When Animals Were Cooler


If there’s anything we learn from the study of past animals, it’s that animals in the past were a lot cooler than the ones we have today. I don’t want to dismiss the general coolness of modern animals, since so many of them know where I live and have heard that I’m made of meat (not wholly: parts of me are made of vanadium, and parts of me are an after-market add-on stereo that never worked right, which is why I never hear people’s names when they’re given to me and must instead rely on checking their name tags), but the general rule is, the farther in the past you go, the cooler they were.

Take sloths, for example. Today the average sloth is a pleasant enough creature, sweet-looking and not bothersome in its ways. But back before the recent Ice Age, there were sloths with amazing features: giant ones, for example, ones the size of minivans. And this was a time when minivans were gigantic, with accommodations for up to forty people, or forty-four if they were feeling alliterative and had clean outfits on, with side-impact airbags and well over 150 cupholders. The modern sloth of today, meanwhile, is extremely vulnerable to rolling over at highway speeds, and has only the two cupholders, and if you try taking your cup without the sloth’s being ready for you they get all bitey. You would have to signal them appropriately, using the telegraph, because they like the old-time feel of that.

Continue reading “When Animals Were Cooler”

A Word From Our Pet Rabbit


“Look, big guy,” said our pet rabbit while I was feeding him — while I was feeding him, mind you — “it’s been fun having you around and I like the bit where you hide a sprig of parsley in the cage’s mesh, but isn’t it about time you were going back?”

“Going back where?” I had a bit of a feeling what the rabbit might mean. Also that he might not have caught my name yet.

He shook his head out some and distinctly sniffed. “I don’t know that. Wherever it is you came from. A bit of you is fine but you’ve been hanging around this house forever now and I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds you wearing out the welcome.”

This would have been a good chance to rub my eyes except that probably would have got rabbit food pellets in them. “No, no, this is my home. I married into it.”

“Didn’t ask me about that.”

“Well, it’s done and I don’t figure on leaving again.”

He snorted once more and said, “We’ll just have to have a talk about this when the other one gets home.”

I didn’t say anything, as I was pretty sure how the other one would think about me having to leave. The rabbit did try pushing on my ankles, I believe to knock me over, but there’s about a one in six or seven chance of my falling over by accident anyway so I can’t say his efforts were demonstrably more successful than chance dictates.

Comics I Like: Krazy Kat


I wanted to bring to people’s attention the Krazy Kat comic strip of the 15th of November, 1943, which was rerun among DailyInk.com’s “Vintage” comic strips on the 15th of May. It’s a fine example of the sort of logical paradoxes that tickle me, at least.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is often cited by comics connoisseurs as the greatest of all the greats. I think that’s overrating it, because it is often a pretty cryptic comic strip. The fundamental gag that the strip kept coming back to is Ignatz Mouse throwing a brick at Krazy Kat, who interprets this as an act of love, and getting arrested by Officer Pupp, who longs to protect Krazy. The permutations of how the brick-throwing is set up and done and responded to were thoroughly explored over the strip’s decades. By 1943 these had been done so many times the strip’s readers — and there were few of them; it never really caught on with the mass audience, though Harriman’s boss (William Randolph Hearst) loved it — that these points would often be done in shorthand, a brick tossed off, as it were, in the sidelines and the inevitable pattern alluded to. That’s bound to happen in any long-running story franchise, but it makes the strip harder for a newcomer to approach. Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy has a similar problem, as I see it: there are many running gags, summoned without warning for the day’s punch line, and a new reader is justifiably lost trying to understand what’s supposed to be funny, at least until some time is put into the reading.

Still, this Krazy Kat is emphatically not cryptic. It’s even one that could be drawn and run in the comics pages today without seeming to come from another era. It’s just amusing.

Thriving In The Modern, Annoying, Economy


Of course, when we talk about ways to screw up the company by diversifying, we have to remember that there’s a lot of different rules if you want to be in an entertainment industry. There, you have to diversify, because it’s more profitable per hour to run around suburban streets with your eyes closed and mouth open and wait for fifty-dollar bills to land upon your tongue than it is to wait for people to pay you for being entertaining. You need to start spinoff products like T-shirts and posters, and iPhone apps, and one-of-a-kind experience events like coming over and watching The Price Is Right with your audience even before they ask. If someday your fans can say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that band back when it was a utopian commune in upstate New York manufacturing kitchen appliances,” then you’re doing something right, which I hope is stoves.

