More identity explorations as we move into the plague summer


Here are some more identities you could develop while it’s safe here, now, what with nobody knowing what to do.

You could be the person who floats their head to the side of the screen, letting it drift sideways up and down, in every group video chat. This is what I do. Cut it out. We may be technically correct that Ernie Kovacs would do this, but only David Letterman and I care. Also, as mentioned last week, it’s most often a bad idea to do things like me. It involves a lot of books set across the tops of other books on bookshelves until the whole thing collapses.

You could, though, develop some particular niche hobby to incredible, almost cartoon-like depth. This is a great idea. For instance, I know two people who are amazingly deeply into squirrels. Everyone they know is always sending them squirrel plush dolls and videos of every squirrel being cute or clever on the Internet. Every report of where a squirrel, say, causes a stock market panic because they chewed through an Internet cable. Every time Mark Trail has a giant squirrel talk over a log cabin. They’re so renowned for being into squirrels that their hobby’s self-sustaining now. Their friends do all the work, and all they have to do is sometimes acknowledge that yeah, that squirrel sure got onto that bird feeder all right.

You could become that person with an amazing stock of music knowledge. For example: remember 1981? That year, three-eighths of all sounds were radio plays of the Theme to The Greatest American Hero. (Believe it or not!) I know, I’m surprised too. I remember 1981. I would have sworn it was at least three-and-a-half eighths of all sounds. Anyway, the guy who sang that, Joey Scarbury? He went on, with Desiree Goyette, to record “Flashbeagle”. You know, for the Charlie Brown special It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. Yes, Desiree Goyette, the voice of Irving’s other girlfriend Brenda from the 1987 Cathy cartoon. Anyway, drop a fact like that into any conversation and you’ll have changed it forever! I’m afraid that’s about all the music knowledge I have for you. Sorry. It has to be your thing, not mine, anyway.

You could become a know-it-all, but one who tempers every statement by prefacing it with “it’s my understanding that”. This doesn’t work. Also, it’s the kind of nonsense I do, and again, you should avoid doing things like I do.

You could be a person with a deep-dive podcast into some small mystery of life. Like, you could be the person who finally solves why the nutritional information for a noodle packet gives you both the cooked and the uncooked nutrition. Like, are there an appreciable number of people who’ll eat the Hamburger Helper mix — dry shells, powder and all — without any hamburger or water or help or anything? Who are the people tearing open packets of ramen to eat them raw? Where are they? Are they coming after us? Are they getting nearer? At the end of fourteen deeply thoughtful segments you come to the realization that everybody runs at minimum about 25% freak and, you know? If your freak turns out to be “chomps down on raw Noodle-Roni”? That’s fine. It’s not like you’re hurting anyone like you would if your freak had something to do with, I don’t know. Enchanting poodles or anything that’s professionally titled “arbitrage” or something. The good thing is if you do enough of this series, your audience may start doing fan art or sending in tips and then the thing becomes self-sustaining.

You could become a neighborhood legend. You maybe imagine that requires an incredible load of effort, such as by stealing three golf carts from the course on the north side of town, chaining them together, and RV’ing your golf cart train around the neighborhood park. Not at all. You can make do with two golf carts chained together, if the people who are Extremely Upset Online in the neighborhood Facebook group are representative.

What’s important is not so much what you do but that you choose something that feels right to you, a person you are trying to not be like. There are ways that this makes sense.

