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”

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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 Mo¨bius-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.

Everything There Is To Say About Decorating For Christmas


I’m flattered you come to me for advice about Christmas decorations. Don’t go thinking I’m happy about it. If you take my advice it won’t turn out well. The best we can expect is groups of people huddled together, in the snow, too tired from yelling at each other to resume yelling at each other on a nice day like this. That day is probably Groundhog Day or something like that.

See, the first reason I shouldn’t really be trusted on Christmas decorating advice is that I procrastinate. It’s not that I don’t ever want to get around to doing things. I feel this complete lack of urgency about getting stuff done. This is great for stuff that doesn’t really need to be done, like preventative maintenance. It’s not so good for stuff with inherent deadlines, like making dinner or Christmas. But deadlines are flexible things. What does it matter if we have dinner now or fifteen minutes later? Or a half-hour later? Or early next morning? Similarly, when we think carefully about the problem, do we actually know when Christmas will be? December seems likely enough. But we do hear talk about Christmas in July, which suggests we were trying to get things six months wrong and were still late. You can’t convince me that there isn’t plenty of time to start decorating, even if it’s already well past 4 pm on Christmas Day, whenever that may be.

But if you’re still looking for advice from me? … Really? All right. I should warn you that I’ve decorated things in my life and you probably don’t want to take up my example. I used to be a teenaged boy, you see, and I’ve been struggling my whole life to overcome that background. I fully accept responsibility for the dumb things I’ve done, and I think I know better now. But consider that I used to think it was acceptable to line the walls of my bedroom with Star Trek comic books in plastic bags. Yes, they had cardboard backings. I wasn’t a savage. And it did express an element of actual good decorating. Good decorating should say something. And a wall of bagged Star Trek comic books says: “This is easier than ever knowing a person who would want to visit me”.

Still even as a teenager I knew Christmas would come, sooner or later. One year I got possession of the family’s old artificial tree. By fair means, I should add. Our parents got a new artificial tree and as the largest brother I was able to punch my other brothers more. But now I could set up in the corner of my room an artificial Christmas tree. It was at most ten years old and there were many branches that weren’t yet crumpled up by having been put away for ten years by pre-teen boys in-between their punching sessions. Add to it a couple strands of older lights, no longer needed for front-line service, that were enough for at least the third of the tree not facing the wall. And you had this awesome sight: an ancient artificial Christmas tree, strung with a couple lights trying their best in the circumstances, sitting in the corner, backing a wall of the existing Star Trek comics of the 1980s. It was the hot new look for the summer, based on what the guinea pigs I kept in my room said about it. They said, “Wheep”.

At one point it struck my teenage-boy mind that it would be a good idea to take down the bows, but leave the two-foot-tall conical top of the tree up. This solved the problems of not really having enough lights and of blocking access to the Star Trek comics behind the tree. It just meant I had a bare, five-foot-tall metal pole sitting in the corner of my room. My recollection is that at one point I also managed to lose the pitiful remnants of this tree, and was startled to rediscover it. I have no idea what it could possibly have hidden behind. It’s not like I had tall stuff in my room other than me. I mean, this was when I was going through the mattress-on-the-floor phase of my life.

I hope that this has answered every possible question. If it has not, allow me to offer “North Dakota in the year 1822”. I don’t know what question that answers, but it must be something.

What’s That?


A thing to understand about my area of mid-Michigan is that there are sandwich shop chains. Particularly there are two sandwich shop chains with a New Jersey theme. There are good reasons for this. If you know them please submit them in writing care of an office. These events happened while I was eating lunch in one of them.

There was a kid sitting at the table next to mine. Well, sitting in the way that a young kid does, which is, hovering around the table and hopping onto and off of the chairs and putting her chin on the back of a chair and then calling out to an adult who existed somewhere about the prospect of having a cookie. She didn’t talk about the “prospect” of a cookie. That’s me putting words into her mouth, as she only had the promise of a future cookie. I’m not sure how old she was. Once they’re old enough to stand up reliably all kids look to me like they’re either four, ten, or sixteen. This kid was at the four-year-old level.

