Triangle. You’re simple, solid, reliable. While you maybe fear being thought unimaginative, you feel a special affinity for triangles: they’re the shape that introduced the young you to the term “obtuse”. Knowing the word gave you many times you could insult a younger sibling without their catching on, and after they did catch on, let you insist that you were just describing the triangle they were making by doing something or other, and then they punched you. Good times.

Rectangle. You were caught off-guard by the question and figured this was the safest answer. Nobody’s ever going to say your judgement is bad, just vanilla. But, you answer, vanilla is only the most popular flavor of anything on the planet, even better-liked than chocolate, pentagons, fresh garlic toast, and the glue on security envelopes.

Pentagon. You actually like five-pointed stars but you’re not sure if they count as polygons.

Hexagon. You read somewhere about how this was the most efficient shape and you’re going to stick with that even though you never learned efficient at what. Alternatively, you play a lot of area-conquest strategy games and just like thinking about all these many paths of hexagons and having at least twelve types of cards to keep track of things. Alternatively, you are a flock of bees.

Heptagon. You don’t know what a heptagon is but you like the old-timey 1920s-slang feel to any word that starts “hep”.

Parallelepiped. You so enjoy the sound of this word you don’t care that it’s a polyhedron, not a polygon. If asked to name an actual proper polygon you will try to distract the questioner. “Is that a flock of bees?” you might say, pointing to the city’s new hexagon district, which is very efficient but has lousy traffic signals.

Circle. You have never, not once, ever completed a task without an argument about what the instructions precisely mean.

Parallelogram. You like how it suggests a rectangle, but by tilting to the side one way or another it looks like it’s moving faster. Or like it’s braking really fast. You can’t get just any shape to look that lively.

Heptadecagon. You are a mathematics major and were crazy impressed by the story of how Carl Friedrich Gauss figured out how to draw a regular 17-sided polygon with straightedge and compass. You’re still so impressed by this that you’re angry they inscribed a 17-pointed star, instead of a 17-sided polygon, on Gauss’s gravestone. You’ve never seen a picture of his gravestone, and you haven’t ever looked up how Gauss did this 17-gon. “It was really easy,” Gauss once explained. “I just drew a 17-pointed star and then connected the points.” You’re nevertheless still offended on his behalf.

Chiliagon. You were paying attention that day in philosophy class where they talked about a regular 1000-sided polygon and how you couldn’t even tell that wasn’t a circle. Very good.

Octagon. But not the stop-sign octagon. The octagon you get by putting, like, one long skinny table off the center of another long skinny table, because it looks like that shouldn’t even be an octagon but it is, and anybody can count edges and see it is, and that’s just great.

Myriagon. You like that chiliagon idea but think it’s getting just a little too much attention so you’re going for a 10,000-sided regular polygon instead. This is the sort of thing people warn new acquaintances you do.

Trapezoid. You have loved this shape ever since you first heard about it, and were able to go home and ask your little sibling if they wanted to see a trapezoid, and they said sure, and you informed them that they were a zoid and you grabbed their arm and wouldn’t let go, and said now that’s a trap-a-zoid and they ended up yelling and punched you with their free arm. That spot on your arm was sore for weeks. Good times.

Megagon. You’re the person who dragged the philosophy class into arguing whether it mattered that the Trolley Problem wouldn’t literally happen exactly like that, instead of letting the class explore the point of the problem about whether it’s more ethical to actively cause or to passively allow harm. Sigh. Fine. You are unimaginably clever. Now go play outside.

Dodecagon. You were trying to express fondness for that 20-sided die shape and then halfway through remembered that’s a polyhedron but you were committed. Had you started out with polygons in mind you would have said “heptagon”. The dice shape is the “icosahedron”. The dodecahedron is the 12-sided die. This is how everything in your life goes.

## More identity explorations as we move into the plague summer

Here are some more identities you could develop while it’s safe here, now, what with nobody knowing what to do.

You could be the person who floats their head to the side of the screen, letting it drift sideways up and down, in every group video chat. This is what I do. Cut it out. We may be technically correct that Ernie Kovacs would do this, but only David Letterman and I care. Also, as mentioned last week, it’s most often a bad idea to do things like me. It involves a lot of books set across the tops of other books on bookshelves until the whole thing collapses.

You could, though, develop some particular niche hobby to incredible, almost cartoon-like depth. This is a great idea. For instance, I know two people who are amazingly deeply into squirrels. Everyone they know is always sending them squirrel plush dolls and videos of every squirrel being cute or clever on the Internet. Every report of where a squirrel, say, causes a stock market panic because they chewed through an Internet cable. Every time Mark Trail has a giant squirrel talk over a log cabin. They’re so renowned for being into squirrels that their hobby’s self-sustaining now. Their friends do all the work, and all they have to do is sometimes acknowledge that yeah, that squirrel sure got onto that bird feeder all right.

