Editorial note. Due to an editing error last week’s chart included the number “1”, representing the number of deep-space spacewalks (as opposed to moonwalks) during Apollo 15. Although that statistic had been considered, the intention was to instead present the number of parachutes which failed to open during the (safe) splashdown. I regret the mistake and include the corrected chart here. Thank you for your understanding.
Reference: European History 1648 to 1789, R M Rayner.
There’s a point in Jules Rivera’s Mark Trail’s current story where Mark Trail’s in a nighttime car chase. He tells the driver to turn off the headlights. This confuses the pursuers, Diana Daggers and Bee Sharp, but only for a few moments. I’m not sure why it’s supposed to work. I get the idea is to make the car as invisible as possible at night and go in a direction that Daggers and Sharp can’t see. But it’s not clear in the panels that there’s anywhere to go. They can’t have gone far off the road, after all, not in the couple seconds we see. This might be a problem of the limited time and space the strip has. In a movie, one good overhead shot of a complicated city street would address the question. I’m sorry not to have a more definite answer.
We had two story threads going, last time I checked in. Mark Trail was in Los Angeles as his odd charms landed him a music video cameo with rapper Reptiliannaire. Meanwhile Cherry Trail’s landscaping company was having trouble with the Sunny Soleil homeowners association. The plots have nothing to do with one another. So the strip’s done two weeks with Mark and then a week with Cherry. For sake of clarity I’ll re-separate the plot recaps, and start with Cherry’s.
Cherry Trail saw her big landscaping project, the roundabout near the Planet Pancake diner, had been demolished. Violet Cheshire, of the Sunny Soleil society, tore out all the “savage jungle brush” in favor of butterfly bushes. Butterfly bushes, I learn from this, attract butterflies but are not good for them. Butterflies like the plants, but the larva they lay on them can’t eat the leaves, which sucks for the next generation of larvae.
So she calls her brother Dirk Davis. He’s one of those I-hate-the-government recluses who knows how to wrangle a herd of feral hogs onto a truck bed and leave them off where they can devour a landscaped roundabout in minutes. You know, like that friend your younger brother still has from high school somehow. It’s an awesome scene of destruction that leaves Cherry ashamed of what she wrought.
Also awesomely destroyed: Violet Cheshire, trying to drown her sorrows in pancakes and syrup. Cherry tries to say something consoling. “I mean, sometimes a pack of eight feral hogs will happen to appear at a reserve of invasive butterfly bushes between 11:35 and 11:55 on a Friday night,” she offers. Violet suspects Cherry knows something about the destruction. And, in a moment that surprised me, Cherry owned up. I’d had thought she could bluff through it. But she’s feeling guilty and Violet’s feeling desperate. They agree to work together fixing this.
Now to Mark Trail’s story. He was hanging out with Reptiliannaire and the Herp Hacienda gang. They suggest he hit the sack early, like, before sundown even. Mark eavesdrops. The gang is reminding each other why they’re angry at “Cricket Bro” Rob Bettancourt. (Yes, this is people telling each other stuff they already know. But I absolutely believe in a group of people talking about how they were all screwed by the same ex-friend.) He’s the tech-millionaire-turned-cricket-protein-seller who hosted the party they just came from. Bettancourt had sponsored the Herp Hacienda and their reptile-rescue(?) sideline. This until they learned he was using spying on them. (I’m not clear whether he was spying on the group or on the reptiles themselves. I’m also not sure why he would bother. But there is a streak of tech guy that figures everybody not them should be under surveillance, so, fine.) And he impounded Aparna’s laptop. She’d been developing an app for testing air quality for animals. This so people would be better able to judge when to keep animals indoors for safer breathing.
So this gives the heist a goal: get the laptop that has the impounded “Air For All” app code. I admit I don’t understand why Cricket Bro wants this suppressed, but accept it under the “tech millionaires are jerks” rule. I also don’t understand why Aparna didn’t have her own copy. I mean, they sell 256 GB Flash drives. But I’ll accept that as a “didn’t expect to need an off-site backup” case. I also don’t understand why she can’t rewrite it. Maybe it requires models that she no longer has access to. I grant that I would be much harder on these same plot points if they turned up in, say, Funky Winkerbean. But I feel justified in my anger at Funky Winkerbean. Rivera I’m willing still to suppose there are reasons for things not explained.
Mark Trail’s way into this heist idea. He’s got a history back to childhood of not liking Bettancourt. And he hasn’t stolen anything since those motorboats last plot. He’s overdue. At the party earlier Bettancourt offered Mark Trail “help” with his career. So Mark calls, feigning interest. Bettancourt’s got a great idea. How about some interaction between “Marky” Trail and his pop-science celebrity Professor “Killer” Bee Sharp?
The plan: Mark Trail will talk to Bettancourt long enough to distract him while the Herp Hacienda guys steal the laptop. (Why would the laptop not have been wiped clean? Aparna is betting on the tech guys being too lazy to bother. I accept this; I understand if you do not.) How do the Herp Hacienda gang get into Bettancourt’s facility when only Mark Trail was invited? Professor Bee Sharp is enough of a celebrity that the gang can say they couldn’t pass up the chance to get to meet him. And the Professor is enough of a narcissist to buy that.
Bettancourt has an even better idea than talking about a Mark Trail/Bee Sharp interaction. Why not have them do something for real right now? He knows a director and everything, and here he is. Also, instead of, like, two pop-science guys enthusing over one another, why not have them punch each other? So that’s why it’s a sudden boxing match.
A boxing match is good and distracting, though, and Aparna and crew have time to find the laptop. When they take it out of the charging docks, it sets off an alarm, though. It’s a race against time to upload the source code to the Internet, which the upload wins.
So now it’s about escaping. Bee Sharp’s manager, Diana Daggers, wants to catch Mark Trail on camera, “breaking and entering” the Cricket Bro tech labs. I don’t know why she thinks that’s important. I only have the knowledge of the law that you get from being on a student newspaper in the early 90s. But whatever laws Mark Trail did violate there, none of them were about breaking or entering. He came at the owner’s invitation. I also don’t get what’s important about getting him on camera fleeing. There were plenty of witnesses that he was there. They might even have video of him boxing with Bee Sharp. The thing to get him on is conspiring with people who stole company property. I don’t get where video of Mark Trail fleeing matters.
