What We Can Learn From The Squamous Among Us


Consider the green iguana. It is known taxonomically as the genus Iguana, species iguana. The species Iguana iguana belongs to the family Iguanidae. The family Iguanidae belongs to the suborder Iguania. From this, students, we learn that the iguana was scientifically classified by a bunch of people who were ditching work four hours early. It’s a minor miracle we didn’t get dogs classified as doggo doggo of the family doggy, suborder puppos, order goodboys.

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What’s Going On In Mark Trail? June – August 2017


Have you been wondering what the current storyline is in James Allen’s Mark Trail? You’re not alone. The past several months have been this story about Mark Trail and a bank robber and a much-delayed census of prairie dogs in North Dakota. It’s possible that this story, which was going on in August of 2017, has ended by the time you read this. I admit, right now, it’s hard to imagine that. But if “prairie dog bank robber rental car” seem like words completely irrelevant to what you’re reading in the comic strip, maybe this essay is just out of date. At or near the top of this page should be my most recent Mark Trail update essay. I hope that helps you out.

If you’re interested in other comic strips, my other blog reviews the comics that touched on mathematical topics. You might find that interesting. I don’t see why you wouldn’t. You know that thing where you write out a long number, grouped in bunches of three? Like, 10,000,000 instead of, say, 10,00,00,00 or 1000,0000? You know how long people have been doing that? I tell you over there.

Mark Trail.

11 June – 26 August 2017.

It’s been eleven weeks since I last reviewed the action in Mark Trail. Back then I thought we might be drawing near the end of a story that began in mid-March, about Mark Trail held hostage by a bank robber instead of doing a prairie dog census. I misjudged the story length. But now I really, truly, think we’re coming near the end of the story. We’re at the point that every James Allen Mark Trail reaches: the point where Nature tries to kill everybody. The story had promised “bad weather” last time around, but now we’ve got it.

Where we had been: Mark Trail, trying to rent a car in Rapid City, South Dakota, is approached by an armed gunman with a hostage. He’s robbed a bank and wants Trail to drive him to safety. Trail superficially complies but somehow alerts the car rental agency that he’s in distress. Trail drives the bank robber and hostage to the cabin of Johnny Lone Elk, where Trail picks up his friend and they all shift to horseback. Lone Elk knows something’s wrong and he and Trail talk trick riding, while Lone Elk’s wife suspects something’s up.

Trail and Lone Elk tell the Bank Robber (still unnamed, by the way) and Hostage that there’s a major storm coming. The least incredibly unsafe course is to go down the Vulture Creek ridge. The Bank Robber and Hostage go along with this plan, but they’re not near the ghost town they hope to reach before the rain gets heavy. Lightning explodes a tree next to Lone Elk, and his horse panics, leaping over the edge of the ravine.

Meanwhile — just a second here. I do mean “meanwhile”. Something James Allen’s brought to Mark Trail has been a relenting of the stories’ linearity. We can get information on separate threads. It’s not as unsettling as Allen’s choice to have Mark Trail sometimes think a thing instead of saying it aloud at the top of his lungs with random words emphasized. But it’s still a surprise for the long-time reader. That’s just the world we live in anymore.

FBI Agent John Paul: 'Mrs Trail, you seem remarkably calm for someone whose husband has been kidnapped by bank robber!' Cherry Trail: 'Agent JP, have you ever met my husband?'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 27th of June, 2017. “The only thing I would worry about is if my husband were kidnapped by bank robbers while being out in a major storm out in the open, trying to get to a ghost town occupied by a provoked grizzly bear! But what are the odds of that?”

Meanwhile, FBI Agent John Paul is on the case, because of the bank robbery. The car rental agent recognized Mark Trail and figured something weird was going on, I think because Trail rented a minivan and not a giant squirrel. He asks Cherry Trail about who Mark Trail expected to meet and where they were. And then why Mark Trail skipped out on his own reservation, instead using one for “Lesley Joyce” at “WaterWorld”. Cherry Trail finds this hilarious, but can explain: Mark surely figured this would be a way to alert people without raising Bank Robber’s suspicions. John Paul is surprised by Cherry Trail’s calm, but she points out she’s been in this strip since like the 40s. Mark’s been through way more serious hostage situations than this.

Lesley Joyce enters the narrative to explain while showing off every pose from How To Draw Realistic Fashion Design Figures ever. Trail and Lone Elk had been hired by Joyce and WaterWorld Theme Park to film a walrus giving birth. The walrus got loose, but Trail and Lone Elk found her. They loaded her into Joyce’s new Escalade, and on the drive back the walrus gave birth to twins. The car technically survived. So if you remember being confused when Cadillac kept running those “pregnant walrus” ads for the Escalade, now you know why they were doing it. And this all ties in to the current story because the car rental contract Trail had with WaterWorld from back then was somehow still open, and he could use that to get Joyce’s attention at least?

Lesley Joyce: 'Thanks to Mark Trail, the pregnant walrus proceeded to deliver twin baby walruses all over the back of my brand-new vehicle!' The strip includes an image of the scene, with the car shattered by its interior walrus.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 10th of July, 2017. Words cannot express just how many different poses and how many facial expressions Lesley Joyce took on during this anecdote, which ran in the daily strips from the 29th of June through the 15th of July. The anecdote was all Lesley Joyce striking a pose and FBI Agent John Paul saying this is hilarious, please go on. It almost read like that Futurama episode mocking silent movies. If you find someone who can use this as the storyboard for a live-action scene that reads naturally, hire them: they can film anything.

I admit this all seems like a lot of story time spent on a tiny point. It isn’t as if the FBI wasn’t looking for the Bank Robber or as they didn’t find the Mark Trail connection on their own. But it’s realistic that Mark Trail couldn’t know that, and would send out whatever distress signals he could. And that car rental counters don’t offer a lot of chances.