Some further explorations of identity in the Plague Spring


So things are still a bit rough. I’m understating. On the roughness scale, which starts at 1 and goes up to “fell off the roof, scraped down the porch overhang, then plummeted into the crabapple bush”, things are averaging around “ … and then dropped into the wheelbarrow full of lava rocks heaped on the gravel driveway”. Still, this is a chance to try out a new identity, and be ready to unleash it on a changed and unsuspecting world. Forming a new identity is tough, but you can use some templates. It’s all right to try being the same person someone else is. Your attempt will be different from everyone else’s, and that makes your them a different them than their them is as you see it. Yeah, that sentence made me dizzy too. Best to move on. Here’s a few options to consider instead:

You could be the person who puts their lawn waste in collection bags from regional stores from other parts of the country. This is a good way to lightly bewilder the neighborhood. “This is Lansing, Michigan,” neighbors will say, if you live in Lansing, Michigan. “The nearest Price Chopper is in Syracuse! Are you driving seven and a half hours out of your way, crossing through Canada, to get these or do you have people mailing them to you?” They won’t ask you about it, but you’ll collect many excited looks from your neighbors.

You could be a person who can explain to me what exactly ‘var’ does in Javascript. I have to warn you, this is a tough one. Oh, for non-computer people: Javascript is what lets your web browser be slow, and make all the things on a page jump around until you give up reading it. It’s how web sites keep you from reading them anymore. Anyway, ‘var’ is this thing that sometimes you have to put in, except you don’t have to, so you don’t, and then sometimes it stops working, until you put it back in? I don’t know. I’ve had this explained to me like thirty times in the last twenty years and I still think it’s a prank whipped up by Javascript Master Command. Maybe it does something, but I don’t think it does, and anyway, I’m not going to remember why it does that.

You could become an immortal comic legend. This one is easy, in comparison. It just takes one step. Work out some kind of wordplay so that, after you’ve said your good joke, someone else can respond “… literally” and have that be a good joke too. I don’t have any idea what that would look like. But there was this paper in the Journal of Theoretical Joke Structures last month which said one can exist.

You could try being me. I recommend against it. Not that I can’t mostly put up with me. It’s that being me involves a lot of standing up from a comfortable enough chair, walking four feet, rubbing my hands, and deciding to sit back down again. It’s not much of a pastime. But when you consider what my knees are like it’s a lot of strain to no good purpose. Sometimes they make the noise your car makes when you have to replace that brake thing that’s $600 but if the mechanic can find some spares, only be $580. But, you know, I committed to being me, so who am I to say I was wrong to do that? Ask me when I’m staring at the ceiling at 5:30 am, tonight and every night.

You could be yourself, but two feet over to the left. This is attainable by just about everybody, unless their apartment is too small.

You could become a world-renowned puppeteer. You can even pick the world you want. They’re finding new ones all the time, so you can be renowned all over that world. How is anybody going to check on you? It’s not like they can get to the observatory any better than you can. You can even make up the world, and that’ll work with all your friends except the astronomers you know. And how many astronomers do you know? I mean well enough they feel like they should come to your parties but don’t? If you’re like me, and I still don’t recommend being me, you know four at most. You can get them to play along. Just agree to cover them for their new identities.

Anyway whoever you choose to be, good luck. Let me know how your knees work out.

On the Problem of Identity During the Plague Spring


The quarantine month has been a pretty tough time, as measured by how often we’ve had to go to the basement and berate cinder blocks. It’s a better coping mechanism than punching the cinder blocks was. The cinder blocks aren’t taking this personally. They know they’re there as support. Emotionally speaking, cinder blocks are bricks. I don’t say that cinder blocks are also literally bricks, because I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble with the brick enthusiast community. I don’t need someone explaining how something essential to bricks is incompatible with the nature of cinder blocks, because I would find that fascinating. I would read three different books, each at least 280 pages, on the history of bricks. I’m already enough of a caricature of myself. I do not need to become even more of that.

But this lands me on my point four times as well as I had expected just three sentences ago. Honest, I was lost. My point is: a lot of us are having a rough time now because we don’t have anything to do. There’s no hanging out at barcades. You can’t even go to the pet store and stare at the baby guinea pigs. A lot of people don’t have jobs. Those who do, have those jobs gone all weird. Two months ago you would spend all morning in a meeting to resolve what five minutes of e-mail would have. Today, you spend all morning in e-mail exchanges to resolve what five minutes of meeting would have.