Daggers is angry about Mark Trail punching Bee Sharp, which, fair enough. But it was in a boxing match that Bee Sharp presumably agreed to.
Daggers and Sharp, in a faster car, chase Trail and gang. This leads to the headlight trick mentioned at the start of this essay. Since they’re found the moment they move, Mark Trail thinks of a better plan. That’s camouflage. Where to hide a green hybrid in the city on a weeknight? … Well, the farmers market, that’s where. I laughed. It’s silly, but jabs close enough to me that I respect it. I understand if you do not. Sharp concedes that Mark Trail has escaped … but also that this is not over.
What is over, though, is the window for my plot recapping here. We’ll see how these stories resolve over the weeks ahead and I’ll recap them in about three months, if all goes well.
Sunday Animals Watch
A neat and understated bit about the animals here? Nearly all of them have had some appearance in the comic strip dailies. Not always the same week as their Sunday appearance. Like, the Burrowing owls were mentioned as being around Los Angeles International Airport. And one’s seen in the daily strip when Mark Trail arrived in Los Angeles. I like that.
Sabal palms, 2 May 2021. Imported into southern California and somehow not an ecological disaster, which is a nice change of pace.
Burrowing owls, 9 May 2021. Hanging around LAX, which is nice.
Coyotes, 16 May 2021. Yes, roadrunners are coming.
Native grasses, 23 May 2021. I’d love to have more native grasses on our lawn but I live in mid-Michigan so the ecologically correct thing is to be a marshland. This is hard to mow.
Peregrine falcons, 30 May 2021. I’m old enough to remember when it seemed inevitable they were going to go extinct so, uh, it’s possible for good things to happen in the environment.
Mountain lions, 6 June 2021. The Sunday panel isn’t just listing all 640 common names for these animals, but it’s close.
Muscovy ducks, 13 June 2021. OK, did not know they were invasive. That’s inconvenient.
Butterfly bushes, 20 June 2021. I never even heard of these before this story but now I know of a new kind of invasive plant to feel bad about.
Black-tailed jackrabbits, 27 June 2021. Featuring illustrations of jackrabbits standing upright, and you’ll want to see that because they look weird when they do.
Feral hogs, 4 July 2021. Mark Trail points out how the 80s were an ecological disaster, which yes, but it understates how much everything else was a disaster. The eight-bit computers were pretty great, though.
Grizzly bears, 11 July 2021. Mark Trail takes a moment to process his feelings about the California Grizzly’s extinction, which I’m guessing is him playing to stereotype? Amusing, though.
Roadrunners, 18 July 2021. Will say I was worried for the roadrunners along the roads during Mark Trail’s car chase.
We’re at the Jack Kinney studios in 1960 today. The story’s by Raymond Jacobs and animation direction by Volus Jones and Ed Friedman. Please enjoy Popeye’s Folly.
It’s another cartoon with the Popeye-tells-Swee’pea-a-story frame. The device excuses setting a cartoon anywhere, anytime. It also excuses skipping any boring scenes. I was impressed that Popeye explained that Robert Fulton’s Clermont was “one of the first” steamboats ever built. It’s almost impossible to correctly dub the first of anything historic. So, points for precision to Raymond Jacobs. (And I’m not deducting points for calling the boat the “Clermont”, when Fulton called it the “North River Steamboat”. Clermont is a name — really, the name — by which it’s known.)
I like the setup for this, a story of Popeye’s great-(etc)-grandfathers, Popeye and Pappy, building their own steamboat. And facing down Brutus and Sea Hag, who’re trying to protect their own sailing ship interests. It’s a natural conflict, and it justifies ending things in a contest, a reliable conflict.
Much of the start is Popeye and Grandpappy trying to build a steamship at all. I could watch more of that. Yes, I’m a history-of-technology nerd. But there’s good jokes to make from struggling to invent a thing. The only scene that gets at that is the second attempt at a boat. The one that either Pappy or Popeye forgets to untie from the dock, and that rips apart. An engine that’s too much for the boat is a plausible enough problem. Forgetting to untie the ship seems like a terrible mistake for a family of sailors.
Or they’re not good sailors. In the contest, for example, their steamship almost immediately runs out of coal, as though Popeye didn’t know it was needed? Chopping up the vessel to keep it going has a long history in comedy, but it’s normally set up why they’re out of fuel. It suggests that Brutus and Sea Hag don’t need to sabotage them.
So the plot suffers from this sloppiness. It has some lovely touches, though, particularly in the dialogue. Take Brutus sneering, “Imagine building a ship to use legs when we’ve already got wings”. It’s poetic enough to have confused me about what the legs were. Or sneering that Popeye’s “engine is louder than the whistle”. Which is another insult I don’t quite understand, but never mind. (Also Popeye ends up with an engine that’s very quiet, like the sound was mixed wrong.) Or the Sea Hag speaking of the steamboat as “sailing along like the devil was a-pushing it”. During the race, there’s a nice bit showing Brutus’s ship from the front, the riverbanks receding behind him. Brutus chuckles, “With the Blackhawk wearing her Sunday best and a stiff breeze I can’t lose.” It’s again a more poetic way of describing Brutus’s thoughts. It also trusts that the audience spotted the name of his ship, or could work it out from context.
There’s even a moment of deft plotting. It’s only in setting up the contest that we get a specific reason for Brutus and Sea Hag to want to sabotage Popeye and Pappy. They’re protecting their sailing business. It’s a stronger motive than Brutus and Sea Hag being jerks.
Were I to rewrite the cartoon, the important change I’d make is swapping the first two boat failures. Popeye and Pappy making a boat that tears itself apart, to start. (And find a better reason than “forgot to untie it”.) Then Sea Hag can sabotage the next, when the boat could be competition.
I mentioned last week how if you want to buy me something, any nonfiction book will be quite nice, thank you. I want you to understand this is not exaggeration. Before the pandemic shut down the libraries I sought out a book about the building of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Why? Because I felt I didn’t know enough about it. I knew only what anyone growing up in a Mid-Atlantic state might know about postwar bilateral water route management. Surely I should know more.