The FBI works out something about the bank robbery security footage and the car rental counter footage. The female hostage in the second is one of the Bank Robber’s accomplices in the first. Remember what I said about James Allen making the Mark Trail stories less relentlessly linear? The twist took me by surprise, yes. On rereading the story, I have to grant: Bank Robber and Hostage/Accomplice’s interactions make much more sense now. It wasn’t planted by anything overt; it was just interactions.

FBI Agent John Paul(?): 'The woman who helped rob the bank and the female hostage in the airport video ... they are one and the same!' Other FBI Agent: 'WHAT!?' FBI Agent: 'Yep! - She's a willing accomplice ... and she's armed!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 19th of July, 2017. Agent John Paul delivers what is a real, legitimate plot twist in this storyline. Also, I don’t know the name of the guy in the second panel so I don’t know whether to call him Agent George Ringo or Agent Benedict Francis. But I’m going to be ripping that off for Telegram stickers.

The FBI follows Trail’s … trail, into the storm, and they borrow horses from the local town sheriff to get to the ghost town. The storm’s getting worse, with tornadoes in the area.

Meanwhile, Johnny Lone Elk turns out not to have died by falling down the ravine. The plan was to go down a not-as-steep-as-it-looks part of the ravine to fake his death. Then Lone Elk would get help while Mark Trail manages a distraction, by which we mean, while Mark Trail punches somebody.

Mark Trail, punching Bank Robber: 'I have had ENOUGH of you I'm DONE with your attitude!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 9th of August, 2017. Yeah, so me acting like that is why I’m not allowed at my local Congressman’s town hall meetings anymore, but I feel that history and the Free American provisional government will forgive me.

Besides punching the Bank Robber, Trail reveals he saw through the Hostage/Accomplice long ago. Trail explains he knows terror-stricken people when he sees them and she wasn’t it. … Which, is fair enough. But as fun as punching and yelling at people is, the storm’s getting worse and they need to get to the ghost town.

Lone Elk finds the sheriff, and they agree to head over to the caves where a big old grizzly bear named Samson lives. They figure this is the best way to get to the ghost town through the rain and maybe get the Bank Robber eaten by a bear. And that’s where the story stands right now. We’ll see how that all turns out, and see whether we do eventually find out how many prairie dogs live near Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sunday Animals Watch.

Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:

  • Tornadoes, 11 June 2017
  • Bees and Wasps, 18 June 2017
  • Giant African Snails, 25 June 2017
  • Egyptian Fruit Bats, 2 July 2017 (we understand their arguments! Weird, huh?)
  • Komodo dragons, 9 July 2017
  • Hoopoe (birds), 16 July 2017
  • Pygmy Dormouse, 23 July 2017
  • Slipper Lobsters, 30 July 2017
  • Roseate Spoonbills, 6 August 2017
  • Cook Pines, 13 August 2017 (wait, they grow at an angle proportionate to the latitude? The heck?)
  • Bay Cats, 20 August 2017
  • Whales as ecological influencers, 27 August 2017

Next Week!

I don’t want everyone out there quivering too hard with anticipation, because it doesn’t have as many cruise ships! as it could have. But still: Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth is back!

Coming To Senses


It’s natural to ask about being knocked senseless. It would even be good sense, if only that weren’t an impossibly complicated logical problem. About the only resolution is to list important senses ahead of time so if you lose them you will be able to tell, and feel the worse for it.

The sense of taste. Without this, there’s really no way to know whether you like what you’re eating or whether you merely think you do. To test whether you have this you’ll need some calibration. With a trusted friend, or an enemy whose respect for the integrity of knowledge overcomes your differences, swap tongues and test some agreed-upon meal. Take notes! You’ll want to compare them. Under no circumstances start arguing about whether the color that you perceive as blue is the same thing that your friend or enemy perceives as blue. Starting on this path will result in unpleasant questions about whether chocolate tastes like chocolate or whether you merely think there is a taste to chocolate. Those lacking friends or trustworthy enemies can borrow a tongue from the library. It is normally kept in the multi-media section so that patrons will know all of their audiobooks and DVDs have been licked by a qualified tongue.

The sense of scale. There are so many needs for this, and not just if you want to tell whether that’s a naked cobra in front of you. It’s not. It’s a garter snake. You live in Troy, New York, for crying out loud. Be sensible. It’s not like … wait, garter snakes are venomous? Who’s responsible for that? Excuse me, can we talk with the person in charge of reptiles so we can sort out who thought we needed venomous garter snakes? OK, wait, Wikipedia says they don’t produce a lot of venom and they don’t have any good way of delivering it? The heck, garter snakes? If you’re going to be venomous then do it right, and if you’re not going to be venomous don’t go getting us all riled up like that. You’re supposed to be North America’s cute little starter snake so we can look at you and feel a little thrill and then laugh at ourselves for getting scared. What are you doing getting all complicated like that?

The sense of touch. This is an important sense in order that people learn whether their legs are being attacked by a cat hiding underneath the bed. Without this sense who could say whether they were even on a bed, apart from looking at the thing they’re in and reviewing the checklist of important qualities of bed-ness to see if enough of them are satisfied? Yes, exactly. And you thought I was just going on a bunch of nonsense today.

The sense of balance. Without this it’s almost impossible to do a professional job arranging the graphic elements for a newspaper page. While one can carry on, the best one can hope for is pages made competently, without the sense of joy or wonder that truly engages readers. Without attractively-arranged pictures, headlines, and text blocks, people are forced to leave behind the printed newspaper and take up positions in web page design and glaring at the neighbor that’s parked on the wrong side of the road and building dense hedge mazes around what was until hours ago the municipal parking lot.

The sense of scale. Among the other many needs of this you need something to help you avoid stepping onto one and getting the unpleasant news about your weight. You have one. That’s a hard thing to hear about this early in the century, and it won’t be any easier later in the century either.