All these things that we would do evaporated. So now we face the gap between the stuff we do, and who we are, and who we figure we want to be. That’s tough stuff. I remember who I wanted to be, growing up: the astronaut who draws Popeye. It’s been an adjustment, learning that the person I am doesn’t want to make the effort it takes to draw Popeye. Or to convince the people who hire astronauts that they need someone on staff who’ll draw Popeye too. That one’s on me. I keep applying for astronaut jobs, but at the interviews I never ask if they’re bringing a Popeye-drawer on board. I just take it for granted that if they don’t list it on their web site, they’re not going to, and I don’t even respond to their offers. I’m only messing up my own life like this.

How to handle the gap between what kept you busy and what your identity is? This involves serious quiet, letting all the thoughts imposed from other people — well-meaning or advertisers — wash out. Think seriously about what you are when at rest, and see what residue of life remains. Then realize this is a hecking lot of work and the results are terrible. You know how, on your body, you have this indestructible nostril hair that every booger in the world condenses around? Your personality is like that, only worse. It starts with that time you were six and teased that kid Christian across the street because his name rhymes with the imaginary word “Ristian”. And it’s accumulated like that since then. No, you’re better off finding a new store-bought identity and putting that on.

There’s so many to choose from! You could be the person who cruises social media, finding folks who are screaming at CSS for not being able to do what seems like a simple CSS thing, and reassuring them that the problem is that CSS is not actually good at CSS things yet, and never will be. (CSS is that computer thing where, for no good reason, sometimes all the stuff in your web browser is 50% off the edge of the screen to the right.)

You could be a background character in a Studio Ghibli film. In these times you’ll definitely want to be in one of the lower-stress movies. Take up some role where you look over bunches of vegetables, that kind of thing. You’ll have to act nonplussed when a bunch of kids run through on some lightly daft whimsical adventure to help the ghost wolf reconcile with its family or something. So remember to look up exactly what “nonplussed” means. You want to know how to react.

Or you could try being an astronaut who draws Popeye. The drawing Popeye part should be easy, but the real trick is getting up into space. To do that, you’ll want to practice jumping until you’re so good at it you jump into outer space. Go practice right now! (Note to the rest of you: if you’re hired as astronaut they provide the outer space for you. I just want to get my competition for the job out of the way.)

The exact choice isn’t important. What matters is that you realize who you are. Then we can see about fixing that.

Everything there is to say about IP addresses


Each day over 36 people use the Internet. And yet how many of them know what it is? How it works? Where it comes from? What it’s doing? How it’s redressed in-between scenes so that in the first act it’s a starving artist’s kitchen while in the second it’s the luxury suite at a hotel? Still, let’s see which of these questions we can answer.

The Internet is, as designed, a high-capacity method of transmitting outrage. Essential to getting anything anywhere is the IP address. IP is an acronym; it stands for IP, but — you may want to make a note of this — a different IP than what we mean when we write IP. It is still typed the same, though, except in the dative case.

The purpose of an IP address was to be a unique way to identify the recipient of any particular Internet outrage. In the earliest days of computers this was done by identifying the person using the computer. But this was impractical, since back then, everyone used the names of the same minor Star Trek characters. Today, only three people know there even was a “Commander DeSalle” who was in more episodes than, like, Pavel Chekov somehow. The next step was trying to identify the computer using the person. But too many computers looked the same, especially back in the 90s when the computer makers got a really good deal on plastic the color of sweetened condensed milk you accidentally left open on the counter all month. We’ve since moved on to trying to identify the person and the computer together. This is done by timing how long it takes you to refuse web sites permission to send you notifications.