Gary Croot, whom I hardly need explain is the Associate Administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation’s Operational Headquarters in Massena, New York, called to reassure that no, I already did, but he thanked me for my interest. Still, I went on to read the book and learned that, in fact, building the Saint Lawrence Seaway went about like you’d imagine. A whole lot of digging and a lot of people agreeing this would have been swell if they’d done it like eighty years earlier. Well, they can’t all have the drama of the Mars candy company. I still say it was a good choice.
So here’s some books you might pick up for me, if the bookstore employees don’t believe your “find me something more dull than that” request:
J: The Letter That Shifted Pronunciation, Altered Etymologies, Made Electrical Engineers Cringe, and Changed The World. Of course, I have a partisan interest in the letter ‘J’. But who isn’t fascinated by the way a letter can take on vowel and consonant duties and then gradually split between them? Or how it is we get to pick letters? And whether we are going to finally see the alphabet accept double-i and double-j as letters too? Why should u get to be the mother of letters? Perfect for people who want to be angry about things that not in fact unjust. 296 pages.
Hey-Dey: the Forgotten Amusement Park Ride that Saved Amusement Parks, Earned Fortunes, and Changed The World. Who doesn’t love the Hey-Dey? Everybody because who’s heard of the thing? But there we are, some old pictures of what sure looks like a ride what with how it has a platform and advertisements and stuff. How popular was it? What did you actually do on the ride? It seems like spinning was involved. Maybe a lot of spinning. Why doesn’t anybody know about it anymore? And does it have anything to do with the Lindy Loop? Includes a sweeping view of history including the discovery, in 1896, that people would pay reasonable sums of money to do things that are fun. 384 pages including 20 glossy pages reprinting black-and-white pictures of things we can’t make out anymore. Also 40 pages of the author cursing out Google for assuming that they wanted every possible six-letter, two-syllable string other than “Hey-Dey”.
Humpty Dumpty: the Nonsense Rhyme that Delighted Children, Befuddled Scholars, Made Us All Wonder Why We Think He’s An Egg, and Changed The World. There’s a kind of person who really, really wants Humpty Dumpty to have some deep meaning. Like, saying it’s some deep political satire or is some moral fable about buying on credit or maybe it’s just making fun of the Dutch? No idea, but that’s no reason to stop trying. 612 pages. Spoiler: we think Humpty Dumpy is an egg because both his parents were eggs, and they say their only adoption was his littlest brother, Rumpty Dumpty. Rumpty Dumpty is, as anyone can see, a shoe.
Busy Signal: the Story Behind the Tones, Chimes, Rings, Buzzes, and Beeps that Tell us the State of Things — and Changed The World. An examination of how humans use language and turn a complicated message like “that phone number is busy” into a simple buzz instead. That seems a bit thin to the author too. So then we get into other audio cues like how sometimes construction equipment makes that backing-up beeping noise even when it’s not moving. 192 pages.
So, I mean it. If you want to buy me something, look for any nonfiction book explaining a thing. If it seems like a boring thing, great! 568 pages about the evolution of the NTSC television-broadcast standard? Gold! You are not going to out-bore me in a book contest like that. Look, I know things about the Vertical Blanking Interval that I have no business knowing. And that is everything I know about the Vertical Blanking Interval. And yet I want to know more. Find a topic dull enough that it’s putting neighboring books to sleep, and you’ve got me set. Thank you.
I remembered this thing where, like, a decade ago some company wanted to make computer keyboards that moved. Isn’t that a heck of a thing to remember? Why remember that? I have a decent memory. Yet it keeps remembering weird things. I have an advanced degree in mathematics and yet if you ask me the difference between a “covariant index” and a “contravariant index”? I have to set the wallpaper on fire and use the distraction to look it up. A covariant index is written as a subscript and the contravariant is a superscript. Or it’s the other way around. I keep writing it down wrong because I remember last time I had it wrong, but I forget whether I got it right in the end last time. But this keyboard nonsense? Now I remember this.
What I don’t remember is why they wanted a keyboard that moved. I’m going to guess it’s for ergonomics. Any time you have a system that makes something easy pointlessly hard it’s usually because of ergonomics. This makes ergonomics sound like it’s about being mean. But the point of ergonomics is to avoid doing stuff that’s useless and causes pain. And it turns out almost everything we do is useless stuff that causes pain. There’s maybe five things that we actually need to do. And one of them is winding the mantle clock for the week. This would be bad if you did it too much, but most people have to wind only one or two mantel clocks per week, if that, so it stops before it could hurt.
Keyboards would be a good thing to be made more ergonomic, though. Typing is a terrible thing to do to one’s hands. People who study hands — Handocrinologists — report a fifteen-minute typing session is about as stressful on your wrists as beating them with a metal-working hammer against an anvil and then sticking them in a pot of boiling grease, then typing for fourteen minutes. The only thing worse would be a seventeen-minute typing session. Doing less typing, this by having a keyboard slither away, would probably help. If this moving keyboard thing had caught on? Today we might not suffer from typist’s wrists, cerebral IRC, Livejournal-snapped hamstrings, Usenet lung, or CU-See-Me face deprivation syndrome.
I don’t know why this wandering keyboard didn’t turn into a thing. I can’t see any downside to a keyboard that, in the middle of your sentence, scoots over, knocking over your soda can and crumpling up a post-it note that’s incomprehensible but so obviously important you will never throw it out. Maybe it made people’s prose seasick or something.
Anyway I know this memory is like a decade ago because of how it was they thought keyboards were a problem. We would use keyboards for everything. Writing stuff. Reading. Playing video games. Sealing up the crack under the door. Cricket bats, for when you didn’t know there was a game today. Setting dads up for jokes about how does it fit in the lockboard. Swatting off cows that aren’t supposed to be in the dining room. Everything. Now that’s all changed.
Way back then we would joke about how Apple was going to make a computer that just had one button. And then they went and did it, and it turned out to be a phone, and it was the most popular thing ever. Later they took away the button. Oh, wait, now I get it. The keyboard’s just a picture on the screen. But the phone has this rumble motor. The phone can roll out of your hand. All right, so I guess the moving-keyboard company didn’t flop, Apple just took the idea.