You could become that person with an amazing stock of music knowledge. For example: remember 1981? That year, three-eighths of all sounds were radio plays of the Theme to The Greatest American Hero. (Believe it or not!) I know, I’m surprised too. I remember 1981. I would have sworn it was at least three-and-a-half eighths of all sounds. Anyway, the guy who sang that, Joey Scarbury? He went on, with Desiree Goyette, to record “Flashbeagle”. You know, for the Charlie Brown special It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. Yes, Desiree Goyette, the voice of Irving’s other girlfriend Brenda from the 1987 Cathy cartoon. Anyway, drop a fact like that into any conversation and you’ll have changed it forever! I’m afraid that’s about all the music knowledge I have for you. Sorry. It has to be your thing, not mine, anyway.

You could become a know-it-all, but one who tempers every statement by prefacing it with “it’s my understanding that”. This doesn’t work. Also, it’s the kind of nonsense I do, and again, you should avoid doing things like I do.

You could be a person with a deep-dive podcast into some small mystery of life. Like, you could be the person who finally solves why the nutritional information for a noodle packet gives you both the cooked and the uncooked nutrition. Like, are there an appreciable number of people who’ll eat the Hamburger Helper mix — dry shells, powder and all — without any hamburger or water or help or anything? Who are the people tearing open packets of ramen to eat them raw? Where are they? Are they coming after us? Are they getting nearer? At the end of fourteen deeply thoughtful segments you come to the realization that everybody runs at minimum about 25% freak and, you know? If your freak turns out to be “chomps down on raw Noodle-Roni”? That’s fine. It’s not like you’re hurting anyone like you would if your freak had something to do with, I don’t know. Enchanting poodles or anything that’s professionally titled “arbitrage” or something. The good thing is if you do enough of this series, your audience may start doing fan art or sending in tips and then the thing becomes self-sustaining.

You could become a neighborhood legend. You maybe imagine that requires an incredible load of effort, such as by stealing three golf carts from the course on the north side of town, chaining them together, and RV’ing your golf cart train around the neighborhood park. Not at all. You can make do with two golf carts chained together, if the people who are Extremely Upset Online in the neighborhood Facebook group are representative.

What’s important is not so much what you do but that you choose something that feels right to you, a person you are trying to not be like. There are ways that this makes sense.

## Some further explorations of identity in the Plague Spring

So things are still a bit rough. I’m understating. On the roughness scale, which starts at 1 and goes up to “fell off the roof, scraped down the porch overhang, then plummeted into the crabapple bush”, things are averaging around “ … and then dropped into the wheelbarrow full of lava rocks heaped on the gravel driveway”. Still, this is a chance to try out a new identity, and be ready to unleash it on a changed and unsuspecting world. Forming a new identity is tough, but you can use some templates. It’s all right to try being the same person someone else is. Your attempt will be different from everyone else’s, and that makes your them a different them than their them is as you see it. Yeah, that sentence made me dizzy too. Best to move on. Here’s a few options to consider instead:

You could be the person who puts their lawn waste in collection bags from regional stores from other parts of the country. This is a good way to lightly bewilder the neighborhood. “This is Lansing, Michigan,” neighbors will say, if you live in Lansing, Michigan. “The nearest Price Chopper is in Syracuse! Are you driving seven and a half hours out of your way, crossing through Canada, to get these or do you have people mailing them to you?” They won’t ask you about it, but you’ll collect many excited looks from your neighbors.

You could be a person who can explain to me what exactly ‘var’ does in Javascript. I have to warn you, this is a tough one. Oh, for non-computer people: Javascript is what lets your web browser be slow, and make all the things on a page jump around until you give up reading it. It’s how web sites keep you from reading them anymore. Anyway, ‘var’ is this thing that sometimes you have to put in, except you don’t have to, so you don’t, and then sometimes it stops working, until you put it back in? I don’t know. I’ve had this explained to me like thirty times in the last twenty years and I still think it’s a prank whipped up by Javascript Master Command. Maybe it does something, but I don’t think it does, and anyway, I’m not going to remember why it does that.

You could become an immortal comic legend. This one is easy, in comparison. It just takes one step. Work out some kind of wordplay so that, after you’ve said your good joke, someone else can respond “… literally” and have that be a good joke too. I don’t have any idea what that would look like. But there was this paper in the Journal of Theoretical Joke Structures last month which said one can exist.

You could try being me. I recommend against it. Not that I can’t mostly put up with me. It’s that being me involves a lot of standing up from a comfortable enough chair, walking four feet, rubbing my hands, and deciding to sit back down again. It’s not much of a pastime. But when you consider what my knees are like it’s a lot of strain to no good purpose. Sometimes they make the noise your car makes when you have to replace that brake thing that’s \$600 but if the mechanic can find some spares, only be \$580. But, you know, I committed to being me, so who am I to say I was wrong to do that? Ask me when I’m staring at the ceiling at 5:30 am, tonight and every night.

