Disappointment


I missed the announcement of it, but the Robert Benchley Society has announced its finalists for the 2013 Humor Writing Competition. Since the ten finalists were announced back on the 9th of October that pretty well says where I placed: no higher than 11th. I’m disappointed, obviously, but if I weren’t basically quite confident in the stuff that I write I wouldn’t go on writing it.

There’s no accounting for taste, obviously, especially someone else’s. I imagine one thing which went wrong was that I submitted a trimmed-down version of “Giants of the Colonial Era” — a piece I think has a lot of that Benchley patter — in order to meet the 500-word limit, and the cutting out of something like 250 words from the original drained much of the writing’s flow. I might have done better to throw out all the words and rewrite it from scratch instead.

Well, on to more writing and waiting to see when Finley Peter Dunne Society gets around to its humor contest.

(Also, do take the chance to read the finalists as there’s an excellent chance you’ll like at least one of them, and it’s not as if you have enough things that you like in your day.)

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Something To Read


I understand that with the advanced sophistications in marketing today, where marketers can gather even bits of information about myself I had no idea about, they’re able to target advertisements and free trial offers with unparalleled precision, but they mostly just figure to try out “everybody ought to buy everything, all the time”. All right. But why are they trying to get me to subscribe to Bussiness Week: The Journal Of Fussy Old-Fashioned Kisses? Also how is that still going on while Starlog died like five years ago and nobody ever mentioned? You know?

Things I’ve Observed About Science Fiction


Providing lifehacks is all the rage among people who are precisely sure what it takes for something to qualify as a lifehack, and I’d like to offer some that I’ve figured out. They mostly involve talking about science fiction online, so here goes:

  1. You can save time when discussing Star Trek: The Next Generation by not bothering to look up the name of the Star Fleet Guest Character Who’s This Week’s Plot Annoyance by just referring to him as “Admiral Jerkface” instead.
  2. People who show off their knowledge of age-of-consent laws are doing nothing to help their argument that Piers Anthony’s Xanth books aren’t creepy.
  3. That first tip doesn’t actually save you more than like a couple seconds a year because everybody pretty much ran out of stuff to talk about Star Trek: The Next Generation back when we all didn’t go see Nemesis.

That’s about it, really. Sorry.

This I Believe


That kid who was pinching his friend’s wrist over and over again really was, just like he said, very concerned that his friend was adequately hydrated while at the amusement park all day, because it’s very much in the nature of ten-year-old boys to be worried about one another’s hydration levels and not at all to be looking for chances to see how long you could pinch someone before they start hitting back.

Franklin P Adams: A Plea


[ Liking words is a tricky hobby, because you never can tell just when some of them are going to really get to annoy you. For example, I can’t stand the phrase “grow your business”, which is all the more annoying because I can’t fault it for being a ridiculous metaphor or anything. I just don’t like it. But sometimes a skilled writer such as Franklin P Adams gets annoyed by something and turns that irritation into something lovely, eg: ]

Writers of baseball, attention!
   When you’re again on the job —
When, in your rage for invention,
   You with the language play hob —
Most of your dope we will pardon,
   Though of the moth ball it smack,
But — cut out the “sinister garden”,
   Chop the “initial sack”.

Rake poor old Roget’s Thesaurus
   For phrases fantastic and queer;
And though on occasions you bore us,
   We will refrain from a sneer.
We will endeavour to harden
   Ourselves to the rest of your clack,
If you’ll cut out the “sinister garden”
   And chop the “initial sack”.

Singers of words that are scrambled,
   Say, if you will, that he “died”,
Write, if you must, that he “ambled” —
   We shall be last to deride.
But us to the Forest of Arden,
   Along with the misanthrope Jaques,
If you cling to the “sinister garden”
   And stick to “initial sack”.

Speak of the “sphere’s abberation”,
   Mention the “leathery globe”,
Say he got “free transportation” —
   Though that try the patience of Job.
But if you’re wise you’ll discard en-
   Cumbrances such as we thwack —
Especially “sinister garden”
   And the “initial sack”.

Franklin P Adams: The Rich Man


[ It’s been a month or so since I last swiped a spot of public domain verse from Franklin P Adams and Tobogganing on Parnassus. Please, enjoy a spot more. ]

The rich man has his motor-car
   His country and his town estate
He smokes a fifty-cent cigar
     And jeers at fate.

He frivols through the livelong day,
   He knows not Poverty her pinch.
His lot seems light, his heart seems gay,
     He has a cinch.

Yet though my lamp burns low and dim,
   Though I must slave for livelihood —
Think you that I would change with him?
     You bet I would!

