How To Not Be Overly Organized


Is it possible to be too organized? Physics offers us an answer: it explains that the polhode rolls without slipping over the herpolhode. This sounds dirty. It really has something to do with the rotation of rigid bodies as they begin their nutation. This makes it sound unbelievably filthy. Physics reports now that it misheard the question and apologizes fiercely.

Now that we ask physics again, where it knows its mother is listening, we have a better answer. It would be too organized if all the mass and energy of the universe were piled into a single spot of extraordinarily high, by which we mean low, entropy, causing the expansion of space to restart with a new Big Bang and the formation of a different universe with physics that might be substantially different from those we know. Even the person who’s so orderly as to have a ten-point checklist for connecting the garden hose would agree this is too organized, given how long it would take for a new universe to expand and cool enough to support stars, life, limited-edition holiday-flavor candy corn, and the part of town where they’re always having ukulele festivals.

Most of us stop before that point anyway, because we are stymied by questions such as: does it count as a pair of socks if they are noticeably not alike, but they are each the only one of their kind, and you have two of them? This is the problem I posed to my advanced physics lab partner in college, when he said he was starting to organize his dorm room by dividing it into “pair of socks” and “not a pair of socks”. His answer was to look at me with sad despair. His dorm-room organization project ended in failure, and we were unable to show that the Inverse Zeeman Effect ever happened.

The Inverse Zeeman Effect is a physics thing you look for in advanced physics labs and it has nothing to do with polhodes as far as I know. It’s named for the Dutch physicist Pieter Zeeman, who was such the life of the party he was known in every physics lab as Pieter “The Man” Zeeman, only in Dutch. Eventually he got a sinecure working for the water-reclamation agency. This allowed him to be Pieter “Zie Man” Zeeman of the Zeiderzeewerken. For putting up with this all his life they gave him a Nobel Prize and asked him to say “sinecure” with a Dutch accent.

Even we who are not Nobel Prize-winning Dutch physicists find natural limits to organization. Most things enjoy a natural resting spot which doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be consistent. Which is why, in a boring anecdote I am not making up, I kept my toothpaste in the refrigerator for about four years when I was living in Singapore. It was probably an accident at first. But then it kept happening, and before you knew it, if somehow there were toothpaste in a more traditionally sensible place in my apartment, such as the bathroom, I’d never know it. Clearly the natural habitat of Singaporean toothpaste was in the refrigerator. I should have left a note for whoever got my apartment after I moved out. But if I had left one, would they have believed me? What might they have said about it? “This person writes too small to be legible”, most likely. I’ve left notes for people before.

The trouble is that organizing tries to put things where it makes sense for them to be, which is rarely were they want to be. The displaced things respond by going missing altogether. Who among us hasn’t tidied the office supplies on their desk and discovered the stapler can’t be found? Or organized the stuff in their medicine cabinet to find that not only is their toothpaste gone but there’s no evidence that they’ve ever had toothpaste? To tidy up the house so well that the guest room goes completely missing and there’s just a vacant spot on the wall is an unusual event. But it’s not unprecedented.

If there is one important thing to consider, it’s this: the Dutch have a municipality named “Urk”. It’s a former island, as the Zuiderzee’s been reclaimed all around it. Now it’s geographically part of the Noordoostpolder, which sounds like they’re doing physics over there. Somebody look into that. After knocking.

Handwriting And How To Cure It


Handwriting was a once-popular way of committing stuff to a written record. For centuries it ranked just ahead of “chiseled into Stonehenge blocks”. But it was slightly behind “made in dry macaroni glued to construction paper” as an informal record-keeping method. It began falling off in popularity with the rise of personal computers, which having risen up to about arm-height were easier to reach. It was lost entirely in 2013 when the new model Glossy Black Rectangle came out.

