Comic Strips Worth Reading: Norm Feuti’s _Retail_


It was an ordinary setup for a week of comic strips. The department store hadn’t been sent some of the sunscreen meant for a planed summer display. Marla, the department store manager, shrugged, resigned to the impossibility of getting the supplies they needed to meet corporate’s plan. Brice, the new assistant manager, was sure that was impossible. At his old store corporate would never short-change inventory like that. Marla told Brice if he wanted he could go beat his head against the wall of corporate’s inventory system.

And that’s a moment that stood out.

Retail, by Norm Feuti.

Retail is another example of the continuity-humor sort of comic. It’s set in one of many outlets of a New England department store. Something inspires the week’s worth of action. But the characters change some, in the slow way we change. Sometimes characters leave altogether, for new towns or new jobs or new careers. Sometimes characters realize the job they took for a summer is becoming their lifelong workplace.

So here’s the thing that stood out. Most comic strips that do a story you know the rough outline of what will happen. That’s not necessarily a strike against it. If the characters are clearly defined then there are limits to what they can do. Anything too far outside is surprising or illogical. And while a situation can blow up unexpectedly, that doesn’t happen often. Stories have logical limits.

But here — what might happen? And many options made sense. Marla could be right, that corporate didn’t care, and after long enough of fighting against this, neither should Brice. Brice could be right, that there was some dumb screwup that could’ve been fixed by anyone trying. There could be some truth to both sides.

That stands out. Comic strips often have this sort of interpersonal drama. But there’s usually a more clear definition of who the heroes are and who the villains are. Retail stands out for avoiding that. The characters are the protagonists of their own lives, and they’re depicted well enough that you can typically see their side of it. It stands out to see this sort of drama in which everybody involved is a reasonable adult.

This is not to say there’s not pettiness or stupidity. But it’s a pettiness and stupidity that feels observed and authentic. Stuart, the District Manager, has the sort of suspicious, devious mind that inspires suspicious and devious behavior from underlings. Stock manager Cooper discovered that one of his employees had for months thought all there was to inventorying deliveries was counting the number of boxes received in the morning and had no idea the stuff inside the boxes needed counting too. Everyone’s job is that blend of being called on to do more than their time and resources allow, for people who are ambiguous and contrary yet exacting in their demands.

The comic can be absurd. Some pieces feel like fossils of an early idea of the comic as a broad satire. See most of the strips with Lunker, the enormous and nearly cloud-cuckoolander stockroom worker. But that’s kept well-balanced, enough loopiness to break up and to highlight the mundane stuff. The result is a comic strip that feels like the warm memories of having worked in a mall, sometime in the past. When what you have left of it are a couple of anecdotes about weird customers and boring evening shifts and the time everybody gathered around to watch the impossible happening. Which, in my case — it was a Walden Books — was someone actually for once buying one of the nearly 48 billion copies of The Polar Express that corporate thought we needed. It was August. It was ridiculous, in the quiet and simple ways. The ways of retail life.

Advertisements

Senior Physicist Sought!


I try to read the local alt-weekly, the City Pulse, every alt-week. I keep finding wonderful things in it. That’s not even counting how the architectural critic for the Eyesore Of The Week column is out of control. He’s taken to insulting fine enough houses that have too large a picture window next to the driveway.

One of this week’s wonderful things is in the classified ads. These are normally almost one-third of a page of shakily formatted ads. Some of them aren’t even for the newspaper itself. This week, literally next to the ad for Lawn Mowing Service (“Ask for Dave”) and the appeal to “Donate plasma and earn $$$!” (to earn three $ and a whole factorial is a special treat), was an ad for physicists. Here’s how it starts:

Physicist: The Michigan State University National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory seeks qualified candidates for the following full-time positions: Senior Physicist (East Lansing, MI).

Senior Physicists wanted! Act as Facility for Rare Isotope Beams Linac Segment Area Manager.
Job listing in the Lansing City Pulse from the 23rd of June, 2015. Say, you don’t suppose that in asking for someone to “Act as [ … ] Manager” they mean they don’t want an actual manager, just someone who can pretend convincingly, do you?