So then what’s the future hold? Just a keyboard that shakes even more out of the way isn’t enough. “You can’t top pigs with pigs,” as Walt Disney said, making people wonder what question he was answering. No, it’s got to be a phone that takes more dramatic action. Maybe something that jabs spikes out. Maybe shooting a web to the corner of the ceiling and swinging out of the way. Maybe just being very ticklish, so the phone won’t stop giggling when you use it.
Well, what’s important is that the Handocrinologists are happy. Someone should be.
Each day over 36 people use the Internet. And yet how many of them know what it is? How it works? Where it comes from? What it’s doing? How it’s redressed in-between scenes so that in the first act it’s a starving artist’s kitchen while in the second it’s the luxury suite at a hotel? Still, let’s see which of these questions we can answer.
The Internet is, as designed, a high-capacity method of transmitting outrage. Essential to getting anything anywhere is the IP address. IP is an acronym; it stands for IP, but — you may want to make a note of this — a different IP than what we mean when we write IP. It is still typed the same, though, except in the dative case.
The purpose of an IP address was to be a unique way to identify the recipient of any particular Internet outrage. In the earliest days of computers this was done by identifying the person using the computer. But this was impractical, since back then, everyone used the names of the same minor Star Trek characters. Today, only three people know there even was a “Commander DeSalle” who was in more episodes than, like, Pavel Chekov somehow. The next step was trying to identify the computer using the person. But too many computers looked the same, especially back in the 90s when the computer makers got a really good deal on plastic the color of sweetened condensed milk you accidentally left open on the counter all month. We’ve since moved on to trying to identify the person and the computer together. This is done by timing how long it takes you to refuse web sites permission to send you notifications.
The IP address is how the Internet knows what to send to you. Consider this typical behavior. You put an OtterBox for your phone on your Amazon wish list, because the wrist strap broke off your old one. You’d just buy it yourself, but not having a wrist strap is a smaller hassle than your parents asking you to put at least one single thing on your wish list so they know what they won’t buy you for your birthday. Three weeks later, Amazon sends you an e-mail declaring they’ve found it would be a great idea if you bought an OtterBox. Sure, you think of the geniusnessocity of the mind that could create such a perfect needs-anticipation system. “Clearly,” you say, out loud, “the person behind this system deserves 130 billion dollars. Indeed, the person who could create that digital intelligence deserves all the billions of dollars.”
But this only works because it knows which of all the people on computers to send the e-mail to. Imagine if you got the suggestion to buy an OtterBox intended for somebody else who also wanted an OtterBox. Or what if the shopping suggestions were completely wrong? “We have a great deal for you: what if you bought a radial tire and the issue of Starlog about DeForest Kelly being on the War of the Worlds tv series from the 80s? Plus 1250 boxes of macaroni and cheese?” There would be no possible answer to give to that question. You would be stuck at home, all day, trying to find out, wait, there was a War of the Worlds series in the 80s? And it got kinda bonkers? But if there’s no way to get the information about this to you, then, where are you? Right back at home.
So how do you and your computer get this IP address? Eh, a lot of back-and-forth. Your computer goes asking others around it, “Do I look like a 12.440.5184.108.40.2065 to you?” And then the other computers go, “Oh, you’re underrating yourself. You’re easily a 56.337.404044.12.390 or maybe even more!” And then your computer answers, “Aw, golly. You’ll make me digitally blush, there’s no way I’m not a 8.266.712.8.775!” “Honey, stop with the false modesty. 18.9.2012.24.2007.48304 and if you don’t agree I’ll fight you.” Eventually they compromise on something. Of course, this is done at computer speeds, which is why it’s either instant or your computer just freezes up for three hours and eighteen minutes. And I’m translating what they say into colloquial terms. They would actually say “digi-blush”.
This all seems like a lot, and it is, which is why even brief exposure to the Internet leaves you so exhausted.
Technology companies usually go through a couple distinct phases. There’s the one that gets all the fun legends. That’s the step where a small team of like-minded idealists realize they’ve been gathering in a garage workshop for like four years now and finally have a salable product. This is a thrilling moment. It comes none too soon, since the garage’s owner nearly caught them last time. It’s all fun adventures. First there’s the challenge of getting something to work. Then there’s the challenge of getting it to work when they just moved it to the other table. It’s not even four feet away from where it was. It’s a computer program. What is there even to break? But that’s solved. Then there’s the challenge of getting it to work for anybody else. Everyone agrees this is the good part of any technology company.
Much later comes the phase where the company has lots of employees. This means that they can worry about different issues. Like, there’s worrying about how to get the right ice cream cake for the birthday party for the person who’s out sick today anyway. There is no right answer, which is all right. This phase usually comes after the one where the staff realizes they’ve got something with a name like “zMyRiLX System Service Provider” on the servers. It’s critically important. They’ve upgraded that to a version nobody knows how to set up anymore. It isn’t even the current version. The old version, someone had poked with sticks enough that it didn’t break anything too important. This new version has taken away the sticks. It all seems hopeless. This is when we move on to the birthday ice cream cake phase.
There are intermediate stages too. For example, after creating the first product, there’s the question of what to make as the fifteenth product. This will be the thing you had wanted to be the third product and that never really came together. It will flop. No technology company has ever had its fifteenth product succeed. The best they can hope is that it’s seen as ahead of its time, and a noble failure. The most innovative technology companies fail in ways that other companies hope will fail for them in ten years.
Technology companies have issues that are unique to the industry. Like, a company that rakes leaves doesn’t have to worry about digital rights management. They just have to worry that employees aren’t spending all their time having light saber fights with the rakes. At least until a technology company comes in and screws things up. At that point, though, it doesn’t rake leaves anymore. The name will change from, say, Pine River Lawn Care to something that sounds like a medication or an 80s boys’ cartoon villain. Chloronax, say, or Verderant. At that point it doesn’t do anything. It just updates databases. Those databases contain mean stuff said about you.
Some technology company problems are common to every company. Like, when should they mistakenly not diversify? Eventually people forget why they needed whatever the company’s old products were. But the other choice a company has is to mistakenly diversify. This is a fun one because whatever it is you’re doing, it seems more fun to do something else. So going from one business into another always seems like a great idea. Eventually your company can be so diverse that it doesn’t do anything, but does it in a lot of fields. Then you should be ready to suddenly collapse in one of those fascinating yet boring business implosions, and re-emerge years later as a snarky Twitter account.
