direction of a snow artist who’s moody and introspective and has deep thoughts about the aesthetics of stuff on your lawn. In this case you can get the snow-bots to put snow on your sidewalk. And then you can have them remove the snow again because, hey, it’s not like they have lives to get back to. At least until it turns out the snow-bots do have deep internal lives. And the snow artist falls under the sway of a mysterious, deep-feeling red-haired woman who was left over from an unpublished J G Ballard short story. Then there’s a good chance that you’ll be the person whose house is being tended while The Revolution gets started. This is jolly good excitement, but you can’t count on that happening more than maybe one time out of four. (The Revolution discovers that outside of the city dome, the Earth has transformed from radiation-scarred wasteland to Griffith Park.) Also, living in a domed city is likely to attract me. I don’t think that’s a problem, but I definitely understand if you do.

What should be a nearly-as-good method is to have a fire dragon on hand. A fire dragon can handup two ten inches of snow by something as simple as laying down. Problem solved, right? At least until that eleventh inch comes down. Not so, sad to say. There are no fire dragons. What you can get in most places are fire snakes. These are a considerably smaller species. They come from Australia, which tells you something about why that continent’s gotten a cumulative total of about four inches of snow in recorded history, which thanks to the indigenous peoples there, stretches back about 50,000 years. A lone, four-inch-long, Australian fire snake has enough heat capacity to singe the eyebrows off the entire population of Europe four times over. This will come in handy if there’s ever a blizzard of European eyebrows on your sidewalk. This doesn’t often happen. If it did, you’d know, because the weather map would make it look like the Interstate is making Groucho eyes at you. Still it’s nice to know the capacity is there. Do not try to import this species. You can’t get the necessary straw mice to feed them without the pet store getting suspicious.

The most popular method to clear the sidewalk is to flip a switch which causes the sidewalk to lift up on large hydraulic legs. Then the legs tip the sidewalk to the side, and a giant cartoony hand wearing gloves and holding a whisk broom goes back and forth, dusting the sidewalk clean. The sidewalk drops back into place and the hand tosses the whisk broom into the air and makes a happy OK sign before catching it and disappearing again. If you have a switch in the house and you can’t figure out what it’s supposed to do? It does that. If it doesn’t work that’s because the GFCI has tripped. Look for something that seems like a reset button and try that. Make sure you don’t ever use this while someone’s on your sidewalk.

If it isn’t working and you can’t find the reset button, I know what you’re thinking. No, you can’t take the hair dryer out and use that on the sidewalk. That isn’t hair. Well, all right, if you’ve got the European eyebrow blizzard that’s hair. But that also almost never happes. Best not to worry about it.

After clearing the snow, scatter enough rock salt that you feel like you’re using too much rock salt, but not quite enough that it feels like your sidewalk is actually getting clear of ice or slush.

Some Groundhog Predictions


Here are some things a groundhog might predict.

Six more weeks of winter. This occurs when the duly appointed groundhog for a region emerges and sees its own shadow. This commits us to six more weeks of cold weather. There is also an option on snow, freezing rain, and your car being somehow glazed. This is all per an ancient agreement that nobody remembers why humanity made. It must have solved some problem, but what?

Six fewer weeks of winter. Unless that should be six less weeks of winter. This occurs when the duly appointed groundhog for a region emerges and sees its shadow. Or … no, wait, that’s supposed to be more weeks of winter. Maybe it’s you get more winter when the groundhog doesn’t see a shadow? Well, it’s one of those cases. This is what we have a research department for.

Six wider weeks of winter. This occurs when a groundhog emerges and sees its shadow through the distortions of an anamorphic lens. It’s a great chance for everyone to wear horizontal stripes and to play out their favorite scenarios of not being able to fit through door frames.

Six more eggs of winter. This happens when the groundhog emerges but is dressed in either a chicken or an Easter bunny costume. Extremely rare but valuable as it lets you make two more cakes than you otherwise would have. Alternatively, you can poach a couple of eggs in up to six bowls of ramen and that adds a little bit of joy, even when you’ve already gone to the Asian grocery and gotten some of those strange ramen packets with flavors like Spicy 3-Chili Artificial Pork With Broth.

Six more beeps of winter. This is what to expect when the emergent groundhog is a robot of some kind. I don’t make any assertion of why the groundhog would be a robot. Maybe they’ve cut back on the budget for squirrel-family payroll. Maybe the area is too environmentally challenging for groundhogs to be there in person, and they have to be telepresent instead. Maybe you just live in the robo-ecosphere. I don’t judge.