The State of the University


Good afternoon and I’d like to thank everyone for attending this State of the University address. I’m sorry it’s going to be a little ragged but I kind of have to patch up the parts where the Public Relations department told me I couldn’t use words like that in public. I think they’re being a little … well, I mean, we all use words like that sometimes, right? Well. Anyway.

As anyone who’s walked through the deserted wings of the main quadrangle or “quad” as I’m told by informed people who’ve met students tell me they call it knows, we have suffered an under-enrollment problem in the past few years, affecting our ability to fill such levée-en-masse courses as Grueling Calculus and the basic Great Works Of Agonizingly Boring Literature Or Maybe Movies. This isn’t just a problem at our school, so please stop writing us about it. We have taken several pro-active steps to improve population. Even as we speak we have an unmarked van driving slowly around Ann Arbor, and when they locate people who seem to be about the right age for college they swoop down with the giant nets and bring the prospective students back here where they’re to remain until completing at least five years or study or accumulating $185,000 in student loan obligations.

The first several attempts for this new plan have been a little disappointing, owing to unusually large holes in the nets, but as this new revenue stream comes up to speed we hope to be able to afford patching some of them and creating what they call a “virtuous circle” of improved student body acquisition. Ah, so that probably answers the question a lot of faculty have been asking me about why some of the students have long ropes tied to their ankles.

Continue reading “The State of the University”

The Platonic Stooge


A little while ago the Three Stooges’ short Hello Pop, from 1933, was discovered. It had been lost, thought to be destroyed in a 1967 archive fire, but it turned out it was just hiding out in Australia after running up some debts with a mob of wallaroos. Happens to the best of us. Here’s the thing that captures my imagination: this was the only Three Stooges short thought to be lost. So as far as the human intellect is able to understand, there are no missing or absent works from the whole Three Stooges catalogue of films. The complete record is there.

Now what this makes me think of is the remarkable fact that, again as best we can determine, there aren’t any lost works of Plato. There aren’t any references we can find to a book he’d written that’s now lost, which is staggering considering that your typical ancient Greek writer — your Hipparchos or Aporia or Hypochondria or the like — ran about eighteen lost works to one that anyone ever actually saw. Aristophanes is thought to have pitched two or three plays into the wine-dark sea for every one he had performed just because that was the thing to do in that time. So it’s stunning we have any complete sets of any of the ancients, especially when it’s one of your name-brand greats like Plato.

So of all the things that the Three Stooges and that Plato might have in common, who would have guessed that there were any?

Warmed Over


See, what my subject line the other day when I talked about cutting wood meant was that Benjamin Franklin had this bit where he said, “Cut your own wood and it will warm you twice,” which for Franklin is actually being fairly pithy. He did come from an era where everybody sounded like they were a contentious sub-lease agreement. Anyway, I just didn’t expect after spending a couple hours chopping blocks of wood apart that now I’d have to spend the afternoon putting the blasted things back together so don’t even start with me, Franklin.

On This Date: Sarcasm Correctly Detected


October 15, 1994: In the Usenet newsgroup comp.sys.chemistry an attempted use of sarcasm was correctly identified by all of the post’s readers as such, and the comment was treated as such. This is one of twelve recorded instances of sarcasm online being so correctly used. In a further twist, remarkable enough to have earned the thread a place in Cyber-Ripley’s Believe It Or Not web site of the day that December, the thread did not then degenerate into a pun cascade, nor did anyone quote Monty Python at anybody else, although someone did (sigh) follow up a reference to the left hand of something as “sounding sinister”.

Police Blotter: Traffic Incident


September 12. Police summoned to a traffic incident at the intersection of Yarrow Lane and Levi Mortin Street. Examined collision between giraffe with improper license plates and illegally oversized wheelbarrow filled with rubber balls. Both operators ticketed for conspiring to appear in an unnecessarily delayed police blotter item. Wheelbarrow operator also ticketed for having only a confident attitude as insurance card.

Forms of New Jersey Local Government (5)


Under the Plesstown council-manager-mayor system, designed for communities wishing to call themselves villages without having to pay the state Office of Geographic Services’ notorious V surcharge (originally imposed as a temporary measure to help pay for the Second World War, and now used to nearly completely cover the state’s share of expenses from calling up New York City and asking who owns Ellis Island every night), the municipality’s council gathers on the first Tuesday in January after the 2nd of January following an election meeting, with each of the five heads of the municipality’s departments and two ringers. From this body of seven a city manager and a mayor are selected; and the entire body must determine which two aren’t really supposed to be on the council by the end of the March meeting. The guts of this pleasant tradition were spoiled in response to voter anger over the state sales tax in the 1970s when the legitimate councilors just started asking, “whoever’s the fakes, please raise your hands” and they did. Now the fakes are routinely spotted as being the persons on the board who don’t seem to have any hands on them, resulting in most towns moving to alternate schemes of governance. Four villages in Gloucester and Salem counties and the City of Elizabeth still use this system.