The IP address is how the Internet knows what to send to you. Consider this typical behavior. You put an OtterBox for your phone on your Amazon wish list, because the wrist strap broke off your old one. You’d just buy it yourself, but not having a wrist strap is a smaller hassle than your parents asking you to put at least one single thing on your wish list so they know what they won’t buy you for your birthday. Three weeks later, Amazon sends you an e-mail declaring they’ve found it would be a great idea if you bought an OtterBox. Sure, you think of the geniusnessocity of the mind that could create such a perfect needs-anticipation system. “Clearly,” you say, out loud, “the person behind this system deserves 130 billion dollars. Indeed, the person who could create that digital intelligence deserves all the billions of dollars.”

But this only works because it knows which of all the people on computers to send the e-mail to. Imagine if you got the suggestion to buy an OtterBox intended for somebody else who also wanted an OtterBox. Or what if the shopping suggestions were completely wrong? “We have a great deal for you: what if you bought a radial tire and the issue of Starlog about DeForest Kelly being on the War of the Worlds tv series from the 80s? Plus 1250 boxes of macaroni and cheese?” There would be no possible answer to give to that question. You would be stuck at home, all day, trying to find out, wait, there was a War of the Worlds series in the 80s? And it got kinda bonkers? But if there’s no way to get the information about this to you, then, where are you? Right back at home.

So how do you and your computer get this IP address? Eh, a lot of back-and-forth. Your computer goes asking others around it, “Do I look like a 12.440.593.56.210.315 to you?” And then the other computers go, “Oh, you’re underrating yourself. You’re easily a 56.337.404044.12.390 or maybe even more!” And then your computer answers, “Aw, golly. You’ll make me digitally blush, there’s no way I’m not a 8.266.712.8.775!” “Honey, stop with the false modesty. 18.9.2012.24.2007.48304 and if you don’t agree I’ll fight you.” Eventually they compromise on something. Of course, this is done at computer speeds, which is why it’s either instant or your computer just freezes up for three hours and eighteen minutes. And I’m translating what they say into colloquial terms. They would actually say “digi-blush”.

This all seems like a lot, and it is, which is why even brief exposure to the Internet leaves you so exhausted.

What Terms Mean


Things have been getting a little lax around here, so it’s time to update the terms of service. Please review all these terms and/or conditions and indicate your preference to the waiter.

  1. This document shall be known for the purposes of this document as “this document”. If this document should be referred to for the purposes of some other document then this document may be known as “that document”, in which case all conditions and terms will continue to apply with the appropriate change of referent, except where they are obviously making things up in order to win sympathy. No, neither this document nor that document have to attend the funeral of their grandmother right during the scheduled exam, and their grandmother is a bit tired of all these funerals anyway.
  2. “You” in this document will mean you, the person to whom this document is addressed or who this document is addressing. You will continue to be you until you finally finish that course on the philosophical problems of identity. At that point you will be forced to admit that identity is an even harder thing to pin down than free will, but it does often make for a convenient fiction and even more compelling memoir. Your memoir will be retracted by the publishers following the discovery of apparently plagiarized portions regarding your time spent exploring the Indian Ocean for King Filipe II of Portugal, 1598 – 1621.
  3. Other persons to be addressed in this document will be known as “Mike”. “Mike” serves as a perfectly clear, unambiguous name and there do seem to be a lot of people by that name around, so it is likely their name already. In the event that “Mike” will not do or the section was copied without correction from the old terms of service, the name “Mark” will be used instead, excepting in those cases within which “Matt” is needed to differentiate between Mike and any Kings of Portugal, past or fictional.
  4. This document shall apply except in such cases in which this document shall not apply. In the event that portions of this document do not apply, those portions of this document which are not the portions of this document which do not apply shall apply. In the event that no portion of this document shall apply then you, or a designated other person who shall be designated “you” for the purposes of applying this document in cases of its non-applicability and the futility of the notion of identity under a thoughtful investigation, shall be entitled to apply for a full refund on return of the applicable portions of this document with the enclosed coupon, omitted for clarity. You might think this would go without saying, but you know how bad you imagine the meetings where we worked all this out were? They were eight percent worse.
  5. The only thing more exhausting than a fanboy explaining what is and is not canon is two fanboys explaining their complete agreement about what is and is not canon. In communications with us you agree not to do that, on pain of being mocked by our social-media teams.
  6. In using this service or services you agree that there is some service or services you intend to use. This document agrees that you could certainly do worse than to do so. In the event of your doing worse your recourse shall be limited to sulking about us, unless you are able to create one of those Internet social-media dogpiles where everybody is briefly angry at us and we can’t just wait it out for the next Internet social-media dogpile and what are the price of anti-AIDS drugs like these days anyway, dear service use agreement-maker?
  7. From time to time we will gather information and share it with the marketing department. They may go on to share or sell it with or to their partners, corporate or romantic, or with such government agencies as might seem interested. For example: in 1875 the Harvard Observatory earned $2,400 by selling astronomically-based time signals over the telegraph. Don’t you think Mike would like to know something like that? Mark does. If you wish to opt out of this information-gathering and distribution scheme we imagine you’re also always one passing comment away from explaining DuckDuckGo to everybody and you can just sit down, thank you. We stipulate to having heard you already.
  8. Agreement to these terms will be marked by Mark, you, Mike, Matt, Other Mark, and Other You where applicable stepping away from the table and making a clear, distinct “whew” audible to other persons who need not be there. If you are not at or cannot be near a table, drape a merry cloth not less than 280 years old across your lap and declare that to be your portable table. Then continue on as before.