But handwriting has been lost before. Nothing got written by hand for the two centuries before Charlemagne. The Carolingian Renaissance began when he got people not to stick their hands out the bus window where they might get lopped off. It also got lost during the Age of Exploration, when it was washed overboard near the Bay of Bengal. And in 1943 handwriting was accidentally left in an unlatched briefcase on the Sixth Avenue El train in New York City. Police and FBI agents were able to recover it, except for the cursive capital Q. The War Production Board immediately issued a “Victory Q”, made of chicory and surplus Z’s. This was extremely popular except how nobody liked it. The prewar Q went back into production in 1954, but old-timers still complain that the new version doesn’t taste anything like the old. What does?

To revive handwriting you need only a few things. Other people can do with more, because they lack self-confidence. First you need a hand. Second you need a write to get written by whoever is in control of the hand. Next you need a writing surface. Third you need a writing implement. You can organize these pieces in any order. The trick comes in the final step. Using the writing surface and writing tool use your hand to write whatever it was that’ll be written at the end. Now that you’ve tried put it aside until you’ve got enough emotional distance to review what might have gone wrong. Here are a couple common handwriting problems:

A big old scribble that turns into the Turner Classic Movies logo.
Figure 1. Actually better than my usual notes. It also made me realize the TCM logo would look a little better if it bowed outward the way Cinerama movie screens did.

Wandering Baseline. In this case there’s no attention given to the lower edges of the letters. They’re allowed to just drift up and down and around and over to the living room to watch Turner Classic Movies’s “Underground” non-classic movies. This can be well-handled by a stronger drum beat. If we hadn’t replaced all drummers with percussion machines. The machines have good rhythm but nothing interesting to write about.

Another big old scribble that turns into a lightning bolt and a 'boom!' and 'Zap!'
Figure 2. Every slinky I’ve ever had, day four. Actually I like how the lightning bolt turns out.

Capital G. Under no circumstance should you attempt to write a cursive G. The last person who knew how to make it has been in hiding since 1998, when she met up with the last person who knew how to make a capital Z. If you need either of these letters you should do as on the right and make a little lightning bolt figure. This will add some vital force to your writing. After coming to life it can stomp around the German countryside. Then it makes its way somehow to the Orkey Islands and the North Pole in a framing narrative everybody forgets about. Most of us will not see such impressive results.

It looks like a bunch of vertical squiggles but there's clearly a + and maybe some kind of 'z' in there.
Figure 3. Baseball lost in the tall weeds.

Kerning. Kerning is the act of making sequences of letters kern. They are best kerned when, in the words of grammar maven E B White, “that’s all they ken kern and kan’t kern no more”. This means something.

It looks like every other Gemini capsule, admittedly.
Figure 4. Gemini IX capsule as photographed by astronaut Gene Cernan during his spacewalk.

Gemini IX. Gene Cernan’s physically demanding 1966 “walk around the world” spacewalk was an ambitious project. It was undertaken without the underwater training experience later flights used. The shortage of handholds and grips made the Manned Maneuvering Unit impossible to test. Furthermore his spacesuit visor kept fogging up. This made for a most frustrating expedition. But it was only the second spacewalk the United States had attempted, and only the world’s third ever. One shouldn’t be surprised by the discovery of operational difficulties.

Bunch of waves that tie onto a dog's foot.
Figure 5. Dog recklessly let outside without a collar and identifying tag on.

Spacing. Here the pleasant, uniform spacing of letters breaks up and descends into a sketch that’s a cute little doggy. This disrupts the flow of writing as the reader will want to toss a ball at it, or maybe just think about dogs instead of the world, for which you can’t blame it. This one handles by adding a little doghouse, so the doggy has somewhere to go while the reader works.

Like before only with a cute little doghouse.
Figure 5A. The dog has a house that itself has satellite TV reception so she’s not doing too badly. Still needs a collar.

This is not all of the common handwriting problems. There are three more of them. If you spot any do send a note to Handwriting Master Command, which accepts text messages. They will be happy to explain how it is all someone else’s fault.

My Poor Wrist


My love organized a pinball tournament. That goes kind of like you might imagine: find a bunch of pinball machines (important! Must have!) and a bunch of pinball players (very important! Absolutely must have!) and then have the players play the games. Then keep track of who won. We held it in the local hipster bar, the one where our home pinball league meets.

