Just thinking back to that time when Windows 95 was coming out. And there were Microsoft fans, for some reason, and there were Apple fans, for some reason. And there were Microsoft fans, for some reason, insisting the Windows 95 user interface of the recycling bin was infinitely better than the Mac’s trash bin. After all, you don’t throw away your disk; you recycle the bits on it ito something new. And Mac fans argued back that you don’t recycle a file, you throw it out, maybe and maybe not replacing it with something new.
Anyway, considering how heated this debate got you can understand how we assumed we had used history up and nothing much would ever happen again.
We’re at the Jack Kinney studios in 1960 today. The story’s by Raymond Jacobs and animation direction by Volus Jones and Ed Friedman. Please enjoy Popeye’s Folly.
It’s another cartoon with the Popeye-tells-Swee’pea-a-story frame. The device excuses setting a cartoon anywhere, anytime. It also excuses skipping any boring scenes. I was impressed that Popeye explained that Robert Fulton’s Clermont was “one of the first” steamboats ever built. It’s almost impossible to correctly dub the first of anything historic. So, points for precision to Raymond Jacobs. (And I’m not deducting points for calling the boat the “Clermont”, when Fulton called it the “North River Steamboat”. Clermont is a name — really, the name — by which it’s known.)
I like the setup for this, a story of Popeye’s great-(etc)-grandfathers, Popeye and Pappy, building their own steamboat. And facing down Brutus and Sea Hag, who’re trying to protect their own sailing ship interests. It’s a natural conflict, and it justifies ending things in a contest, a reliable conflict.
Much of the start is Popeye and Grandpappy trying to build a steamship at all. I could watch more of that. Yes, I’m a history-of-technology nerd. But there’s good jokes to make from struggling to invent a thing. The only scene that gets at that is the second attempt at a boat. The one that either Pappy or Popeye forgets to untie from the dock, and that rips apart. An engine that’s too much for the boat is a plausible enough problem. Forgetting to untie the ship seems like a terrible mistake for a family of sailors.
Or they’re not good sailors. In the contest, for example, their steamship almost immediately runs out of coal, as though Popeye didn’t know it was needed? Chopping up the vessel to keep it going has a long history in comedy, but it’s normally set up why they’re out of fuel. It suggests that Brutus and Sea Hag don’t need to sabotage them.
So the plot suffers from this sloppiness. It has some lovely touches, though, particularly in the dialogue. Take Brutus sneering, “Imagine building a ship to use legs when we’ve already got wings”. It’s poetic enough to have confused me about what the legs were. Or sneering that Popeye’s “engine is louder than the whistle”. Which is another insult I don’t quite understand, but never mind. (Also Popeye ends up with an engine that’s very quiet, like the sound was mixed wrong.) Or the Sea Hag speaking of the steamboat as “sailing along like the devil was a-pushing it”. During the race, there’s a nice bit showing Brutus’s ship from the front, the riverbanks receding behind him. Brutus chuckles, “With the Blackhawk wearing her Sunday best and a stiff breeze I can’t lose.” It’s again a more poetic way of describing Brutus’s thoughts. It also trusts that the audience spotted the name of his ship, or could work it out from context.
There’s even a moment of deft plotting. It’s only in setting up the contest that we get a specific reason for Brutus and Sea Hag to want to sabotage Popeye and Pappy. They’re protecting their sailing business. It’s a stronger motive than Brutus and Sea Hag being jerks.
Were I to rewrite the cartoon, the important change I’d make is swapping the first two boat failures. Popeye and Pappy making a boat that tears itself apart, to start. (And find a better reason than “forgot to untie it”.) Then Sea Hag can sabotage the next, when the boat could be competition.
Lockbramble is this fiefdom near enough Camelot. Lord Grunyard rules it, in name. He’d rather not have anything to do with anything. It’s actually ruled by the people living there, and he’s fine with that. They use Grunyard as a shield against meddlers like King Arthur “fixing” their nice setup. This was established in the 2012 story that introduced Rory Red Hood to the Prince Valiant cast.
Valiant, back home at last, had found a little awkward money problem. Sir Gawain has been managing the estate very well, thanks to his beau, Rory Red Hood. She’s technically speaking a fugitive, for her stance that the people should govern themselves. But she also is really good at running things and is making a lot of money. With Queen Aleta prodding Valiant, and Princess Maeve kicking Prince Arn out of bed, the menfolk agree to a compromise. Rory Red Hood can go on managing things and making a lot of money for them. Just stop with the undermining the social order.
Around the 15th of November we move into a fresh story. Rory means to return to Lockbramble. Sir Gawain goes with her. So does someone named Little Ox, who I didn’t even know was in the story. Valiant goes along too because it’s been all peaceful for whole weeks now. In a snowy gorge — a “defile”, the strip teaches me — a band of 1d4+4 bandits ambush them. After Valiant and Gawain charge into the action, Ox charges from farther behind. Rory gets to a ledge and shoots arrows at the bandits, who flee.
Little Ox is badly wounded, though. They’re near enough Little Ox’s house to bring him home. And we learn Little Ox is Rory’s brother. Rory, her mother, and Ox’s wife get to work on the medicine-ing and arguing about Rory’s life choices. Valiant and Gawain return to the scene of the ambush to harass one of the not-yet-dead bandits. They figure to make him tell what the deal is.
He’s quite eager to tell. Durward, he explains, is bound to Lord Hallam of the neighboring Wedmarsh. Rory foiled Hallam’s schemes to take over Lockbramble when she dragged Lord Grunyard back from Camelot. Hallam’s looking for revenge, yes, but also to kill Lockbramble’s real leader. Durward despairs for his family. Hallam’s sure to think his capture was actually Durward turning traitor, and so will punish Durward’s family. Valiant suggests he could save Durward’s family. This sounds great to Durward. I’m not sure what Valiant is getting out of this besides some thrills. But he and Gawain are off, and that’s where things stood as of Sunday. What could go wrong in this furtive mission to rescue hostages-of-fate for a person enthusiastic to turn on his evil boss? We may know by April.
The next story started the 19th of October. It starts out looking like it’s about some corporate intrigue. Potato chip magnate Leslie Stenk calls in a favor from Doc Wonmug. She needs something done about Chip Hamberden’s far more successful potato chip company. Wonmug takes the Civil-War-Enthusiast Hamberden on a time trip back to the Battle of Antietam. And leaves him there, where he seems happy, which, fair enough.
When Wonmug gets back to the present, Ava is gone. All that’s present is an Interdimensional Soul Reanimator and a set of time coordinates. It’s the lab’s location, four billion years in the past. This makes me wonder, like, location on the continental plate? Or latitude-longitude? How is the prime meridian handled over that length of time? Not important. They get some magic breathing apparatuses and pop back to the primordial soup.
Ava is there, though she’s floating in the air and shooting flame-breath at Wonmug. Also she’s calling herself Zanzarr, “master of the demonic souls of the afterlife”. Zanzarr’s plan: zap the primordial soup with demon energy to prevent life as humans know it ever existing. It’ll be nothing but demons. I don’t know how to square this with what The Clawed Oracle just said about timeline changes.
Wonmug tries appealing to Ava, who must be wrestling Zanzarr for control of her body. Ava notes how lousy her job actually is. It’s a beat about what a jerk Wonmug can be, augmented by Ooola and Alley Oop saying they forgot to invite her into their union. I know being a jerk has been a staple of comic scenes since forever, but it doesn’t need to be nasty.
