And Now What’s Wrong At City Hall


So some more of the problems with Lansing City Hall have come to light. Apparently there’s a fairly important service hallway on the fifth floor that’s blocked by a dragon. Not a mean dragon, mind you. It’s actually pretty soft and cuddly by all descriptions. It’s just that since he settled in, he grew too large and now he can’t quite fit through the hallways and has been stuck in place a while. Says the last thing he remembers before getting stuck was reading the newspapers about the Penn Central bankruptcy. So it sounds like he’s a railroad fanatic or one of those people who would read even the boring articles in the newspaper. Fine enough. But he is blocking access to one of the larger supply closets as it is. I can’t imagine everyone else is waiting for those supplies since they’ve been blocked off like that since 1970. Still, think of the proceeds that could be raised from auctioning off genuine 1970-era NOS typewriter ribbons and manilla envelopes and stuff. I have to admit this whole replacing-City-Hall project is sounding more sensible.

Robot Motherhood Update


So we’ve got this worrisome story courtesy Reuters: Robot mother builds and improves its own children. According to Matthew Stock’s report, researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Having Never, Ever Seen A God-Awful Movie developed a robot that builds its own “child” robots, tests them out, and improves the next design.

So far the MommaBot merely “constructs a design using between one and five plastic cubes that are stuck together using glue”. This isn’t too alarming, although I note my mother sent me to make stuff by sticking together styrofoam balls on toothpicks. These would immediately fall apart again, thus ending any peril from styrofoam-ball-robot technology. Glue is an obvious game-changer.

I suppose the saving grace is that since this is British researchers working on it, the immediate goal of all this robot-building-robot experimentation will be a robot that can build its own model railroad. Then on to a robot that can look at its own model railroad while telling everyone no, they may not play with it because they’ll disrupt the timetable. Eventually we’ll need almost no people to fret about model railroads at all, although who knows what we’ll do instead.

Ridiculous Episodes Of History


Tamim Ansary’s book Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan describes the first time Afghanistan sent a diplomatic mission to the United States:

The Afghan delegation came to New York in 1922, but as it happened a ludicrous adventurer hit town at the same time: an old woman named “Princess” Fatima Sultana … She came festooned in jewels and looking like every New Yorker’s image of a Theda Bara-style exotic from the mysterious east. Her jewels included one particularly large diamond she called the Darya-i-Noor (River of Light). She was travelling with a rascal who called himself the Crown Prince of Egypt. …

To make matters worse, these two con artists fell victim themselves to an American con artist named Weymouth, who convinced them he was with the Department of the Navy and said he would present Fatima to the president of the United States — he had his eye on that diamond. The New York press didn’t know which was the real diplomatic delegation, and they picked the one they found more entertaining: Princess Fatima and her entourage.

Princess Fatima would lose her diamond and run out on her hotel bill. The actual Afghans got ignored. And we have to wonder how the United States lived through a bad episode of Top Cat. I don’t mean to make myself sound too intelligent. I was nine before I realized I was smarter than some episodes of Three’s Company. But I was definitely only eight years old before I couldn’t buy the fake-exotic-royalty-in-New-York plot. The heck, people?

But the incident reflects something historians hope you won’t ask about. Until about 1975 the whole world was so casually run that anybody could put anything over on anybody else, anytime they wanted. For example, from 1927 through 1931 the cash-strapped Soviet Union stayed afloat by selling counterfeit trains on the New York Central. Passengers would gather around a marvelous painting of what looked very much like a train. They’d only notice fourteen hours later that neither it nor they had gone anywhere. The scheme finally ended when the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to laugh about this, but they had just bought track rights through the Canadian province of “Roberta”.

In 1852 a group of Americans hoped to take over Cuba for the benefit of the Cubans, they kept telling themselves and everyone else. So they built a replica of the White House and the Capitol in Havanna out of some wood they had left over from another project, to lure the American government over. As it happens they only managed to fool the vice-president, William R King. He didn’t die of embarrassment at being fooled, but when he left for the real Washington he only got as close as Alabama.

In 1817 Great Britain annexed the Caribbean island of Saint Martin O’The Lee. Its exact location was unknown to everyone and the land was proven in 1932 to never have existed. Despite that, sectarian violence continues along the arbitrarily-drawn border known as Chamberlain’s Belch. That’s named for Neville Chamberlain, but not that Neville Chamberlain. Also not the other Neville Chamberlain you’re telling people you thought of right away because you want to seem smarter to them. It’s the other other one.

In the mid-30s a mysterious figure claiming to be another brother wormed his way into Popeye’s nephews. The hoaxer would appear in shorts for over a decade before vanishing, probably absconding, never to be heard from again. And the amazing thing is that five years after that another of the so-called nephews would vanish, revealing he had been an impostor all along too.