It’s a natural place for pinball tournaments because there’s nobody there who has a key to open up a machine and get a stuck ball loose. Nor is there any way to fix it in case any mechanical parts on the complex, 20-year-old machines malfunctions, even if someone knows what to do and has the parts to do it to. It seemed to make more sense when we started out. Oh yeah, it’s right near home, that’s the important thing. Yes, when we got there the roof was leaking and half of the machines were turned off for fear of electrocuting players. But we were able to talk the bar into letting us turn on the machines if we promised not to have anybody die on them.

The tournament ran a little long. We expected the contest to take about four hours and it looks like it’s wrapping up sometime in 2018 instead. This happens. We had expected about fifteen people to show up, and instead everybody in Michigan who has ever played pinball even one time participated. But running long isn’t a serious problem. Punchy exhaustion makes for much funnier play anyway. Nobody got electrocuted enough to complain.

But the tournament’s got me particularly exhausted. I took the responsibility of writing out the slips that said which two players were going to play which one machine. By hand. In actual handwriting. This is more handwriting than I’ve done since 2002, cumulative. I stopped handwriting for a good reason: nobody in the world can read it, even when I do my neatest, most careful block-letter writing. I mean careful for me. My handwriting starts out majestically neat, printer-sharp characters with ruler-straight lines and graceful curves. But it degrades, naturally. By about four characters in I’m lucky if a vertical and a horizontal stroke for the same letter appear in the same word, or at all. Occasionally there’s little squiggles that aren’t any figure that has ever appeared in any human symbolic representation. I tell people who ask that this is the well-known Greek letter “ksee” and mathematicians use it all the time. (This part is not a joke. Mathematicians really do have some made-up Greek letters we use.)

And it doesn’t help that we all stopped reading hand-written stuff in 2004 except for Christmas cards and checks from parents. Even if I wrote legibly nobody could read it anyway, from want of practice. I realize this challenges conventional definitions of “legible” but I’m too tired to write out why I’m right so just take it as given.

Also I tend to write small. They’ve been trying to break me of that habit since middle school, when I put a 150-word short-essay answer on a single line of ruled paper and the teacher marked it down because I went on for 180 words. That doesn’t affect my neatness any. But it makes it frustrating when I’m writing to be ready by people who didn’t bring their Scanning Tunneling Electron Microscopes with them to the pinball tournament. I have to make myself write larger, such as by using pens with irritatingly fat line widths. Each letter gets to be, like, five times as hard to write. Filling out a card saying two people with long names were playing “Tales of the Arabian Nights” involves as much exercise as jogging for twenty minutes, and all that strain went into my wrists.

So I figure to finish the year by spreading my resting my palms on a cushion of feathers floating on styrofoam peanuts in a pan resting atop a dense fluid, the kind they put laser interferometers on. I may take my wrists off altogether until they’re feeling quite right again.

I didn’t win in the tournament, or even manage to place in the top three-quarters of the group. Don’t cry for me; I was only participating for the fun of it. And it was fun. I got this little iPod app to draw the names and games for this kind of tournament play and it’s even more fun if you have more names entered in there. And I got my reward anyway. I was able to make people entering the hipster bar where I entered worry that they had to pay a cover charge. If my love runs a tournament again I’ll collect old CDs from my friends and set it up as the merch table. Mostly, though, handwriting: I’m glad we’re smarter than that anymore. Next tournament I’m getting rubber stamps made for each player and game. Stamping things doesn’t strain the wrist nearly the same way, right?

Robert Benchley: Keep A Log


In my occasional travels I have not taken the advice of Robert Benchley in this piece from My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew, but I should have. Also, while this whole essay is a buffet of funny meaningless syllables, the thing Benchley reports finding at Lurding — itself a great name — is one of my favorite nonsense phrases. Made-up funny words are difficult for the writer, and harder for the reader, but Benchley shows off his deft touch from East Mipford on.

Keep A Log

In planning that automobile trip upcountry this Summer don’t forget to consult those notes you made last year when going over the same route. They’re in that combination log-book and Japanese fan that you took along for just that purpose.

