A Grain Of Solace


I’ve come to realize that I have no idea how to pronounce “quinoa”, and furthermore, that I’m fine with that. Perhaps someday I will learn to say it aloud, perhaps someday I will not, but I am disinterested in what the outcome will be. As life ambitions go it’s rather like hoping to someday see Promontory Summit, Utah; it would be kind of nice to, but I would not think my life ill-spent if it turns out I never do.

I confess I’m not sure exactly what quinoa is; the name makes it look something kind of grain-y, and I guess that’s fine, what with the world needing grains so the farmers feel like they’re not just keeping busy. I know from reading the comic strips that there are people who’ve decided to eat it, and possibly nothing but it, lately; and that there are a lot of people who think this is the most absurd silly foolish thing ever, what with quinoa being a thing they didn’t eat, so far as they remember, back when food was normal and not scary or weird, when they were eight.

All I really know food-wise is that the stores around here have gotten filled with boxes of paczki, as every Meijer’s and Kroger’s and convenience store builds a fortress of doughnut boxes. I appreciate paczki, sure, what with it being food and all that, but the quantities of it are mystifying to this transplant. I accept it as part of human nature’s beautiful diversity, the way in Michigan people also elect the state Attorney General and follow college football. I do know how to pronounce paczki, half because of the Polish side of my heritage, half because the boxes and signs all spell out how to pronounce it. I don’t think they have anything to do with quinoa.

The Report Of The Michigan State Groundhog


So Michigan’s official state groundhog, who works out of an animal rescue shelter very near to Howell, and not out of the capital in Lansing, predicted six more weeks of winter, which would still be a pretty early end to winter. This doesn’t surprise folks much because we got up to eighteen inches of snow on Sunday and there might be more coming in tomorrow, although it’s better than last winter, which moved in around August 24th and still hasn’t left.

What is surprising is that the prediction was made by Murray, who’s the state’s backup groundhog because Woody the Woodchuck, the main groundhog, was recovering from a respiratory infection. I’d like to think the state has a main and a backup groundhog because, hey, two major peninsulas, two major woodchucks, but that seems to just be coincidence. Also, Murray is named after Bill Murray, and as you might expect Murray is a female groundhog. I suppose this reflects people not asking groundhogs some obvious questions before naming them.

Also, not to get into an inter-state rivalry thing here, because I can’t, because I’m from New Jersey, but the groundhog in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, bit mayor Jonathan Freund, who — according to groundhog handlers Jerry and Maria Hahn — went on to misrepresent the groundhog’s weather prediction. I can sympathize with Freund getting it wrong after being bitten by a Wisconsonian groundhog, though.

The Mid-Winter Fashion


To explain why I discovered only at the end of the day Monday that I was wearing a shirt inside-out I need to give some context. I don’t think I need to explain the wearing of shirts, as that’s been popular nearly my whole adult life, and Monday has been almost perfectly assimilated into American culture since its invention in 1964 as a way to ease the transition from Sunday to Tuesday.

Now, it’s wintertime. It hasn’t been as cruel a winter as last year, but last year’s was exceptionally cruel, frequently using the power of social media to ridicule individuals and harass them in what had been safe social areas. This winter has been much nicer, but it has still been getting cold, and the weather’s been getting bad. My love pointed out there isn’t any such thing as bad weather, only people badly dressed for the weather. I answered this by asking what about when the weather is minus two degrees Fahrenheit, and a heavy, wet snow is coming down so hard you’re on the verge of whiteouts, and it’s about ninety minutes after sunset. My love went “hrm” to this, and I added that you were stuck with a flat tire more than an hour away from home, on a frontage road outside the abandoned scrap metal recycling center, and your cell phone, which you never use and you charge all the time, is out of battery, as it always is, and none of these additions are properly the weather per se but they do help set the scene. My love walked away to ask our pet rabbit if he wanted a raisin, which he does.