The sense of smell. Without the ability to notice a curious odor there’s no way to tell that your car is on fire except by the honking and frantic waving of people in the car next to you. This limits your driving to two-lane roads with enough traffic, which can cause you to be late for whatever you needed to do.

The sense of scale. Without the ability to tell which things are nearby and small and which are far away yet large you might accidentally take too large a step for the situation and turn out to be ten floors up on top of the building. This may inconvenience the person you were walking with. It’s different if you were trying to lose the person after finding out what they think food tastes like. You just have to know the context for what you think you’re doing.

The sense of sponge. Without this sense you could be surprised by something moist yet compressible. You can’t go around spritzing objects to then test whether they become more compressible, not without having to answer questions from the unexpectedly damp.

Should any senses be missing you should replace them from the store. Try aisle four, by the dollar toys.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose another three points and now everybody’s ready to panic about how they suddenly have what sure seems like a nice thing and how could that happen to people like them and you know it’s honestly kind of exhausting dealing with people like that all the time.

266

In Which I Am Amused By Fish Lip Research


Before I get to it, here’s my mathematics blog with last week’s comic strips. Thanks.

Now, amusing me is this Reuters article about a kind of fish I never heard of before, the “tubelip wrasse”. It lives in the Indian Ocean and the central-western Pacific, which seems to narrow its existence down to one-eighth of the globe. I suppose that’s enough detail for a news report anyway. It’s not like I was going to go visit them anyway, not without more research. What’s interesting is that it eats corals, which are hard to eat, what with how they’re all coral-y. The secret is in their mouths: they have mouths that let them eat coral, and once you have that, eating coral is easy. Anyway, they have this quote in:

“To our knowledge, this type of lip has never been recorded before,” James Cook University marine biologist David Bellwood said.

It’s a beautiful sentence and I want everyone to take a moment just to admire that. But it’s also a beautiful sentence with this beautiful implication: there’s some record of all the adequately studied lips out there. There are people whose jobs include the task of overseeing and keeping up-to-date some portion of the world’s record of lips. Maybe even someone who oversees all the lip records known to humanity. Suppose there is. Then that is a person who either grew up wanting to be the master of humanity’s record of lips, or else it’s someone whose life went through twists and turns to bring them there. Either way, is anything about this not delightful? No, it is not.

If that were not enough for you, somehow, Víctor Huertas of the James Cook University in Australia offered this detail about the coral-eating process:

“It looks exactly like a quick kiss with a distinctive ‘tuk’ sound,” Huertas said, “often leaving a coral ‘hickie,’ which is actually a patch of flesh sucked off the skeleton.”

Never mind the stuff about flesh ripped off skeletons since that isn’t so jolly as I’d hoped. Think of fish giving hickies to coral and making a little ‘tuk’ sound doing it. You’re welcome.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose eighteen points today as investors thought it was just too hot to short any contracts, however obviously they’re set to fall. It sounds good for everyone who’s going long but, you know, heat snaps end. Just saying.

221

Update On What’s Going On in Mark Trail


That volcano that started exploding back in November? It’s finally destroyed the island and Our Heroes have escaped so I suppose that’s all a happy ending. Apart from like how they’re somewhere in the Pacific ocean right next to an active volcano that just destroyed their island. But there is this good news!

The survivors in a boat: 'Sorry we didn't get an ant specimen, Abbey!' 'That's okay, Mark --- you and I both saw that ant mound!' 'At least the ants on that island can't spread any further!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 27th of December 2016. Part of me admires their task focus. If I had just escaped an exploding island I would not be worrying about whether they had proof of the ants that were invading the island and upsetting its natural ecological balance unless I were trying to justify my decision to destroy the island. I would be worrying about whether I was far enough from the many, many, many lava explosions. Since they are trying to justify destroying the island it implies we must ask which of them is the lava-god with the power to destroy Hawaiian islands and authority to make that decision?

Unless, anyway, some of the invasive ants that were destroying the wildlife on this doomed island got aboard their boat and are going to get going wherever these three are rescued, anyway. Good times.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped nine points, which is getting more like everybody figured what with it being grey and rainy outside and the analysts getting into a fight over whether it should be ‘gray’ instead. And it wasn’t even a good fight. It was the kind of fight where two guys manage to hurt their backs by swinging too hard in the wrong direction and they have to go lie in bed the rest of the week, arguing over whether it should be ‘lay’. On their cell phones because getting up for a live in-person argument would hurt too much.

82

In Which Reuters Spoils My Weekend Plans


From the science news:

Crustacean revelation: coconut crab’s claw is stunningly strong

By Will Dunham | WASHINGTON

It may not be wise to get into a scrap with a coconut crab. Its claw is a mighty weapon.

Scientists on Wednesday said they measured the pinch strength of this large land crab that inhabits islands in the Indian and southern Pacific oceans, calculating that its claw can exert up to an amazing 742 pounds (336.5 kg) of force.

The coconut crab’s pinch strength even matches or beats the bite strength of most land predators.

“The pinching force of the largest coconut crab is almost equal to the bite force of adult lions,” said marine biologist Shin-ichiro Oka of Japan’s Okinawa Churashima Foundation, who led the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

OK, so, I admit I was looking for an excuse not to wrestle any coconut crabs this weekend. Call me a coward if you will. I’ll be over here calling a Patagonian Cavy names until it starts whining.

But three things caught me by the end of that third paragraph. The first: next time I make a mind-bogglingly stupid science fiction move set in the dystopian future I’m going to name something in it PLOS ONE. Maybe the megacity everyone’s trying to escape. Maybe the computer-god-supercorporation ruling everyone. Maybe the spunky talking motorcycle the hero rides to save the day. But something.

Second: the dateline. Reuters wants us to know that Will Dunham reviewed PLOS ONE while writing for the Washington office, I suppose. It would have totally different connotations if the story were filed from New York, or Lisbon, or New Delhi, or Buenos Aires.