So what’s the right course? Hard to say. You can read histories of companies in similar circumstances. This will show how for every course of action there’s at least four other companies that did that and were so very wrong. The conclusion is to just not do anything, really. This explains that time in 1968 when, facing the rise of Electronic Data Systems, Remington-Rand just spent August rolling down a hill.
The best guidance is to look up the history written several decades after the company goes out of business and sent back in time to you. When you come across a chapter with an ominous title like “The Fateful Choice” read very carefully and try not making that choice. This might create a logical paradox destroying time and space, but perhaps the book was wrong anyway.
Most of us know three or even four astounding facts about Apollo 11. And yet these do not exhaust the subject. There are over twelve different things about this legendary space mission. Let’s review some of them.
Did you know, for example, that Apollo 11 had the first automatic dishwashing machine brought into lunar orbit? The Westinghouse corporation was proud to make the cramped Command Module at least as livable as an efficiency apartment is. Unfortunately the system failed shortly before the first midcourse correction burn. This was after breakfast but before full testing. Still, we owe the development of dishwashing gel packs to NASA’s need not to have powder floating all over the cabin. Thanks, Moon landing!
Many of us think of the poignancy of Michael Collins, remaining alone in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface. But do you ever consider poor Ronald Evans, who had to remain in earth orbit on the S-II stage while the rest of the crew went on to lunar orbit? Do you remember Ken Mattingly, who had to stay behind on the launch pad while everyone else from the mission went on to earth orbit? And that just because he wasn’t willing to split the tolls. And then there’s poor William Pogue, who had to stay behind in the room where they put all their spacesuits on, because he misunderstood the question. He felt awful about that for years. He can’t even remember what he thought they were asking at the time. “What could it have been, besides `do you want to come to the moon with us’?” he said, in the 1974 debriefing. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” Well, live and learn.
The date for the landing was not settled until late in mission planning. The later the landing, after all, the more chance to train, although the less time to launch another mission in case something went wrong. All they knew was it had to launch before the 31st of December, 1969. And for that there was a heated debate about whether that meant Washington, DC, time or Houston time. “What if we need that extra hour,” was the point of contention. Anyway the date was set in May of 1969 when someone pointed out they had already inscribed on the plaque that men first set foot on the moon in July 1969. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that settle the hardest questions.
Do you know what held the crew and some people exposed to lunar dust for three weeks after the end of the flight? It was the Mobile Quarantine Facility. And it’s still out there. It’s still roving, too, and no one can stop it. If you encounter it, know that you are not in specific peril. But you aren’t going to have any in-person encounters for 21 days except for whoever else it’s caught. The facility got Wi-Fi in 2004, but it’s not good enough to stream HD video.
Not a single one of the crew returned from space transmogrified in any way. Granted, nobody seriously expected major changes. Like, someone coming back as a cool gelatinous blob. Something. There could be some cool field of strange energy. They could pass through and grow these cool retractable antennas. Maybe eyes some weird, brand-new color like neopurple or techneteal. I know what you’re thinking and no. We know they weren’t a weird color only while they were in space and we were watching in black-and-white. They were checking.
Also a disappointment: while, again, nobody was seriously expecting it? A lot of people hoped the astronauts would make contact with some incredible species of, they don’t know, magic otter aliens. Beings with technology and concepts of space nudity as much as five centuries ahead of anything known to Earth science and pants. No good, though. Despite the breakthroughs of the early 70s we still just have taking off clothes.
It’s true that the Lunar Module touched down with less than a minute of fuel remaining. They avoided this problem on following missions by launching them a minute later. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that sooner,” said Buzz Aldrin in the 1989 debriefing. “But, hindsight, you know?”
While Apollo 11 was seen as quite the big deal at the time, the opinion of space historians has changed. While it’s still seen as important, that’s less for what it was by itself. Most in-the-know now see Apollo 11’s real legacy being its service as full dress rehearsal for the legendary Apollo 12 mission. So we’ll come back in November and do this again.
This office has received a number of letters asking it to explain computer graphics. “What about computer graphics,” they’ll say. “Explain yourself, if you are a computer graphics. If you are not a computer graphics, then why or why not?” It’s a bit stressful. I had thought we were to take a multiple choice question. “But,” reads one follow-up letter, “an essay answer is a multiple choice; there are just a Borgesian infinitude of possible answers.” Who among us would dispute this charge?
The first images produced by computers were by our standards low-resolution affairs. The earliest known images used the technologies of old-time radio, or as they knew it in the old times, “time radio”. In this the computer would just describe what the image should be, trusting to the “theatre of the mind” to fill in the details. “It’s a calendar for February 1949, but with Snoopy beside it,” would come the voice from the warm glowing hearth of a Harvard Mk II. The listener could fill in all the perfect little details of which days of the week were in February, and which Februaries were in 1949, and what this Snoopy fellow was all about. It extended naturally to more serious applications. “Here’s a wireframe cube rotating as if it were three-dimensional,” UNIVAC famously reported on Election Night, 1952. It was so plausible that critics came to ask whether the demonstration was rigged. It was not, precisely, but UNIVAC was warned ahead of time that the topic of shapes in dimensions would come up.
The first digital images were formed by taking photographs of the pointer fingers of the lead programmers and aiming them in different directions. This finger was chosen for the ease of indexing. It was a great format for pictures of fingers. It was also decent, if you had a big enough screen, to make for pictures of strange-colored grasses. Maybe the fur of some animal that had a lot of jointed fur with the occasional fingernail. So resolution was a bit of a problem.
Everyone understood this to be a transitional phase, just something to prove out the technology that would let them use numbers instead. Well, everybody but Ray, but you know what he’s like. Which numbers were a great debate. 1 was an obvious choice, since it already looked so much like a finger. It would need almost no new code worth mentioning, especially if you used a font that was easy on the serifs. The other number, though? That took a lot of fighting. 0 seems, today, to be the obvious choice. But a good argument was made for -1, on the grounds that then they could keep using fingers for both the 1 and the – sign. The dispute continued until a standard was finally agreed to, last year, in which everyone uses a 3 and a 4. The argument took some weird turns. Vestiges of the old system remain in how computer systems do not speak exactly of a three, but rather of a “quarter-dozen”, or “quatre-vingt” as they say in French, incorrectly.