That’s about everything. Thanks, everyone, for getting this cleared up. Please direct any questions to the Head of the Internet, at the usual address.

Betty Boop: So Where Did Bimbo Come From?


(Also, I reached 17,000 views the past day! Hooray!)

Fearless Fred was Betty Boop’s second or maybe third boyfriend. What about her first? That would be Bimbo the cartoon dog. At least mostly he’s a dog. There are a few cartoons where what looks like the same character is a cat. They weren’t so tightly bound to character models in 1930.

That point adds a bit of challenge to what I mean to do this week. I’d wanted to show the first Bimbo cartoon, to match the first Fearless Fred and the many firsts I found for Betty Boop. But it isn’t quite clear which one that is. Wikipedia, and the Betty Boop wiki I consult, suggest the credit goes to the Talkartoon Hot Dog, released the 29th of March, 1930. It also credits this as the first Fleischer cartoon to use grey tones, rather than illustrate everything in stark black-and-white. Noah’s Lark and Radio Riot, two of the earlier Talkartoons, are certainly black-and-white pieces. Marriage Wows I haven’t been able to see; the cartoon isn’t lost but only the UCLA film library has a print anyone knows about. Trusting that Marriage Wows hasn’t got Bimbo or greys, then, here it is:

So here’s my difficulty: who in this cartoon is Bimbo? The protagonist doesn’t look very much like the Bimbo we’d see four cartoons later, in Dizzy Dishes. The first police officer looks more like the standard-model Bimbo, except for being large and authoritative and an antagonist and all that. But I can believe Bimbo changing body shape and color more easily than I can believe his changing his plot function. It’s easier to see Bimbo as the guy who plays a non sequitur banjo for two and a half minutes than as effective authority. Still, it raises fine questions about identity that I’m just not the person to answer.

Are You There? If Not, Then Who’s Ignoring This?


What is a person, and how do you know if we are one? People have been worrying about this for many centuries, which we smug moderns might think makes them look foolish. This is a trick of perspective: they had no way to know that we’d look back and see people worrying about whether they were people, which would have given an answer if they’d known it. People of past ages were foolish in many ways but they wouldn’t go begging the question like that when they could be instead riling up people who misuse phrases like “begging the question”.