Third: “It may not be wise to get into a scrap with a coconut crab”. May not. May not. Dunham is willing to concede there are circumstances in which it is wise to get into a scrap with a coconut crab. He can’t think of any himself, but he’s aware of his fallibility. He grants there are people whose lives bring them to the point of scrapping with coconut crabs, which are ten-legged monstrosities as much as three feet long. And he’ll allow there are people for whom that is a wise and even good path for their lives to take. I appreciate the open-mindedness. Someone might look back on their life and say, “It all turned around for me when I wrestled that giant crab”, and wouldn’t you like to know how that came about? I mean, you don’t want to know that so much as you feel you feel you ought to find out how Norman Borlaug had the idea of ending world hunger. (“Well, what if people had something to eat? I thought that might help.”) But still you’d like to know. I’m still using the excuse to avoid Saturday’s scrap myself.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index, the mainstream one, rose sharply six points today. And that would be fine and dandy except for once the alternate index did something different, rising only five points to 105 and that’s scrambled all the plans to merge the mainstream and alternate indices back together. Seriously, the two indices were doing the exact same thing for like ever and now that it doesn’t matter anymore it breaks? It’s not right, that’s all there is to it.

106

A Partial Review of the Plants and Animals of Australia


Kangaroos. For this review I regard ‘Kangaroo’ as including all the variant models. Kangaroos, Wallabies, Potoroos, Wallaroos, Pottabies, Wottabies, Kangabies, plus any of the new 4th-generation-compatible variations to come out the last month. Doesn’t matter. They’re great all around. Fine body plan. Fur that can feel surprisingly like my sideburns when they get the most bushy and out of control. They anthropomorphize well by just adding a vest and maybe a pair of glasses. They’ve got everything under control. Rated A. The only thing keeping them from an A+ is the sloppy design job regarding the male genitalia. Granted that most mammals have design problems on this point. The only species that’s really got that handled with dignity are guinea pigs, the males of which keep their out-of-use private parts in safety deposit banks with an institution in Lima, Peru.

Small kangaroo, possibly a wallaby, staring right at my camera. From the Singapore zoo.
This kangaroo was not in Australia when I photographed him. Neither was I.

Koalas. Generally adorable, with great ears. But they have been coasting on past fame since the mid-80s. They’ve done nothing to freshen up the line to respond to the rise of fennecs for the status of “oh such adorable animals they look like plush toys only they’re alive!”. Nostalgia acts are fine but we should make way for new innovation. B.

Alpine Tasmanian button grass. Much-needed bit of flora with the sort of name we have the word “mellifluous” for. As plant life goes these are plants that live while not dead. Button grass looks like the hair of a minor Peanuts character with a name like “Leland”. Shows good imaginative use of the “long thin stuff with beady tops” motif. B+.

Platypus. You figure the platypus came about from someone hearing a jumbled description of a griffon and going wild with what they had. And that’s great. Some awesome stuff comes about from trying to follow a jumbled description. It’s how we got centaurs and Cincinnati chili and Chinese lion costumes and some other things that don’t start with ‘c’. All that’s fine and this blend has a nice self-assured weirdness to it. And then it sweats milk. That’s getting into strange-for-the-sake-of-strange territory. C+, would accept resubmission. Not of milk.

Wombats. Are real things? Huh. I thought they were made up so cartoons could do stories about Australian wildlife without getting into hassles from the real species over inaccurate depictions. You know, the way they make a movie about “Charles Foster Kane” instead of William Randolph Hearst, or a political TV show will do a story about going to war with a fake country, or people will vacation in “Florida”. OK, if they’re real then. C, get your brand identity under control. Next.

'Resembling something from a monster movie, Clathrus archeri has been mysteriously emerging in yards and shocking homeowners across America' and it GETS WORSE FROM THERE. And it's Australia's doing.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 6th of March, 2016, doing us the public service of reminding us to never have anything to do with nature, ever, under any circumstances.

Octopus Stinkhorn. I just learned about this on Sunday thanks to Mark Trail and WHAT THE HECK, Australia. WHAT THE FLIPPING HECK? You know when we other continents talk about the problem of Australian species THIS is the sort of thing we’re talking about, right? We’re talking about spiders that have enough toxin in each of their fourteen venom sacs to knock unconscious 6.25 billion people and every raccoon in North America. We’re talking about snakes that spontaneously detonate with the force of a malfunctioning Saturn V rocket smashing into a xylophone Daffy Duck rigged with dynamite to make getting rid of Bugs Bunny “look like an accident”. And now we’re talking about octopus-tentacled corpse-smelling alien-egg fungus. REALLY? What is even WRONG with you? I mean, you give us a tree kangaroo, a kangaroo that literally lives in trees, and you follow that up with this? Stop, go back, redo this entire disaster from the start, and by redo I mean “never do anything even remotely inspired by anyone who has thought this a possible idea again”. This doesn’t even get a grade because we need to invent whole new letters to deal with how flipping WRONG EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS. I mean, just, I mean. The flipping heck? I mean. Just. UGH.

Microbats. Microbats! Australia’s got lots of microbat species and they’re exactly what you think, bats that are small. Everything great about bats only little. This could get us back on Australia’s side. Even the name of the grouping is so adorable we don’t worry about whether they’re flying into the nostrils of everyone in Canberra. Microbats! B+ and not just because we’re getting them right after alien egg octopus corpse fungus. Seriously, Australia.

Marsupial tigers. OK, so, they’re kind of dog-shaped, and they have kangaroo heads. They have pouches, males and females. They’ve got tiger stripes down their back and tail. Oh yeah, and they’ve been extinct since Joseph Lyons was the prime minister. Great job piddling away an easy win, Australia. Check the backs of your closet and anywhere else they might be hiding and you can re-submit for an A-. I just … honestly.

Raccoon lounging in a tree, in the Singapore Zoo, and looking like she's got the world pretty much figured out.
Included for contrast: a non-Australian animal which was not in Australia when I photographed her.