A fascinating variation developed in the 1960s when research indicated there were maybe six things we needed a computer to show anyway. So why not set up a computer with a filmstrip containing six or, for deluxe systems, seven images, and simply have it show whatever seemed most relevant? People were indeed happy with this, especially if they got to work the projector, and doubly so if they were allowed to make a “beep” noise whenever it was time to move to the next slide. These slides were: Abraham Lincoln, a brontosaurus, a Mercator projection map of the world, a diagram of the heart, Snoopy, the Pioneer 4 space probe, and in the deluxe system, Times Square.
This is still at heart how computer images work. A modern computer image is a gathering of millions of colors, represented. Admittedly, some of the colors get reused. But to keep all these sorted out and in the right locations we have to simplify some. A classic organization or “compression” scheme is to break the original image up into millions of pieces, then individually wrap each piece in a protective medium, and then forget where they were. This is known as a “lossy” image format. When called on to show the image, the computer panics and puts together what it can using the same original seven base images, plus — since 1989 — that picture of astronaut Bruce McCandless spacewalking using his cool rocket backpack. There are also “lossless” image formats, but these are annoying to use because every time you do beat them in a game they insist that it was best-three-of-five, or best-four-of-seven, or best five-of-nine, and on and on until you give up.
Further questions to this office may be sent in care of this office at this address. Thank you.
If I were to ask what you thought vacuum cleaners were I expect your first response would be to wonder if you’d heard the question right. It seems like a strange thing to ask. You probably can’t figure why I would need to know this about you. Let’s suppose it was someone else who asked you the question. You’d want to know who it asked you. For convenient let’s suppose it was Frederick J Lawton, Harry Truman’s director of the Bureau of the Budget from 1950 to 1953, and that the question was issued in 1952. It’s your business what you’re doing in 1952 and falls outside the scope of my article.
We forget that vaccuum cleaners used to be people, not machines. The first vacuum cleaner was a now-anonymous assistant to Evangelista Torricelli. His name was removed in 1964 as proof emerged he had bet on baseball games. The great physicist (Torricelli) had in 1643 poured mercury into a tube sealed at one end and then turned the tube upside-down. This produced a perfect vacuum at the top of the tube and a perfect mess at the bottom of the tube and all over the table. Naturally Torricelli ordered the cleaning of the table, the tube, and as long as he was at it, the vacuum, which just looked perfectly adroit. I say “adroit” to tease science-major types who were waiting for me to use a different word beginning with ‘a’ there. I’ve got some self-awareness. The word was “adiabatic”. But with a few quick sweeps of a damp cloth the assistant had created a new profession.
Vacuum cleaning, done then by people, was regarded for ages as an affectation for the scholarly classes, who needed the affection. For much of the 17th century it was nearly as popular as making up grammatical rules or wearing caps and gowns everywhere. Scholars didn’t need a passport even when travelling between nations at war; a well-tidied and dust-free vacuum was their standing invitation to the world of letters that existed beyond mere mortal politics. It was not until the reign of France’s King Louis XV (there was no Louis XV, but he was hastily inserted when the French realized they had gone right from Louis XIV to Louis XVI and once you learned enough Roman numerals it looked funny to have the number laying about there un-Louised) that it made the social jump from the laboratory to the royal court. While doing so it slipped on the windowsill and suffered a sore ankle for months, with relapses when a cold front was moving in.
The post of Royal Vacuum Cleaner was soon established. With that, they needed assistants, keepers, letters-go, attendants, absentias, abstainers, the follow who owned the mop, the keeper of the mop, the fetcher of the mop, the keeper of the fetcher, the fetcher of the keeper, the assistant fetcher of the keeper, the keeper of the assistant fetcher, and so on, and that’s even before getting into the buckets issue or who would provide water for the cleaning of the vacuum and assistants thereof. Within a generation, vacuum cleaning at Versailles involved over 52,006 people. You can understand the scandal when in 1722 someone noticed they didn’t have any vacuums.
But then scholars argued the absence of any vacuums was itself a vacuum, this in the property of vacuum-ness. Therefore the vacuum which should be cleaned was the vacuum of vacuums to be cleaned. This argument may not be logically sound, but they were good at going on about it at such length that any disputants would have to sit down until their heads stopped spinning. If you don’t sympathize I have another 150 words that I cut from this paragraph because they made my sinuses hurt.
This all being a lot of good fun it had to come to an end, of course. So it did in 1867 thanks to one Ives W McGaffney of Chicago, Illinois, as there were not two of him. With dedication and ingenuity he put together a hand-cranked vacuum cleaner which all the people who’d had respectable enough lives cleaning vacuums professionally naturally hated. But he persisted and with the coming of power to private homes, mechanical vacuum cleaners would take over the public’s imagination for this sort of thing in fewer than 82 years. Today we just assume that a “vacuum cleaner” is a machine and not a profession, or even an aspiration. Is that not always the way? Yes, unless I mean no.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
All right, so the Belgian-cricket-eating bubble is apparently just going to carry on, with the index rising another six points on this thing that will not happen and everybody should stop pretending that it would. No, we don’t care what documentation you have proving that it’s so a thing. It is not a thing.
Here I had been almost ready finally go to learning about the history of socks and now they’re giving me some self-healing squid-toothed socks? Thank you, no, I have a list of garments I will allow to be squid-toothed and they are all squid mouth costumes. I’m assuming here squids have mouths. If they don’t, and they have teeth anyway, I do not want to know about it and I will refuse to hear if you carry on anyway.
The subheadline warns self-healing squid-tooth clothing “can be produced on easily and on the cheap, but don’t expect to see them on shelves any time soon”. I agree. We will be seeing them in nightmares to come for years now, that’s something, but not shelves. They’ll be sneaking up on us in the bathtub if I know anything about squid. I don’t know anything about squid, except that I stopped eating calamari a long while ago because no matter how good someone promised it was going to be, it tasted and felt like that. And there’s no point my putting the octopus or squid to that kind of hassle for an experience I’m not going to enjoy either. But I have enjoyed the experience of wearing clothes on many occasions, in fact every occasion including during showers. I don’t want that messed with.