Sure, who isn’t seeking qualified candidates for the position of senior physicist? Well, besides the newspaper. They need an advertising sales representative and a route driver. And I know what you’re thinking. “You have a math blog, Nebushumor or whatever your actual name is [ it’s Joseph ], you should apply!” I’m flattered. Thank you. But the listing says they’re looking for someone with:

exp in the design, construction, system integration and commissioning of a hadron linear accelerator with a beam power of an order of 1 MW, including electromagnetic and mechanical designs of accelerating cavities, beam focusing elements and vacuum systems for use in an accelerator.

As a mathematician naturally I have exp all over the place. I would imagine sweeping it out periodically except — you know what? Just trust me that this was heading in the direction of a mathematics joke. Mathematics and some physics majors were already giggling in anticipation. Forgive them. Anyway, I’m weak on the mechanical design of beam focusing elements for use in an accelerator. Whenever they were the lecture topic I was staring out the window at the campus’s albino squirrel.

Yes, I’m excited by the invitation to “act as Facility for Rare Isotope Beams Linac Segment Area Manager responsible for the integrated design and commissioning, and coordination of construction of the driver linear accelerator segments 1, 2, and 3 technical systems”. I’m so excited I didn’t even notice they used the Oxford comma inconsistently compared to the one quoted above. It spruces up the back pages of the newspaper. That’s the neighborhood where they run an ad for themselves showing Dave boasting how he got fifteen calls in April from his classified ad for lawn mowing. I assume it’s Dave. They don’t actually say.

I have to wonder how many applications the advert is going to get, though. Sure, anyone might be qualified to “design, fabricate and install complex superconducting accelerators”. But how many of them happen to read the classifieds in the alt-weekly any given week? There’s only so many people going into the hipster bar and the bagel shop at any moment.

It’s possible they already have someone in mind and are only posting the advertisement for form’s sake. They do specify they need candidates with “a PhD in Physics or a closely related field + 5 years exp. as a Research Scientist or any related physics research position”. But that seems like a fair requirement for an aspiring FRIBLSA Manager. It’s so reasonable that I didn’t even notice they were inconsistent about including a dot after abbreviating “experience”.

But what if they don’t? What if this is the best idea they’ve got for finding FRIBLSA Management talent? Maybe they got plenty of applicants interested in research and integration of linac segments from the normal physics-job channels, but still felt something missing. Maybe all the CVs got to looking the same. And then the head of the FRIBLSA Management Search Committee threw up her hands and said, “We need new talent!” And someone looked up from checking whether the new Hideous Art Museum was named Eyesore of the Week and pointed out they had the classifieds section.

I’d love to know if it works. I’d love to see a picture of a physicist saying “I received 15 calls in June from my City Pulse Pulsified for senior physicists.” Wouldn’t you?

Also if you are a Senior Physicist and get this job because I mentioned it let me know since my placement fees are reasonable.

When The Car Wash Changed Management


I was passing one of those self-service car wash stations and noticed its sign proclaimed it was “BACK UNDER OLD MANAGEMENT”. Possibly it declared the back-ness to be proud. That’s the normal emotional tone to put on that sort of declaration. But I was busy with driving and all that, and then wondering: those things have management? It’s a self-service car wash, just a concrete overhang and a bunch of coin-operated hoses of varied content. Having management at all seems to risk over-administrating it, even if all you do is stop in once a month to confirm the place isn’t currently on fire in important ways.

But there must be management at all, if nothing else to make sure that once every two months the sign proclaiming this to be a self-service car wash is turned off for four hours, thereby establishing that the sign isn’t some public feature just there to light the way but rather a private service that can be turned off at will or when the bulb burns out. So I guess that’s where management comes in at all, and can get changed, and go on to mess things up so badly that the old management coming back is worth crowing about. Still I’m imagining how the new management’s failure unfolded.