Also, Just Hush, Benjamin Franklin


Yup, so, I was out cutting wood today. It was wood I was fully authorized to cut. And really, what better way is there of cutting wood than hauling a big metal thing and swinging it down on an unsuspecting spider (sorry about that, spider), until you lose all sensation in your arms?

Obviously, the better approach is to simply grow smaller trees, ones that never get to more than about a foot, maybe a foot and a half, tall, so you can skip the cutting altogether. Better than that, though? Hire an itinerant woolly mammoth to grab the blocks in his trunk and toss them from a great height into Pointy Rock Canyon. Then even if the rocks don’t split the wood up right, you’ll still have lost them in a canyon, thus solving the problem.

Did We Need Spaceships All *This* Fast, Actually?


So now the space probe Juno’s gone and swung past the Earth, building up a little extra speed on its way to Jupiter and becoming the fastest man-made object that isn’t just trying to escape something embarrassing it said in an online forum, so I hope nobody’s left on it anything they wanted back anytime soon. These planetary flybys are really neat ways of getting a space probe to travel faster even though you can explain why it works to a bunch of freshman physics majors and they’ll still stare at you the way a Labrador retriever stares at the glass coffee table hoping that maybe this time the potato chip you tossed on it will fall through.

If it isn’t going fast enough by this time, though, it’s possible it’s going to go even faster than that. Back in 1990 when Galileo (the space probe) went flying past Earth on its way to Jupiter it got a whole bucket full of extra speed, but it turns out it got about four millimeters per second more than it was supposed to. Maybe that doesn’t sound like too much, since it was already going at 13,740,000 millimeters per second, but when you get down into the grit of the numbers you realize: this isn’t even that much.

But nobody was quite sure where it came from, as the satellite was launched before they had the E-ZPass lanes where you don’t even have to slow down at the toll booths. So in 1992 when Galileo went flying past the Earth again on its way to Jupiter (it was supposed to do that, so this wasn’t just Jupiter being fickle and pretending not to be there) NASA watched very closely and the probe didn’t do anything funny at all except for sticking out its tongue and making a sound which experts still dispute, as they can’t settle whether it was said “nyah-nyah” or “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” or “this is Andy Griffith for the Mutual Radio Theater” (a short-lived 1980 project to revive scripted network radio programming in the United States), but they’re pretty sure it wasn’t that last one.

This is obviously an extremely tiny anomaly in a phenomenon very difficult to precisely measure, or as New Scientist probably billed it, a fundamental challenge to our understanding of physics and a potential revolution in interacting with the world, except for those of us who interact with it using only pointed sticks or sarcasm. But it all could’ve been a mistake, maybe someone failing to keep track of how many millimeters per second they had in petty cash or something, and this only got more interesting in its way when the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, flying by Earth on the way to not flying by Jupiter, got an extra 13 millimeters per second. Obviously, space probes were getting greedy. When Rosetta, which flew past Earth three times over to try getting to a comet, it got a lousy 1.8 millimeters per second the first time around, nothing on the second, and on the third left two and a quarter millimeters per second on the moon just to spite us.

What all this naturally reminds everyone of once they’re reminded about it is the Pioneer Anomaly, where Pioneer 10 and 11 were found to be travelling aster than they were … er … they were accelerating more slowly than … they were accelerating to outer space more than … I’m not sure what it was they were doing, but they were doing it for an awfully long time until someone went back and checked very carefully and, to the delight of popular science magazines the world over, discovered they hadn’t been doing anything funny at all and we should feel bad for suspecting them of it. That’s why in 2012 NASA launched an emergency expedition to send the Pioneer spacecraft some special apology editions of New Scientist, which are going to use these cracks in spacetime that might totally exist and prove the world’s actually a computer simulation of itself to get there sooner.

So overall I’m interested knowing there’s these anomalous millimeters per second being thrown around, since knowing how space probes do it would probably help next time I need a teensy little bit of extra speed and am going to Jupiter.