Six more shrieks of winter. Foretold when the groundhog emerges and gets a good, clear, direct look at the state of anything in the world. Not a winter for anyone with any anxiety.

Six fewer eggs of winter. The terrible flip side of more eggs. This happens when the groundhog completely lacks a chicken or an Easter bunny costume, and can’t be coaxed into wearing that great peacock costume. “How could a peacock lay an egg?” the groundhog demands to know, and not completely unfairly. “It should be a peahen!” You try to answer: peahens are lovely birds. If it weren’t for peacocks stealing the spotlight they’d be rated among the most beautiful of birds. It doesn’t matter. Nobody even understands what this argument is supposed to gain. And there you are, deprived of the ability to make up to two cakes or six poached-egg bowls of ramen. You have within you the strength to survive this.

Six more weeks of winter, all stacked on top of each other. When the groundhog emerges and turns out to be several groundhogs sitting on one another’s shoulders. No, not wearing a trenchcoat. So you think some years it just feels like February 24th goes on for like 48 hours? Wait until you spend forty-two days on the 24th of February. Stockpile some books and at least sixty pointless quarrels to have with your loved ones.

Six more tweaks of winter. The groundhog does not emerge, as it is busy fiddling with a couple of inconsequential details in the confident hope that everything will be perfect when they are done. They are never done, so nothing ever has to be done, which is perfect.

Six more beaks of winter. BIRDVASION! RUN! RUNNNNNN!

Six more feet of winter. This we can expect when the groundhog turns out to be one or more spiders collaborating. This is great news for the hosiery merchants. It’s not so good for people who’ve laid in a huge stockpile of two-legged clothing. This is nature’s way of reminding us that it’s never worth hoarding pants. Last observed in Syracuse/Utica’s famous Leggy February of ’78.

Sensible


I write this in the supposition you’ve never been knocked senseless. I haven’t either, at least so far as I know. I suppose if I had lost my sense of whether I was senseless I wouldn’t know about it. Well, maybe I’d have some confusing memory some from before the senseless-ness-knocking-out. But I’d mostly know that my course of action was altered by something I now couldn’t understand. “It’s as though I had the ability to sense whether some spongy substance was in the area, but that’s impossible … isn’t it?” would be my analysis of the memory. All because I didn’t know whether I should have a sense of sponge. So here, let’s review some of the senses you might have, or expect to have.

The sense of taste. This is an important one, given the role it serves in letting you put the world in order. Without it there’s no consistent way to tell which of the three categories of tastes things are in. Is this vanilla? Is it chipotle? Is it chocolate? Or will they be forever unknown? Without this sense you’ll wander through a confused, shadowy representation of the lickable universe, or as it known professionally, the lickiverse. I mean an even more confused and shadowy representation. (I don’t want to get in even more trouble with the Tongue Neo-Platonists. I’m still trying to rebuild my reputation after that whole “what’s the taste of shadows” fiasco.)

The sense of smell. This sense is important for making any room suddenly uncomfortable. Without it you might go months without interrupting your day with an investigation of every room in the building to see if something is smoldering. “It’s like someone microwaved a fish on a slab of car tires,” people who can smell are saying to each other, not all the time. “And then sprayed Febreeze so we wouldn’t notice. Why would a linen closet smell like that?” This is only more fun when you notice that strange, faintly evil smell when you’re in a car, two and a half hours from home, in the snow, with the heater almost keeping up against the cold. And there’s two friends you promised rides to sitting in the backseat. And something’s clicking, which you know through your sense of hearing. But even if you didn’t hear it, you’d know that ticking was there. It’s not the fan.

The sense of balance. Without this sense it’s impossible, except by good luck, to arrange the layout of elements on a newspaper page. You can slog on through uninspired compositions, ones with rote placements of headlines, pictures, and rules to guide the eye. But the readers will know. Even if they can follow the article about the area’s axe-throwing businesses, their eyes will not be delighted. How are we to enjoy the visual feast of a morning newspaper when it’s just, ugh, head across four columns, no subhead, two-column picture set dead center in the middle two? No pull quotes? No cheeky use of a subhead? Yeah.