Surely new management began optimistically, with a sign proclaiming “NOW UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT”, though probably not saying who the new management was, since that would add an embarrassing personal touch to the place’s existence. New Management probably declared optimism and good cheer and maybe even an amnesty for people who abandon one-quarter-filled McCafe cups on top of the vacuum cleaners. That showed how poorly New Management understood the community, that they would interpret as slight littering their clientele’s ongoing public art project about consumerism and Shamrock Shakes. The customers wrote hurtful things about New Management in the local art journals, not ignoring the irony that since they had no idea who New Management was, they might be sharing a line at McDonald’s behind someone who’s somehow making buying a small coffee a difficult transaction, all jollily sharing one of those inexplicable confusing things about life.

Perhaps then New Management tried to make amends, rotating the concrete planters so as to show a slightly less moldy side to the street without actually putting any plants out to die in them. And the clients responded with tentative friendliness, especially when a rumor went around that the machines were now taking Canadian coins. Due to a programming defect that manifested itself with a new firmware update, because surely we’re in an age where self-service car wash change boxes need firmware updates, the machines were indeed taking Canadian and all other kinds of coins, sneaking into the patrons’ backseats and sometimes sending out remote units from the vacuum cleaners — those flimsy plastic heads detach for good, alarming reasons — to take any suspicious coin or coin-like items that the patron might have any dealings with. That would get sorted out in a weekly bug fix, but not before the community had lost literally several wheatpennies and a token for a Dance Dance Revolution game from a family fun center just outside Saginaw, Michigan.

Sure, a mis-step, but really the blame falls on whoever missed an obvious car-wash-automated-kleptomania bug in the firmware code update. Nobody knows who the programmers were or why they missed it. They might have been distracted by the weirdly slow line at McDonald’s. New Management tried restoring peace by setting the machine that dispenses greasy thin cloth towels for “drying” the car on free for a couple of weeks, then stopped. New Management tried drawing people back to the place by adding the scent of that thing they use to make medicines taste like cherry into the water. This would finally give patrons with sore throats a socially acceptable context to lick their side mirrors, as they’d be fresh-washed, but the plan goes wrong when new cars are attacked by swarms of coughing bees. At this point Old Management came back around, sighed, and offered to swap the self-service car wash place for something more New Management’s speed, like a disconnected telephone booth.

New Management agreed, and went to get a small McCafe coffee to feel better.

What I Now Know About The Cigarette Industry In Summer 1974


So why am I the kind of person who’ll read They Satisfy, Robert Sobel’s 1978 history of the cigarette industry in America? It’s because of passages like this:

There was a plethora of new brands in the summer of 1974, most of which were unimaginative and soon were discontinued. For years Lorillard had attempted to find a counterpart to Marlboro — a full-flavored smoke witha western motif. It had marketed Maverick, Redford, and Luke, all of which failed. Now it introduced Zach, which in tests featured a pack that looked like blue denim. Zach lasted less than a year. Brown & Williamson had even less luck with Tramps, an attempt to cash in on a revived interest in Charlie Chaplin. Although Chaplin’s face and form weren’t used in commercials, the company paid the retired actor two cents per pack in royalties so as to be able to suggest the connection. American Tobacco had Safari and Super M Menthol; L&M tried the market with St. Moritz, and Philip Morris produced Philip Morris International. This last smoke, a longer version of the old standard, did find a following, but the others were gone by early 1975.

And now my mind is captivated by the scene in Tobacco Industry Master Command, sometime around February 1974. “Gentlemen,” says the President of Tobacco, a burly guy who insists on people calling him “The Head Honcho” believe he thinks that makes him sound approachable and friendly before he kicks their knees in. “This is 1974! It’s a turbulent year! Nixon’s destroying the national belief that government can be a useful force, and America is about to finish the last Skylab mission! What are we going to do to get more people to smoke?”

And one meek fellow from Lorillard says, “We were thinking, maybe, we could try a blue denim-y package?”

A guy from Brown & Williamson says, “I don’t want to brag, but, we have a little project in mind wherein we’re going to just start giving Charlie Chaplin money without getting anything specific in return!”

The guys from American Tobacco and L&M were dozing through the question, but the Philip Morris guy said, “Um … maybe … do the same stuff, only more?”