In 1645 an Italian lawyer presented King Louis XIV with a moon for Venus. Astronomers kept insisting they saw it for over a century. It wasn’t until 1762 that everybody involved admitted that they had to be dead of old age by then. And so it they were, and we went back to ignoring that big shiny moon-like thing hovering around Venus. Don’t stare.

Dozens of Rhode Island cities in the 19th century fell for groups of organized rowdies presenting themselves as the state government. The actual state government chased after them, wielding brooms and biographies of Roger Williams, for decades before the last of them finally set up in New London (“Mystic”), Connecticut as a government-in-exile. They’re still there.

We’ve tightened things up since those days. Today, anybody can still put anything over on anybody else. But they have to go through a metal detector and put their keys and loose change in a plastic bin first. It’s progress.

First-Class Mailings


A couple years ago I picked up a National Parks Passport Book, which is much like my coin collection in that it’s another thing in which I can put other things, until such time as I either lose the Book, or until I die and the executor of my estate finally throws it out. Unlike the coins, this one collects stamps, some of them the kind you lick, others the kind you just rub on an ink pad at a National Park gift shop and then smash into paper. This hobby has many benefits, beyond giving me a reason to nervously approach a cashier at a National Park gift shop and ask if they have the Passport Book stamp, and then repeat myself because I didn’t quite make myself clear, and then ask up to three other people while I wither and die of embarrassment before they find the stamp. For example, if I ever want to know on what day I visited Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House Where Lincoln Died I can flip to the appropriate section of my Passport Book, where I won’t find it, because I stamped those in my Letterboxing log book, which is a totally different ink-stamp-based hobby.

Anyway, I had a great chance to lose my Passport Book recently, when I visited my parents, who last year moved to South Carolina, catching South Carolina completely off-guard. We visited some of the National Parks in the area, as well as some lighthouses, since my love has a Lighthouse Passport Book good for another set of ink stamps, although the specific lighthouse we found had no stamp, which invokes an honestly complicated series of rules because it turns out lighthouse-visiting is a complicated hobby. The important thing is I left my Passport Book behind, and my parents eventually found it.

My father mailed it to me, and he packaged it himself. I should explain, the book is a little slimmer than a small paperback novel, the kind you might mail by buying one of the small-size bubble-wrap mailers and stuffing in and wondering if the self-sealing flap was going to come loose in actual mailing. That’s because you don’t share that side of my family’s heritage of over-wrapping.

I don’t want to brag but we’re really very good at it, if by “good” you mean “can routinely include so much packing tape that the package outweighs the delivery vehicle” and if by “delivery vehicle” you mean the “cargo-carrying Boeing 777 Freighter, piloted by elephants, who came to the airport right from the Mongolian buffet, which had just got a delivery in of ginger-spiced gravity”. That bubble-wrap mailer with the self-sealing flap you might worry about? Well, we’d put a layer of tape over that. And another one to cover the edge between the tape and the mailer. And maybe staple the envelope end closed just to be sure. And weld the staple in place. And glue a patch over the weld. When we put it in the mail, it’s never getting out again, and that’s not even considering what we do to make sure the address doesn’t get smeared in transit.

I don’t want it to sound like this package-wrapping thing is a chore or even unpleasant. It’s got an outright merry side. Every Christmas, for example, we bring out a present that my great-uncle Al gave to my father in 1949, and we all take turns trying to unwrap it a little more. We believe we’re nearly one-sixth of the way through it, and you can imagine how thrilled we are since various hints in family lore suggest it might be a model train with Jersey Central “Blue Comet” line livery. And someday some distant descendant might finally inherit these generations of family moments, and actually get it open, and then tuck the present aware somewhere, wrapping it up for safety.

My father didn’t take wrapping my Passport Book up to the greatest possible extremes, but it still arrived safe and sound and within hours of when the package tracking service said it would. It came as a neat little bundle, wrapped in the paper bag he got from the grocery, and wrapped again in more grocery-bag paper just in case, and I was able to get it open using just my fingers, the kitchen scissors, our pet rabbit’s incisors, the table saw, several cries to the heavens about the injustice of it all, and the smaller scissors I use to trim my moustache. Everything came through in great shape and I’m fairly confident that I haven’t lost the book yet.

And The Golden Moment


Well, since people have been kind enough to tell me how to pronounce “quinoa” now I guess I don’t have much choice but to go visit Promontory Summit, Utah. I was pretty sure from the way I remembered it in history class that it was Promontory Point, Utah, by the way, which is at least closer to it than my father got since he figured he just had to reach Ogden, Utah, and maybe ask around. I’m still not clear on the difference between Promontory Point and Promontory Summit, but I suppose Wikipedia probably has a fair idea of the location where the Golden Spike for the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad Unless You Count The One In Panama, Which Does Honestly Seem Like Cheating, was laid.