The sense of dubious taste. This is a protective sense; you can ignore or do without its warnings, but it will make your life noticeably worse. It gets really active when you start pondering, say, whether there was ever a way Disney could have made a Song of the South everybody wouldn’t be angry with them about. And then maybe put the discussion up on Twitter. It can save you from lesser dangers too. For example, it’s the sense which alerts you to how much of your body you’re putting in a garment that’s international-warning-signal orange. Yes, there are people who can pull this look off. They’re among the dubious super-tasters. They know how to follow their sense’s warnings, and stay out of danger. The primary danger is that you are mistaken for a bollard protecting the approach to a bridge, or perhaps (by giants) a Cheeto.

This is an incomplete list of senses, so far as I’m aware. If you find yourself not having a sense which is not on this list, please add it, and then to obtain a replacement sense from the nearest body shop. Most body shops don’t have whole bodies in stock, but they keep some nice accessories.

How To Get Ready To Go Someplace By Car


Before setting off on your car trip there are some things you should check. The first is to check that you have a car. While it’s often permitted, it’s socially awkward to just be running along in the middle of a highway without any kind of vehicle. Not least because you have to signal all your turns using your hands instead of with electric lights. This is great if you want to feel vaguely like you’re in a cartoon about wimmin drivers from the 1950s. But do you really want to feel like that? Yes, if it’s a heartwarming cartoon about being part of a family of cars. But otherwise no.

Similarly you want to check that you don’t have more than one car. I mean that you’re driving at one time. It’s fine to keep a second car in reserve, ready to leap into action when it turns out the first one has mysterious buttons on the door with labels like ‘ASW’ that don’t seem to do anything. But you only want to operate one at a time, unless you have extremely long arms and legs. Similarly you want to include yourself in the car trip. There’ve been great developments lately in self-driving cars. But these fully autonomous vehicles won’t take over the purpose of a car trip until they’re able to get to a spot, deal with whatever it is you were going to deal with, and drive home, and get annoyed that their podcasts are ten minutes too short or five minutes too long for the journey. There’ve been some great developments in this field lately, with research going in to how to make podcasts a prime number of minutes long. But the work isn’t yet complete.

If the relative count of cars and you’s turns out matches up well you can go to other checks. The first is that you’ve locked the house door. The second is that you’ve gone back and made sure you’ve locked the door. You can be confident you’ve gotten the door locked by no method known to humanity. But it’ll clear the issue up when you start pulling out of the driveway and realize you left your phone in the house and don’t have your podcasts with you. This will be a chance to run back into the house and go through the door-locking all over again.

Anyway before you do set off you should do a safety inspection of the car. This includes walking the entire circuit around the vehicle, looking for any signs of damage or wear or other problems, such as a tire being flat, a body panel being cracked, a muffler dangling loose, an animal hiding in some part we’re just going to go ahead and call the “manifold”, or any part of the electrical system being on fire. Responsible drivers have done this walk-around inspection an estimated four times since the invention of the automobile. You should also check that the mirrors are attached and showing the areas behind the car. If they are not, try taking them off and putting them on upside-down. This will not help matters, but making the effort will reassure you that you’re doing all that one could hope for. Really it might be easier to be an irresponsible driver.

It’s also worth checking that there aren’t traffic problems along your projected route. The radio could be a good source for information. The news station, for example, will happily let you know that there are delays on the Tappan Zee Bridge. They’re always reporting there are delays on the Tappan Zee Bridge. This gives you the chance to ponder the question: how often does there have to be a delay before the delay stops being a delay and just becomes normal? And wait, didn’t they replace the Tappan Zee Bridge years ago? In fact, didn’t they tear it down? (They did not. They just stopped hoping it would not fall down while anyone was watching.) Also, the Tappan Zee Bridge isn’t anywhere near you. You live somewhere like San Jose, California, such as Louisville, Kentucky. And in what ways is San Jose like Louisville? In what ways is it different? Can you answer in 700 words or fewer?

The wind has blown the house door open.

In Which I Cannot Honestly Say I Dodged A Bullet Here


I was cleaning my car. It was at that point where it looked like there was more stuff in the back seat than could be justified. Like, why would I need jumper cables? Or a first-aid kit? Or the receipt for two sour-cream-and-chives baked potatoes plus a medium-size pop from Wendy’s from 2017? Or a bright reflective orange safety vest?