These notes, most of which were jotted down en route, seem to have been made with the wrong end of the pencil. They are part lead-markings and part wood-carvings. It would be fun to dig up that pencil today, just to take a look at it and see where the lead stopped and the wood began.

To make things harder you apparently made the notes while taking part in a hill-climbing contest, when the car was at an angle of forty-five degrees. They are the work of a man in rather desperate straits to keep himself in his seat, to say nothing of indulging in the luxury of writing. You couldn’t have been as drunk as that.


The first one, jotted down with great difficulty, was made opposite the name of the town, East Mipford, fifteen miles from your starting place. It says, as nearly as you can make it out, simply “East Mipford.” This would seem rather silly. Presumably you already knew the name of the town, as it was right there in the map in plain letters. Why jot it down again in that round, boyish hand of yours? Possibly you were just practicing handwriting. God knows you needed practice!

Anyway, there is “East Mipford” and, opposite it, “East Mipford,” so East Mipford it is. It’s a good thing to know, at any rate.

The next bit of puzzle work was jabbed into the paper at Orkington. Here you saw fit to write “No sporfut.” Either this was meant as a warning that, at Orkington, one can get no “sporfut” or that it is dangerous to “sporfut” in or around, Orkington. If you had some clearer idea of what “sporfut” was you would know better how to regulate your passage through Orkington this year. The lack of “sporfut” last year must have been quite a trial to you, otherwise you wouldn’t have made a note of it. Well, better luck this time!


At Animals’ Falls you had what was designated as “lunch,” which is pretty easy to figure out. After it, however is written “Gleever House—Central Hotel—Animals’ Falls Spa.” It must have been a pretty good “lunch” to have included all three restaurants, and, as you made no designation of which was best, the only thing to do is try them all again this time.

Perhaps you will remember, after ordering at the Gleever House, that it was the Central Hotel which was the best. Perhaps you meant that all three were rotten and that you should go on to the next town before eating. The only way to find out is to try.

From then on you are confronted by such notations as “fresh cob” at Turkville (which may mean “fresh cop” or good “fresh corn on the cob”), “Emily” at North Neswick (which may be where you left Emily off), and “steening chahl” at Lurding, which obviously means nothing. You arrived at your destination, according to the log, at “27 o’clock.”


That is the value of a log-book. It makes the second trip seem so much more exciting.

So, In Short, We’re All Doomed (Corporate Capitalism Edition)


The offering comes in the mail from a corporation, one of those big ones that I suspect is a multinational although I can’t work up quite enough interest to look it up. It had the odd size of the smaller greeting cards, and a brown envelope, and that lettering that looks like handwriting if you haven’t looked a lot at handwriting. Clearly, the company, which my Love has been a customer for for years, possibly a decade now, wanted to make sure we had the experience of something with the flavor of a personal connection, so as to convince us to buy something we didn’t want.

The letter got our name wrong in no less than two prominent ways.

Mind you, that’s partly our fault, since the name used to be wrong in only the one way, and getting it fixed resulted in introducing the second glitch. Extremely boring conversations about this have allowed us to determine that the easiest way to get the glitches fixed is to wait for the company to go bankrupt and be liquidated, to be replaced with another company providing similar services which aren’t quite as good but which cost more, at which point we’ll get a chance to have fake handwritten greeting-card type advertisements with even more parts of our names wrong.

I’m just not completely sure that we’re any good at things anymore.

Handwriting in the Modern Age


Since it is the 11th of the month I should make my regular update of how my cursive handwriting has progressed. As everyone knows I’ve lost the ability to write a script “Q”, but that’s because all humanity was drained of that knowledge by that visit of alien space bats who were trying to encourage block letter printing back in 1998, and no blame attaches to me for that. My lowercase “z” continues its gradual slide into being just a little scribbly cartoon of a lightning bolt, and I find today that it’s impossible to tell the difference between me writing the word “tuition” and me crossing out the word “tuition”. This will save time, in all those cases where I write the word “tuition” in cursive, scratch it out, and realize I wanted it there after all, and applications to this department for contexts in which I need to will be accepted through the 18th.