Pop Quiz: Philosophers


  1. Pythagoras:
    1. I know, right?
    2. The hypotenuse squared over the sum of the sides.
    3. E = mc2.
    4. Beanfields.
  2. Descartes:
    1. Pituitary glands.
    2. God’s too nice to make mad scientists?
    3. Mornings kill people.
    4. I yam what I yam and tha’s all what I yam.
  3. Nietzsche:
    1. Oh, dear Lord.
    2. Just set that down and come back when you’re at least ten years older.
    3. Or you could start punching that book right now.
    4. Both (b) and (c).

Some Mathematics Jokes Explained


Once again I’d like to point folks over to my mathematics blog, where I’ve done another roundup of the comic strips that touched on mathematical themes over the last couple weeks and try to say something interesting about them. I admit this hasn’t got necessarily much of my natural comic touch, whatever that is, but I’m starting to wonder what the guy who draws In The Bleachers majored in, which is surely something.

Once Again, Our Fish Protest


We had to put a net up over our pond in the backyard, because there’s about 700 trees in our and the immediate neighbor’s yards, and come this time of year we get approximately every leaf in the world falling on them, and it already takes roughly from the 15th of November through the following July to rake them off the land. The water just gets unmanageable. So we put up a net that catches the leaves for two or three days, then bows into the water, and then every weekend we go out and haul in a fresh supply of leaves which we bring to the farmer’s market, where the organizers throw sticks at us until we flee. It’s a very civilized process.

This year, though, we’ve got fish, and it’s their first autumn in our pond. They saw the net going up and now they keep banging on the side door and saying, “Hey, man, I thought we were cool. What’s with the net?” And they just are not getting the leaf thing. Also, they’re tired of this cooler weather and told us we should turn the summer back on. I’d like to oblige but we’re almost out of summer coupons for this year.

Robert Benchley: “YOU!”


Knoebels went and did it, and really did open their Flying Turns ride, and now I’m just so torn about whether I should start hitchhiking my way there I just have to turn over the place today to the late Robert Benchley, and Love Conquers All, and a review of one of those silly little success books that we’re still getting all those years later.

In the window of the grocery store to which I used to be sent after a pound of Mocha and Java mixed and a dozen of your best oranges, there was a cardboard figure of a clerk in a white coat pointing his finger at the passers-by. As I remember, he was accusing you of not taking home a bottle of Moxie, and pretty guilty it made you feel too.

This man was, I believe, the pioneer in what has since become a great literary movement. He founded the “You, Mr. Business-Man!” school of direct appeal. It is strictly an advertising property and has long been used to sell merchandise to people who never can resist the flattery of being addressed personally. When used as an advertisement it is usually accompanied by an illustration built along the lines of the pioneer grocery-clerk, pointing a virile finger at you from the page of the magazine, and putting the whole thing on a personal basis by addressing you as “You, Mr. Rider-in-the-Open-Cars!” or “You, Mr. Wearer-of-14½-Shirts!” The appeal is instantaneous.

Continue reading “Robert Benchley: “YOU!””

Higgs Boson Wins Nobel Prize


There’s an engaging little spoof over at the Scientific American that claims the Nobel Prize in Physics is going to the Higgs boson rather than to any of the many, many people who deserve some attention and reward for that. It’s a little science-y but I think makes all the context clear enough. From Ashutosh Jogalekar’s report, so you can judge if you want to read the whole thing:

Since interviews with the particle could not be held for obvious reasons, the media was instead shown a graph displaying a bump supposed to indicate its existence. A member of CERN’s PR division also wore a large, squishy Higgs costume, doing his best to mimic the behavior of the fleeting particle as he whizzed from one end of the room to another, hid and emerged from behind a curtain and breathlessly answered questions about gauge symmetry and vacuum fluctuations.

Flying Turnabouts


There’s this great amusement park in northeastern Pennsylvania, Knoebels. They’ve spent, and I’m not exaggerating here, nearly a decade and several millions of dollars building and testing a roller coaster called the Flying Turns, re-creating an early-20th-century ride to such levels of historic authenticity that nobody alive knows how to make it work. Well, there’s rumors going around that they might actually have it working, like, this weekend. Conceivably, it could be running right this minute. And now we’re, and I’m not exaggerating this either, torn on whether to head out there the moment we hear them announce that the ride is open since, after all, it might close again and never reopen.

Here’s my current thinking almost exactly as I said it aloud: after the time and money spent on this, if they open it, and if on the first public ride, carrying a passenger load of nuns and orphans, the cars run over a baby chipmunk and fly off the track, leaping into the air and exploding into a fireball which ignites the local trees and spreads into a wildfire that burns down everything as far east as Wilkes-Barre and as far north as the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, then, they might take an extra month at the opening of next season to reopen it.

And I’m still not perfectly sure.