Along the way I dug out a summertime issue of the Lansing City Community News. This is a six-page ‘special edition’ of the Lansing State Journal that’s tossed for free once a week onto everyone’s driveways. It’s part of a service to the community, so we know which of our neighbors haven’t been home since Saturday. I must have picked up this one and forgot it existed until now. It usually features about two and a half of the human-interest stories from that week’s State Journal, plus a third of a page of classified ads to meet singles having yard sales to sell old beds and masonry repair. Sometimes they forget to include the ends of articles, the way the mothership State Journal does. But they included all of this one, and the headline should have caught my attention sooner:

Ax-Throwing Business Opens In Lansing

So it explains that this is the source of the dull thuds from behind the headquarters of Quality Dairy. That’s a local convenience store chain, the place where all metro Lansing comes together to obtain qualities. Some of their popular ones, year after year, include ‘peppermint’, ‘cream-filled’, ‘mooshy’, and ‘evocative of ducks’. I hadn’t heard a thing, but I don’t claim to be on top of all the mysterious dull thuds behind Quality Dairy headquarters and I would like people to stop pretending I do.

But the opening of this axe place has got me wondering where on the gentrification path “Axe-Throwing Businesses” are. It’s got to be somewhere after “person on recumbent bicycle pedals east every day at 2:35”. I’m pretty sure it’s before “can’t get across town through all the ukelele festivals”, but that might just be because we’re close enough to the Interstate I don’t have to deal with the street traffic. I think I have to place it between “coffee shop menus talk about geography”, but before “everything on the block is a restaurant or a knick-knackery”.

The people running this axe-throwing business got into it like you expect. They were having fun one day, throwing axes at things. Then someone piped up with “you know what would make this even better? If we had to satisfy building inspectors and file 1099 forms!” So they made it into a business and I guess that’s working out for everyone. They still get to throw axes, and now there’s safety regulations they have to follow, and they’re getting two-thirds of the front page of a summer issue of the Lansing City Community News. Really no downside.

Still, it’s not a fulltime job because, I mean, why would you expect running an axe-throwing center, or “axeterium” as they say in the trade, to be enough business to live on? No, this is just a side job. They really run a blacksmith supply shop, it says in the article. This makes me want to know more about the challenges of blacksmith supply operations, especially in an area like Lansing, where we just don’t have that many animated coyotes hoping to drop an anvil from a cliff face. Also not that many cliff faces. Cliffs can’t be counted as blacksmith supplies anyway.

If we can believe the article — well, a lot of things follow. Among them, that “[Baker] spends his weekdays making Lord of the Rings-inspired metal helmets and custom cornhole sets”, at least until his boss finds out. But also that axe-throwing is a competitive sport. Apparently there are “more than 4,000 leagues in 50 cities across five contries, according to the Toronto-based National Axe Throwing Federation”. You could go to some axe-throwing event, and take home a trophy. You don’t even need to be big or muscular. You just need to have good form. Or to refuse to put your axe down until someone gives you a trophy.

Yes, I am bothered beyond all reason that the newspaper spells it “ax” in the headline and body of the article, but “axe” in the photo captions. And that the place and the National Axe Throwing Federation spell it “axe”. Sheesh.

Uncle Chuck on How To Get Three Cars To The Same Place At The Same Time


I was figuring to take it easy for the start of the new year. So I’m reprinting a piece that originally ran when this feature was written by my great-uncle Chuck for the Perth Amboy News Tribune. I’m pretty sure he was my great-uncle. I hate to admit, but I do get mixed up some. The best I can follow all our male relatives on that side of the family were named “Chuck” or “Al”, as if the family were afraid we didn’t really know how to pick names and might get in trouble so we just went with whatever worked last time. I’m sure we could sort this out if we asked my father, Joseph. Or, if we had gotten to the question sooner, his father, Joseph. Anyway here’s an essay that first appeared in this column in 1955. Enjoy!


There have been a great many enquiries to this office about how to get three cars to the same place at the same time. Perhaps the number is not that great, but they make up for it with persistence. “But madam,” I protest, “This is the water-commissioner’s office!” They are unmoved. They are certain I have answers. “Have you considered that it is because of the drought?” I offer. This hasn’t anything to do with the issue, but it promises a useful distraction. Still, let us consider the question in its original spirit and try to answer it fairly, two falls out of three.