Still, the right way to deal with weather like that is layering, which we start doing around November and let up on around March. The principle of layering is simple: you can stay somewhat less cold by, whenever you find an article of clothing, putting it on. Whenever you find an article of clothing. So just strolling around the house I’ll put on underwear, sure, and long underwear, and here’s a t-shirt by the bed, and a regular shirt that was on the dresser, and a dress shirt that was in the bedroom closet, and the soccer shirt from that one time I played soccer in tenth grade, and the novelty “2010” eyeglasses because eyeballs get cold too and what the heck New Year’s Eve might roll around again, and go downstairs and put on the blanket we put over the couch for guests because that’s kind of a dress shirt for furniture, and then put on the reclining chair, and that’s all before I’ve even got to the closet where we keep the jackets.

If it’s done right, by about mid-February you’re basically a gigantic elliptical bundle of flesh and cloth, and it’s not all that cold as you step outside, trip over your six pairs of shoes, and go tumbling down the road. People from warmer climates may believe that mid-Michigan in the upcoming weeks will be a field of spinning balls of population bouncing off one another until they roll into a snowy creek, all the layers keeping folks from freezing to death until the currents can sweep them into the Grand River. This is absurd. Given the plowed streets, people are much more likely to roll down to the strip mall and into the nearest Michael’s, where they bounce into the folks waiting in the line where, even though there’s four registers open and nobody has more than maybe three things to buy and everybody’s paying cash, the line never advances any. The disruption is appreciated since it gives customers the chance to give up on their plans to buy decorative boxes and plastic flowers and run off to the Petco next door and stare at heaps of sleeping ferrets instead.

You might think this makes laundry terrible, since there’s so many clothes to wash if you got them all taken off at once. And it’s true that the laundry loads are bigger than summer, but you don’t have to wash all the layers at once. The two great sources of dirtiness, in clothing, are the outside world, and only the outermost layer of clothing ever touches that, and the body, and only the innermost layer touches that. Everything else is just touching other clothes so you can let them slide a while or, if you’re wearing enough layers, let the accumulated fabric pressure crush any dirt that might somehow get through into little bitty lint diamonds, which are good for industrial lint needs.

Anyway, so this all gets back to how I discovered I wore a shirt inside-out on Monday: it was underneath that thing I wear that isn’t a hoodie, I guess, but that I call one because I don’t know what else to call it, and I didn’t discover this until I was getting ready for bed by taking off the outer eighteen layers. I feel kind of silly about it, but, I understand how this sort of thing happens and nobody else noticed.

Statistics Saturday: What College Football Implies In My Family


I have a tiny bit of interest in how Rutgers does in football; my Michigan in-laws are very concerned this implies I'm a madman.
What makes this funny is I’m from New Jersey so I don’t see any reason Rutgers should be in the Big 10, or even necessarily playing football at all. Neither does the Big 10.

I’m pretty sure this is just a minor East Coast/Midwest cultural difference, but I’m also pretty sure my father-in-law’s heart breaks a bit when I admit I’m fine with the Scarlet Knights getting beaten by whoever it was they played.

Escaping to Lansing


Disasters not afflicting Lansing: Hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanos, pop singers, scorpions.

The local newspaper mentioned that at South By Southwest a trade group from the Lansing area advertised to whoever’s interested in this sort of thing the proposition “Escape To Lansing”. The big selling point — and the one that’s on their web site — is that Lansing is free of many disasters which make it annoying to do business, to wit:

Hurricanes. True. Mid-Michigan is admirably hurricane-free, what with most hurricanes refusing to tromp over the Appalachian mountains and deal with trying to follow the highways around Toledo.

Scorpions. I can’t dispute that the Lansing metropolitan area has a pretty low number of scorpions, and most of those who are around are either in their designated pens within the pet shops or are work-study students helping make sure that visitors to the college or university library are briefly examined by eye and grunted at before they finish entering or exiting. I have to question whether scorpions are a major problem in most business districts, however. If they are then maybe startup businesses just need to buy screen doors.

Radioactive Gas. I hadn’t imagined that Lansing ever had a problem with radioactive gas emissions gathering to dangerous levels, but now that they’re going to the bother of telling people there’s no radioactive gas it’s started to make me worry. They maybe shouldn’t have raised the issue.