Editorial note. While reviewing Wikipedia’s entry on the flora of Australia I encountered this sentence. “The dominant Acacia species varies with the location, and may include lancewood, bendee, mulga, gidgee and brigalow.” The page is clearly still subject to rampant vandalism. Fix and re-submit.

On Reasons Not To Visit Prehistoric Australia


Yes, I also saw that news report about Australia’s prehistoric “marsupial lion”. According to it, according to a study, the marsupial lion turns out to be a thing that (a) existed and (b) could climb trees. I don’t know what a marsupial lion would be doing in a tree. And it’s not actually any of my business. Why shouldn’t a marsupial lion climb a tree in Australia, if it can find one?

Except I know anything about Australian wildlife. And therefore I know the marsupial lion must have been poisonous, venomous, razor-tipped at no fewer than 68 points of its anatomy, and prone to exploding as a defense mechanism. BBC News’s report on it says they would have been “a threat to humans”. Not this human. I’ve never gotten closer than 1,700 miles to Australia, and I haven’t got closer than about 42,500 years to marsupial lions. I’d like to think I’m outside the blast range. If I’m fooling myself, don’t tell me. Let it be a surprise. I just know it’s coming.

Discovering Stuff About Guinea Pigs


A history of the local zoo mentioned that the place used to have a guinea pig mound. It supported this claim with one of those slightly blurry black-and-white photos you get in local histories, showing what is certainly a mound maybe twenty feet across and not so high in the middle. This inspires all sorts of questions, like, why don’t more zoos have guinea pig mounds? An individual guinea pig might not be a very exciting animal, what with it mostly wanting to stand where it is and stare back at you with the expression that says, “I have some projects I could get to too, if you wanted to leave”. But get a big enough mass of them together and at any time you’ll have maybe two of them scurrying along as much as two feet before deciding they could just stop and stand where they are instead.

Another question it raises is: so, guinea pigs live in mounds, then? And I don’t know. Back in middle school I bred guinea pigs (the guinea pigs did most of the breeding, while I did the hard work of explaining to my parents why their cages didn’t need cleaning, even as the odor melted my bagged Star Trek comic books off the walls where they’d been hung as horrible decoration) but that’s in the highly unnatural environment of ten-gallon aquarium cages. I now know ten-gallon aquarium cages are terrible places to keep guinea pigs, and I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s what the guide books back then suggested was perfectly all right. I should have known their research was suspect, since the books were published by leading manufacturers of rodent scuba gear, but I was young and the guinea pigs thought they looked great in wetsuits. Plus several of them said their favorite superhero was Aquaman. Who would be suspicious?

Still, do guinea pigs live in mounds? A friend wisely noted that of course they do, if all you give them to live in is a mound. But if a mound weren’t at least tolerable, the guinea pigs would have words with their keepers. Most of those words would be “fweep”, with a couple “wheep” phrases included for good measure, but it would get the point across, especially when the keepers needed to sleep.

In the hope of finding some dubiously sourced, not-quite-grammatical sentences that were almost but not quite on point, I went to Wikipedia. Their article mentioned how guinea pigs aren’t found naturally in the wild. They’re creatures of domestication. That’s a heady thought. There are things it’s obvious there would never be if humans didn’t exist — Saturn V rockets, Dutch stroopwaffel, competitive Rock-Paper-Scissors leagues, Elvira-themed pinball games, Phil Harris’s novelty song “The Thing” — but how many such items would you have to list before you thought to mention “guinea pigs”? I needed at least six.

But the guinea pig article says that cavies, which is how people who want to sound like scientists but are not actually scientists refer to guinea pigs (scientists just say “guinea pigs” and giggle at people who say “cavies”), or their wild counterparts “are found on grassy plains” with no mention of mounds. So guinea pigs are perfectly camouflaged to live on mounds and not so perfectly for grassy plains. It also mentions guinea pigs “occupy an ecological niche similar to that of cattle”. It’s been days since a sentence delighted me so much.

Now my mind swirls with thoughts of herds of guinea pigs roaming the plains like ankle-high cattle. Itty-bitty cowboys, possibly costumed mice, watch over the herds, with lassoos made of dental floss and perhaps riding the backs of hares. All the cowboy-mice stay alert, listening for the sounds of mass “wheep”ing that marks the start of a guinea pig stampede. It’s a massive, thundering squirming of the critters that can get as far as four feet before all the guinea pigs remember that instead of running, they could be not running. And all this could be going on just underneath our line of sight, at least if we live near grassy plains or mounds. It’s inspired me to spend more time looking down.

The Harshness of Sidewalk Nature


It was a terrible scene, there on that little strip of lawn that’s between the sidewalk and the street, where stuff that’s going to be thrown out gets put. Also trees. It was a pair of sofas, battered, smashed up, their backs fallen off, their cushions piled over one another, the uncomfortable metal frames exposed to the elements. I could understand it, I guess. It’s been a hard season, and clearly, the two sofas destroyed one another in what should have been nearly ritual combat ahead of sofa mating season. It’s tragic seeing nature be so cruel to her own furniture.

What’s Happening In Town


Now and then I read the actual local newspaper listings of upcoming events, usually a couple days after the weekly paper’s come out so that I can see what I might have wanted to go to if it hadn’t already happened. One that really appeared was a nature lecture: “Learn about mosquitoes.” And that was the entire description of the event.

I don’t envy the people organizing this. Selling mosquito knowledge is going to be an uphill struggle because once you get past advanced swatting techniques folks don’t want to hear it. Yes, yes, fascinating evolutionary heritage key part web of life blah blah, swat. But to have only three words to convince people to come? Maybe they’d be better off pitching it as a chance to learn about some more popular animal and then reveal it’s actually mosquitoes to a surprise audience. “Puppies kiss you” would probably get a better if swiftly angered and turning-to-biteyness turnout.