If you wish to get three cars to the same place at the same time the first question you must answer is: why? Is this really worth your doing? What I’ll bet you want is to get three cars’ worth of people to the same place at the same time. And the most efficient way to do that is to find some reason not to go there. Two-thirds of your party would be up for that anyway, and are secretly hoping someone will offer. But there’s that stubborn remainder that will have you all going out, come what may. “I don’t care that we could roller-skate in the basement, if we moved the garden furniture out of the way,” they’ll hold. “I want to go do it where there’s more space and we have to pay for popcorn.” Fine. Let them learn.

The best way to be sure everyone gets to the place is to give everyone the address and the meeting time. Then take out every map available, including that one of the Old Northwest you got intending a joke that never worked right, and review the course and three alternate courses. Then let everyone go off on their own and hope for the best. The best is two-thirds of the party gathering while the third that insisted on going out instead somehow ending up at the Perth Amboy YMCA.

But even with this clear plan and good will in mind, the cars will set off, attempting to convoy. The cars stick as close together as they can, the first two turning right at the end of North Feltus Street and the third turning left. This inspires a right jolly conversation among the passengers. It ends with sore throats and sorer feelings, but at least an agreement to catch the other vehicles and tell them they’re going the wrong way. Meanwhile the other two cars have come to a stop where they can just see the funeral home, waiting for their lost partner, which goes past without noticing them. They try to catch up, and are foiled by the traffic signal, which separates the now-second car from the third. The second car honks furiously, getting the attention of the first, and they agree to wait outside the accordion place in fond hope of regrouping.

And this is taking the simple way there. The other way would have taken the party through the triangle of streets inside the larger triangle of streets, planned out by the city fathers in order to demonstrate Book VI, proposition 8 in their Euclid. There is no chance of the three cars making it through. History teaches us at least one car will be nudged away from the convoy by a German submarine, and its passengers will be interned in Ireland for the duration of the conflict.

But we have set off on the less treacherous path. From here it should be a left turn at the KoC. But the sense of the party has decided it’s the left turn just after the KoC. Doing this brings everyone back around to the other side of the accordion place and agreement to try a right turn instead. From here it should be not more than a quarter-mile, everyone stopping before they get to the train tracks. Four other cars somehow get between the three voyagers.

The roller-skating rink is closed today.

Some Unwise Resolutions


To allow a web site to send notifications. Something’s gotten into web sites recently that they want to notify you of things. There’s no good reason for that. The only legitimate thing a web site might want to send you is a notice that they have something for you to look at. But you knew that. What more can it have to tell you? So any attempt to notify you of things is a bluff. The site might start out with things of actual slight interest, like “there is no English word for [ and here a big blank space exists ]”, or “The Wrinkle In Time movie was one of the fifty highest-grossing motion pictures of 2018”, or, “there was a Wrinkle In Time movie in 2018”.

After about four days they’ll run out of stuff to talk about. “Bobby London was the only Popeye comic strip artist born after the character Popeye was created.” You’ll get ever-more-marginal items, like, “you mean about the same thing if you say `that’s nothing to laugh at’ or `that’s nothing to sneeze at’ but if you mix up laughing and sneezing in other contexts it’s awkward”. Carry on another two weeks and it’ll be asking things like, “remember that jingle for Bon-Bons candy in the 80s? If you don’t, here it is!” Two weeks after that the web site notifications author will have run out entirely of content and will just be sending you their fanfic from high school. Maybe their poetry. And then they’ll ask you to have opinions and to be honest and then where are you going to be?

To not be eaten by a bear. This is a traditional resolution, dating back to the days when people had good reason to worry about bears getting into them. Its earliest known appearance in a pamphlet published during the English Civil War, where it was taken to be some kind of satire about the Cavaliers or some fool thing because everything was back then. The flaw with this as a resolution is obvious to even the most basic trainee genie: even if you manage to avoid being eaten by a bear there’s nothing keeping you from being eaten by that other bear who’s also hanging around. And trying to tighten it up by resolving “to not be eaten by every bear”? Then if every bear that ever existed except one were to dine on and using you, your resolution would be satisfied, while you would not be. The resolution needs a lot of logical tightening-up before it’ll do what you want.

To reach inbox zero. Never, never attempt this. Just attempting will leave you becalmed in a world of feeling guilty about not answering that friend who sent that sweet just-thinking-of-you note two Februaries ago. And if you succeed? If you reach inbox zero you die for keeps. Whereas if you die with a decent heap of miscellaneous e-mails? Your ghost continues to walk the earth, trying to sort e-mails into their key categories:

  • Things which may be deleted.
  • Things which belong in an archive where they will never be read.
  • Things which are the pants vendor at the outlet mall near the city where you used to live six years ago hoping to reestablish some kind of relationship with you.
  • Things which need an answer.