And the President of Tobacco leans back, puts his feet up on the desk and says, “Boys, I don’t know who, but someone who walked into this room today just had the best cigarette idea of 1974.” Everyone else applauds The Head Honcho, or else.

And that’s why I read these kinds of books.

Report on the Failure of the Turpid Moraine Moraine Project


It is difficult to identify the proximate and ultimate causes of the failed Turpid Moraine Moraine Project, as this complex and sinister web of factors can pretty much be blamed on the people getting this report, but the effort is worthwhile as it keeps the report-writer from having to unload the boxes of returned things or suffer physical retribution from the Moraine Moraine clients.

We must characterize communications as a primary failure cause and/or mode. For example, the client could directly ask the programmers to ask whether the demands on their servers would be lessened if the software development kits used a smaller typeface and maybe something in a Futura. Meanwhile the programmers were inadequately shy about writing back to ask whether the project had been approved for development as much as 34 months after the contract was signed.

A considerable volume of chat transcripts indicate that communications — internal, external, and whatever that grey area is in-between — were altogether too good and allowed everyone to know what kinds of people they were dealing with. In any modern organization traces of humanity must be suppressed, because humans are just terrible, and the more you hear from them the worse they are. Fortunately the failure of the Moraine Moraine Project bodes well for future work with them as there’s no one left on their staff or ours willing to speak to the other.

To underscore the excessiveness of our communication note that the client’s staffers who sent the typeface memo asserted they were merely being facetious, to bring all together in a sense of common cause against the general stupidity of the modern world. Our programmers responded that there is no reason to treat an ironical shopworn joke as superior to a sincerely shopworn joke. The ensuing debate on the signifiers and purposes of humor, and what did our programmers think that approved-for-development base-touching was exactly, enabled over seven persons in both organizations to earn their Masters of Literature. While we had no explicit responsibility many felt we ought to keep people safe from that sort of thing.

Despite too-good communications, the specifications for the project were still inadequately defined. Enclosed please find the final draft of the project requirements: the twelve Primary Objectives include (as item seven) an inventory of the broken vending machine, (item twelve) a ruling on whether to write “10” or “ten”, and (item nine) a call for international diplomacy by way of open covenants of peace, openly arrived at. Among the twenty Desirable Objectives are “fireproof kettles”, whatever those are, and a settlement on the way to spell “moustache”. The Marketing division was able to identify fourteen products which already meet all these specifications, none of which satisfied the clients, and two of which required the attention of three municipalities’ emergency medical technicians. Marketing asserts Moraine Moraine was being “fickle”.

The Training Department’s admirable refusal to communicate with Programming, Marketing, or the client, despite its de facto status as project coordinators, nevertheless failed us in some ways. Lacking other information, for example, both Marketing and Programming trusted that the West Silage physical plant was still owned by our company, or indeed any company. This was the direct cause of the humiliating site visit in which the attempt to the prototypes of our data-sampling and analysis tools resulted in being chased by binturongs wielding sticks. The Training Department wants it noted that the sticks were sharpened in line with the ISO-9000/OUCH procedure they developed for the Total Quality Management program which began in 1994, and that they will be ready for the 1998 Final Audit whenever we can provide them with six to eight years notice. They would.

While it is always dangerous to identify senior management as participants in the failure I must note that the boss’s decision to unnecessarily offend the foul witch Sycorax and thus get grown into some kind of hoop or something in a pine tree (her e-mails on this point were blissfully uncommunicative) until freed by a shipwrecked sailor, coming as the incident did in the middle of budgeting, left our staffing decisions badly affected for the following fiscal year.

Given the multifaceted nature of the Moraine Moraine failure it is difficult to recommend a single most important corrective action, so I recommend we just have everybody in charge of something read a bunch of Tom Peters books until they feel good about themselves again.

Why I Shouldn’t Run A Department Store


I don’t see that I’m in any imminent danger of having to run a department store, even a discount department store, but I sometimes worry about being put in charge of personnel management of one, like I think most of us do. I’m thinking that if I ever do have to pick who to hire for one, though, that I’d go looking for people who had been convicted of shoplifting in the past, because that way I’ll know that if any of my employees do start stealing stuff, we’ll see them.