What Prairie Dogs Do During Their Comeback


BBC News tells me — and I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging; the truth is it’ll tell anyone who asks, although you have to know to ask, and I didn’t precisely ask so much as be around when it happened to mention — that animal researchers discovered prairie dogs can do The Wave. Even more than that, it turns out they do do it. I mean, prairie dogs might be capable of all sorts of things, like tennis or spackling drywall or calculating the libration of the Moon or doing itty-bitty pole vaults, but that doesn’t mean they get around to any of them, what with their busy schedules. Yet Robert Senkiw with the University of Manitoba, who is a qualified prairie dog research scientist, has videos of prairie dogs doing just that.

Now isn’t that wonderful? We keep discovering all sorts of new things about animals ever since the breakthrough 1995 decision that animal researchers were allowed to actually look at what animals did when they weren’t being bothered, and here it turns out at least some of them are doing The Wave.

You know, it just struck me what kind of chaos might be wrought if some unqualified prairie dog researchers were on the scene. “Look at that,” one might say, “They’re doing The Wave! No, no, this isn’t like last week when I said they were doing itty-bitty pole vaults. Yes, I know, I was totally misunderstanding their actions because I didn’t realize they were building bamboo scaffolding. Well, yes, if someone had told me I might have guessed at the time but, look, they’re doing The Wave right now! See? Well, not now, they finished. I don’t know, maybe they saw some really good soccer play. Well, why wouldn’t prairie dogs be as interested in soccer as any other rodent is? Well, my capybara friends say they are too soccer fans.” And it turns out he was staring at some nutrias all the time instead.

If they aren’t soccer fans, though, that leaves the question what they’re doing The Wave for. I don’t really know what prairie dogs think about most spectator sports, although I’d guess if they were gathered in any kind of stadium as an audience that would’ve been mentioned in the news. On the other hand, the article was filed under Science and maybe over in the Sport section there’s an article about science-y types crowding around the playing fields not being even a little interested when there’s a hat trick or an octopus thrown on the field or whatever it is people do at soccer matches when they’re prairie dogs. I checked and in mere moments was being asked to confirm my purchase of a Nautical Origami Kit. I probably clicked something wrong.

For what it’s worth, the article says that the scientists have a theory that prairie dogs are doing this so as not to get eaten, which I have to rate as a pretty good motive. The current thinking is that they occasionally hop up and yip and set off a Wave because there are potential predators around. This is a change from the older thinking, when they were believed to hop up and set off a Wave because there were no potential predators around. I wonder if sometimes the prairie dogs don’t just hop up like that simply to mess around, but that seems so immature.

Since the news article comes from a British source, instead of the Wave it’s called the Mexican Wave, which was named after Mexico but before vaguely remembered celebrity child Suri Cruise. I’m not sure what the adjective Mexican adds to the proceedings, unless it turns out that in Britain there are all sorts of other Waves, like, say, an Eritrean Wave where a row of spectators all lean forward and then sit back again before getting up, or a Bolivian Wave where people in turn cough, nervous, at how the people next to them seem to be coming down with something.

I think the best part of it is, knowing we have prairie dogs to work for us, the pressure is off the humans in the community to do The Wave.

S J Perlman: Poisonous Mushrooms


It strikes me that apart from “Captain Future, Block That Kick” I haven’t shown off many of the works of S J Perelman. That’s a bit odd considering his influence, although I’ll admit that I’ve read less of him directly than I have of people who were influenced by him. Here, from The Best of S J Perelman, is a bit of thought about mushrooms.


Poisonous Mushrooms

Are We At The Crossroads?

Well, autumn is here again, and very shortly every Tom, Dick and Harry will be asking himself the question “Poisonous mushrooms—-yes or no?” In every mossy dell, in every nook of granny, these delicious little edibles are springing up. Only yesterday I happened to fall into conversation with a stranger in the subway, an extremely well-made woman of thirty-one with Dresden-dainty hands and feet, I noticed that she was eating a small umbrella-shaped object and asked her what it was.

“An umbrella,” she replied shortly, descending from the train at Seventy-second Street. Needless to say, the incident did not pass unnoticed, and I retired in confusion amid the hearty laughter of several wealthy cattle-drovers who had come down to New York for the day on the steam cars.

I first became interested in mushrooms about ten years ago. Two friends of mine named Johnny had a little place, a sort of cellar, on Fifty-second Street where they kept coal and wood and ice. I was down there one evening bent on some coal and wood when Tony pointed to the ceiling and said “Corpo di Bacco, what’s that?” I looked up and there was a whole clump of mushrooms growing right out at me. Well, I let out a scream fit to wake a dead man–as a matter of fact, it did wake up a dead man who’d been in the corner for three days and he came over and tried to bite me. As I say, I stayed in bed nearly two weeks that time, but after I was well, I got this Frank and Johnny to put aside the place as a sort of permanent laboratory where I could study the mushrooms.

It will probably come as a mild shock to no one that there are all of four hundred different kinds of mushrooms. Four hundred and one, really, because when I looked up this fact in the World Almanac, I found a new variety growing out of Page 29. Now, what are mushrooms? Nothing more or less than toadstools, though why they are called toadstools is beyond me; I have yet to see a toad sitting on a stool, although I have combed all the books dealing with the subject. Of course I haven’t had a chance to study the books yet–all I’ve been able to do is comb them, but still, it seems a peculiar name to give an unoffending mushroom, doesn’t it? It was probably made up by someone who hated mushrooms and thought he could get even. But why should anybody hate mushrooms? The little fellow goes about his business quietly; once in a while he kills a family of twenty or thirty people, but then, what right has anyone to have a family of twenty or thirty people? I was wrapping up some laundry in a newspaper recently and saw a note about a man who had had thirty children. This sort of thing can’t go on indefinitely, no matter what the man says.

