Tales From The 80s


So if you’re in my age cohort you grew up seeing the opening credits of Tales From The Darkside. You know, where the camera pans across footage of a forest while the foreboding voice of Perilous McDoomenough intones, “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he BELIEVES to be … reality.” And then the screen fades to a posterized negative image about how there is “unseen by most an underworld”. And then you changed the channel because whatever was coming next would have to be way too frightening to watch.

I got thinking, you know, this has to be like slasher movies were. The hype makes it sound like this intense and barely-comprehensible experience. And it turns out to be about as scary as an SCTV episode. I was too much of a coward to watch horror movies as a kid. I mean, except the one time that they had us do a sleepover for Vacation Bible School and we camped out in some of the classrooms off in the CCD wing. And one of the things they showed was Friday the 13th. I thought it was pretty good. Also I don’t understand how this could have happened. We went to a pretty liberal diocese but still. I think we also watched Heathers. I know Vacation and European Vacation we watched at my friend Eddie Glazier’s bar mitzvah. I’m not sure I should be talking about this 35-plus years on. I might be getting somebody in trouble.

But that’s sort of how terror was for a white middle-class kid growing up in the suburbs in the 80s. And yes, I mean New Jersey-type suburbs, which in other states are what you would call “urbs”. Or “great undifferentiated mass of housing developments and corporate office parks stretching from the Amboy Drive-In to the Freehold Traffic Circle, dotted by some Two Guys department stores”. Still. I grew up a weenie and I would be glad for that if I didn’t think being glad about myself was kind of bragging.

And we knew how to be recreationally scared. We just had to think about the nuclear war. New Jersey enjoyed a weird place for that. I know in most of the country you came up with legends about why the Soviets had a missile aimed right at you. One that would be deployed right after they bombed Washington and New York City. “Of course the Kremlin knows Blorpton Falls, Iowa is the largest producer of sewing machine bobbins outside the New York City area. They’ll have to bomb us so the country can’t clothe itself well after World War III.” It was a way to be proud of your town and not be responsible for surviving the nuclear war.

Central Jersey? We didn’t have to coin legends. We knew, when the war came, we’d be doomed. It wouldn’t be for any reason. It’s just we’re close to New York City, we’re close to Philadelphia. Nothing personal. All we were doing was being near something someone else wanted to destroy. This turned out to be great practice for living in 2020 that I don’t recommend.

Oh, sure, there was the soccer field what they said used to be a Nike missile base that would have protected New York City from the missile attacks. Maybe the Soviets would have an old map, or refuse to believe that they built a soccer field in the United States in the 60s. That former-Nike-base could be a target, if the Nike missiles to intercept the missiles didn’t work, which they wouldn’t.

You might ask: wait, why didn’t they put the base that was supposed to protect New York City in-between New York and the Soviet missile bases instead? The answer is that in-between New York City and the Soviet missile bases is Connecticut. The construction vehicles for the Connecticut site set out on I-95 in 1961 and haven’t made it through traffic yet. Central Jersey was a backup so they could build a site that couldn’t work but could abandon. Anyway I don’t know the soccer field was ever actually a Nike base or if we just said it was. If it really was, I suppose it’s a Superfund clean-up site now. Makes me glad I realized I didn’t want to socc. I wanted to type in word processor programs from a magazine into my computer.

Anyway after thinking about that long enough, it turns out the movie threats we faced were kind of cozy. Yeah, they might turn you into an Alice-in-Wonderland cake and eat you, but at least you’d be singing all the way.

So back to Tales From The Darkside. You know what you find if you go back and watch it now? Tales From The Darkside never even had episodes! They knew everybody was going to be scared off by those credits. Each episode, for all four seasons, is one frozen negative-print posterized image of a tree while someone holds down a key on the synthesizer.

It is way more terrifying than I had ever imagined.

In which the counties of Iowa try to get back in my good graces by amusing me


Yeah, so, that thing where I was fed up with that double-stack county in Iowa last week? That’s Kossuth County and there’s stories behind it.

Map of Iowa showing the divisions for counties, which are mostly fairly uniform and nearly rectangular counties. On the northern boundary is one county, highlighted in orange, that is double the height of all the others in its row, but the same width.
Not depicted: either Armstrong County, South Dakota, the first of which was a thing from 1873 to 1879 in what’s now southeast South Dakota and the second of which was a thing from 1883 through 1952 in the central part of South Dakota, because South Dakota has got not much to do with Iowa apart from sharing letters such as ‘a’ and ‘o’.