Uncertain Investments


I’ve been trying for a while to do that thing where your money turns into piles of bigger money, without using counterfeiting, so I have to look at investments where someone else does the counterfeiting for me. But I’m skeptical about this new one e-mailed me. The prospectus says they’re going to make self-hopping socks, so that you don’t have to go about manually making your socks fly up off the floor anymore, thereby freeing up large parts of the day for other chores, such as towel-waving. Besides the automatic socks they figure to sell conversion kits so people can adapt their earlier footwear to the new standards. They estimate growth over the first three years at “eleventy kerspillion percent” and are listed on the Camden, New Jersey, Stock Exchange, under “bouillon (soup)”. And yet I don’t know; something about it feels too good to be true. Still, it’s only a couple bucks to get started, or I can trade them a pair of worn-out sandals or some packets of Arby’s horsey sauce. I like that sense of scrappiness in a startup.

Whatever happened to Coleco


A big part in the history of any business is when it figures to diversity, because that’s where everything gets really screwed up. The case example of this is Coleco, which started out making stuff for doing things with leather, and concluded that to be really successful it needed shoe-makers to be able to be able to install in-ground swimming pools, always a sign of moving upscale in the neighborhood. But to be able to support the new in-ground pool ventures it had to move into making video games so that people would have blinky, button-y things to occupy themselves with while beside the pool. This forced the company into the line of making computer hardware since without the hardware the video games were just, in those days, illegally copied discs accompanied by magazined that insisted you needed to know BASIC for some reason. This forced another diversification as Coleco needed its employees to be properly outfitted for clean-room operations, and to be properly outfitted they needed sharp shoes. This forced them right back into the business of making tools for leather workers. The company vanished in a recursive loop in 1987 and was never heard from again.

It’s Somebody’s Business


The history of a company usually has distinct phases, like the step where a small team of like-minded idealists with skills in an exciting new technology realize they’ve been coming to a garage workshop garage for four years now and have almost completed a salable product none too soon because the owner of the garage almost caught them last time. And then there’s a stage where everybody gets quite tense about selecting the right sort of cake for the birthday party for someone who’s out sick anyway. It wasn’t the right day anyway. And then there are also all intermediate stages like deciding what to make for their fifteenth product, and deciding that the company logo has to be redone so it’s at an angle. It can make for fascinating reading to follow all these stages. I plan to do so by putting the logo at an angle and changing its typeface to something sans serif that badly imitates handwriting.

Colorful Troubles


I don’t get invited into focus groups much, not since I explained in a slender, carefully chosen, 12,350 words how Star Trek V is much better-directed than people think. I probably had that coming. So I was thrilled when the Department of Rainbows called to have me evaluate some new meteorological products they were test-marketing. All I had to do, they explained, was watch in the early afternoon as they tried out this new rainbow concept where the colors would be there, but faint, so you’d only see them against a light cloud in the background and you’d look up and suddenly, hey, a Neapolitan cumulus was hovering there.

It transpired that come the first test period I was inside doing some emergency alphabetizing of the refrigerator, which was absolutely the top priority because I started out thinking the DVD player had a awful lot of dust on it. Fine, their phone call was forgiving, and they referred me to a pilot project in Blu-Ray dust, which is dusty with such an incredible fidelity that vinyl audiophiles swear it makes records sound more authentically dusty than actual dust can.

The second period, though, I missed because I was looking at the wrong clouds and they could not believe that I don’t know a cumulus from an altostratus. I can’t blame my parents for this; in a package of childhood documents I found the certificate from a pre-kindergarten project which showed that I memeorized every possible kind of cloud there was, including the imaginary ones, in that way that only excitable four-year-olds just learning to classify things can. In my defense, when I was a kinder, “brontostratus” was too a cloud and I can’t be blamed for missing its reclassification as “the habit of looking at the wrong month on the calendar so getting the day of the week wrong”.

The third time I missed because I was explaining to our pet rabbit that if he insisted on barking like that people were going to think I was mad. He insisted that this was my problem and if he wanted to bark he was jolly well going to bark. (I alter his words a bit; he said something more like “certainly going to bark”, but the “jolly well” seemed to fit his huffiness more.)

And the fourth time, which is entirely my fault and I can only blame myself for it, I missed because I was hard at work coming up with ways to use the word “transpire” in casual writing in ways that pedants would find acceptable.

So, Rainbows got all upset with me, and I guess they’re right to be. I don’t know how much work is involved in bringing new rainbow concepts to the test-marketing stage but I’m sure it’s something. And they did all sorts of work trying to train me, too. For example they revealed you can always tell a cumulus from an altostratus by scanning the upper right corner with a price-check laser, or by trying to play middle C and seeing what note does come out.