So, they get the demon out. Wonmug sets it at the dinosaur-asteroid-impact-spot. I suppose that’s practical and maybe even responsible — Zanzarr was trying to destroy all life, after all — but it’s also murder. Also, he leaves ten seconds before impact. What if his time thingy had decided to reboot? Anyway, Wonmug promises to at least buy Ava a better office chair. (There’s also a casual mention that Ava dated a female demon, back in college. So the time-travelling caveman comic strip acknowledged lesbian-or-bisexual relationships before Mary Worth did.)
One more thing, though. How did Ava leave a note with the time coordinates for Wonmug to find? And … she didn’t.
From the 30th of November we moved into a new story, but one that grew out of that loose end. Who wrote the note? The author enters the 2nd of December. It was Rody, a mouse in a lab coat, speaking now to them for the Coalition of Tiny Scientists. To further their talks, Rody shrinks Wonmug, Ooola, and Alley Oop to mouse-size. And you thought I was tossing off a joke last week when I talked about Hank “Ant-Man” Pym hanging out with Doc Wonmug. I was; I forgot there was a shrinking tie-in there.
The shrink ray is incredible, but you know what would complete it? An unshrinking ray. Rody doesn’t have one. But Ant #3229BX — inventor of the shrink ray — might have an idea. Rody shrinks the bunch to ant-size to better talk with her. She isn’t interested in an unshrinking ray either. But she does have a genius aphid they should talk to, and she shrinks them to aphid scale. But they’ve had enough of this silliness. (Meanwhile Rody does make some wonderful progress on un-shrinking.)
Wonmug thinks he knows how to reverse the shrink ray. Alley Oop’s able to follow #3229BX’s pheromone trail back to the shrink ray. But, whoops, they have an accident and get shrunk even further, to microscopic size. They’re lucky they still have the magic breathing technology from their trip to four billion years ago.
Oh, and what about the Sunday strips? In those Little Oop stories, Alley Oop’s stuck in the present, and hanging out with the kid inventor who stranded him in 2020. This was a less dire fate when the thread started. The strip is ignoring the pandemic and I don’t blame it. But there hasn’t been a story going on here. It’s strips of Little Alley Oop in school, or at the mall, or making friends or such. I suspect Lemon and Sayers have figured this is a more fun Sunday strip to write than Little Alley Oop in prequel Moo. If I’m right they’ll keep him in suburbia until they run out of jokes. I’m sorry not to have another Sunday-continuity strip to recap. Sunday-only strips are fun and also easy to recap. But they’re also hard to create and I don’t fault them not wanting that challenge.
The Emperor Joonkar ruled the territory that’s now Bangalla, back in the latter part of the 17th century. The current Sunday story continuity features two of Joonkar’s descendants, although only one’s been seen in the last three months of strips.
The Detective mentions how the crime syndicate here is shipping weapons to terror networks across Africa and Asia. So that makes it a stronger Phantom job. The Ghost Who Walks figures two people is overkill for destroying a terror network supplier. But hey, sometimes you want an easy win. The warehouse is unguarded, allegedly because the gunrunners’ reputation is that fearsome. I don’t fault you if you don’t buy this point, but the comic strip is premised on the power of reputations.
Besides, it’s only like two dozen guys. The Phantom talks up how The Detective resembles, in character and body, his ancestor the Emperor Joonkar. This also feeds into The Detective — who’s heard stories of The Phantom without really believing them — and his suspicion that the unidentified purple-clad man he’s working with might just be …
And that’s been a lot of the past month. Preparing for the gang to arrive, and The Phantom talking up The Detective and his own self. The Phantom’s relying on the Phantom Chronicles and what the 7th Phantom wrote about Joonkar. The criminal gang finally started to arrive last Sunday. The Phantom explained how he avoids getting trapped in prison caves: clobber one or two of them at a time. Can’t deny the logic, but The Phantom is lucky they’re coming in groups of two, also.
The title’s almost a warning that there’s depictions of “Indians” and these are not done with an attention to research into the people who actually lived there, or how these people were perceived by white folks of 1773. They don’t do much more than wear feathered headbands, but, still. If you don’t see any reason you need to put up with that nonsense in your recreational reading you are right. Catch you tomorrow.
Once again we start with O G Wotasnozzle and his time machine. I swear, Wotasnozzle did other stuff when he took over Elzie Segar’s Sappo. It does make me wonder what’s gained by using this frame, though. I understand thinking that it helps because it explains why Popeye and company are in, here, pre-Revolutionary Boston. I don’t know that this is a thing anybody needed explained, though. It’s not like Popeye and the Dragon explained why everyone was in this setting, or would have been better for it.
But the frame offers a lot of familiarity, and people love familiarity. We complain about it in kids entertainment, but kids aren’t that different from people in that way. Maybe Jack Kinney understood this would be affectionately remembered. Or appreciated how much time it filled with stock animation.
This time around Popeye’s sent to meet the rest of the cast ahead of the Boston Tea Party. Brutus is the tax collector, proclaiming the tax will be “the same as usual plus 50% for tax collector Brutus”. This reflects the American notion that the Tea Act was the British government imposing big new taxes just to be meanyheads. Wimpy’s cast as the owner of Ye Red Rooster, an inn offering “Tea Burgers, Tea bone Burgers, Tea Spinach, Tea 2c/plain, plus 50% tax for Brutus”. Got that sign up pretty fast. It’s a fair reason to have Wimpy in the action (Brutus was inevitable). Olive Oyl and Swee’Pea are along because the cartoon needed some more ineffective characters.
Not that anyone’s very efficient during the Tea Party raid. It allows for a lot of little jokes, on the order of Swee’Pea shooting arrows at Brutus’s rear end without Brutus ever noticing. Or Wimpy pulling out an arrow to find a hamburger on its end and declaring “I can’t waste this shot!” If there’s a particular charm it’s the dialogue, which has a bunch of good sentences. Popeye declaring “No taxation without resentment,” which is true enough. Olive Oyl calling to a Popeye that’s hurting through the air, “Look out, Popeye!” and Popeye asking, “For what?” Brutus grabbing Olive Oyl with the invitatino to “come up and see my riggings”. Swee’Pea saved from falling in the harbor with the declaration, “A nail in time saved mine!” The patter-heavy dialogue gets away from the cartoon at the end, as Brutus in stocks offers the deal, “I don’t tax you and you don’t tax me?” Popeye, tossing ‘tax’ labels on him, says, “OK, but this is for amusement tax, and that’s tax-free!” It’s got the shape of joking patter but doesn’t get there.
There’s also a surprising number of background voices. They don’t sound like Jackson Beck/Jack Mercer/Mae Questel doubling things up either. I’m curious if they just recorded whoever happened to be nearby. Also why they didn’t just tell the regular actors to do a couple lines of grumbling in a different voice.
The animation’s a bit cheaper than usual, to my eye. There’s what feels like a lot of cartoon where it’s just the characters clinging to a mast that rocks back and forth. And one moment (at about 1:55) where Popeye floats off the bottom of the screen, revealing he’s legless below the knees. There’s a bunch of misaligned characters or characters fluttering through objects too. There’s a few attempts at having a character moving toward or away from the camera. Popeye falling into the harbor. Brutus dragging Olive Oyl into the riggings. They can’t make much of an impression against characters disappearing or appearing. Well, they wouldn’t spend so much time with Wotasnozzle if they weren’t trying to save on the animation budget.
One step back into 1961, one step back into 1960. Jack Kinney is the producer again. The cartoon’s got a story by Raymond Jacobs and direction by Hugh Fraser. So here is Popeyed Columbus. Well, that’s not a premise that’s aged badly or anything.