That’s a terrible reason to hire someone, of course. But there’s other benefits to hiring the most incompetent shoplifters you can find, by which I’m thinking of break room stories. Imagine overhearing, like, “Oh, man, I was totally trying to shift that 42-inch flatscreen from electronics to the back room, then into my friend’s car, but we got the timing all crossed up and instead swiped the futon out of my apartment and set it up as an endcap in children’s vitamins.” Wouldn’t you like to see a department store run with the goal of making things like that happen? No, of course not, and my pointing out how I would run things means I should be safe from any corporate headhunters looking to catch me by surprise and put responsibility for an Jamesway or a Steinbach’s on my shoulders. I can’t take that kind of pressure.

What Do Angels Do All Day?


So, what do angels do all day? I wasn’t particularly looking for trouble when I started thinking about this, and I can’t really say I’ve found any trouble, but it has been one of those little things that’s nagged at me for literally minutes and who knows when it’ll end.

I mean, I know, kind of, that angels are busy being in perfect communion with God, and I guess that’s great for them. I suppose that of all the people you’d want to be in perfect communion with, God is right up near the top of the list, well ahead of the guy who draws xkcd or that Firefly person other people on the Internet get all tense about. And I’m sure they’re happy about it, because of perfection and all that and plus, if they weren’t happy, God would know about it right away and could fix that before they even knew they were unhappy. That sounds a little creepy if I lay it out like that, but I have to suppose that God would try to play up the non-creepy side of that, and succeed, if God’s making any kind of effort at it. Also I suppose that if angels are there outside the mortal realm the whole idea of days or even time get pretty vague, but, it seems like being isn’t the same thing as doing. Given that they exist, I mean, what do they exist to do?

Pop culture, as ever, offers suggestions, most of them stupid. If I follow the twee movie industry right, angels can keep themselves fairly busy by coming into the mortal realm and guiding schlubby people into successful romances, possibly with the angels themselves, possibly with some faintly attractive person who has some properties such as existing and being played by the third-billed actor. Some work on teaching mortals to cherish what they have, which I guess is also nice enough. I suppose there’s a couple who have to explain why they can’t get the mortals Peter Falk’s autograph. (He’s getting coffee.)

It used to be different. Going back to the Like 1940s Or Something, angels got to work in vast bureaucratic organizations, becoming parts of the classic Men in the Grey Flannel Halo sort of lifestyle. They’d have titles and ranks and run off to take care of people whom review meetings have found are succumbing to life-threatening despair, or are maybe dying by accident way sooner than they ought to be, or maybe are just driving uncommonly poorly while in New Jersey, or not decorating their homes with enough telephones, or maybe they’re just trying to figure out the right way to bring the world to an end. Some of them might get into hijinks like putting that new-fangled Swing music on trial and deciding to acquit it on the grounds that they can kind of hear how there’s licks from Mozart slipped into it, plus, the people in the movie theaters watching this short really like Swing so they better not disapprove too much.

The angels in these presentations all clearly have stuff to do all day, and they seem to be pretty happy with an existence of staff meetings and interdepartmental communications. They seem to be happier staff meetings than I’ve ever been to, I guess because instead of having walls and PowerPoint demonstrations they have clouds and sunsets and the implication that someone who acts up might lose his cloud-seating privileges, which would be pretty exciting. They don’t have doughnuts, but maybe part of being in perfect communion with God is that you don’t even care about jelly doughnuts while you’re trying to remember exactly which planet Earth is, again. Come to it, worrying about things like Swing music when you aren’t sure about what planet Earth is seems kind of like busy-work. Maybe that’s what was going on in the mid-century like that, and the angels took to bureaucracy because they needed something exciting to do. I bet when they discovered PERT charts they were on cloud nine, if they could be said to exist anywhere.

What I take away from all this is that I believe I’m somehow turning into a precocious yet annoying seven-year-old.