So Kossuth County had been the lower half of this. In 1857 it absorbed the northern county, Bancroft County, because it turned out the whole area was wetlands and it wasn’t any good for farming. That’s all fine and that’s like the first joke I would make about it. But you know what they say about never using your first joke about something? (They say don’t use your first joke about something.) Well, in 1870 they (Iowa) carved a county out of the northern part of that again. They didn’t just call it Bancroft County II: The Secret Of Curly’s Ooze, though. They named it Crocker County. And this didn’t work because it turned out Iowa’s constitution prohibited the creation of any new counties smaller than 432 square miles, and Crocker County was, so the Iowa Supreme Court voided it the next year. Anyway, 1871: bad year for the Paris Commune and north-central Iowan counties.

In which I am jolly well fed up with the counties of Iowa


OK, so I was looking at Wikipedia’s page about the counties of Iowa for the usual reason and then this bit of nonsense caught my eye.

Map of Iowa showing the divisions for counties, which are mostly fairly uniform and nearly rectangular counties. On the northern boundary is one county, highlighted in orange, that is double the height of all the others in its row, but the same width.
The map here by the way I didn’t just rip off of Wikipedia. I went to Iowa’s Geographic Information Services Department So Far As I Can Tell and got their scans based on the 7.5′ topographic quadrangle maps they have. So that’s the level of crankiness I am bringing to this. Yes, yes, I know what you’re wondering and according to the metadata, this map “encompass’ [ sic ] the Iowa-Nebraska Compact of 1943” so don’t worry.

So, look, Iowa. Either have a pattern for your counties, or don’t have a pattern. Don’t give me this nonsense of a bunch of nice little orderly rows and columns and then just toss in a double-height county like that. Furrfu. Re-work this and come back when you’ve fixed the issue.

WaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaAAAAAaaaaiiiiiIIIIiiiiIIIIIiiiiIIIIiiiit a minute


In what way is Iowa part of the “Great Lakes Region”? Is there even a square foot of Iowa that drains into anything that touches a Great Lake? (No.) The heck, Mapping in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region? Your tales of how 1940s Iowans imagined telling Martians how great the place was and also write poetic odes to the state are fine and all that but if “touches a state that’s actually connected to a Great Lake” puts something in the Great Lakes region then Vermont is in the Great Lakes region for crying out loud. And they’re not. They have a pretty darned good Lake but no. The heck, people?

Yeah, this took me a while to work out but I never said I was on the debate team back in high school, now did I? Also I wasn’t. I was on the physics team. We didn’t have to deal with Iowa or any Great Lake.

In Which I Learn A Sad Fact About Iowa’s State Highway Map of 1947


So first of all, I discovered that the Iowa Department of Transportation has put what looks like all the Official State Highway Maps it’s ever issued up on its web site. So if you ever want to know how you might get from Des Moines to … Some … Other Moines, Iowa, using only the marked highways of 1922, there you go. By there I mean to one or the other Moines. Wait, they have a county named Grundy? How many Iowa counties do share names with Archie characters, anyway? Well, not my business.

But the sad thing. That story I had read about in Mapping in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region? About a Martian who comes to Earth looking for the best the planet has to offer and gets told to go to Iowa in a non-sarcastic manner? Overblown. The back of the 1947 map does talk about showing a Martian the best of Earth, but it’s not a story. I was so hoping for a cartoon with a lovely Prototype Gidney And/Or Cloyd looking at cornfields and zipping off in his flying saucer to tell fellow Martians about this, and yes I know Gidney and Cloyd were from the Moon thank you, but no. What they have is a story about the way this could be a story. And I want to quote it because I know I was giggling for a good while about what I like to think you were too and I should let Iowa’s enthusiasts have their chance.

We call it Iowa

Some day, when the mystery of space is no longer a mystery and voyages between planets are successfully accomplished, a neighbor from Planet Mars may visit Planet Earth. Should he do so, doubtless he will be curious to learn the way of the living creatures that are in ascendancy on Planet Earth. It is certain that in due time he will be directed to the United States of America, there to behold a land and a people filled with imperfections but, nevertheless, enjoying the greatest advances yet made upon this planet toward a comfortable and pleasurable existence.

Should all this come to pass, our neighbor from Mars is almost certain to find these United States of America very bewildering. In our great cities he will find the triumphant steel and masonry achievements of our builders within a stone’s throw of slum districts where human beings must live without hope of quiet and comfort and cleanliness, where are are no flowers or birds or grass or trees or open spaces. Is this the best this planet has to offer? In other sections of this land of ours he will travel, league upon league, through areas where living conditions are primitive and a meager and stunted existence is all that has been achieved. Is this the good life that he has come so far to see? Is there nowhere within our borders an area where our Martian neighbor may be shown a comprehensible segment of the best that Planet Earth, through the ages, has succeeded in evolving?