As things stand I’ve got, like, forty years after my death sorting all this out and I’m going to use all that time.

To not grow taller. Most of us adopt this resolution without thinking about it. We start out growing just fine and after maybe two decades of life just let it taper out. And it’s understandable. By the time we’ve reached our early twenties we’re usually large enough for most of the good amusement park rides. Growing any bigger yet would upset the delicate ecosystem of our wardrobe. And who needs the bother? So it’s natural we all drift to about the same decision.

But! It’s a different thing when you resolve not to grow any taller, no matter what. That’s just closing off potential adventure. And yeah, you reach a point in life where adventure is too much work. You get more into activities like sitting and having knee pain. If someone came to you right this minute and asked you to be eighty feet tall and maybe tromping around downtown if the National Guard promised to be ineffective against you, would you say yes? Why not?

To label all the wires behind the home entertainment system. The only reason to do this is to learn how many of the wires in that tangle connect to nothing on either end, but you can’t remove them because if you do there’s no picture, no sound, and a local news anchor comes over to slap your wrists. There are 32 such.

Every Other Thing There Is To Say About Decorating For Christmas


All right, I guess everyone is still interested in my Christmas-decorating advice. Again, this even though I used to be a teenaged boy. Your business to let me into it.

The key to Christmas decorating is gathering in the most emotionally important room in the house. Then fill it up to your chest in boxes. This should ideally be a labyrinth, but it’s all right if you can’t, what with the high price of minotaurs these days. The spirit of the season is satisfied if during the decorating process a quick visit to the bathroom requires five minutes of maneuvering and, at some point, someone ducking backwards into a closet. Mind, the spirit is really tickled if in the process of getting out of the way someone falls backwards onto the sofa. Just an advisory.

It’s not really a full decorating job until everyone involved in the decorating is worn out and has turned to shouting at one another over questions like where to hang the stockings and whether the stockings were hung in the correct order. Done fully, Christmas decorating gives everyone the experience of moving to a new home. It’s a precious experience, all the more precious if you’ve been living in the same place for so long you find it a little weird that you aren’t, like, fifteen years older. I mean, you’re supposed to just move from one place to another every couple years, right? It’s weird that you’re not doing that?

But maybe you don’t have the time or you aren’t up for quite that raucous a fight. Decorating doesn’t have to be complicated. The simplest way to decorate is to snatch the magic wand from a Christmas Fairy. Then wave it around CLOCKWISE FOR THE LOVE OF CHEESE and point it at a surface. Poof! You’ll have ribbons and baubles and merry stuff like that and be walking in drifts of tinsel up to four feet deep. It’s quick and easy. But it does mean getting involved with the fairy folk. That always starts great and then it turns out there was some fool rule that if you ever said “mustard” three times the night of a lunar eclipse then the devil gets to take everything in your life that’s blue or starts with the letter ‘w’. I know, you’re figuring, how could that really spoil anything? Consider one example: ‘when’ is a thing that starts with the letter ‘w’. Lose ‘when’ and it becomes impossible to establish the time of anything. So you’ll be simultaneously late and early and on time for everything you might do. Every social encounter will be a stressful, confusing melange of apparently unmotivated interactions. But different from how it already is.

So maybe just as well to go about it the hard way. The Christmas tree has been a centerpiece of Christmas decorating in a Christmas tradition that Christmas dates Christmas to — sorry. Something got jammed there. But Christmas trees are great. You can get a natural tree, which you put in a tree stand full of water that spills on the skirt every day. If you’re lucky, it’ll make alarming crackling noises that sound like it’s on fire, or there’s maybe a squirrel still in it, or that your squirrel is on fire. Or you can get an artificial tree, which avoids the problem by coming in a box that’s objectively too small for all the tree parts to fit inside. Nobody knows how they work. But its only major drawback is eventually it wears out, and if there’s a teenaged boy in your life, it might fall into his possession.