Earthquakes. Michigan has a very low earthquake risk, with the greatest hazard being earthquakes which other states or Canadian provinces hold and which spill over owing to inadequate soundproofing in the walls between states. The upper peninsula was subject to a series of earthquakes in the mid-19th century as the copper underneath it was dug out and turned into telephone wires in New York City and Boston, and the remaining crust collapsed over and over again, but the ground has mostly settled since then, and any attempt to get an earthquake going will be dampened by abandoned mining equipment. No serious risk there.

Justin Bieber. This seems petty. Pop stars are a fundamentally unpredictable, whimsical force of nature, prone to blowing into our lives and inspiring tiresome conversations about how we don’t like them and then blowing back out again, sometimes leaving us with a song we can’t quite get out of our heads. We have little to fear from them, and they pay for their existence by giving entertainment journalists something to talk about which isn’t lists of TV shows you won’t watch. They should be appreciated for how they enrich life’s tapestry of things we don’t really have to do anything about.

Tsunamis. Actually, the adorable little wave they use here makes me think of the original Bell Atlantic logo. While it’s true Michigan had very little phone service by Bell Atlantic before it changed its name and become a more annoying company, I don’t see why South By Southwest attendees would be particularly impressed by this. If they didn’t want to do business with Bell Atlantic they could as easily do that in Austin.

The 1984-era Bell Atlantic logo, with a little wave for the crossbar of the A.

Volcanos. Michigan hasn’t had an active volcano in about 2.5 billion years, but it seems presumptuous to say that companies would want to relocate to mid-Michigan just to avoid volcanos. Obviously companies that do volcano tours are going to be attracted by having volcanos, but what about places that hope to get in on something igneous? Maybe they’re figuring corporate headquarters can be away from the magma action and this will be somehow worth it in the end. I don’t know.

Sharks. I’m fairly sure there aren’t many shark attacks even in the business districts of coastal towns. I have to imagine a company that’s routinely losing key personnel or equipment to shark attacks, and isn’t in the shark-annoying trade, is screwed up in fundamental ways. If they relocated to Lansing they’d probably just get lost in the woods and see their business plan get eaten by squirrels.

I notice they don’t say a word about the ice storms causing blackouts or that stretch in early February when it got so cold all molecular motion ceased. Well, it was a harsh winter but we do generally have indoor heating. They also don’t mention that in Lansing you’re relatively unlikely to be surrounded by Texans, which I’d think would be a selling point in Austin. But they didn’t ask me to contribute promotional material.

Also, apparently Lansing has a 3-D Printer you can use, if you need it. Sold!

Cool Comparisons


I told our pet rabbit I’d try doing something about the cold, and I did, what with making many snarky comments about it online. I didn’t have any better ideas. But there has been progress: yesterday and today it got above freezing, enough that some mysterious force is going around and making the icicles all melt so our house looks less like it’s trapped inside some snow-monster’s maw, and just this morning I saw some bizarre municipal truck with this kind of curved metal wedge running back and forth on our street and shoving snow and ice out of the path of the road. No idea what that’s supposed to be.

Meanwhile I’ve found historical data showing that it really has been harsh, but far from the worst on record. The winter of 2007-08, it turns out, saw an accumulated snowfall of nearly seventy inches, and that after the month of February was cancelled due to terrible road conditions keeping it out of the mid-Michigan area. In 1975-76, snowfall totals were high enough that the National Weather Service ran out of numbers and started measuring in terms of letters and, by the end of March, triangles and little cartoon clouds. And the worst mid-Michigan winter in history, 1880-81, saw so much snow as a result of a second winter actually sneaking in during January, in the middle of the first winter, and tossing its pile of snow around and mostly down.

Our rabbit says he’s having none of this, thank you.

Comics Strips: Math and Michigan


Over on my mathematics blog I’ve got a fresh roundup of comic strips that mention some kind of mathematical topic, and my thoughts about the topics those inspire. Some of those are even comic strips that don’t use π as a pun on the concept of pie, so, do enjoy that.