There is. We call it Iowa. It is located near the heart of the Nation. Its area and population are each slightly less than two percent of that Nation. Nature has favored it with a temperate climate, ample rainfall and productive soil; natural resources that attract thoughtful, industrious people who expect to work for a living and who have reason for confidence that their efforts will be rewarded. Of such fibre were our forebears, emigrants from many lands. Of such fibre are the more than two and one-half million people now dwelling within our borders.

In today’s complex social order we are all specialists. Through the centuries we have found it efficient for the individual or group to learn to do certain things well, and to exchange the resulting products of their efforts for the surplus products of other specialists. In Iowa we are primarily specialists in the production of food. The one million Iowans, for whom the farms of Iowa are home, produce the food consumed by many times their number. No other like number of people, dwelling upon a like area of the earth’s surface, are equally successful specialists in the art of food production. And nowhere on this earth is there greater opportunity for a satisfying life than on the farms of Iowa.

Sixty percent of our people dwell in our cities and towns. They too are specialists, but in many different and equally essential fields. Among these are found the usual quota in the professions and in the retail and service fields Many are engaged in processing and marketing the products of the farm; others in the manufacture and distribution of the equipment and suplies used by their farmer customers. While the major part of the industrial development of the State is closely related to its basic industry, Agriculture, the manufacturers of the State have won pre-eminence in other widely diversified lines, such as pearl buttons, road-building equipment, and washing machines. In recent years, several of the nation’s largest corporations have chosen Iowa for the location of important manufacturing branches. Here they find better living conditions and lower living costs for employees than in the crowded industrial areas. Undoubtedly these conditions are conductive to the friendly employer-employee relationship that is so essential to a successful industrial employee.

Yes, Good Neighbor from Mars, in a day’s drive over our highways or in a few hours by plane, we can show you an area that is emblematic of the best thus far developed on this Planet Earth. we expect to make it better. WE CALL IT IOWA.

So my impressions: (1) Did a different person write each paragraph? Because it seems like they lost the Martian thread along the way there. And (2) So the takeaways of what Iowa specializes in are:

  1. Agriculture
  2. Pearl buttons
  3. Road-building equipment
  4. Washing machines

So (3) I think this means my grandparents put together were Iowa? I don’t understand it, but there’s no arguing with the lovely line-art illustration of tall, barely-windowed buildings with smokestacks. It’s all right there.

My Takeaways From This Book About Mapping


So here’s what I’m going to really remember from this 350-page book about Mapping in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region,, a history of mapping Michigan and the Great Lakes region:

  • There’s a couple of square miles in the upper peninsula of Michigan that aren’t in the Great Lakes watershed, while the rest of the state of course is.
  • Iowa’s official State Highway map for 1947 included on the back a story about a Martian seeking the best that Earth has to offer and being told to visit Iowa what with how “Nature has favored it with a temperate climate, ample rainfall, and productive soil; natural resources that attract thoughtful, industrious people who expect to work for a living and who have reason for confidence that their work will be rewarded”.
  • Michigan’s 1942 state highway map mentioned in a tire-saving blurb that “many roadside parks found `just around the corner’ from every community are expected to become more popular than ever” and apparently in 1942 “just around the corner” was such slangy talk it had to be safely cordoned off from a regular old sentence about how nice a park can be.
  • Iowa’s 1949 map included a poem titled In This State Called Iowa all about the garden that God was building in it.
  • When Michigan first started issuing state highway maps, in 1919 and the 1920s, the state prepared updated maps every two weeks, which seems like a lot even if they were like doubling the number of paved roads every two weeks in that era.

From The Dawn Of Beeps


Up to about a century ago nobody had ever heard a beep. That’s not a staggering thought. It’s more the sort of thing that catches you while you’re getting to bed and keeps you from avoiding the wall. But it’s the kind of sound the universe got along fine without for billions of years, and then suddenly it didn’t anymore.

Consider a great historical figure, like Queen Elizabeth I. She went her entire life, prison and everything, without hearing a beep. What sound did anyone make when they touched her nose? A perfect silence would be terrible. She’d certainly make a noise, probably something like “quit that”. But there’d be no beep. The whole act of nose-beeping was wasted for all of human history. Did they realize something was missing?