Augment this with lights. You can take out the Sure-Lite Never-Die Extremely Heavy Use Commercial Grade incandescent bulbs with the ten-year warranty you bought last year. They are all dead. But with the help of a handy little light-bulb tester you can turn these unworking light strands into unworking light strands you’ve held up a handy little light-bulb tester to. The tester is so obvious that it includes no instructions to tell whether it indicates the bulb is dead or not, and you’ll never figure out how to tell. Or you can go to a modern LED-based strand of light bulbs, if you’d rather have light bulbs that want permission to use location services and send audio recordings of your home back to some corporation that’s bought the Polaroid, Studebaker, Philco, Peek Freans, Coleco Adam, and Uneeda Biscuit trademarks. Don’t worry about whatever that company is up to. The lights will send whether you give permission or not.

Next get to the ornaments. Each ornament is a little time capsule, a chance for you to remember where you were when you got this ornament. You were in the Christmas ornament store, or “ornamentorium” as they call it in the trades. And then read the scrap of last year’s newspaper you wrapped it in to stay secure. Oh, that great restaurant you never get to is closing in two weeks, fifty weeks ago. Probably too late to get their iconic Fish And/Or Chips basket. And then every time you’d hung the ornament in the past despite the terror that you might drop and break it. And then argue about whether it should have been hung somewhere else, like not right in front of the green light. Temporarily, the tree is nothing but green lights. No one knows why we put green lights on a tree that is, basically, green.

Really what you do doesn’t matter. The important thing is to have a process, and be upset that you aren’t following it. Any of us can do that.

Everything Else There Is To Say About Decorating For Christmas


I’m flattered that you’re still coming to me for advice about Christmas decorations after learning I used to be a teenaged boy. It’s not what I would do, but, what the heck. I guess the worst that can happen is a family that’s fled some aesthetic catastrophe within the house, huddling together, promising that no, there’s a reason all those Star Trek comic books were on the wall. Hey, here’s a real thing that really happened in real reality for real: the second issue of the Star Trek: The Next Generation comic from the 80s was about Captain Picard having to save the Spirit of Christmas from some leather-clad Alien Space Grinches.

Anyway a holiday is always a good excuse to decorate. Not without limits, of course. There are only so many things you can put up to commemorate, say, Washington’s Birthday without people asking questions. And not the good kind, like where you can show off what you know about George Washington’s presidential tour of all thirteen states. They ask questions like “… the heck?” And most anything you put up for the August Bank Holiday will get you strange looks. The New Jersey Big Sea Day seems like it ought to have great decorating potential, but most of that is water. Maybe flip-flops.

Ah, but Christmas. And New Year’s. These are holidays that have no socially accepted limits for how much to decorate. You could festoon your house with enough Christmas lights that structural elements crumble, and the building collapses under this load of twinkling merry. Survivors would stagger out of a heap of belongings, drywall, and ornaments. And people would just say, oh, they’re maybe a little much but it makes up for the other houses on the street. It’s one of the few chances you have to festoon things in a socially acceptable way. Heck, it’s one of the few chances to even talk about festooning. Go ahead, list three other times this past year you were able to festoon a thing without authorities getting involved.

Which gets to something important about Christmas decorating. Make sure that you’re decorating someplace or something that you have permission to. Once the authorities get called in you don’t get to enjoy a giddy night of adorning things with tinsel. You have to start sneaking around instead, hiding behind the Christmas tree or unusually wide coat-stands whenever a bunch of people in, I’m assuming, tall blue hats tromp past. Then they hear a suspicious cough off somewhere. One of your confederates, no doubt, if you’ve got this well-organized. And you have to throw a ball of tinsel at a thing you hope is a tinsel-bearing decorative structure unit, like a tree or a wreath or a cat.

That’s not the right way to do things. That won’t get you decorations that festoon a thing. The best you can hope for is that you’ll have decorations strewn about. And strewning is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that strewning is great in the right context. The context you want for decorating is that you aren’t trying to dodge people who want you answering questions. You want to have some beloved Christmas special that you’ve watched so often that you no longer watch it. You just have it on in the background while forming questions about the worldbuilding.

After a couple decades of this you start to wonder exactly how much thought the writers put into the mythology behind, oh, the one where Frosty the Snowman creates a wife, and then they have to go create a snow-parson who can “legally” marry them because the human parson voiced by Dennis Day isn’t sure he can do that? And somehow creating a new snow-life is less problematic? And you never see what happens to the snow-parson after that? And it’s not about getting answers to these questions. If you wanted answers go out and become an authority yourself. Not saying about what. An authority on Christmas specials would get you the answers faster, probably. But becoming an authority on, say, tidal pools? Graphic design? It’ll take longer to get answers, but maybe the joy of the season is discovering these things.