It’s another cartoon framed by O G Wotasnozzle, the daffy inventor who moved from Sappo in to Thimble Theatre. The King Features cartoons used this frame for a bunch of stories when they wanted to justify a weird setting. It does suggeset Wotasnozzle spends a lot of time just casually messing with history every time he notices Popeye listening to his own theme on Vague Jazz TV.
For some reason most of these time-travel cartoons Popeye isn’t asked and doesn’t even know he’s time-travelling. It’s a great coincidence Popeye was watching Vague Jazz TV while muttering how he wondered “if Chris was as brave a sailor as history says”. We have to assume he means Chris Columbus. He could be wondering about any sailor named Chris.
Usually these time-travel cartoons just drop Popeye into a historical (or future) setting. Here he’s actually dropped in as Christopher Columbus, on the day the ship’s supposed to sail. We have Brutus there, Captain of the Nina and ready to mutiny, and I suppose that’s sensible enough. Also now Olive Oyl is the Queen of Spain.
For a cartoon that is about Popeye the Sailor as Christopher Columbus there’s not much sailing. It’s a long set of jokes at toasting the voyage, and the Queen, and throwing drink on Popeye. Also of people swinging their mug at the camera, which is a good bit of staging whose charms wear off after the 900th time. Well, everybody’s in non-standard clothing the animation has to save money somewhere.
Popeye gets hiccoughs that turns into a running joke. The Queen stops in with some presents and tries to stop the hiccoughs. For all the directions a Columbus cartoon made in the 60s could go this is a harmless enough one but it’s still a weird direction. Eventually Brutus gets around to his mutiny, and Popeye and Olive Oyl team up to punch all the mutineers back on the ship. This seems like a bad plan to me, but I guess Popeye’s the Admiral.
Popeye finally sails and in a bunch of short, jerky hiccoughs crashes into the New World, at a sign marked “American Indian Village”. That’s all we see, which is probably for the best. One scene later the “American Indian Village” sign is replaced with the “Junior Chamber of Commerce” and signs for the Lions, the Elks, and the Optimists Clubs. If I thought it was on purpose I’d say it was a wry joke about replacing the American civilizations.
Wotasnozzle then explains “and the hiccoughs maybe is why Columbus smashed into America instead of finding out a quick way to the West Indies”. I am sorry to report such a factual historical error on the part of this Popeye cartoon.
There were a lot of ways this cartoon could have been so bad I wouldn’t review it. The cartoon dodged all of them, but in a way by not being about Columbus at all. It’s a strange turn of events.
What’s the reputation of Famous Studios/Paramount Cartoon Studios Popeye cartoons? At least for the 1950s? Mostly of being boring. Also of sometimes squandering a decent premise. Here I’m calling out Popeye For President, which turns into Popeye and Bluto doing farm chores.
The title made me guess the premise was “try to make a gentleman out of Popeye”. Starting out in the Museum of Antiquities, with Popeye making dumb jokes about the exhibits? Squabbling with Brutus, who’s the museum guard or maybe docent? That reinforced my expectations. The premise has been circled before, in the Fleischer era with Learn Polikeness and It’s The Natural Thing To Do. It’s hardly exhausted, though.
So, inspired by the King Arthur exhibit, the cartoon diverts into Popeye and Brutus jousting for Olive’s hand. And that’s all right, I guess. It sets up some of the obvious jokes. Popeye has to wear a stove because the town Antique Armor Shop hasn’t got anything in his size. He has to ride a mule instead of a horse. Brutus creams him, of course. Olive Oyl, who’d urged them to have this joust in the first place, then feels bad for Popeye. Brutus grabs Olive Oyl, and Popeye eats his spinach. It’s that 1930s pattern of Big Bully/Damsel In Distress/Brave Little Squirt returning.
This is all competent enough. There’s even a couple good moments, such as Brutus on his horse charging at the camera. It does feel very 50s Famous Studios, though. Especially in how Olive Oyl pushes for a joust that leaves Popeye helpless and Brutus getting assault-y. Also in how the title card and the direction of the first couple minutes seem to get tossed away in favor of a stock Popeye-and-Brutus fight. I’m curious whether this started as a possible script for a late-50s cartoon that got shelved. But all Gottlieb’s other story credits are from 1961 too.
I suppose the title “My Fair Olive” parses for a story about joust LARPing. It belongs on a cartoon about making Popeye a gentleman, is all.
They can’t get there except through a party of Saxon raiders, out to attack some local village. That’s a pretty standard encounter, earning about 25 xp all around. With the start of September, Prince Valiant finally arrives back in Camelot. It’s been something like three years for them in-universe and about twice that for us readers.
Everything’s looking good, too. Like, they’ve fixed the damage from that time Godzilla attacked (summer 2009). Indeed, the place is thriving, just like you always worry about when you leave your department unsupervised a while. Prince Arn, Valiant’s son, explains that Sir Gawain is managing everything very well. Sir Gawain has never managed a thing well in his life. So what’s the trick?
Well, it’s the same trick as always: finding a good steward. In this case, it’s someone from before I started reading the strip carefully. A woman named Rory Red Hood, with whom Gawain’s fallen in love. And who turns out to know how to manage estate business. Gawain’s been hiding her, because her leveler impulses made her awkward to have at court. So on the one hand, she’s a fugitive from King Arthur for her relentless pushing the notion of commoners governing themselves. On the other hand, she makes a lot of money.
I do like the lighthearted cynical air, and low-key historical verisimilitude, of all this. Aleta talks of how the Misty Isles folks tried this demokratia stuff centuries ago, and it worked fine. At least until the people decided to let a tyrant do their thinking for them. I suspect we’re hearing some motivated history here. She talks with Princess Maeve, co-regent. Aleta argues Rory is much less trouble than the surrounding thanes who’ve been whining about Rory’s existence. And also makes a lot of money. Maeve convinces her husband that Rory is not a real problem, by kicking him out of bed until he agrees.
And that’s where we sit. It’s not the most action-packed story we’re on. But I do like how it’s so tied to the problem of how to manage a land, in a time before bureaucracies could professionalize things. So, Mark Schultz, Thomas Yeates, thank you for writing this story for me and me alone.
The Villiers Millions! Vampires! Dethany from On The Fastrack! Svengoolie! Brenda Starr! Little Orphan Annie! It’s been busy times in Joe Staton, Mike Curtis, Shelley Pleger, and Shane Fisher’s Dick Tracy. Join me for a plot recap that, actually, I already wrote most of this past weekend. I’m trying to build a buffer of stuff to post. I’m expecting next few weeks are going to be, let us hope the final, boss rush of mind-crushing Republican venality, and need some space. Can’t wait!
Like my subject line says. I’ve seen this particular Far Side now and then for thirty-plus years. It was only today, when I saw it bundled with other historical strips under the History Shmistory label, that I realized Gary Larson’s joke. This now takes, by far, the record between me seeing and me getting the joke. It was previously held by another Far Side strip, the famous “I think you misunderstood … I’m Al Tilly, the bum” incident.
In my defense — and this applies to the Al Tilly the bum incident too — part of my slowness was that it wasn’t obvious I was missing a joke. Imagine if the caption read, “Well, Mr Smith, … ” instead. It’s a fine enough non-sequitur joke that someone might be good in sales or market research or buffalo-slaughtering. Larson played fair, of course. If the identity of the person seeking a career didn’t matter, he’d have been named Smith or Jones or even not addressed by name. The beard and ten-gallon hat were also cues, although it’s not like comic strip characters won’t have long beards or quirky fashion choices either.
I suppose it’s all a reminder that you can tell any joke you like, but you can’t control what joke the audience hears.
