Otras palabras mías

Keeping you updated on every shareable thought that flits through my brain, since 2011.

  • Jonah did an authentic spit-take tonight. In a conversation about salt-water taffy, Andrea and I were remembering my one very failed attempt at making some, years ago. Jonah was drinking a glass of water just as I described my taffy as “a mouthful of vinegar cement.”

  • Fright Night. Total Recall. Miami Vice. Colin Farrell is the king of the unnecessary 80's remake.

  • Just received the settlement check in the malpractice case relating to the death of my mom in 2007. It isn't much, especially after lawyers' fees and other expenses, and it certainly does nothing to bring back my mom or make me miss her less.

    I'll tell you what has brought back my mom, in a way: my sister Suzanne's dogged handling of this long, slow, frustrating, bureaucratic process, driving it to completion in the face of delays and setbacks and screw-ups. The spirit of our mom, who loved to muscle her way through such hassles and proudly adopted the nickname Superpest, is alive and well in her.

  • I have only a vague notion of who Maria Conchita Alonso is, but that's not stopping her name from incessantly reverberating in my head this evening.

    It's not as bad as the Mandalit del Barco episode of 2013, thank goodness.

  • I have passed some sort of milestone in my inevitable progression to cranky old man.

    Encountering a group of 20-something coworkers having a collective smoking break outside the office just now, my reaction was not the usual nostalgic longing for a cigarette myself, it was anger. I wanted to say to them, “How dare you take your youth and health for granted like that.”

  • Elvis needs boats! Elvis needs boats! Elvis Elvis Elvis Elvis Elvis Elvis Elvis needs boats!

  • Oh Jupiter Ascending, why couldn't you be awesome?

  • Recognized a Luke Perry cameo in the end-tag of a Community episode. Andrea said, “Wow, he looks old.” Looked him up on IMDb. He's the exact same age as us. [http://www.sadtrombone.com/]

  • Grownups seemed a lot more grown up when I was a kid than they do now that I'm a grownup.

  • There once was a baby named Kade
    By Shane and by Erika made
    The news of his birth
    Encircled the Earth
    And people all over hoorayed

  • It doesn't seem like it should be much harder to eat a sandwich that hasn't been cut in half first, but it is.

  • As water cascades down onto my head
    I make a great effort of will
    And, snapping my thoughts to the moment, I think:
    Did I lather yet? Or must I still?

  • New episodes of Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Coach are coming, as is a possible Clinton presidency. Looks like 90's nostalgia is on.

  • [On the ongoing saga of Radio Shack's imminent demise.] I seldom enter Radio Shack stores nowadays, so I suppose I'm part of the problem, but for sentimental reasons I'm still glad to see them cling to survival. I'm just old enough to remember bringing vacuum tubes to Radio Shack with my dad once in a while to plug them into the store's tube tester and replace the ones that didn't make the little light light up. Chuck and I supplied our electronics projects from there decades before anyone coined the term “maker.” My first computer came from Radio Shack, and I have as much fond nostalgia for it as any TRS-80 Model III owner; but I doubt many of them developed a crush on the recorded voice that answered the Tandy Corporation's main customer service line circa 1980. I dialed again and again just to hear some young woman thank me for calling Tandy and politely ask me to wait on hold in a perky Texas twang.

  • Today is “random holiday spirit” day at school. Kids are supposed to dress in the style of the holiday of their choosing. Archer said, “I'll wear a Santa hat. That will be my Halloween costume.”

  • Farewell, Candy Crush Soda Saga level 130. You were a worthy opponent.

  • How old does something have to be before it becomes “vintage”? How about “antique”? Or “ancient”?

  • There's a part of me that spends every waking moment tortured half to madness by two intractable puzzles: the true nature of reality; and how it's possible for any thinking person _not_ to spend every waking moment tortured half to madness by the true nature of reality.

  • In a conversation the other day with Jonah, I said something like, “You are in control of your emotions.” Jonah immediately recognized that I was unintentionally quoting a classic episode of Star Trek. So, so proud of my boy.

  • I am enjoying this interlude between the announcement of a working, reactionless spaceship drive and its inevitable refutation even more than I did the brief period we all believed in cold fusion in the 80's.

  • Jonah was playing a video game. Archer was watching. Archer jumped up from the couch and ran into the kitchen and back to the living room, saying “Good shot!” It was running commentary.

  • Just finished listening to Blueprint for Armageddon VI, the final installment in Dan Carlin – Hardcore History's magisterial podcast series about World War I. This installment was nearly four and a half hours long. The complete series adds up to over _twenty-three_ hours – and for this fan it's not enough. I would gladly listen to another six installments on the topics that host Dan Carlin admits he glossed over in the interest of time.

    I am amused that, in describing an incident near the end of the war, with just minutes left in this nearly day-long podcast series, Carlin tosses in the phrase, “Long story short…”

  • “On” purpose. “By” accident.

    Thanks,
    – Bob

  • Eight years now that the world has had to get along without Flori Glickstein. It's done its best, but it shows.

  • Final field trip of elementary school DONE.

  • By what black magic does Candy Crush Soda Saga keep me from getting sick of the tune that I've now heard over and over and over for 200 levels?