I wasn’t worried about the kid. Whatever she was up to, it wasn’t my fault, and the worst that you can really do at that age in a sandwich shop is spill your soda. She didn’t have a soda, so she must have got around to spilling it before I even got in. And then suddenly she asked me, “What’s that?”

I would have been happy to know what what she wanted the that to. I’m sorry, I feel seasick and have to lie down a bit. Okay, I’m back. I guessed she was pointing to the picture on the wall and tried to explain it was a woman sunbathing. This seemed to satisfy the kid so I thought, great! I’ve had my unplanned interaction with a stranger for the week. Now I don’t have to talk to anybody anymore. On later examination it turns out to be a picture of a woman on a sailboat.

“What’s that?” asked the kid again, pointing at about the same spot. I tried to follow her finger and guessed maybe she meant what the woman who was not sunbathing was part of. It’s a replica of one of those “Welcome To ____” postcards. This seemed like a vast conceptual universe to get across to a kid. I did my best: “It’s a picture of Point Pleasant. That’s a town on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a neat place. They used to have a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster and a beautiful merry-go-round there.” I was bluffing. But, like, it’s a Jersey Shore town. If they didn’t have a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and a merry-go-round they weren’t even trying. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Jenkinson’s Boardwalk! No, that’s in Point Pleasant Beach, a technically different borough in the same part of the Barnegat Peninsula. The kid was very interested in all this right up until I started answering. Still, she seemed satisfied so the world was all in order.

“What’s that?” the kid then asked again and I was running out of things to that about. My book? “It’s a book about Popeye,” I said and hoped that the kid would not be at all interested. I mean, I’d love for someone not-old to be interested in Popeye. But the book had a collection of strips from the 30s and 40s. And in those days comic strips had about eighteen panels each weekday, none of them with fewer than 600 words per panel. If the kid had any idea I was looking at comics she might want to read along and I won’t live long enough for that. But I could at least give an answer and hope that satisfied.

“What’s that?” she asked again. And I gave up. And now I must face knowing that, for all I think of myself as a self-confident and self-assured person, any four-year-old kid can break me with one question repeated four times. Maybe five if I wasn’t quite listening to start with. “What’s what?” I asked back and the kid wasn’t intersted in whatever I had to say.

She perhaps felt she had triumphed. She did not ask me “What’s that?” again. Instead she sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. When she reached the end, I told her, “That’s a very nice song. Did you make it up?” She didn’t dignify me with an answer. Fair enough although I’m like 85% sure my niece would have let me get away with asking that when she was four years old. I was honestly intending to give her the chance to call me silly for thinking she had made that up, or let her get away with saying she had. She’s the one who out-thought me entirely.

So I have to credit the sandwich shop kid for handily winning whatever social game she was playing with me. I’m completely defeated and I might never be allowed to buy a sandwich from anyone ever again.

In Which I Am Extremely Helpful Making Food For Thanksgiving


I hope to help in preparing things for Thanksgiving. I have reason to think I can. I cook most dinners. I don’t do advanced cooking. I mostly use the cooking trick of “warm up a food thing”. Make sure it’s a food thing (very important.) Warming it up is also important. You can try having, say, an un-warmed baked potato. The results are sad to taste, plus then you have a conversation afterwards about how you reached this point in life.

Still, warming is pretty much the one trick I’m good at. Thanksgiving dinners need two or even four tricks. So its cooking is a challenge. The first challenge is getting over my offense that we find recipes on the Internet. The thing is in the early 80s computer magazines would tell us three things. That we should learn BASIC to program computers. That we could use computers to store recipes. That we needed to know what “modem” was short for. This was all nonsense and I’m annoyed we’re letting computers give us recipes. I don’t care if it’s the only way to find out what a blanched tomato might even be. We don’t need to know that much. “Modem” is short for “modulator/demonstrator”.