A confession to a cultural blind spot: I’ve never actually read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere. I know chunks of it, mostly because of cartoons quoting it, sometimes at what seems to be great length. This is one of those cartoons. Thanks to it, I feel like I know enough of the original I don’t have to know the original. There are a bunch of movies I know I’ll never watch either because SCTV gave me the essentials. That’s right, Humoresque, I don’t care if you’re showing in TCM or not! So there!
This is another Jack Kinney-produced cartoon. The story’s by Noel Tucker and the animation director Ken Hultgren. Here’s 1960’s Popeye Revere.
Some of these cartoons I remember nothing about. Some are seared into my memory. This was one I thought was seared in, largely by Popeye adapting Longfellow’s words. Who could forget about the chance “to hear// of the midnight ride of Popeye Revere”? Me, apparently, since that’s not what Popeye says. It’s Poopdeck Revere, everywhere except in the title of the cartoon. Why did the cartoon not have the correct name? What were you afraid of, Jack Kinney?
Which gets at my other question: why is Poopdeck Pappy in this? Were they worried it would confuse viewers to have Popeye-Narrator and Popeye-Revere both talking? In other tell-Swee’Pea-a-story cartoons Popeye gets cast as the male hero. Real Popeye does more narration this time than usual, yes. I think he says “to every Middlesex village and farm” at least eighteen times over the course of two minutes.
I’m not opposed to Poopdeck, mind. He’s a fun character. He can take the little-stinker roles Popeye evolved out of. But it’s not like Paul Revere is a little-stinker character. So why this choice?
The big addition to Longfellow’s poem, I assume, is Brutus as a Tory trying to stop Poopdeck’s ride. Brutus throwing barrels at Poopdeck, which he leaps over, reminded me “wasn’t there something about Donkey Kong starting out as a Popeye video game?” It’s more complicated than that but, yeah, the path to Donkey Kong included an attempted Popeye license. This is probably coincidence, though. The molasses, or as they spell it molassas, does give the cartoon a punch line.
There’s not much standing out in the animation here. There is one neat little effect, as Poopdeck rides and calls to every middlesex village and farm. As he turns side to side his figure grows larger and smaller. It’s a nice addition of life to a basic cycle.
Swee’Pea seems to have an attitude about hearing all this stuff regarding Poopdeck Revere. At one point he holds up a sign, ‘PURE CORN’, for the audience. It seems like a cheap thrill, and an insincere one. (It’s your cartoon, after all. If you don’t like it, why didn’t you make a better one?) But then remember the opening of the tell-me-a-story frame. Swee’Pea asked if Paul Revere’s ride really went like that in the poem. And Popeye goes ahead and basically re-reads the poem, just with slight recasting. I understand Swee’Pea feeling caught in this fix.
I mentioned last week how if you want to buy me something, any nonfiction book will be quite nice, thank you. I want you to understand this is not exaggeration. Before the pandemic shut down the libraries I sought out a book about the building of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Why? Because I felt I didn’t know enough about it. I knew only what anyone growing up in a Mid-Atlantic state might know about postwar bilateral water route management. Surely I should know more.
Gary Croot, whom I hardly need explain is the Associate Administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation’s Operational Headquarters in Massena, New York, called to reassure that no, I already did, but he thanked me for my interest. Still, I went on to read the book and learned that, in fact, building the Saint Lawrence Seaway went about like you’d imagine. A whole lot of digging and a lot of people agreeing this would have been swell if they’d done it like eighty years earlier. Well, they can’t all have the drama of the Mars candy company. I still say it was a good choice.
So here’s some books you might pick up for me, if the bookstore employees don’t believe your “find me something more dull than that” request:
J: The Letter That Shifted Pronunciation, Altered Etymologies, Made Electrical Engineers Cringe, and Changed The World. Of course, I have a partisan interest in the letter ‘J’. But who isn’t fascinated by the way a letter can take on vowel and consonant duties and then gradually split between them? Or how it is we get to pick letters? And whether we are going to finally see the alphabet accept double-i and double-j as letters too? Why should u get to be the mother of letters? Perfect for people who want to be angry about things that not in fact unjust. 296 pages.
Hey-Dey: the Forgotten Amusement Park Ride that Saved Amusement Parks, Earned Fortunes, and Changed The World. Who doesn’t love the Hey-Dey? Everybody because who’s heard of the thing? But there we are, some old pictures of what sure looks like a ride what with how it has a platform and advertisements and stuff. How popular was it? What did you actually do on the ride? It seems like spinning was involved. Maybe a lot of spinning. Why doesn’t anybody know about it anymore? And does it have anything to do with the Lindy Loop? Includes a sweeping view of history including the discovery, in 1896, that people would pay reasonable sums of money to do things that are fun. 384 pages including 20 glossy pages reprinting black-and-white pictures of things we can’t make out anymore. Also 40 pages of the author cursing out Google for assuming that they wanted every possible six-letter, two-syllable string other than “Hey-Dey”.
Humpty Dumpty: the Nonsense Rhyme that Delighted Children, Befuddled Scholars, Made Us All Wonder Why We Think He’s An Egg, and Changed The World. There’s a kind of person who really, really wants Humpty Dumpty to have some deep meaning. Like, saying it’s some deep political satire or is some moral fable about buying on credit or maybe it’s just making fun of the Dutch? No idea, but that’s no reason to stop trying. 612 pages. Spoiler: we think Humpty Dumpy is an egg because both his parents were eggs, and they say their only adoption was his littlest brother, Rumpty Dumpty. Rumpty Dumpty is, as anyone can see, a shoe.
Busy Signal: the Story Behind the Tones, Chimes, Rings, Buzzes, and Beeps that Tell us the State of Things — and Changed The World. An examination of how humans use language and turn a complicated message like “that phone number is busy” into a simple buzz instead. That seems a bit thin to the author too. So then we get into other audio cues like how sometimes construction equipment makes that backing-up beeping noise even when it’s not moving. 192 pages.
So, I mean it. If you want to buy me something, look for any nonfiction book explaining a thing. If it seems like a boring thing, great! 568 pages about the evolution of the NTSC television-broadcast standard? Gold! You are not going to out-bore me in a book contest like that. Look, I know things about the Vertical Blanking Interval that I have no business knowing. And that is everything I know about the Vertical Blanking Interval. And yet I want to know more. Find a topic dull enough that it’s putting neighboring books to sleep, and you’ve got me set. Thank you.
There’s a stretch of book trying to show what the different brick-laying styles are. In the text this is done by pictures. The eBook reader that for some reason gave me this, though, puts some of them as text. So it’s full of weird ASCII art. Like, here:
The Common or American bond, in order to secure transverse strength of wall, can be treated in a way to produce pleasing effects, as may Fig 7.
And despite that fine presentation of good new LinkedIn passwords for me, it just runs a picture for “Chimney Top”. I know what a chimney top looks like. I have one on my house. At least I did last time I checked. It’s been a while.
OK, I’m back. Yes, my chimney top is still there, along with all the chimney middle. You may mock me for checking that nothing had come along and swiped my chimney top without my knowing, but I remember that this is the year 2020. You know what would be stranger than something stealing the tops of chimneys of otherwise untouched buildings? Every single day since the 14th of January.