What I really don’t know what’s going to happen with this. I was really hoping to make a good impression and maybe get into this group I hear’s trying to refresh heptagons. They’ve been clinging to that seven-sided thing for a long while and I think we’d have to stick with that, but that “hept” thing isn’t really working. People tend to figure it’s a fake prefix because it was created by agents for the Soviet government in 1930 when the country sought ways to sneak cash out of western governments.

As such the prefix doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s caught on among people who need to group together seven things in a prefix, as soon as they think of any. I mean, you can think of groups of seven things and find them all over the place, we just do well enough calling them “the seven things” and I don’t see that changing so much, so we need to find ways to bundle seven things into smaller groups that go at the start of things, you know, like, prominent colors in a rainbow. Oh, I bet the Department of Rainbows will like it if I point that out to them.

Lurking Suspicions


“Glad to hear your voice,” said the person on the phone.

“Ah … thanks?” This was starting out weirdly for mysteriously-begun phone conversations.

“Compared to the people who’ve got less suspicious motives than yours.”

“I’ve got suspicious motives?”

“Well,” the voice said, “you might. It’s possible. They happen.”

I said, “There are people with less suspicious motives?”

“Uh … sure. I think. What are you talking about?”

“I’m confused about that too.”

And the voice said, “Why is it important you figure this out now? What are you trying to get to?”

That’s a pretty good question, so I left it at that.

But Inside Pfizer …


Now I’ve got to wondering: how do the employees inside Pfizer e-mail their co-workers in the division that makes Viagra? Maybe it’s one of those things where they substitute a code word, like “Nigerian Prince” or “green card” or something at least until the IT department finds out about it. Or maybe it’s one of those self-correcting problems since as I understand it nobody uses e-mail anymore except people being pompous and students making incompetent pleas for higher grades (“Hey, Proffy, if you don’t count the thirteen classes I missed I had perfect attendance and it’d really help my GPA if I got at least a B+ in the course so can you bump me up from that D a little thanks!”), and people in the modern fast-paced economy of today just instant message or text or, if need be, stop in to see someone and make grunting noises while holding a rock in a threatening manner.

I guess I also wonder how those people who do high finance stuff e-mail partners about deals where they could make a huge profit without having to do much, but they probably have gold-plated e-mail programs or something like that which are smarter than ours.

A Standard Scheme


The easiest way to attract endless angry grumbling is to prepare your very own set of Usage Guidelines and insist on someone else following them. The United States is the world’s greatest exporter of Usage Guidelines, averaging over 48,660,000 new policies promulgated annually to cover everything from how many spaces to put after the period ending sentences to how many little paper cups of Horsey Sauce to take at Arby’s at one time. These policies are instantly resented by everyone they are applied against, and compliance rises to as high as nearly 0.296 people per year.

So I’m leaping into the Usage Guideline racket: there’s no better way to express my idealistic hopes that the world can be perfected by enacting a few trivially easy changes in the ways people do things, there’s no surer way of making myself embittered than watching everyone carry on in their un-enlightened fashion, and in the meanwhile I can sell nearly more than fourteen copies of books explaining the guidelines to members of the adoring public who thought they were buying sarcastic atlases instead.

Don’t worry. Before long I’ll have comment forms in place so you can suggest new standards for me to consider, provided you do submit them in the correct way.

Bridged Gapping


This was a while ago but I was thinking of a Reuters article that said police in Russia accused a man of stealing a bridge from a river crossing in the Ryazan region east of Moscow. (I know that’s a lot of setup to a sentence. I’m sorry.) And I realized that I hope he did it. Imagine being accused of something like that if you hadn’t done it. It could take hours to even understand the accusation. You can try yourself to see how hard it is to answer by going to anyone you happen to know has not stolen any bridges from the Ryazan regions near Moscow lately and accusing them. (Be careful. Many people thinking they’re joking will confess on the accusation. Insist they show you the stolen bridge before calling the authorities.)

I bet they accused him first thing in the morning, too, when he was barely awake and hadn’t even got all the drops of toothpaste goo out of the corners of his mouth. I just know that’s how they’d accuse me if they ever wanted to accuse me of stealing a bridge, and I’ve never even been to Russia.

Continue reading “Bridged Gapping”

Wildlife Revelations (Not at home)


I always knew Australian wildlife was colorful, by which I mean far more crazily deadly than it has any business being. It’s a continent whose fauna includes snakes poisonous enough to stun South America, koalas that can shoot four-foot machete blades up to the length of four rugby fields away (except during time-outs), laser-guided dense-impactor bilbies, tree kangaroos with the explosive force of four tons of TNT, and neutron wallabies. What I didn’t realize is just how lively this makes the area. It turns out that until 1958, Tasmania was connected to the Australian mainland, but then something jolted a currawong and by the time the time the retaliatory fire was done there was this channel nearly 150 miles wide. That’s amazing.