In the eleven years I have been studying mushrooms at my laboratory on Fifty-second Street, I have seen cases of almost uncanny intelligence among my specimens. I had a Peppery Lactarius growing in a glass right next to a Fistulina Hepatica, or Beefsteak Mushroom. (If you can imagine a purple beefsteak covered with short prickly spines growing out of a tree, you will easily see why science chose this name, and you can then explain it to me.) Well, one morning I made the rounds of my collection and found that during the night Miss Peppery Lactarius had moved into Mr. Beefsteak Mushroom’s jar. I woke up my assistant, put a little ice on his head, and quizzed him. But no; he had been right there on the floor since eleven-thirty the night before. To this day we have never been able to solve the riddle, and it is still referred to by superstitious folk in the neighborhood as “The Mystery of the Migrating Mushrooms.” I am thinking of bringing it out in book form, perhaps adding a mysterious puffy toadstool in a black hat who was seen skulking near by.

But how to tell the poisonous mushroom from the harmless variety, since both are found in the same localities, have the same habits, and the same dull look around the face? Ah–don’t be surprised—-the mushroom has a face, and if you look very closely and carefully, you will see the merest hint of an eye, two noses, and a lip. For purposes of identification, we have what we call the Alfred Zeigler test, named after Professor Schaffner of the University of Rochester. The mushrooms are boiled for twenty minutes and their jackets removed. They are then placed in a frying pan with a cubic centimeter of butter, a gram of pepper, and a penny-weight of coarse salt, after which they are subjected to 137 degrees of heat Fahrenheit in the laboratory oven, removed, and placed on antiseptic paper plates. Fifteen minutes after they are eaten, a reaction will be noted. If the mushrooms are harmless, the subject will want to lie down, remove his or her collar, and roll over on his or her face. If poisonous, the balance of the mushrooms should be thrown out, as they are
unfit to consume.

The mushroom often turns up in some really remarkable forms. Sir Joseph Mushroom, from whom their name is derived, tells an interesting anecdote. A cask of wine had been left undisturbed in a cellar for three years, in some country other than the United States. At the end of that time, the cask was found firmly fastened to the ceiling by a large mushroom which had grown as the wine leaked out. The cask was quite empty when found, and how the mushroom looked was nobody’s business. Sir Joseph, by the way, no longer raises mushrooms; he has settled down quietly in Surrey, where he devotes himself to raising bees, but there is still a reminiscent gleam in his eye when Irene Adler is mentioned.

Little else remains to be told. Fred Patton, the former Erie train boy, still continues to rise in Mr. Proskauer’s mercantile establishment on Ann Street, and Gloria Proskauer blushes prettily whenever Fred’s name is uttered. This, however, is all too seldom, as the unfortunate Fred was hit in the vertical cervix by a baked apple last New Year’s Day and succumbed almost instantly. And so we leave the little snitch right smack up behind the eight-ball, and a good end for the mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing petty thief, if you ask me.

The Leaves


Well, the leaves started falling in earnest over the past week. With the help of a little rain last night there’s now drifts of up to eight feet tall in the backyard, with a strong undertow when I go out to put recyclables in the giant monster bin. We’ve had to tie a safety rope to the Bauhaus Monstrosity bench we have in the front yard, so passers-by can tack their way down the sidewalk, and the squirrels have assembled a modest lighthouse by the pond so their kind can navigate safely. Also I’m pretty sure I saw a flock of maple leaves attacking Tippi Hedren. Going to be a heck of a November.

Once Again, Our Fish Protest


We had to put a net up over our pond in the backyard, because there’s about 700 trees in our and the immediate neighbor’s yards, and come this time of year we get approximately every leaf in the world falling on them, and it already takes roughly from the 15th of November through the following July to rake them off the land. The water just gets unmanageable. So we put up a net that catches the leaves for two or three days, then bows into the water, and then every weekend we go out and haul in a fresh supply of leaves which we bring to the farmer’s market, where the organizers throw sticks at us until we flee. It’s a very civilized process.

This year, though, we’ve got fish, and it’s their first autumn in our pond. They saw the net going up and now they keep banging on the side door and saying, “Hey, man, I thought we were cool. What’s with the net?” And they just are not getting the leaf thing. Also, they’re tired of this cooler weather and told us we should turn the summer back on. I’d like to oblige but we’re almost out of summer coupons for this year.

Higgs Boson Wins Nobel Prize


There’s an engaging little spoof over at the Scientific American that claims the Nobel Prize in Physics is going to the Higgs boson rather than to any of the many, many people who deserve some attention and reward for that. It’s a little science-y but I think makes all the context clear enough. From Ashutosh Jogalekar’s report, so you can judge if you want to read the whole thing:

Since interviews with the particle could not be held for obvious reasons, the media was instead shown a graph displaying a bump supposed to indicate its existence. A member of CERN’s PR division also wore a large, squishy Higgs costume, doing his best to mimic the behavior of the fleeting particle as he whizzed from one end of the room to another, hid and emerged from behind a curtain and breathlessly answered questions about gauge symmetry and vacuum fluctuations.

Missing International Rabbit Day


“I imagine you’re wondering why I’m not talking to you,” said our pet rabbit. This was the first I’d heard he wasn’t talking to me, but I’m like that. I looked thoughtful, or confused, which is about right for me any time. “You know Saturday was International Rabbit Day?”

“I do. And did.”

“And you’ve noticed that I’m a rabbit, right?”

I allowed that I had.

“And we didn’t do anything international!”

“I … talked about you online. I’m pretty sure someone from Canada heard about you.”

“And I’ve never even been to Canada! How international a rabbit can I be when I haven’t even been there?”

“You haven’t even been to Ohio, either — ”

“I’ve missed Canada and Ohio! I’ll never be a world traveller at this rate!”

“You hate travel. You spent two days sulking when we put you upstairs in the air conditioned room this summer.”

“You can’t go to other countries if you won’t even stand going upstairs.”