However, since we can’t know what future generations will think of any of us, we can’t rest assured that any one of us is a person. There are many possible answers, none of which satisfy anyone but the person who thought the answer up. One I’ve found satisfying is that a person is “an agent which, given sufficient time, will realize that I’m just prattling on about any foolish idea that pops into my head and so falls gradually into a state of ignoring me altogether”. This is a solid test as long as I’m in the sort of mood where I feel like talking about what’s on my mind.

For example, I might ask how you’re doing, and you might say, “Oh, I’m surviving”, and then I observe how that’s doing pretty good because it beats the alternative, except for the zombies, of course, and the ghost community. Possibly the vampires depending on their exact circumstances of vampirism. Before long I might be rattling off a long list of undead entities and you don’t want to hear any of that, but I won’t notice, so you can just start ignoring me. This establishes your person nature very effectively, and pretty correctly.

This test fails if you consider it possible for non-person things to ignore me. For all the time that I’ve spent hollering at the Swiss Alps, have they ever responded to me in the slightest? And given that utter lack of response, can’t we consider that to be a state of ignoring me? Ah, but what if it turns out that I haven’t ever hollered at the Swiss Alps and can’t even swear that I’ve seen a single Alp of the Swiss variety? Then, we’ve neatly shown that I must be a person, at least in the eyes of the Swiss Alps, because I’m clearly ignoring them. Now consider all the many people who’ve got around to ignoring me as a result of that paragraph alone.

If I’m not available and you’re not convinced by the Swiss Alps test, however — and I don’t blame you being unconvinced, because, for example, imagine that the Swiss Alp you were using to test whether you were being ignored turned out to be mostly a golem who was under directions to ignore things regardless of whether they were people or not? — you can turn to other and no less operational tests. For the best of these you’ll need a work computer, and some problem with your work computer. If you haven’t got a problem with your work computer, you’re not trying hard enough, because it’s surely doing something annoying.

Try to communicate the problem with your work computer to the Information Technology Or Whatever Department, who are supposed to fix it, while leaving out words about exactly you were trying to do or what you expected. Bat off their follow-up questions — for example, if asked when they could come up and see you have the problem, include subtle incompatibilities like “anytime before lunch this Monday, April 30th afternoon” — and eventually, someone’s bound to lose patience and cry out, “I WILL TEACH YOU PEOPLE TO FILE A BUG REPORT IF I HAVE TO KILL YOU ALL”, and run out of the ITOW offices, never to be actually seen again, but occasionally spoken of as a legendary figure haunting the boardwalk and berating people who complain they can’t beat the ring toss. When you hear this ITOW agent screaming and running out, you have evidence that you are one of “you people”, and are therefore at least one person. QED.

The natural next question after working out whether you’re a person is, if you aren’t one, can we rule out your being two?

How the Problem of Identity is Solved in the Early 21st Century


I imagine that, like most people, I find Twitter mostly recommends I follow the feeds of actors from sitcoms I don’t watch and of fictional squirrels. But now and then it turns up someone I do want to follow and sometimes that’s an organization. I saw one that sounded interesting and I checked their profile and recent tweets to make sure they were for real and not just somebody tweeting about how I should buy something I don’t want.

Since they seemed pretty soundly to exist I clicked to start following them. But then a couple hours later I got an e-mail saying they were thinking of following me back, but they wanted some proof that I was an actual person and not just tweeting about how they should buy something they don’t want. Never mind wondering who are they to ask if I’m someone when I already figured out if they’re someone: they wanted me to prove I was for real by clicking a link to a Captcha thingy.

So how do I know their link was to a legitimate Captcha service and not someone out to subvert the whole notion of identity with fake reports? So that’s why I checked their service’s contact information and sent them a simple arithmetic problem to determine whether they’re for real, and I went on with the satisfied air of a person who’s found more reasons not to answer his e-mail.

I was less satisfied when they sent someone over to whap me with a stick. This would seem to prove they really exist, though, except the guy they sent went to the wrong house, and I bet they were wondering why I was pointing at them and snickering.