You could be yourself, but two feet over to the left. This is attainable by just about everybody, unless their apartment is too small.

You could become a world-renowned puppeteer. You can even pick the world you want. They’re finding new ones all the time, so you can be renowned all over that world. How is anybody going to check on you? It’s not like they can get to the observatory any better than you can. You can even make up the world, and that’ll work with all your friends except the astronomers you know. And how many astronomers do you know? I mean well enough they feel like they should come to your parties but don’t? If you’re like me, and I still don’t recommend being me, you know four at most. You can get them to play along. Just agree to cover them for their new identities.

Anyway whoever you choose to be, good luck. Let me know how your knees work out.

## On the Problem of Identity During the Plague Spring

The quarantine month has been a pretty tough time, as measured by how often we’ve had to go to the basement and berate cinder blocks. It’s a better coping mechanism than punching the cinder blocks was. The cinder blocks aren’t taking this personally. They know they’re there as support. Emotionally speaking, cinder blocks are bricks. I don’t say that cinder blocks are also literally bricks, because I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble with the brick enthusiast community. I don’t need someone explaining how something essential to bricks is incompatible with the nature of cinder blocks, because I would find that fascinating. I would read three different books, each at least 280 pages, on the history of bricks. I’m already enough of a caricature of myself. I do not need to become even more of that.

But this lands me on my point four times as well as I had expected just three sentences ago. Honest, I was lost. My point is: a lot of us are having a rough time now because we don’t have anything to do. There’s no hanging out at barcades. You can’t even go to the pet store and stare at the baby guinea pigs. A lot of people don’t have jobs. Those who do, have those jobs gone all weird. Two months ago you would spend all morning in a meeting to resolve what five minutes of e-mail would have. Today, you spend all morning in e-mail exchanges to resolve what five minutes of meeting would have.

All these things that we would do evaporated. So now we face the gap between the stuff we do, and who we are, and who we figure we want to be. That’s tough stuff. I remember who I wanted to be, growing up: the astronaut who draws Popeye. It’s been an adjustment, learning that the person I am doesn’t want to make the effort it takes to draw Popeye. Or to convince the people who hire astronauts that they need someone on staff who’ll draw Popeye too. That one’s on me. I keep applying for astronaut jobs, but at the interviews I never ask if they’re bringing a Popeye-drawer on board. I just take it for granted that if they don’t list it on their web site, they’re not going to, and I don’t even respond to their offers. I’m only messing up my own life like this.

How to handle the gap between what kept you busy and what your identity is? This involves serious quiet, letting all the thoughts imposed from other people — well-meaning or advertisers — wash out. Think seriously about what you are when at rest, and see what residue of life remains. Then realize this is a hecking lot of work and the results are terrible. You know how, on your body, you have this indestructible nostril hair that every booger in the world condenses around? Your personality is like that, only worse. It starts with that time you were six and teased that kid Christian across the street because his name rhymes with the imaginary word “Ristian”. And it’s accumulated like that since then. No, you’re better off finding a new store-bought identity and putting that on.

There’s so many to choose from! You could be the person who cruises social media, finding folks who are screaming at CSS for not being able to do what seems like a simple CSS thing, and reassuring them that the problem is that CSS is not actually good at CSS things yet, and never will be. (CSS is that computer thing where, for no good reason, sometimes all the stuff in your web browser is 50% off the edge of the screen to the right.)

You could be a background character in a Studio Ghibli film. In these times you’ll definitely want to be in one of the lower-stress movies. Take up some role where you look over bunches of vegetables, that kind of thing. You’ll have to act nonplussed when a bunch of kids run through on some lightly daft whimsical adventure to help the ghost wolf reconcile with its family or something. So remember to look up exactly what “nonplussed” means. You want to know how to react.

Or you could try being an astronaut who draws Popeye. The drawing Popeye part should be easy, but the real trick is getting up into space. To do that, you’ll want to practice jumping until you’re so good at it you jump into outer space. Go practice right now! (Note to the rest of you: if you’re hired as astronaut they provide the outer space for you. I just want to get my competition for the job out of the way.)

The exact choice isn’t important. What matters is that you realize who you are. Then we can see about fixing that.

## Me Week: Posts About Doing Stuff

I need another low-impact, low-effort week so I’m going to do another round of posting to some of my older stuff and hoping new readers exist and will give them a try. Also, there’s comic strip stuff on my mathematics blog that maybe you’ll like too.