So I take a recipe and step into action. I check first that it is a recipe for a thing we want to have at or around Thanksgiving. This isn’t my first rodeo. I confirm the ingredients:

  • 1 (one) loaf, adumbrated
  • 3 cloves
  • 2 5/8 cups water (rotational cut)
  • 4 tbsp cream cheese
  • 14-18 crackers, club
  • pinch allspice
  • two eggs (British-style)
  • pinch somespice
  • 1 can, peas or what have you, 8-12 oz (troy weight)
  • cheek-rub nutmeg
  • yellow squash (at least two parts yellow to one part squash)
  • 1 and 7/9th cups scuppered niblicks
  • some mushrooms of the “usual kynde” (Ref: Chaucer, c 1387)
  • 2/5th cup sugar (mixed white and dark, or as it is known to professional cooks, “chiarosucrose”)

I spread the cream cheese onto the crackers, interrupted by the two crackers that break in half mid-spread. Placing the smaller half on top allows these to become tiny pyramidal cream cheese snacks. It fortifies me for the work of making food. I’m lucky not to need a snack to get the fortification crackers ready. I discard 2/7 cups of water as surplus to requirements.

There’s sure to be a need for some milk product. I look over the cans: evaporated milk. Condensed milk. Sweetened condensed milk. Unsweetened unevaporated milk. Powdered half-and-half. Half-and-unpowdered-half. Instant yoghurt [sic]. Partially assembled yogurt [sic]. Whipping cream. Whipped cream. Lightweight whipped cream. Summer-weight whipping cream. Pitted milk. Unpitted milk. De-unpitted milk. Re-pitted milk. Lots of pulp milk. Pitied milk. I take out a can of cheese soup stock and pretend to be dusting the cabinet shelf when challenged.

Anticipating a serving-spoon shortage I select some spoons, “fiiyne and trew” (Ref: Pepys, 1667), and set them in a secure spot, thereby causing the shortage.

Preheating the oven to 395 I start telling anyone who’ll listen of how I replaced the heating element in the old electric oven. The only one willing to listen is the new electric oven. I trust this story rallies it to new heights of oven skills, as like four months after I put the new element in we got rid of the old oven. Well, we had a new one. So with the old we looked through Craigslist. We found someone named Craig who wasn’t going to check their lawn any too often to see if someone abandoned an electric oven there. It has a good home now with a Craig who’s entertaining fantasies about some home-based food-making service, so far as we know.

There are instructions on one of the recipe pages printed out about fluting a pie. This is a prank and I pay it no attention.

I open the carton of bread crumbs. It’s a cherished carton, handed down in the family for decades now. The box’s design betrays its age. The lettering is in that check-numbers typeface they used for future-y stuff in computer magazines of the early 80s. Its UPC number is 4. I take a clean handful of crumbs and rub them against the loaf until the crumbs, themselves dryer than my hands if such a thing is possible, crumble. The cloud of bread crumb crumbles spreads in a vaporous movement off the counter. It settles on the floor, where it becomes a patch of the tile that never feels comfortable to walk on again, even in socks.

I set the microwave timer to 1:99, and switch it to 20 percent power, before turning it off.

The butter needs clarifying, as far as we know. We’ve been getting these “butter rolls” from the hipster farmer’s market. They’re cylinders about four inches in diameter and upwards up twenty feet long. I begin the clarification process by connecting it to our lie detector. It’s actually the old iPod Nano, with a broken pair of earbuds used as the sensors. Don’t tell it. We discuss its past and whether it feels any trauma from having once been milk. And then its feelings on converting from milk to butter. What is it to endure the process the dairy industry professionals know as milk-into-butter-converterization-processificationizing? We can only hope to know. Its alibi checks out and it is released from custody.

In a moment of whelming curiosity I look up what it is to “parbroil” a thing. It is to boil a food until it is partially cooked. This makes me rant about how “part boiled” is exactly the joke I would make about what it means. And it’s irresponsible of actual food-related people to pull a stunt like that. I start to ask whether it is a “pound” cake because of the many steps in which one punches the cake. Furthermore, I show with logic everyone agrees to be supremely correct and right and everyone else was wronggity wrong wrong wrong that the word “demonstrator” must imply the existence of a word “monstrator” which would be an explanation which makes the workings of a thing completely obscure.

I am excused from the kitchen.

Everything There Is To Say About Keeping Your Hands Warm


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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Remember A Fact


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spelling And Why Not


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big-ish Idea


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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything There Is To Say In Explaining How Computer Graphics Work


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On This Date


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

Regarding The Time When I Had Too Much Desiccant


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Report On The Series Of Disasters


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I Am Aware Of The Historical Irony


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

T E Klunzinger, Haslett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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