I don’t fault the book having a pro-brick agenda. I’m sure there’s a comparable book from the American Wood Shingles and Shakes Association that keeps pointing out how lousy bricks are. This if the shingles and shakes people get along. But the enthusiasm this book brings to bricks sometimes paints weird scenes. For example, remember the Great Baltimore Fire that destroyed over 1,300 buildings in February 1904? Me neither but I’ve only over driven through 1904 on the way to 1908 or 1894. Yes, I’m a Coxey’s Army hipster. But the American Face Brick Association notes “there was something saved, however, for a special committee … reported that between 200,000000 and 300,000,000 usable brick worth $5.00 a thousand were recovered”.
So now this paints a scene of a time when “brick” was the plural of brick? Maybe it was a character-recognition error. No, but they do this all over the book. All right. Let me move on.
So this also paints a scene of Baltimore, smashed by a catastrophic fire. Through the smoldering ruins, though, a civic leader stands up. I’ll assume his name was “Archibald”, since that’s an era when civic leaders had names like Archibald or Edwin or Vernon or all that at once. “It is not all lost, my fellow Baltimoreans,” cried Archibald, holding up two pretty good brick in his right and one fractured brick in his left. “There is merchantable salvage comprising a million and a half of dollars of brick here!” I bet his news was greeted with deep, impressed looks from the survivors picking through ruin. I bet they shared their joy and brick with him. And then Archibald interjected, “Herring!”
So it’s a good thing to know there were a quarter-billion still-usable bricks in Baltimore in 1904. It shows what kind of a craftsman I am that actually using them seems like maybe more effort than they’re worth. Of course, what they’re worth was a million and a half dollars, according to Archibald Edwin Vernon. That is a lot of effort to not go to. It’s just I think of my own uses for used bricks.
There’s one set behind the microwave so we don’t push it up against the wall when we press the door-release lever. There’s a brick I use to get a crowbar in the right place, when I do my annual prying-open-of-a-window-some-cursed-former-resident-painted-shut. There’s one we keep in the basement, next to the stairs, so that we can stub our toes if that hasn’t happened already. I think if we stretched our imaginations we could use as many as two more brick.
So that covers a market for five used brick. This leaves 1904 Baltimore with needing to find applications for only a quarter-billion more brick. They could solve this by building more houses, sure, but that’s still 40 to 60 million houses to use up all that brick. It makes one wonder what they were doing with all those brick in the first place.
Yes, it looks like the thing where Universe-3 is prosecuting our, Universe-2, Alley Oop and company is resolved. The charges are dropped until some later nonsense happens. The original, V T Hamlin-created Alley Oop is in Universe-1, not a part of these shenanigans. Glad to catch you up on Jonathan Lemon and Joey Alison Sayers’s Alley Oop, as of mid-July 2020. If you’re reading this after about October 2020 there’ll likely be a new plot recap at this link.
Copious separates Alley Oop from Dr Wonmug and Ooola. He has a test. Copious abducts Wonmug and Ooola, losing them somewhere in time, and Alley Oop has to rescue them. Wonmug’s stranded at a Beatles concert. It takes Alley Oop some time to find him, until he remembers he has a time machine. It takes longer to find Ooola, who’s hidden in the post-apocalyptic year of August 2020 2485. At least until they realize they can use the time machine to check where Copious sent her.
Why all the testing? Because Copious wants to know if they’re up to helping him conquer the multiverse. He’s teamed up with the Nudellians, the useless aliens from the Pyramids. Copious explains they’re intelligent but gullible, and thus, useful. They sold Copious a device to travel between universes, which stopped working. We readers know why that is. To escape Time Court, Wonmug got a Universe Transit Device that locked out cross-universe travel. Copious is looking for a way to overcome that.
There’s one party Alley Oop and gang know who could help. That’s Ollie Arp and Eeena, their Universe-3 counterparts. And the ones who brought them up for trial in Time Court. And the only way to contact them is Copious’s pencil. Alley Oop sneaks up on Copious and distracts him by whacking him unconscious. Arp and Eeena debate it a little and decide saving the multiverse is worth dropping the charges.
Arp and Eeena guide Wonmug in the use of Copious’s universe-travel device. It sends him to Universe 92, one where money was never invented. Arp and Eeena send Copious’s accomplices to Universe 212 and a hot bath. They were just “a few bad noodles”, paying off the pun set up by saying they were from the planet Nu-Dell. So the multiverse is saved, Universe-3 dropped the Time Crime charges against Our Heroes, and all’s well. That wraps things up … let’s call it the 24th of June.
The 25th of June everyone goes back to Moo. Wonmug included, since he hasn’t got anywhere else to be. Also there’s some weird giant ominous cloud looming over the Time Lab.
Bad news in Moo, though. Dinny the dinosaur’s run away. But he’s not hard to find: he went to Inspiration Peak, where to canoodle with Francine, a dinosaur he met at the dino park. They’ve just started dating, no idea where this is going. They’ll see what happens. So that’s sweet.
Meanwhile, Ooola, who went off to the hot springs, is in some kind of fight. With her cry of “Die, fiend!” we reach the 18th of July and the nominal end of this recap period. (She’s rehearsing a play, we learn on Monday and Tuesday.)
So I read that book by the American Face Brick Association that I had noticed yesterday. How could I not? By the second page it’s got into how things had changed by the time of Nebuchadnezzar. When else do you ever hear about Nebuchadnezzar? There’s times that Linus is getting all scriptural in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and that’s about it. I’ll finish any book if it starts out by how the subject had changed by the time of good ol’ Nebuchadnezzar. “How will we get Joseph to finish reading this book about modern bowling alley management,” I can imagine a niche author wondering. “Make him aware such a thing exists?” says her co-author. The first, not realizing this is correct, says, “I know!” And hastily adds to page three a sentence, “by the time of Nebuchadnezzar the management of bowling alleys had developed some techniques familiar even today”. This would clinch the deal.
I know what you’re thinking, and no. So far as I know, “Nebus” is not a shortening of “Nebuchadnezzar”. I am aware of no relation to the ancient kings of Babylon, Sumer, Akkad, and the Universe. My family has always lived in the Universe but that’s about it.
The book is written by a true believer in bricks. I suppose we all believe in bricks to some extent. It’s not like we’ll pat the brick cladding of a building, lean over to our companion, and whisper, “Of course, you know what’s really going on with these.” I mean unless it’s that new kind of brick they build stuff with today, that’s somehow bricks that look like fake bricks. I mean we believe in bricks that look like bricks. We just don’t believe in bricks as much as this writer believes in bricks.
From this book I learn that, like Gaul, the clays used for brick are divided into three parts. The first is surface clays, “of which the commoner type of brick are made” and which I trust are the down-to-earth clays. Next are shales, “nearly reduced to the form of slate” by immense pressures, I trust from trying to avoid those commoner surface clays. The last group are fire clays, “so-called because of their refractory qualities”. Can you name three refractory qualities? Share your work below.
I wouldn’t have put Gaul into the matter except the book is written all like that. There’s a bit where it talks about how John Howard Payne made himself immortal with his universal lyric. Quick, name it!
Before I go further I should explain the difference between a brick and a face brick. A brick is that brick-like thing you call a brick or use for brick purposes. A face brick is a brick that sounds like you’re writing for a comic strip or maybe a network TV cop show and so can’t say “Facebook”. I hope this clarifies matters.
Anyway the American Face Brick Association feels quite strongly that whatever it is you’re doing, brick is a correct choice. “Whether you plan some elaborate baronial sort of mantel and fireplace or a cozy little ingle nook, you will find nothing either in point of durability or beauty that excels the right kind of brick.”, they say, and fairly. I can’t imagine they would have kept the manuscript draft that admitted ingle nooks are more a hardwood floors thing. I have enough trouble imagining what an “ingle nook” is, if not a transcription error. Maybe it’s the town in Connecticut that the physicist J Willard Gibbs was from?