Sometimes, a feature can get a thumbs-up for inclusion and then be cast aside. This happened with object.observe, for observation of changes to objects. It had been planned for inclusion this year but was withdrawn due to a change in the technical circumstances around it.
(I should explain for non-programmers what they mean by objects here. They mean “objects” in the computer sense. It’s not anything like a real-world object, such as the “buttery cream spread” that fast food places give you to smear on a potato or a biscuit. A computer programming “object” is an imaginary thingy that programs can make do stuff or have properties. Whereas “buttery cream spread” is just a promise that this is a thing with mass and color and a kind-of-definite shape, which you can place into your mouth and consume if you think that’s going to make you any happier. To computer programmers this would be an “interface”, which is a kind of object that is even more imaginary.)
And Krill just leaves that point there, as if it were enough. What change in “technical circumstances” could have removed the need for an object-change-observation feature? For that matter, what’s a “technical circumstance”? More to the point, what isn’t a “technical circumstance”? I suppose it wouldn’t be a “technical circumstance” if they were all set for the object-change-observation procedure announcement and then they couldn’t get on stage because an offended cow blocked the hallway. That would be more of a “natural correction”, of the problem that they couldn’t just go down the hallway? No, not if the cow was offended enough to chase after them. But I bet the cow would be offended about how the feature was supposed to be implemented, so there we go right back to a “technical circumstance”.
I bet the “technical circumstances” excuse was a cover. And that it all goes back to announcing the feature. I figure it was like when you decide you’re going to give your book report presentation by bringing in a cute puppet and having it describe the book from the perspective of a cow that witnessed most of the story. And then you run into the “technical problem” that the day of the presentation you get Doing Something Novel Stage Fright. That’s like normal stage fright, plus you’re scared everyone will laugh at you forever. And even though everybody would love you for doing the only non-boring presentation ever you chicken out.
It was just something I glanced at on the highway, since I was more busy driving than looking at thing on the side. But it was a banner announcing The Battery Show 2015: The Expo For Advanced Batteries. I must admit that doesn’t sound like a thrilling convention topic. It’s got to be less photogenic than a science fiction convention is, and have fewer chances for a good rousing fight than a panel on education reform would. But I suddenly very much wanted to go.
No luck, alas. The show ran the 15th through the 17th, so I just missed a chance to “launch new products, make new contacts and maintain existing relationships” in a global battery industry-related context. And I know this sounds like some of the purest snark to be found outside people asking what the heck is wrong with the characters in the comic strip Luann. But, honest. The web site says “The Battery Show is America’s biggest free-to-attend exhibition for advanced batteries”, which has to make whoever’s in third place feel crummy. And I’d really like to have seen what takes up three days’ worth of convention space.
Well, the web site offers the Latest News, including headlines like “Thermotron Battery Chambers with Added Safety” — your choice what the verb there is! — and “Targray Announces Electrodeposited Nickel Foil For Lithium Ion…” and there’s no bad way that sentence can end. I hope I remember this for next September and get to see what Thermotron and Targray are up to by then.
I am in some ways never happier than when I’m in a library. It’s just a natural place for me, somewhere it makes sense for me to be, and I think anyone who knows me would agree that if I were to shed all my worldly possessions and set up camp somewhere not particularly needed by other people, like around the oversized, falling-apart books about motorcycles, they would say they kind of saw that coming.
Among other problems I have terrible impulse control in libraries, and will notice books and decide that if someone went to the bother of writing it there must be something interesting worth reading in it, and, well, what I’m saying is this is why I borrowed Pasta and Noodle Technology, a collection of papers and monographs on the title subject published by the American Association of Cereal Chemists, edited by James E Kruger, Robert B Matsuo, and Joel W Dick. And the book was published in 1996, so it’s not even a book about the current state of pasta and noodle technology, but is instead about the state of pasta and noodle technology from the days when having an online community devoted to Spaghetti-o’s was just the distant dream of some madmen in alt.fan.pasta. What I’m saying is I think I need librarians to save me from myself.
I’m not sure what the program was. It was just on. They were talking about string. They asserted it was one of the keystones of human evolution, one of the things that sets humans apart from the animals, besides our ability — almost never seen in the animal kingdom — to lose our keys by leaving them in the microwave oven. They found a professor to say that the development of string was one of the things which enabled humans to dominate the world. And the thing is, they made a fair case for the proposition, because with string-based technologies such as clothes people could develop Abercrombie and Fitch stores.
And then, somehow, they came to this sentence — which I repeat as precisely as I’m able to, without exaggeration or distortion: “There is evidence of cheese from four thousand years ago.” I do not know why this sentence makes me smile, but the thought not just that there was evidence of cheese four thousand years ago, but that someone wrote and someone recorded the sentence, “There is evidence of cheese from four thousand years ago”, bids fair to make me happy for a long time to come. Probably not four thousand years.
I know what you’re thinking, but no, they said nothing about when they have evidence of string cheese.
And now to return to the very funny question of how well-read I was in the month of July. The answer is very well indeed: I had my most popular month on record according to WordPress. My total number of page views climbed from June’s 495 to fully 704, the highest on record, and the number of unique viewers rose from 181 to a just plain enormous for me 332. I’m stunned. There’s three months since I started the humor blog that didn’t have 332 views total, never mind unique viewers. (The views-per-visitor dropped from 2.73 to 2.12, but that’s still respectable, suggesting most folks who stop in find at least something else worth reading.) By the end of July I’d gotten a total of 7,187 pages read.
The countries sending me the most readers the past month were the United States (562), Australia (34), the United Kingdom (32), and Canada (20). I got only a single reader each from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Kuwait, Mexico, Oman, the Philippines. Indonesia and the Philippines were single-reader countries last month too. And India, which I worried about for sending me just one reader in May and June, found three people who could find me not perfectly repellant in the past thirty days. That’s not so good on a per capita basis as Portugal (two readers), but, really, it’s an honor just to be nominated.
The five most popular postings this past month were:
I should say, though, there’s 21 different posts which got at least ten viewers the past month, which I believe is a high but I didn’t track that before. This is just something else I can start neurotically following, isn’t it?
