Unlocking The City


I don’t fault you for not having heard about the city of Albion, Michigan. It’s a small college town that maybe is where tee-ball comes from? The city claims it was first played there anyway. But here’s something that I can be kind of sure-ish happened: In the early 1960s the Albion Malleable Iron Company made a bunch of Keys to the City, to showcase civic pride and how they could malleate iron. The City’s since given away all the keys and hasn’t got any left, and there is no Albion Malleable Iron Company anymore, so good luck malling your iron into another shape.

According to that link I didn’t read either, among the recipients of the Key To The City Of Albion, Michigan was none other than Aunt Jemima, who “visited Albion on a few occasions in the early 1960s where she participated in our local benefit pancake breakfast at the Albion Armory”, a series of events I am sure never produced any photographs or moments that might be awkward or embarrassing or terrible if reviewed today.

Another Key To The City Of Albino, Michigan recipient? Ann Landers. The key turned up on eBay in March 2003. So that’s a warning to all municipalities bursting with civic pride. Yes, you can give the Keys to your city to anyone you judge of good character, but there’s no predicting what will happen after that person’s death. You’ll need to keep a list of who you’ve given keys to and change the locks after each death. Really seems like a bother, but I suppose there’s some benefits.

Not quite related to this: in 2007 the city of Sault Ste Marie gave the keys to their city to the band Kiss. Kiss has also gotten the keys to the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’m hoping the band keeps these keys in a safe location. Think of the potential for mischief if they don’t!

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Wizardless


I want to talk a little about playing pinball lately, and I know not everybody is even aware you can play pinball lately, what with it not being 1978 anymore, so let me bring folks up to speed. In the old days pinball machines were relatively sedate affairs: the backglass and playfield art would be a picture of, oh, whatever, wizards in space, or boaters being tormented by Neptune, or the background characters of Mary Worth singing. On the table there’d be a bunch of bumpers, which are the mushroom-shaped things you’d think would be called kickers that kick the ball around; and a pair of kickers, which are the triangular things above the flippers that you’d think would be called bumpers; and the flippers, which are just flippers; and a bunch of drop targets, which are the things you aim the ball at and that fall down when you hit them. And the rule set was pretty straightforward: the targets would be themed to either sets of playing cards or else pool balls, and you would try to knock them all down, and if you managed that, they popped back up and you try to knock them down again.

Then someone went and invented computers, and put them in pinball machines, and they also added ramps just too late for the people who made the Evel Kneivel pinball machine, and it all got complicated because the rules could change, giving you, like, eight seconds to shoot the world’s steepest, most inaccessible ramp ever, in exchange for 2.25 billion points. With scores that enormous being thrown around, of course, they had to get corporate sponsorship for their themes and so wizards playing 9-ball in a baseball park wouldn’t cut it anymore. These days a pinball machine is themed to a popular movie/TV show franchise, a comic book superhero, or a band, which is why pinball magnate Gary Stern has been polishing his Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park reboot script for years.

I should say that while pinball scores got kind of out of control back there in the 90s there’ve been efforts to rein them back in, so that a normal good score is only like tens of millions anymore. Some machines have been pretty serious about reducing the score, though: the current world record for The Wizard of Oz pinball is 4, although a guy playing in the Kentucky state championships this year has a new strategy he hypothesizes will let him score 6 or, if the table is generous about giving extra balls, maybe even 7. He’s daft.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I had a really good game of The Walking Dead, a pinball machine of such fantastic complexity that nobody knows what all the rules are. The leading theory is that there’s actually just a seed program inside that develops new rules on the fly, so that every time someone works out “OK, if I shoot the ramp three times something good happens”, it’ll suddenly change to, say, “you have to shoot the ramp four times after hitting the Creepy Zombie in the middle twice and identify which presidents George Clinton was vice-president for and maybe slip an extra quarter in the coin slot if you know what’s good for you”. But that one time, good grief, but I was hitting everything and starting modes that nobody even knew existed. I put together a score that was about what I would expect if you added together all my Walking Dead games for an eight-month period and put it together into one game.

So. The next league night, when we play for actual competitive points, I knew I was going to flop badly and yes, it happened. On the table Tales of the Arabian Nights I put up a score of 289,180, and trust me, your pinball friends are torn between laughing and thinking with horror of what if it happened to them. Arabian Nights dates to when scores were just starting to get out of hand, so it could have a theme as uncommercial as legends that have enchanted people for centuries, but still. People who walk past it without stopping to play routinely score 600,000, and people who put coins into other machines at the pinball venue — including the change machine or the machine selling gumballs — will often get a million points from Arabian Nights.

I didn’t just flop; I flopped epochally, like if the “Agony of Defeat” guy didn’t just stumble, but also burst into flames and smashed into Evel Kneivel’s rocket-sled on its way to draining. I honestly feel accomplished, and all set for the state championships this weekend.

Little Nemo in Mathmagicland


Gocomics.com recently starting running Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, that early-20th-century comic that gives you that image of a kid in pajamas racing a bunch of giant green kangaroos in space, and that you don’t really see much else of. There’s fair reason for that; the strip is over a century old, for one, and it’s plodding in the way comic strips from before the Great Depression tended to be, and the comic strip’s real appeal is in its powerful graphic design, best appreciated by seeing the strips in large form. And Gocomics.com happily offers that: you can zoom the strip in to a pretty good 1400 by 1824 pixels, big enough to really read.

Nemo approaches Slumberland's castle, passing a series of strange animals and giant bugs and such, before waking up.
Little Nemo in Slumberland for the 10th of June, 1906, rerun on Gocomics.com on the 14th of December, 2014. Nemo approaches the Slumberland castle, of course, without getting in.

