In case you still needed help to understand my character


Ordinarily, I respond to e-mails with the sort of alacrity you saw in the 17th Century, when The Honourable North-East Passage Company would drop a note to their factor who had skipped that whole north-east part and somehow found himself in Sri Lanka, and it would take three and a half years and a colonial war to get there, and then the response would come the next time there was a transit of Venus. This even for the smallest, most petty things, like reassuring my siblings, who I like and who like me, that everything’s fine and hope you’re having a merry [ checks what month it now is ] Halloween.

But! My father e-mailed me with a calendar question? I am on it. The only thing holding me back is the need to double-check my sources and then boom.

What I’m saying is, guy who wrote me in 2017 about gathering some Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanfics together? Could you drop me another note and maybe ask me about when we’ll next have a Leap Day that’s a Sunday, so I’ll be sure and answer? Thanks. It will be 2032.

Is This A Bad Impression?


Making impressions is important, because reputation is the modern currency, the old currency of getting paid having been discontinued when employers found out they were expected to do the paying. So I want to talk about how to tell if you’re making a bad impression. And I have to explain that I’m talking about the impression you make on a hypothetical person who hasn’t got any fixed properties, including existence. Thing is I’m sticking to the male pronouns for this person not because I don’t think women can be hypothetical but because when I read this over, imagining me having these interactions with someone female, it comes across as pretty skeevy. I’m trying to make a less skeevy impression.

  • On meeting him, did you leap into his arms? Exuberance is nice, but to be done successfully you have to make sure you’re leaping into a load-bearing set of arms. To be on the safe side wait until you meet this person’s fork lift and then jump onto its … uh … the things out front that actually do the lifting, because those are considerably stronger. (See, right away this is trouble, since imagining me leaping into anyone’s arms is trouble but with a guy it might be hijinks and with a woman it comes across as battery.)
  • Do you wait for him to tell a joke before you laugh? Or do you just trust that he wouldn’t have paused if he weren’t telling a joke? I know it’s hard when you meet someone to both listen and not explode in panic at having to talk with someone, but, you don’t want to focus so much on not breaking into a panic that you have no idea what’s been said. He might have just asked, say, “Did you know they had filmed part of William McKinley’s inauguration?” and laughing just then will make him think you know how to spell Leon Czolgosz.
  • Did you throw up on him? In fact, did you have any body-produced fluids or semi-fluids emerge onto him except in a clearly defined context, such as you were giving blood in a process what required he smear it on his face or something like that? If you have this will probably count against you, even if it was to a greater purpose such as your showing off your prowess in washing other people off. (You see why I don’t want this hypothetical person to be female. You can throw up on guys and have it be just in the spirit of a merry little jest, until they start punching anyway.)
  • Did he catch you stealing his iPhone? There are very few times in a relationship when you can steal the other person’s consumer electronics without it leaving at least some impression of you being a mean-spirited sort. This goes double when you’re first meeting, because whatever kind of person you might be in the long haul just isn’t obvious. If you’ve got to swipe anything, don’t get caught, or if you just can’t do without, then get caught stealing his BlackBerry.
  • On meeting him, did you stare wide-eyed, murmur inaudibly, and then flee to behind a nearby wall? If you did, was it through a door or other partition or did you just break through the drywall? If it wasn’t drywall, then was it plaster you broke through? Any of these are likely to leave a bad impression, unless you were trying to establish yourself as an expert in tool-free demolition work. There’s only a small market for that, and it’s fiercely competitive what with tool-free demolishers being able to run into each other and knock each other down, so he would probably understand your trying to make an impression. Whether you want to do spec work before even the possibility of a contract is discussed is something you have to talk about with everyone on your tool-free demolition freelancers web forum, because then you can get into tedious arguments about how whatever it was you did is just wrong. The murmuring is probably a mistake too. (See, this one feels worse imagining the other person being hypothetically female.)

You know, actually, this whole thing is coming across as a mistake. I think I’m giving people the impression I’m always worried I’ll do ludicrously absurd things as if I had absolutely no control over what my body was doing at any moment. I probably shouldn’t even let you see this. I’m sorry. Please don’t think worse of me.

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.