If the book would like me to remember anything it is that bricks are cheaper than you think. Like, that time Tuesday when you and your friend were talking about how expensive bricks are? “This is a grave mistake based, as it is, on comparisons of forty or fifty years ago.” Add in the 98 years it’s been since this book was published, and you’re degrading bricks based on information that’s as much as 148 years out of date. I would urge you and your friend to apologize. Run to the door and cry out, “I apologize to the American Face Brick Association!” I don’t mean right now. It might be after 11 pm when you read this and that’s late to shout apologies to any face brick association.
To put all this in a word so far, though? Nebuchadnezzar. In two words? Nebuchadnezzar bricks.
This is framed, again, as a tell-me-a-story cartoon. Ed Nofziger did something similar with Little Olive Riding Hood and Hamburger Fishing. Why is there a frame, though? A frame lets you put the characters in a weird position without explaining why, but, is that needed? At least for Popeye? Do we get anything that wouldn’t be served by Jackson Beck narrating that “this story takes place in the time of the Ancient Greeks”? Do we need any explanation for the weirdness? Nofziger’s Swee’Pea Through The Looking Glass just let the action “really” happen, for example.
There is something having Popeye and Swee’Pea as frame offers, though. A bit of it was done in Hamburger Fishing. They can comment on the story. Several times over the action pauses so that Swee’Pea can snark about the action. I’m interested in the choice. It offers some story benefits. Popeye declaring “then, they went and — ” is as good a transition as you need to let anything happen. Stock footage of Popeye and Swee’Pea talking saves the animation budget, too.
Having the characters watch and snark on a story is part of a respectable enough tradition too. It runs loosely from the Greek Chorus through, like, that bit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Hippolyta and all can not believe Nick Bottom’s play, to Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Muppet Show and their many influences. (Mystery Science Theater 3000 is near but just outside this lineage, for my purposes. I’m looking at texts that contain their own riffing. MST3K depends on adding jokes to something by a different writer.) When it’s done well, it adds to a story you were already interested in, often with commentary about the artifice of story and the demands of narrative logic. When it’s done badly, it’s any of those Pearls Before Swine strips that are seven panels filled wall-to-wall with text for a pun, followed by the characters insulting the cartoonist for writing that.
So a thing about Popeye is he’s always been kind of self-riffing. The definitive thing about the Fleischer Studios character is his mumbled, improvisational jokes about the story. This self-aware tradition faded, but never left the character. When Brutus asks “what is this?” and Spartan Popeye punches him, then says, “This horse is a gift, o Prince! … Never look a gift horse in the mouth!”, it’s not a strange moment. It’s completely in-character.
Does it add anything for Swee’pea to comment that “history was never like this”? I’m not sure. The Trojan Horse story does well at being absurd. But I try to remember what I thought as a kid, among the intended audience for this. Did I register that it was absurd for Trojan Brutus to be huddling up in a Generic Medieval Castle complete with moat and drawbridge? I think I registered it was weird there was a sawfish in the moat. Shouldn’t that be alligators or at least sharks? But a castle right out of my Fisher-Price Play Family Castle #993 set? I don’t remember that registering. Swee’Pea’s line may be more than just the writer worrying there’s a space for a joke here.
Given that we have a frame, though, it saw good use. Each of the cuts back to Popeye and Swee’Pea comes at a reasonable moment, and gets a decent joke. The main storyline goes along at a good pace. I like Popeye’s Trojan Horse being built with several modes including “buck”. All I wonder is why Spartan Popeye wanted his horse to look like Gumpy’s pal Pokey?
Me, nodding: Yes, well-played. Very well-played, that.
For those who don’t remember this one: the 11th Amendment is the constitutional amendment which specifies zzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZ [ falls out of the chair ]
Oof. Sorry there. right. No, the 11th Amendment is an important part of federalism because it guarantees zzsnrrrrZZZ [ falls asleep again, does not wake up until March ]
(PS: the episode is twelve minutes long in its entirely and about half of that is the host explaining how the schedule is changing and they’re trying different formats, so the actual content is maybe five minutes, which I think counts as officially dunking on the 11th Amendment.)
So, Calvin Coolidge. I know, openings like that are why I’m not a successful humor blogger. But, still. Did you know he was a practical joker? Like, when he was President, he’d sometimes just press the alarm button in the Oval Office, and then go hide behind the curtains while the Secret Service guys raced in and got all tense. And, I mean, you look at a picture of him. And you say, “that is a person whose main joy in life is whacking people across the knuckles with a yardstick”. And then you learn he would do stunts like that, which are exactly what I would do if I were President for some reason.
So, you know, the guy had hidden depths. And in those depths, he liked having breakfast in bed while someone rubbed his head down with petroleum jelly. I don’t get it either.
Hi at last, people who want to know what’s happening in the Sunday continuity of Tony DePaul and Jeff Weigel’s The Phantom. The Phantom is sharing a story of one of his ancestors is what’s going on. If you’re looking for the weekday continuity, or if you’re reading this after (I expect) June 2020, you’re likely to find a more relevant essay here. If you’d like a little mathematics in your comic strip talk, please try out my other blog. Thank you.
The Phantom (Sundays).
29 December 2019 – 22 March 2020
We left The Phantom teasing his daughter Heloise with tales of past Phantoms. He suggested he could tell Heloise what really happened to Ambrose Bierce, or to the body of Thomas Paine. Or Khe Pandjang, who’d lead an army against Dutch imperialism in Indonesia in the 18th century. (I hadn’t heard of him before this, but it’s a good reference. Linking The Phantom to him helps diffuse the colonialism baked into the comic strip’s premise.) Or the sole (then-)surviving witness to the Mary Celeste.
What The Phantom finally suggests, and Heloise accepts, is hearing the story of George Bass. Bass was a real-world British naval surgeon and explorer. That strait between Australia and Tasmania is named after him. In reality, he was last seen in February 1803. He was expected to sail the brig Venus from Sydney to Tahiti and then, perhaps, Spanish colonies in Chile. No one knows what happened to him and his crew. What The Phantom (Sundays) supposes is … not no one knows?
In The Phantom’s retelling there were a 26th and 27th person on the Venus. The 13th Phantom was one of those people lost to history. The other was called Carter, and we’re promised that his treachery put Bass in the Vault of Missing Men. And instead of sailing for Tahiti, Bass intended the ship to go “missing”. And then to join actively the Napoleonic Wars, attacking French and Spanish ships under a false flag.
This is a quite interesting plan since I don’t see how this isn’t piracy. There’s a reference to Bass having “sponsors” in England, so perhaps this got the legal cover of being a privateer. But then that would be on Bass’s Wikipedia page, unless of course Tony DePaul has an explanation to come for that.
Bass, in fiction, renames his ship the El Sol. He names his lifeboat the Tom Thumb III, in honor of the small boats the historic Bass used to explore Australian rivers. He says that he and Walker will launch the Tom Thumb III to save England from Napoleon. Meanwhile they sail to some Mediterranean port, “a nest of cutthroats, spies”. While walking down Ambush Alley in the port, Bass and Walker notice they’re being followed. It’s Carter, who hasn’t got any reason to be off the ship and less reason to follow them. They suspect Carter of working for someone, they know not who. Bass declares he can’t just leave Carter there. He means, unless he murders the bilge rat. But he’s too honest for that. The first time I read this, I thought Bass was saying he’d have to take Carter along and forgive his leaving the ship. On re-reading, I’m not sure Bass didn’t mean to just leave Carter in port. In either case the reasoning seems designed to force Carter to throw in with anyone working against Bass. But no one has ever accused the Napoleonic-era Royal Navy of having any idea how to create or sustain loyalty.