If you don’t, then, here’s the Pearls Before Swine comic strip, by Stephan Pastis, which ran this past Sunday. It’s of a familiar enough form — Pastis setting up a shaggy-dog type story to build to violence — but it flops as a comic strip, and I wanted to do some public musing about why.

The setup is contrived, which isn’t inherently a problem. Many Pearls strips are built around transparently contrived setups, usually in the service of a pun or bit of wordplay. Typically I like those, partly because of the long setup and trying to anticipate where he’s going with this and sometimes getting surprised by where he ends up. (He usually then apologizes it away with a final panel of the characters telling him to “get help” or “stop it”, which is trying to deliver an awful pun and stand away from it; but, the structure does seem to demand some resolution after the punch line and an apology is, if not very clever, at least something.)

But in this case I think the contrivance is deeply problematic, undermining the whole strip: to get to the punch, smash, and trample line, we have to suppose Pastis-the-character has bought a Brutus Buckeye costume for an upcoming speech at Ohio State University, and put it on to drive there, and gotten lost driving there, and ended up in Ann Arbor. I’ll waive my wondering whether it’s possible to dial a pay phone while in a mascot costume and while I haven’t actually noticed a pay phone in Ann Arbor it’s the sort of place I can accept as having some.

Now: buying the costume and wearing the costume to go driving are weird behaviors. Eccentric at minimum. Eccentricity isn’t inherently bad — if you’re trying to do comedy, really, and especially if you don’t have a lot of time to delineate your characters then being wildly eccentric lets you get a joke out in recognizable form — but this leaves me wondering who would even do that? The strip falls flat, to me, at the point of getting Pastis into costume and from there the whole thing is lost. Suggested rewrite: he was invited to play Brutus Buckeye at the Ohio State game and he didn’t have time to change at the stadium, which is absurd but at least some kind of motive.

The next bit: He got lost driving to Columbus, Ohio, and ended up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor really isn’t near Columbus. It’s a couple hours mostly due north. The only way you can end up in Ann Arbor if you’re driving to Columbus is if you’re driving from Michigan, in which case, well, you’ve heard of Ann Arbor. This can maybe be patched up a little, by supposing that Pastis flew into Detroit for something (perhaps that should be the speech he was giving?), bought his Buckeye costume (from where?) and then started driving to Columbus, which is weak but at least puts together a minimally plausible scenario where Pastis might be in a Buckeye costume in Ann Arbor.

Also, he should have had the strip published the weekend of November 30th, when the University of Michigan is to play Ohio State (in Ann Arbor, conveniently enough), so the implied buildup to the battery is the more credible.

Courtesy Question


Q. I hope you might settle an etiquette question about holding open doors. One need hold the door only five to ten seconds before leaving without being thought rude, according to my pet ferret’s favorite yawn. This feels too short a time to me, as I have been holding open the door at a Wawa convenience store in Zilwaukee, Michigan, while waiting for this couple to decide whether they’re going in or not, since April of 1958. How long should I wait?

A. There are no Wawa stores in Michigan, not until 2019 when one pokes in, confused and looking for the bathroom. If you are certain of your current state, and who is, then we would have to say you should wait six more years at minimum.

But it’s tidied up all along 127


So I realized this one rug needed to be vacuumed, and once you get to the effort of getting the vacuum out of its special guarded chamber and all that it doesn’t make sense not to vacuum the rest of the rugs too. And sure, once you have that it doesn’t make sense not to take out the broom and sweep the floor, and when you’ve got that going there’s the stairs too. And once you’ve got the cleaning vibe going for the stairs there’s all these things that could use dusting — I mean removing the dust, not putting it on, that was last week’s chore — and then there’s the glass that could use being sprayed with a translucent blue liquid that’s swiftly rubbed off and that can really be done on both the inside and the outside of the house and …

Long story short, I’m somewhere on the outskirts of Alma, Michigan, straightening out the edges of potholes. If someone could sneak up on me and shoot me with a tranquilizer dart and deliver me back to home I’d appreciate it.