So. Here’s a piece that was called What You Missed At Karaoke Night until I realized there was a Sparks song that made a better reference. By Sparks I mean the long-running Ron and Russell Mael band. If you haven’t heard Sparks, you should give them a try. This thing started as a Statistics Saturday post and kept growing because it was easier to keep going until it was 700+ words rather than to edit it down.

What You Missed At Open Mike Night follows a similar path, and it’s one I like. A lot of little modest jokes that add up to a satisfying piece.

That feels a little thin overall so let me also put in one of my slightly deeper social-critique pieces. Personality: Can Something Be Done About This? is one of those observational bits that I think is good, but is maybe two rewrites away from being great. Maybe I’ll do that sometime when I need another low-impact week.

## Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose seven points today on rumors that there was some kind of debenture in need of examination or maybe coming due or something and that’s left everyone in a good mood of feeling all financial and whatnot.

# 269

## Personality: Can Something Be Done About This?

It’s a common longing. You run across a WordPress blog that’s thanking its 10,000th subscriber and its millionth page hit. The blog’s been around almost three months. You look at your own, soldiering on for years now and sometimes getting a comment besides your father saying “it’s great, I wish I understood a word”. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’ll explain.

I know why some blogs, some performers, some experience providers catch on. It’s personality. We pretend “personality” is something everybody has, but we’re fibbing. What we mean by “personality” is “stuff somebody does that other people wouldn’t choose to do themselves in that position”. It’s easy to form one. Just pick something other people wouldn’t do themselves, and do that. Then keep at it.

For instance, I like my mathematics blog. It’s comfortable writing and sometimes I do something I’m proud of. But I know it’s got this pleasant air of something safely ignorable all over it. If I wanted to change that I could. I’d use squirt mustard to write every equation on bread, and post photographs of that. The end of each post would be me eating this. Suddenly I’d have a blog people found interesting, if only to see when I eat enough mustard bread to regret my life. It would be a quarter of the way into explaining the Fredholm Alternative. I’d leave my readers in suspense about whether the Fredholm Alternative is a real mathematics thing or if I’m writing a 1970s political technothriller about fascist clones with space computo-germs. It’s both. INCLUSIVE OR! IT’S AN INCLUSIVE OR!

I won’t do that. Mustard photographs lousy and it’d be too much work to fix. And that’s part of why having a personality sucks. It’s a lot of effort to keep up. Edwin Land said, “do not do anything that anyone else can do readily”. While he was talking about making consumer cameras he’s right about making personalities too.

Even achieving personality isn’t an unvarnished good. When we say of someone, “he’s got quite the personality” we’re using all our available politeness. We’re trying to not continue, “that he’s using to bring the conversation back to common yet mistaken beliefs about the manufacture of float glass, again”. It’s fascinating, sure, but watching people do stuff we would rather not always is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing in a bright green outfit so eye-catching you can be seen through walls — “all part of my Chroma-Key cosplay, my dears”, you absolutely purr — or grabbing live porcupines and zerberting their bellies before they can file a stiff letter of protest. It’s thrilling to be part of such exotic goings-on, by which I mean being the part that watches without affecting it.

We like this sort of thing when we’ve got a safe distance from it and can flee without social penalty. It’s why personality does so well on stage and TV and online and in other places that have comforting, safe borders. When they venture outside those borders we’re dazzled and then disappointed, even if we’re smiling in the selfie they let us take. Too much personality’s a hard thing to take. If you have to deal with it all the time it gets to be kind of a prison.

But it’s a prison having a personality too. Once people know you’re going to react to something a particular way you have to keep doing it. A normal person can hear that chemists have discovered a new kind of industrial-grade blue dye and think anything they want about that. Someone with personality has to fit this news into what everyone expects. Suppose you’re the guy who knows a Yes song for every occasion, including karaoke night and the debut of new Tron movies. You know exactly what everyone you meet will talk to you about, forever. What if you somehow don’t have a Yes song relevant to industrial-grade color dye technologies? You’re doomed, or have to guess maybe They Might Be Giants have something on point. They don’t.

There’s some good news, anyway. If you show personality long enough it sustains itself, without your involvement. I know at least two people with such renowned interests in squirrels that they get every bit of squirrel-related toy, news item, or movie or TV show forwarded to them. Their friends do all the squirrel-appreciation for them. They don’t ever have to think about squirrels the rest of their lives.

So that’s why I’m not complaining about other blogs being way more popular, way faster, than mine. I didn’t even say I felt that. I just said it’s commonly felt. I don’t want to contract personality for that sort of thing. Should I have a personality at all? I don’t know; I’m doing well enough as it is. But then look back to Edwin Land’s advice, and consider the fate of Polaroid. It’s universally beloved and doesn’t really exist. How many of us will ever achieve that much?

To sum up: the concept of “personality” is a good idea, but it needs considerable work before it will be practical.