That location, it turns out, is at Stanford University, located in Stanford Summit Point, California, which is not Utah, owing to certain technicalities. This makes it sound like a pretty good joke on those railroad millionaires who drove in the Golden Spike, since they obviously weren’t very good at it, until you notice that the National Park Service’s page about the Golden Spike National Historic Site warns how satellite navigators are liable to send visitors to the wrong place, so maybe they were just following directions and ended up in California by accident. Anyway, Utah or California or somewhere else, I guess I’ve got to go there. I’ll let you know.

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.

Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St John in: The Bell Boy


Well, why not carry on the Arbuckle-Keaton-St John theme, then? For today here’s their 1918 half-hour film The Bell Boy, featuring “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton as bellboys (and Al St John as the desk clerk), puttering around in gags set at a small-town hotel and then, as I believe every silent-era movie set in a hotel does, getting to foiling a robbery.

This movie has one of those moments that was just enlightening to me under a “how they used to do things”, as there’s a horse-drawn trolley and while I know I’d read about trolleys and railroad trains that used animals I somehow hadn’t really visualized them in the way that a couple seconds of this film allowed me to do.

The Journey, By Train


4:52 am. Passengers assemble at the East Lansing Train Station. Passengers will be screened for having gotten more than three hours of fitful, oft-interrupted sleep the night before. Those which have will be assigned a 25-page term paper on the subject of late 19th Century United States presidents and their understanding of how the emerging science of thermodynamics affects railroad painting, worth forty percent of the class, no makeups.

5:18 am. Passengers board the train to East East Lansing where the train service stops and they all get aboard a bus to take them to Toledo, arriving somehow at 3:12 am that same morning, only crankier. Through the bus trip the TV screens will be playing Something, Probably A Romantic Comedy Or Something, with the lower half of the screen glitched out and the audio just loud enough to hear the helicopters and explosions but not the dialogue. Three stars.

7:30 am. Bus arrives in Toledo to transfer to the train station, but immediately gets lost because the driver attempts foolishly to follow “Route 2”, a highway of legendary and purely notional existence.

2:18 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard retrieves the bus from Lake Erie shortly before the desperately paddling passengers manage to cross the border into Ontario and thus provoke an international incident as many of them failed to bring adequate supplies of Canadian currency and someone is trying to pass off a FunZone Game Token as money.

10:40 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard finally gets the bus paddled to shore and after hiring sherpas brings the bus to the train station, whence the train zooms towards Pittsburgh, stopping only after fourteen minutes in order that a freight train with higher priority can be constructed and loaded with freight, a cargo consisting of passenger train cars headed the other direction. On-train Internet WiFi service is reduced from “sluggish” to “laughable”.

Day 2. 2:15 am. The train arrives in Pittsburgh and is immediately taken out over the Monongahela River and dangled by its couplers or whatever they have until every passenger has been subject to a review of the stuff left in the backseat of his or her car to be cleaned out “later, when it’s convenient”. The winner is the one who has the most obviously later-inconvenient item, with bonus points awarded if it is some kind of mould for the fabrication of solid metal objects.

3:20 am. The train just sits outside the Kennywood Amusement Park for a couple of hours to make everyone feel bad that they’re at an amusement park and they can’t go in, plus everything’s closed up. A conductor goes around reminding people they have 23 and a half pages to go and have barely thought about paint.

6:75 am. The train discharges its passengers that they may catch their connecting service, at the far end of the railway terminal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or maybe Charleston, West Virginia. Check signs for details.

8:26 am. Connecting service on the line to New York City departs wherever, with the conductor reminding people they have 22 and three-quarters pages and the font may not be larger than fourteen point. New sound-dampening cushions allow most of the ride to be soft and quiet except for the guy ranting about you’re not sure what except it’s definitely political and somehow it gets into what you do for your career and he gets that so wrong it’s hard to resist answering.

9:14 am. Thorough investigation of the train establishes that nobody is actually producing the rant. Clearly the problem is a quarrelsome ghost of annoying conversations gone by. Internet service upgrades to “pages load, but only the banner ads and that swirling dot pattern web sites started doing like two years ago in place of showing stuff”.

11:57 am. Start of a four-hour delay so we can sit by the side of a large pile of rocks. Inspires several passengers to include a section about presidential rocks, which falls apart when nobody can remember the name of Gustav … uh … Mount Rushmore Guy without the Internet.

6:12 pm. End of the four-hour delay.

8:55 pm. Train approaches Hoboken, pauses so that passengers can be dangled sideways until the blood rushes to their wrists.

10:10 pm. Arrival, Penn Station, New York City. Technically, legally part of New Jersey because of the lease NJ Transit has on that platform. We are given extensions on the paper.