This Day In History: 1731


May 4, 1731: Saturn enters the house of Aries, only to find Aries is not present. It playfully rearranges the dishes so they and the coffee mugs are on the wrong sides of the cabinet and the planet leaves undetected. Aries, learning what happened by way of Venus, would not forgive Saturn for over two hundred years.

Tests of True Friendship


“How can you say you’re glad Carol doesn’t hang out with us anymore?” said an Ira as incredulous as any such Ira will get before setting down his coffee on yet another quirkily off-shaped coffee shop table.

“Well, I can’t think of one time I was glad to have seen her.”

Erica said, “Oh, now, you’re being pretty harsh on her. I know you and she had your little differences of opinion, but every friendship has a couple of scratchy points.”

“We were never friends. I put up with her because you all found something appealing that nobody ever let me in on.”

Jon said, “Oh, I know she liked you. What are you holding against her?”

“The first time we ever met, she told me my job was stupid and I should be ashamed of taking money for it.”

“Aw, don’t you feel like that about your job yourself?” said Jon. “I’ve said it about mine sometimes.”

“She didn’t even know what I was doing.”

Ira said, “It was probably a joke. You know what a sense of humor she has.”

“Like the time she spat in all our coffees before she went to the bathroom?”

Erica smiled, though with a little hollowness that wasn’t quite satisfying enough after that. “Well, that was … this conceptual thing. You had to be there to see what was funny about it.”

“I was. It wasn’t. What was the joke?”

“Well, what kind of person would spit in her friends’ coffee if it wasn’t a joke?”

“A horrible person. A person we’re lucky we don’t see anymore.”

Erica said, “Well, we spat in her coffee while she was away.”

“No, we didn’t. We agreed that would be fair but nobody was willing to do it.”

“Oh, yeah,” Erica admitted, “But we thought it was OK, so it all evens out. Wrongs on both sides, and all that.”

Ira added, “You can’t fault a person for doing something nasty when her friends are doing the same thing.”

“That’s — do you remember what she said, when your father was in that car crash?”

Ira scratched his cheek, and then nodding, said, “No, but I remember it being comforting.” And after a pause, “And that you made some drama over that.”

“She said that if you were lucky your father and mother would die and you’d be free of them.”

Ira waved a hand. “Oh, she was just trying to make me see how good his chances were. You’re overreacting.”

“She said she hoped he couldn’t take morphine so he’d be in agony every minute.”

Erica pointed a finger, one of her favorites, this one acquired by honest means. “But then you went and made this scene when you punched the dartboard.”

Carol punched it. And yelled at the guy who tried putting it back up. I was the one telling her she was being insane.”

“Oh, that’s right,” said Jon. “I couldn’t think why you would punch a dartboard.”

“I wouldn’t. Nobody would. Carol’s punched that dartboard off the wall at least four times. Last time she broke the drywall.”

Jon nodded. “Yeah, that is the sort of thing she does. It’s kind of great, isn’t it?”

“And they made me pay for it.”

“Be fair. Most of the fire damage was from your flailing around.”

“After she set my hair and shirt on fire!”

Ira accepted this but held up just two fingers, thus making his point more convincing than if he’d held up just the index or even his whole hand. “But if you hadn’t provoked her she wouldn’t have had to — hey, isn’t that the time she grabbed Erica’s phone and sent the Doom Text to her boss?”

Erica nodded. “Oh, boy, it took me forever to live that down.”

“How did I provoke her? Was it intemperate public declarations of my belief in my non-flammability?”

“Let’s just say,” Jon proposed, “that there’ve been wrongs and hard feelings on both sides, then.”

“I’ll bite. What’s one thing I’ve done to her that’s anything like what she does to us?”

Following the short yet infinite pause Jon said, “Well, look at the way you’re talking about her.”

“Yeah,” said Erica, “and when she’s not even here to defend herself.”

“That sort of thing will keep Carol from coming around again,” Ira added.

“I need to set something on fire.”

This was agreed to be an unacceptable response to the situation. Carol, after a text inviting her to the gathering, reported to Facebook that they had all died.

Also From The Spring Catalog


Palm Copilot (Item MMXXXVIII). A small person, easily strapped onto the claw, arm, or wing of a commercial- or higher-grade dragon. These charmingly retro copilots are particularly useful in keeping up with transponder codes, air traffic control notices, weather reports, and other essential features to flying in Class A through D airspaces. Separate maintenance and food units are available. The catalogue item includes a coupon for one free starter kit and a large cage with cedar chips. The copilot has no interest in them, but they do give the lair that lived-in feel and improves the scent until ambient water makes mold set in. When this happens the chips should be changed for something more durable, and maybe the more durable thing should have been sent in in the first place. We may not have been quite ready to publish the Spring catalogue.