“You could bring other countries in here. It’s the least you could do for International Rabbit Day.”

I considered telling him he was a Flemish giant, so was already kind of International by not being in … and then I realized I couldn’t explain where the Flemish were from without getting in more trouble. So I promised to do something about it next year.

In Which I See Through A Chipmunk


So I was eavesdropping on that troupe of squirrels doing improv in the backyard when I noticed there was this chipmunk, dressed in a bow tie of all things, looking up at me and grinning in this way that just screams “sunflower seeds”. I tried to just sort of smile and shuffle off without committing to anything, but he started talking about how great it was that this gang had a venue in which to perform now, and how they were looking ready for great things, and how somebody really sharp with a modest investment could see them rocket out of the sticks and into at least regional importance.

I tried not to look offended that my backyard — mine, mind you — was being called the sticks, and I didn’t explain that all the giggling from the pond was not because it’d been installed as a laugh track (“it’s wonderfully awkward, laughing at all the wrong beats, it really throws the performances into this whole new area, and challenges the audience” which what?) but because we’d put fish in it.

Still, I made my getaway as quickly as I could. I know when somebody’s warming up to hitting me for cash.

Robert Benchley: Are You Between the Ages of 7 and 94 ?


[ If I haven’t burned you out on Robert Benchley’s Of All Things, please accept this offering. It is addressed to those who can say “yes” to the question, “Are You Between The Ages of 7 and 94?” ]

If so, what this eminent growth specialist says here applies directly to you and to your family

EVERY man, woman and child between the ages of 7 and 94 is going through a process of growth or metamorphosis, whether they know it or not. Are you making the most of this opportunity which is coming to you (if your age falls within the magic circle given above) every day of your life? Do you realize that, during this crucial period, you have it in your power to make what you will of yourself, provided only that you know how to go about it and make no false steps? As you grow from day to day, either mentally, morally or physically, you can say to yourself, on awakening in the morning:

“To-day I will develop. I will grow bigger, either mentally, morally or physically. Maybe, if it is a nice, warm day, I will grow in all three ways at once.”

And, sure enough, when evening finds you returning home from the work of the day, it will also find you in some way changed from the person you were in the morning, either through the shedding of the dry epidermis from the backs of your hands (which, according to one of Nature’s most wonderful processes, is replaced by new epidermis as soon as the old is gone), or through the addition of a fraction of an inch to your height or girth, or through some other of the inscrutable alchemies of Nature.

Think this over as you go to work, to-day, and see if it doesn’t tell you something about your problem.

Brainy Thinking


I bet you haven’t gone thinking about neuroscience in ages, possibly longer, which is fine, but it’d be pretty caddish of you neuroscientists out there to take me up on the bet. You should have better things to do than pick quarrels over my rhetorical tricks anyway. That’s something for the advance team of offensive forensics experts to be doing. Let them have their glory.

Anyway, the neat thing about neuroscience is that most of what anyone knows about it is wrong, and what they know that isn’t wrong is so misleading it would be easier if it were just wrong instead. For example, everyone has heard about how we only use ten percent of our brain. What’s misleading about this point is that we don’t say what it is we use that ten percent of our brains for. Some use it for thinking, some use it for light crafts, some use it as a place to keep the spatulas. It’s the other ninety percent that ought to interest us, because that’s the part the brain is using for its own purposes, and it’ll tell us what those are only when it’s good and ready.

One of the greatest breakthroughs in understanding the workings of the brain came about in a horrible railroad construction accident on September 13, 1848, a mere 145 years to the day before the debut of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, which hasn’t got anything to do with this. But in 1848 one Phineas Gage was doing some railroad construction thing of the kind they did in 1848 when it exploded and sent a long metal bar through his head. Amazingly, Gage lived, but his personality was radically changed. Whereas before he was comfortable holding his head high and looking around at people, suddenly he did a lot more staring down at his shoes. And according to reports, while he had in the past walked into rooms of all sorts the way anyone does, afterward he could only enter by turning his head or, better, his whole body to the side and sneaking in. “Clearly,” thought doctors, “the metal bar in his head has altered his mental state. He seems to now believe he’s in California,” which was correct. Thus metal bars clearly don’t diminish one’s ability to tell whether one has moved from Vermont to San Francisco, but neuroscientists hope to find something which will. “We’re not sure,” they said recently at a conference in Rutland, California, “But we think fiddling with Google Maps will do it.” It’s worth nothing that Gage also grew a lot angrier around people with magnets, which is one of the reasons he stopped hanging around refrigerator doors.

More recent and important breakthroughs came in the 1950s and 1960s when the corpus callosum, the connections between the hemispheres, in brains of certain epileptic patients was experimentally severed. If one then showed a picture of, say, a paper clip to the right eye, controlled by the left hemisphere, then the nations of the Western hemisphere would think they were seeing a paper clip, while the nations of the Eastern hemisphere would just get all tense from the idea that someone was trying to clip their papers but not know why. While these were startling results, the resulting increase in world tension was judged not to be worth it, especially after science fiction writers began publishing satires of how the world would get blown up over a tragic clip-related misunderstanding, and we bought everybody staples under the Great Stapling program. The inability of the world’s markets to produce enough staplers would result in a crisis in 1974, but nobody noticed because there was too much else going on.

The newest approach to understanding the brain’s functioning is to measure how much oxygen different parts consume while the brain does work, because we got some great brain-part-oxygen-consumption machines in the mail and since we didn’t order them, we get to keep them for free, because we remember those public service announcements where the Eskimo gets an electric fan in the mail. It turns out the brain uses oxygen the most rapidly when it has to haul a wheelbarrow full of pebbles out to the garden, then slightly less rapidly when it’s using a block-and-tackle system to pull an engine mount out of a car, and the least oxygen of all when the brain is trying to blow a fly off the table by blowing at it. These results have surprised nearly everybody except the flies.