So, this week, we saw the VenusEl Sol sailing under United States, French, and even Spanish colors, on various missions. We’re promised that this will turn into Bass having a key role in the Battle of Trafalgar. We’re not there yet.
How are things going with Aunt Tildy? And that pro wrestler? I look in on Terry Beatty’s Rex Morgan, M.D., unless events get in the way. But, come on. This is March 2020. How could an event get in the way of anything? Good luck to you all.
And then I’m done with this thread until I decide to rewrite it all as one big coherent 700-word essay. And again, this is drawing from Wikipedia. So Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes tried to make wallpaper out of shower curtains sealed together. And this turned out to be bubble wrap. It wasn’t used as a packing material until 1961, though, when IBM started shipping their IBM 1401 computers wrapped in the stuff.
And now I’m picturing that scene. Fielding and Chavannes are sitting there, disheartened. They’ve used their steam iron to seal together dozens of pairs of shower curtains, and not gotten a single piece of usable wallpaper out of any of it. Finally, one of them, disgusted with their failures, tosses the wrap, where it lands on an IBM 1401 variable-wordlength decimal computer with six-bit plus word-mark and parity big-Endian computer that “fell off a delivery truck”. And then they both freeze, looking at what’s happened. And then look at each other. And the years of anxiety and frustration and cruel failure wash away as they realize they hav seen the future, and it pops.
There are many historic events I would like to witness. The first transmissions along the transatlantic telegraph cable. The first person to build a house, rather than extend shelter from an available cave or copse of trees of whatnot. Merkle’s Boner. Whatever the heck the Invasion of the Sea Peoples was. And now, to this, I add whatever conversation happened between Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes that resulted in a declaration I must conclude had the substance, “gentlemen, we have all the wallpaper we could ever need — it’s right here in these shower curtains!”.
Hi, folks who want to know what the Ghost Who Walks is doing with beating up these art students in tents. That’s the weekday continuity. This plot recap is for the Sunday continuity of Tony DePaul and Jeff Weigel’s The Phantom (Sundays), current to December 2019. If you want the weekday story, or the Sunday stories after about March 2020, there’s probably a more relevant essay at this link.
The Khagan discovers the escape. Also that all the Avari’s remaining saddles are broken, limiting their ability to pursue. They wait out the pursuers. Eventually, though … only two return to the Khagan’s camp. The rest just … hang around. The Phantom approaches. They explain the Khagan will execute them if Clotilde makes good her escape. So, given that, they’d just as soon not go back. The Phantom takes them to Bangallan President Lamanda. He’ll take them in, despite the risk of the Khagan seeking revenge.
With the 17th of November the current Sunday story, The Spy Ship, the 189th Sunday story, started. It also ties to the weekday continuity, as Heloise Walker brings Kadia Walker to the Phantom’s Skull Cave. Well, to the Deep Woods, the vicinity of the Skull Cave. Kit Walker asks his daughter how this can be a good idea, exactly, if they don’t want her to learn the family secret? Heloise explains that Kadia was blindfolded all the way through the deep woods. They’re in the wrong place to see Skull Cave as anything beside a bit of rock. She doesn’t know that The Phantom is there. And she told Kadia that the Walkers have Bandar friends because they lived here years ago, as part of Diana Walker’s United Nations work.
The Phantom invites Heloise deeper into Skull Cave, to learn secrets that even Kit Junior doesn’t know. Behind an iron door they pass the crypt of people Lost to History: Ambrose Bierce, for example, who’d met the 16th Phantom. And who disappeared in Mexico in 1913 if you believe history rather than the Phantom Chronicles. Or Thomas Paine, who died in 1809 in New York City, although his body has been lost. He’s shown with an internment date of 1824.
So this is all prelude, as you see. What it’s a prelude for I can’t guess. This Sunday’s strip has the Phantom asking Heloise whether she wants to know the story of Ambrose Bierce or Thomas Paine, and she’s not answered yet.
Or my birthday. All you have to do is buy them first. But before first, you have to get someone to sell them. And before before first to publish them. So before before before first you need someone to write them. And before that has to be research. So, like, around fifth you have to buy them, and sixth give them to me.
Perfect Pitch: A History of Asphalt, the Construction Material that Changed the World. Sure, we all rate asphalt as one of the things roads are made of, but how much do we really know about them? Where does asphalt come from? Where does it go in spring when all the potholes appear? Finally a book that can help you keep up with that friend who’s a little too deeply into Nixie tubes and keeps correcting you when you say things about pavement. 318 pages.
Umbrellas: The Head Coverings that Made the Rain Avoidable, Created the Sun King, Saved America’s Space Station, and Changed the World. Who hasn’t remembered they left a travel-size umbrella in the car, for cases where they’re out somewhere and there’s a sudden rainstorm and they need to hold a small piece of fabric up with a bent metal skeleton until they get annoyed by it all? Partly a narrow-focus history, yes, but also partly an exporation of what the idea of being able to moderate the weather at will means to people. The umbrella takes us on a journey that connects to how society’s ideas of what outdoor recreation is for has changed, and how buildings have changed to control the climate rather than to harmonize with the climate for comfort. 422 pages including 26 pages of illustrations and pictures of impractical 19th-century umbrella-related patent follies.
What Color Is A Peace Conference: The Work of the Diplomats, Historians, Demographers, and Sociologists that Changed the World. If you’re like me you have a vague and very child-like idea what goes on at peace conferences. Like, these things usually take some time, but time doing what? The deepest thinking of my brain, which was able to earn an advanced degree in mathematics, is to imagine that one side’s rep says, “Stop shooting as us”. And then the other side’s rep says either “OK” or “No you”. If the first, great, they’re done. If the second, then the first side’s rep says either “OK” or “No you”. Either way, they’re done. So that takes maybe ten minutes, including the time it takes for everybody to forget each other’s names. What’s happening the rest of the conference? Don’t you want to know too? 240 pages.
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Christmas Carol that Changed the World. How did this silly little anapestic tetrameter escape its department-store promotional origins? How did it turn into a beloved song, then beloved cartoon, then beloved song again, then beloved stop-motion animation project, and then core of the surprisingly intricate Rankin/Bass Main Continuity, and then the center of 38 known spoofs and comedic rants? It’s easy to forget that as recently as 2006 it was still pretty fresh and novel to point out that nobody can think of a single thing wrong with Clarice that would send her to the Island of Misfit Toys. This exploration gets really good for about ten pages in the late middle part where it talks about folklore being created by corporate entities, and then it turns into a lot of lists of comedy sketches that are really easy to skim through without feeling like you’re missing anything. 260 pages plus a web site with some pictures of department-store mascot costumes from before the 1989 discovery that mascot costumes did not have to be hideous.
Sand: The Hidden Story of the Grains that Built our Roads, Formed our Glasses, Timed our Days, Challenged our Ideas of What Waves Are, Taught us to Navigate, Made our Computers Think, Gave us Beach Holidays, and Changed the World. I know what you’re thinking and no, I am not thinking of Vince Beiser’s book. That’s The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization and I am ignoring that for the third reason you would think up. 362 pages, plus a 40-page preview of the author’s next book, Bauxite: the Unpresupposing Ore that Overthrew Empires, Built Cities, Created the Modern Kitchen, Made the 20th Century, and Changed the World.
What’s funny here is you could also give any of these to my dad and he’d be happy with it too. What’s also funny here is I started out mocking my reading habits and I think I ended up writing at least two viable book pitches. Whoever publishes everything Mark Kurlasky writes, call me.