Earlier selections remain available.

Meaningless Awards


I see from the Institute for General Wordiness that “pusillanimous” has been added to the official collection of Words That May As Well Not Mean Anything, Because Nobody Uses Them Enough To Remember What They Do mean. I’m a little offended because I remember the word very well, as it was one of my favorites in the 7th grade vocabulary sheets that gave us words to learn how to spell and to define, and I was very good in those. Pusillanimous means, I believe, quarrelsome and unpleasant but not quite so much as the March 2011 inductee “lugubrious” does. Anyway, it’s a perfectly “vibrissae” day outside so I’m going to watch the lawn instead of worrying about it.
I mean words, not the lawn. I have people to worry about the lawn for me.

Fred Allen: People He Didn’t Expect To Meet


[ One of the soundest bits of comic advice I ever received, back as an undergraduate, from Ken Goldstein, fellow undergradute whose comic talents I admired was, “Funny names aren’t.” He added the reservation, “Unless you’re Groucho Marx.” I accepted this at the time, since the evidence seemed overwhelmingly on his side. But in those days I — and, I believe he — didn’t have such easy access to old-time radio, or I believe he’d have allowed that Fred Allen could provide funny names. His mock names have a wonderful-to-me crackle to them. I don’t know that he ever described his process for creating them — although he did often rely on the mixing of the highbrow and the low, as in “Socrates Mulligan”; or juxtaposing the fancy and the meek, as in “Delsarte Trundle”. Here’s another excerpt from Treadmill To Oblivion in which he talks about the hazards of such names. ]

People claiming that their names had been used in the news burlesques, and that they had been held up to ridicule, were always threatening to sue. To eliminate this annoyance we invented a set of names to use for comedy characters. Names like Tomtit McGee, Beau Bernstein, Falvey Nishball and hudreds of others. I thought we were safe coining these synthetic cognomens until one sumer up in Biddeford, maine, an old gentleman, a total stranger, stopped me on the street and said, “Mr. Allen, I heard my name on your program last winter. Who sent it in to you?” I said, “What is your name?” The old gentleman answered, “Sinbad Brittle.”

[ And while I’m here, I’d like to point out “synthetic cognomen” as a great combination of words, and a suitable name if you want something with a bit of a science fictional flair. ]

Along With The Tooth


Good news! I guess. The dentist called and they found my mouth. It’s going to sound ridiculous, but after searching the place they realized it had been left under my beard the whole time. It’s good to have it back, I suppose, although I was warming up to the idea of a brand-new one in replacement. You know how that fantasy is. Still, this is a lot less work, and I was getting tired of trying to figure out the procedure for making a lost-mouth claim with the homeowner’s insurance and getting hung up on all the time. Plus now I can get back to chewing like I’m used to. Bonus: they gave me two of those adorable little bottles of mouthwash.

Fred Allen: Audience Participation


[ This is a bit from Fred Allen’s book Treadmill to Oblivion, a radio-business memoir which includes generous excerpts from scripts, and a lot of talk — including quite some sulking — about the struggles he had against, particularly, the advertising men who ultimately controlled his program. This is an excerpt from his discussion of the Average Man’s Round Table, a segment from the hourlong program he did for Texaco, partly about how the willingness of the average person had chained with the coming of radio. His complaint may strike you also as being a perennial; however, the phrasing of it is, I think, exquisite, particularly in the latter paragraph here, and shows off why Fred Allen with a good head of steam was such a well-regarded comic writer. You could teach a course in comic writing just from his selection of adjectives. ]

The coming of radio, and his access to the microphone, resulted in the average man’s discovery of his ego. In vaudeville, years before, a magician had his trouble coaxing a member of the audience up on the stage to witness the magician “sawing a woman in halves” or “impaling a small Hindu concealed in a wicker basket on the point of a blunt sword”. The magician spent many minutes pleading, and assuring that nobody would be ridiculed during his performance, before one lone person would overpower his modesty, mount the stage and stand terrified before the audience.

Today, the Man in the Street does his broadcast hiding in a doorway. He is afraid to show himself in public. The minute his microphone is sighted a motley throng is on him. Soiled matrons eager to divulge how they first met their husbands. Tottering old men outfrailing each other to get to the mike and explain how they became ancient. Gamy adolescents vying to flaunt their arrogance.