People dreamed of having flying machines before they existed, so they understood there was something that could exist but didn’t. But who thought of “beep” as a sound we could have but didn’t have as late as, oh, 1900? Royal nose-beeping would seem to encourage people to notice the awkwardness of not having a sound. But what sort of genius would work out it was a “beep” they needed?

Could there have been some early genius who realized that even though the technology to make a “beep” didn’t yet exist, it someday would? Google’s Ngram Viewer seems to tease the idea it might, by showing off books from before 1900 that have “beep” or “beeping” in them. But those could be mistakes. Take for example Volume 26 of the Proceedings of the Iowa State Horticultural Society. It looks momentarily like they’re talking about beeping, with text like this:

In the South District the Duchess shall be the standard as to hardiness and productiveness of tree, and size of fruit, while the quality must equal Grimes’s Golden and its beeping capacity the Willow.

You could argue that the Willow has no beeping capacity. This would imply the Iowa State Horticultural Society worried about trees that have beeping capacity of less than zero. But if anyone would know about the beeping capacity of the Willow or other trees it’s them. I don’t know what a negative beeping capacity would be; maybe it would quiet authorized beeps in the area? Certainly the Iowa State Horticultural Society would seem to know what it’s talking about. Look at how neatly on that very same page they divide Iowa into two districts:

1. The North District shall include the counties north of the north line of Linn county, or the county lines nearest thereto across the state.

2. The South District shall include the counties south of the above line.

That’s top-notch organization. These are clearly horticulturists with a strong understanding of north and south. But looking carefully at the page I feel pretty sure it says “its keeping capacity the Willow”. The character recognition software at Google just got mixed up. That’s at least as possible, but it leaves unanswered the question: capacity at keeping what? If Willows have a lot of keeping capacity then this could revolutionize the self-storage industry. At the least it’ll make them look prettier.

A lot of the Google Books results for “beeping” in early 19th century texts are that sort of character error. This can be fun, like the bit in the 1866 Bradshaw’s Handbook For Tourists In Great Britain and Ireland where it looks like it says “Market Beeping (the church is ancient)”. I’m tempted to make up fake subway signs that point the way to Market Beeping. There are also a lot of old medical gazettes that Google Books summarizes as making references to “beeping cough”. That’s a jolly amusing one until you smack into the wall feeling guilty over that. Then you write it down as an ailment robots get in a cloyingly comic science fiction adventure.

So we have to conclude that “beep” caught everyone by surprise. This implies there are other sounds that nobody’s ever thought of that the universe is about to find, after fourteen billion years doing without, that it needs. What are they? No one can say, because logic works that way. If you don’t get why that is, don’t worry, it’ll catch you while you’re going to bed sometime.


(Oh, yes, I forget to invite people to follow my page here. In the current theme it’s a green box on the left side of the panel. Or you can watch what I write on Twitter, which is mostly shorter than this and is sometimes just outrage at the movie that’s on. Thanks for the attention.)

Can I Believe In Iowa?


You know what I haven’t talked about in a while? The flame wars going on in the Star Trek web forum where I like to hang out and find myself in oddball flame wars. The best one going right now concernes the 2009 movie, where you might kind of remember in an early scene the young James Kirk drives an antique car over the edge of an enormous rock quarry, establishing the important point point that he’s a incredible jerk who doesn’t know how brake pedals work.

Anyway. One of the posters in the forum is quite upset about the depiction of a rock quarry in Iowa. You might think this is because there aren’t rock quarries in Iowa, if you have less knowledge of the rock-quarrying industry of Iowa than the poster thinks I should have. Here I confess my ignorance: you could make nearly any claim about the rock-quarrying industries of Iowa, ranging from “there is none” to “it is entirely owned and operated by packs of robot wallabies made of wood, and is focused on the pulling up of agates which can be eaten by tactical assault pillows” and I would barely be able to say where you had gone wrong. But, no, the complaint is that rock quarries in that part of Iowa are not nearly so large as the one depicted, which apparently was an actual Vermont-based rock quarry digitally inserted in corn fields meant to represent Iowa. And that it’s as ridiculous to show a Vermont-sized rock quarry in Iowa as it would be to, say, pass off the Empire State Building as part of the skyline of Wichita, Kansas.

So now I’m left with the question of whether, in this story of time-travelling Romulans using liquid black holes to make Spock feel very, very bad for not stopping a supernova, I can swallow the idea that three hundred years from now Iowa could have rock quarries somewhat larger than it has today. It’s a tough decision.