Some popular search terms bringing people here include:
charles boyce compu-toon
captain future block that kick
mark twain a medieval romance
can a snail race in the indy 500 (people have got to be looking this up as a lark)
10:45. You set your cell phone on the table. Turn it on. Stare at it anxiously.
10:55. Wonder if there’s enough time to read all of TrekBBS before the call starts.
11:00. Watch entire minute pass without the phone ringing.
11:01. Elation: you have avoided being called into the conference call. Elation gone when you remember they probably haven’t excused you from the call, they’re just saving up to have you be even more in the conference call.
11:04. Realize that you have a need to go to the bathroom more intense and more urgent than any other need you have ever felt in my life. It’s the way you might feel the need to move your foot if it were underneath the rear tire of a truck holding a lump of neutron star, although with less of the mass of three Jupiters pressing down on your foot and more a wondering if you could hear the phone from all the way in the bathroom.
11:10. Wonder if they’ve forgotten you.
11:15. Send e-mail to someone supposed to be in the conference call to see if they’ve forgotten you. Kind of hope that they have, except that might encourage ideas of maybe they don’t need you for non-conference-call things. Wonder if maybe you should’ve been running March Madness pools so they’d want you around for that at least. It’s desperately far from March. It’d look odd if you started talking up next year’s anytime before June 22nd. The conference call will probably be settled by then.
11:25. Phone rings. This call is to warn you the real call is running about a half-hour late but they didn’t want you to worry.
11:32. You’re worried.
11:38. It may be preferable to explode from bathroom-related needs than wait for the call.
11:40. They call. The conference call is starting, except two of the participants have to finish up other calls that have been going since the late Middle Ages. These calls are cherished, handed down from a long line of mid-level management, to be someday handed down to levels of mid-level management not yet imagined. They cannot be discharged or dismissed lightly. You might be on hold. Suddenly you appreciate hold music: listening to something you don’t want to listen to provides reassurance that you are remembered to exist by telephone systems that are not aware you exist.
11:43. Everyone is able to talk with everyone else and would like to explain how glad they are that everyone else is glad to be there, and doing well, and all agree that it’s been far too long since we had a chat like this, and we’re looking forward to the way we’ll smooth out a couple of little issues.
11:46. The conference call enters that condition of being pretty much the same as guiding your parents through updating their digital camera’s device drivers only your boss is listening in.
12:02. The phrase “the button marked SUBMIT in the upper right corner” is proven to be either intolerably vague or to not refer to anything the other people on the call have ever seen.
12:05. logmein is summoned.
12:07. Emergency e-mails to people who thought they were going to lunch already establish that logmein would have worked except we had the password wrong, the capitalization wrong, and some kind of domain thing wrong.
12:18. You apologize for needing to step away for a moment, which they take to mean that you need the bathroom, which you do, but you use the moment to step outside and berate a chipmunk who proves to have a perfectly good understanding of the limits of Ajax-enabled web technology blah blah blah and why yes, it does have to have Internet to work.
12:29. All agree this has been about the greatest and most productive conference call since the idea of communication began and we’ve done enough of it, and hang up before anyone can suggest otherwise.
1:04. You emerge from the curled-up ball of yourself that was underneath the table weeping.
2:45. You finish editing the things you needed to get out of the conference call into a series of four questions, e-mailed to the other main party, with the explanation you need to know which of the two options for each question they want before you can do anything.
Three Days Later, 9:15. The e-mail is returned with the note, “That’s great, exactly that! Thanx for understanding.”
Eight Days After That, 3:23. The suggestion is floated that maybe we just need one more conference call to sort it all out.
I figured it was a good time to do some serious looking at this new OS X Mavericks and other stuff that Apple’s up to, because it’s all just come out and has finally got its visibility set to “yes”, and I’m in pretty urgent need of some click-bait. I’m bad enough at writing stuff people want to read that I still call it “click-bait”. I’m not sure anyone ever called it that, but I’m sure the people in the industry have a proper and more precise term for it, something like “isomorphic differentiable topological class structures”, because that’s the sort of phrase you never go looking for until you’re desperate for whatever the person using it was selling. My last attempt at click-baiting involved rubbing peanut butter on a USB hub, and that worked pretty well, right up until the thing was robbed by chipmunk, who made off with $2.38 in loose change. Off to looking.
So. The project would be really great if it were to make use of the slick, speedy capabilities of GeoPackage. GeoPackage 1 is beautifully documented, with slick interactive demonstrations of every nook and cranny of the system. It depends on OtherPack version 3, produced by a different programming group. OtherPack version 3 is no longer distributed because OtherPack 4 is so very much better. GeoPackage 1 can’t work with OtherPack 4, but, GeoPackage 2, which is lurching towards alpha release, does. GeoPackage 2 doesn’t have any documentation but there are many points it has in common with GeoPackage 1 and it even has a dozen demonstration pages showing how neat it’ll be if it ever finishes working. Oh, but, GeoPackage 2 actually only works with OtherPack 4.0 and 4.1. The OtherPack group just got OtherPack 4.2 released and GeoPackage is sadly incompatible with the new release, although this isn’t worth mentioning anywhere except on a desperate-plea-for-help web site where the original question is accused of being “terribly vague”.
So it turns out customer support phone operators are evaluated on how long it takes for the customer to give up and agree to absolutely anything as long as he’s allowed to get off the phone.
In other news the resolution to our satellite receiver’s defects involve me being sent by UPS, in a box they’ll provide, to their main warehouse facility, where I’m going to and replace their aluminum siding and install new faucets in the bathroom. I have to bring the faucets.
I answered the phone with apprehension, since I’m really not a natural phone-answerer. I mostly know what to do about picking it up and saying hello, but after that I feel uncomfortably lost. But I gave it a try.
“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded the voice on the other end.
I’m usually better at questions about what I’m thinking when I don’t stop to think about what I’m thinking. “I think I’m talking to you on the phone.”
“That’s what I’m doing!” was the angry yet logically complete reply.
I said I couldn’t argue it.
“Stop imitating me or I’ll sic a copyright lawyer on you!” and he hung up.
Now you see why I have to be apprehended onto the phone.