OK, but is this the sheep district of the country or what because this is getting to be far too many sheep.
Dan tried to get away without calling it “Diet Pupsi” and couldn’t. But he did realize that over this trip everyone had tried, one time or other, just saying the name of it right. The implication is that everybody’s ready to let this in-joke go, but nobody wants to be the one to say it. Dan resolves to bring this up at a good moment, but hopes so very much that someone else brings it up first.
Sophie starts the practice of deliberately misreading the highway signs now. Taking “Williamsport” as the game of Williams promises some great fun, but all it really leads to is stories of times their satellite navigator had no idea how to pronounce a street name. “Malcolm the Tenth Street” is judged the best of those. There’s just not enough good towns in the area, though.
It seemed like this should be a good way to pass a few miles. But sharing the most important thing in their lives that they’ve given up correcting their parents about? Like, where it’s just too much effort to explain what’s really going on, and it’s easier to let them go about being wrong and correct people whom their parents in turn mislead? Yeah, so it turns out that for everybody it’s just “exactly what it is we do for work”. That’s weird itself. Like, you’d think for someone it would be a relationship or some important aspect of their personality or something. No, though. It’s just what everyone does in exchange for money. This seems like it says something important about modern society, but who knows?
All right, but that is definitely a two-story strip mall, putting to rest an earlier squabble.
Josh is irrationally offended by the name of the Creekside Inn Hotel, citing “redundancy”. His status is not helped when it turns out to be near the Riverfront Cemetery Memorial Park.
The historical marker turned out to be a surprisingly good stop. It’s just a note that this town was somehow too small for Lincoln’s Funeral Train to stop at, but they have this amazing picture of the train just going through town. It’s not a very good picture but for an action scene in 1865? That’s pretty amazing anyway. But the real question is how everything in town is covered in black crepe. Where did that all come from? The town isn’t anything today, and back then? It was so nothing it couldn’t even get the funeral train to stop. Why would they even have enough crepe to shroud all downtown? Or if they didn’t, where did they get it? Did they have enormous quantities of regular crepe and just dye it black all of a sudden? Amanda’s joke that maybe it was crepe of all colors and it just looks black is judged to be “too soon”. But that doesn’t answer the real question.
It’s become so tiring to read all the highway signs that the town or towns of Portage Munster are passed without comment.
Now it’s time for the search for a place to have dinner. This is a complex triangulation of where they are, how fast they’re going somewhere, and what towns of any size are going to be anywhere near dinnertime. The objective: find someplace genuinely local to go. And after fifteen minutes of searching, success! It’s a well-reviewed barcade and they even have a menu online with four vegetarian-friendly options, plus great heaping piles of fried things. And it’s been open since like 1938. It is closed today, and tomorrow, for the only two days it’s set to be closed between Easter and Thanksgiving this year.
By now the group has gotten past making up redundantly-named landmarks and is annoying Josh with oxymoronic names.
At least everyone can agree: after all this time driving, we’re all walking like badly-rigged video game models. This is what’s so good about taking a road trip. You get to enjoy everything in new and different ways.
1. 12:00:01 am. The Big Bang.
12:14:23.20 am. Recombination. Space is no longer an opaque plasma; the cosmos is, for the first time, transparent.
There’s little question about whether gas prices are rising. You can check whether the gas station signs are getting taller. But are the prices increasing as well as rising? Those varied collections of digits don’t grow on trees, not anymore. The last grove of wild price-berry trees grew in Maine’s upper peninsula until 1914, when spoilsport geographers pointed out Maine hasn’t got any upper peninsula. An effort to transplant them to the New Hampshire panhandle failed for similar reasons.
The history of gas prices traces back to the Babylonians. One fragmentary parchment a scant three cubits by five reads “DXXXIX OCTANE .XIXIX”. This shows how thousands of years ago, before not only the invention of unleaded but before leaded was a thing, it was cheaper to get 89-octane regular. The meaning was unclear to the Babylonians, because they hadn’t invented Roman Numerals yet. (Roman Numerals were invented by early Renaissance mathematicians to make their early work look more classy.) The Babylonians were pretty hazy on the concept of Rome and whether it would go anywhere too. It’s more sort of sprawled than gone anywhere.
Even once they found out what Roman Numerals were there was still confusion . For example, everyone was pretty sure that “D” is how the Romans wrote “500”. “Fifty” should be something else, like a letter φ. The sad thing is there’s no way to find out. We have to stumble through and tell ourselves if we’re confused it’s probably because we missed something. Maybe it’s a letter ‘T’. That seems like it ought to be a Roman Numeral for something.
Today, gas prices are generally obtained through mining. Most 9’s come from three former mountains in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Even digits, most often, are taken from Kentucky or the Ozark Mountains when the owners aren’t looking. The odd numbers 1, 3, and most 7’s are dug from former silver veins in Nevada. Other 7’s come from the lower Mississippi region, the onetime “breadbasket of numbers that look random-ish”. The mighty 5 is produced by the one remaining open plant at Washington state’s Hanford Nuclear Plant. This is a highly industrial process. It creates 5’s by fissioning off either a 2 from existing 7’s, or a 3 from an existing 8. A project in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in early 1994 fused a 2 and a 3. But the operation wasn’t practical, just pretty. There’s still sometimes talk about reviving the project and hoping it works out better. It’s nice to hope for, but don’t count on anything.
As long as gas prices have been for sale people have been trying to find ways around paying them. One one approach is to use prices that are not actually written down but are on electronic signs instead. These are easy to change, so gas station owners can respond to things like the crisis in vanadium. I’m assuming there’s a crisis in vanadium. It seems like the kind of element that’s always having crises. But there are disadvantages. A physically written price needs to be paid for once and then used however long the gas station owner wants. With electronic prices you keep owing typeface royalties to either the Caslon family or the Mergenthaler heirs. Cross them at your peril.
What of the quirk of ending gas prices with a 9/10? The United States has not minted a 9/10-cent coin except briefly in 1831. This was when the Second Bank of the United States was feeling all sarcastic towards President Andrew Johnson. It was a great moment of pettiness, but they looked foolish when they remembered Johnson wasn’t in office and they meant to snipe at Andrew Jackson. The modern uses of 9/10 traces to the Second World War. A War Production Board order of January 1943 restricted the use of the fractions between 91/100 and 99/100. For the duration prices went from ending in 99/100 down to 9/10. Then people got so comfortable with that they didn’t feel like changing back when fraction rationing ended in March 1945.
Many non-United States countries sell gas by the liter, rather than the gallon. Thus they use the same prices but at different times. This inspires curious feelings of nostalgia or a sense of peeking into the future, depending on when one happens to be overseas, and when one should be otherwise.
I wasn’t listening very closely to the teaser for the Mister Food segment on the noon news Friday. I thought the guy said he was going to show off a “dessert that would be worthy of the Renaissance”. So that kept me hanging on for the whole commercial break. What would this be? My best guess: a slab of honeycomb on top of marzipan, covered in nut-megg and tobacco leaves, bludgeoned the one tymme with a sugar-cayne.
Anyway it turns out they were doing a Kentucky Derby tie in. They had said a “dessert that would be worthy of the Winner’s Circle”. You can see how “Winner’s Circle” and “Renaissance” sound similar, what with both things being made up of words composed of syllables and all. Anyway I’m annoyed because I wanted Mister Food to tell me I was right.
Hey, are they going to have a Kentucky Derby this year? I should look that up. They hold those in prime-numbered years, and also some of the others.