So here’s the strip they reran on December 14, showing Nemo trying to get into the palace in Slumberland, something it’s taking an awfully long time to get around to because stuff keeps turning up. And it’s cute. And then look at the last panel, where — as in every Little Nemo strip (comic strips in that era were apparently required to pick a joke and use it every single installment) — Nemo wakes up, which is part of why it takes him so long to get anywhere in slumberland.

'You'll have to give that boy another dose of turpentine and sugar. Listen to him, he can't sleep. He eats too much candy, dear.'
The final panel for the Little Nemo in Slumberland strip of the 10th of June, 1906: one of Nemo’s guardians feels the kid needs ‘another dose of turpentine and sugar’ to sleep.

“You’ll have to fetch that boy another dose of turpentine and sugar”?!

I realize this strip is from 1906, back when society’s major concern was that childhood mortality wasn’t sufficiently high as to keep weaklings from reaching adulthood, and that it wouldn’t be until 1915 that President Wilson would push through legislation approving the existence of childhood, as a concept, for up to eight hours per week. But, still, turpentine and sugar? Nemo can be a bit annoying, mostly because he takes stuff so passively (although a couple strips back when he was a giant he saved a guy who’d been menacing him, which is likable), but I don’t think he deserves drinking turpentine till he passes out.

Well, if you’re all satisfied with that, my mathematics blog reviews another bunch of comic strips that mention mathematics themes, and don’t you worry: I do some actual calculus in it. If you read, you’ll learn how to evaluate \int_{0}^{\infty} e^{\pi} + \sin^2\left(x\right)dx and it may surprise you to learn just how easy it is.


Oh, also, I could really use some help having a reaction to Nancy today. Thank you.

From The Days of Sensurround


You maybe remember a while back I got to wondering about the 1977 disaster film Rollercoaster. There’s a scene near the end where they needed a rock band, and apparently the producers’ first hope was that they’d get Kiss to play the scenes. Somehow that didn’t happen, and they got Sparks instead, because Kiss and Sparks are very similar bands what with having two S’s and on K in both their names.

It turns out that according to somebody or other on the Internet Movie Database, which is the soundest citation possible not involving “forwarded in e-mail from your grandmom”, the producers also considered at some point having the Bay City Rollers perform. This is obviously a huge departure what with that band having only one S and no K’s to speak of, and makes me wonder if the producers even knew what they were looking for. It’s almost like they figured once they had roller coasters everything else would just fit, whatever letters they had. I don’t know.

The Mysteries of Modern Recording


So I’m trying to quite rationalize the existence of this Hanna-Barbera record that I picked up at the record show the other day. Did someone at Hanna-Barbera Master Command suddenly sit, bolt-upright, in bed one day and say, “Good heavens, it’s 1977! We have got to have Snagglepuss retell the story of The Wizard Of Oz!” And then someone sits bolt-upright next to him and says, “You’re right! And we better have Wilma Flintstone tell the story of Bambi!” And then someone else — this is getting to be a pretty wide bed, perhaps used for conference retreats — says, “This project is doomed to failure unless Augie Doggie and Doggy Daddy recount Pinocchio!” And then another person says, “What about Magilla Gorilla recounting Alice in Wonderland?” and gets shouted down because that last is just a ridiculous idea?

Improbable? Sure. But what’s the alternative? Someone racing down the hallway and bursting into the dark conference table where William Hanna and Joe Barbera sit around, fretting about how they could recapture the magic of The Banana Splits (“What if they’re roller-skating birds?”) and working out just how to make a movie about Kiss (“What if they have superpowers and are fighting evil robot Kiss duplicates created by a mad scientist trying to take over the world from the comfort of his amusement park?”), and crying out, “Do you know what Daws Butler and Jean Vander Pyl just did?” And they listen, horrified, and say, “Well, slap some Jonny Quest music under the Bambi and Pinocchio tracks and ship it as a record!” and hope that this will turn out well? Is that really more plausible?

These are all questions I feel I cannot answer.

Those Special Sparks


I got to go to a concert last week by Sparks. They’re a great pair, with wonderfully playful music and intricate lyrics and an odd sense of humor. Even better, they played one of the songs that they performed in their big-screen debut, the 70s thriller/disaster movie Rollercoaster, which is one of the nearly more than one big-screen movies about amusement park safety inspectors.

The thing with that movie is, really, what the heck was Sparks doing there? Why were they brought in as a band to play the opening day of a new amusement park instead of, say, a band that doesn’t have catchy tunes with accurate titles like “So I Bought The Mississippi River” or “Everybody’s Stupid (That’s For Sure)” or one about the guy who’s the stunt performer for Gone With The Wind and had to do that tumbling-down-the-long-staircase scene all day long but doesn’t really know what the movie is about? A band that would go on to record a musical titled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and write “Lighten Up, Morrissey”? Why did they want Sparks’s “Big Boy”, about David and Goliath, in their film?

Wikipedia as ever can explain without explaining, in that the movie makers had wanted to get Kiss, but couldn’t, and so went to Sparks. This implies one of two things, though: either they had a list of potential bands for the film in which Kiss and Sparks were grouped together — and then either the list was “1. Kiss. 2. Sparks” or else there was another band that fit on the list between those two — or else, when the Kiss deal fell through the movie producers wandered, forlorn, through the streets of Los Angeles, thinking of their imminent professional doom, until someone ran out from the record store, clutching a copy of Kimono My House, and shouting, “Mister Levinson! Mister Link! I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” And they went to the record store’s listening booth and looked at one another and said, “Yes, this is the band we need in Sensurround”? Neither way seems plausible, but something like that has to have happened.