  • [On seeing the headline, “How Apple Hopes to Take A Bite Out Of The News Business.”] When I saw this headline, I got curious, and so: https://goo.gl/WIQzkC

  • Enjoyed Neal Stephenson's new novel Seveneves so much that the momentum has me now reading The Baroque Cycle for the third time.

  • [On the launch of kill-ralphie.com.] “When someone posted to Kill Ralphie, they were contributing a chapter to an ongoing story about a hapless lad who is alternately placed in immediate mortal danger, then rescued, both in the most creative and entertaining ways possible.”

  • If you're going to San Francisco
    Be sure to wear $491 dollars in your hair
    For when the City of San Francisco
    Tows your car to the impound they have there

  • Happy Canada Day
    Happy Canaday
    Happy Canad, eh?

  • The Plotkin sisters (Janet, Sherri, and Diane) are among my very favorite people to spend time with, and have been for literally my entire life. Not even an expensive tow can detract from the pleasure of an afternoon spent with one of my cousins.

  • Just realized that I was born closer in time to (the waning days of) the First World War than to today. Dang.

  • Dammit Bill Cosby. I Spy was one of my favorite things. Now I'll never be able to watch it again.

  • [On the announcement of a working Star Trek communicator.] Don't tell the makers of this item, but there is almost no price I wouldn't gladly pay.

  • Googler -> Xoogler

  • Batgirl, Batgirl!
    Batgirl, Batgirl!
    Where do you come from? Where do you go?
    What is your scene? Baby, we just gotta know
    Yeah, whose baby are you?
    Batgirl!

    (RIP Yvonne Craig)

  • Until very recently, having time to myself at home would have been a real treat, a chance to focus, catch up on correspondence, get some writing done, work on my side projects. Now I simply miss my family.

  • As a little kid, I used to watch my dad “make a left” each morning: walk down the long hallway outside our apartment as he left for work, then turn left around a corner and disappear from sight.

    Many years later, my kids would watch me from our front window as I turned left out of our driveway and disappeared on my way to work.

    Now I hand the kids their lunches and watch them disappear to the left on their way to school.

  • I wonder if I can sue Ashley Madison for _not_ containing my e-mail in their purloined account database, thereby revealing to the world what a boring faithful straight arrow I am.

  • A world with no Carl Sagan, no Jim Henson, AND no Oliver Sacks? What kind of cruel joke is this?

  • Every once in a while I'll spot a 19¢ packet of Kool-Aid at the store and buy it because childhood. Then I'll get home and remember all the other times that I bought packets of Kool-Aid on a whim, and I toss the new packet on the pile.

    Today it hit 103 in San Rafael and I made some Kool-Aid, dammit.

  • Have you ever visited a city that you've never lived in, but where you felt immediately at home? What place or places made you feel like that, and why?

    I don't mean getting to some vacation paradise, feeling your cares melt away, and declaring you could spend the rest of your life there. That's different from feeling _at home_.

    I've had this experience in Seattle and in Chicago, and conspicuously haven't in many other places, even places that are superficially similar. I'm at a loss to explain what it is about Seattle and Chicago that makes me feel that way (and what it is about other places that doesn't), but the sensation is undeniable, and Andrea has felt it too.

  • [On the publication of Wired's article “Your Body Is Surrounded By Clouds Of Skin And Fart Bacteria.”] Synchronicity:

    Last night this sentence popped into my head: We exist in a miasma of one another's exhalations.

    Why did that sentence pop into my head? I have no idea. It's not a typical thought for me to have, and nothing out of the ordinary relating to exhalations or other bodily functions took place to get me onto that topic. The thought sounded vaguely musical to me and I briefly entertained posting it to Facebook.

    Then this morning comes this interesting Wired article. The headline's a little more crudely put than my sentence, but it's the same idea, and interestingly, they're both seventeen syllables, like a haiku.

  • I thought I was old when they started rebooting movies and TV shows I watched as a kid. Now they're rebooting movies and TV shows I ignored as an adult.

  • Well, that was nice while it lasted, but it's time to go back to work. Gonna give the startup thing another go. Tomorrow I start at Chain.com.

  • Today I wrote code in Go and in Java and in Javascript and in Ruby and in Python and in SQL. Tomorrow, more of the same. Life is good.

  • San Francisco 49er

  • What's a screenwriting workshop doing in the middle of a Vegas casino?

  • It's my fault, sorry. I was just thinking Halloween needed an authentic scare, and then the Mets came within one game of losing the World Series.

  • “Fun Size” candies: what are we supposed to think about the other sizes? [Best response: “Regret size.”]

  • I've been a happy customer of dbrand's quality phone- and tablet skins for a few years. When I got my new Nexus 5X recently I promptly ordered a new set of skins from them. When they didn't arrive after a few weeks I contacted them and got back a remarkably contrite reply explaining that their shipping volume has begun to exceed the capacity of their present vendor and they're looking for new solutions; and in the meantime they shipped me a replacement set of skins AND refunded my money AND gave me a store credit AND included some extras in the replacement shipment they sent. I replied thanking them and telling them they went far beyond my expectations for good customer service, and that the only way for me to balance the scales was to worsen their shipping-volume problems by urging my friends and family to buy their fine products. So here we are: go buy dbrand's fine products!

  • What more natural, when hearing about a horrifying shooting rampage, than to imagine oneself as a potential victim?

    Having imagined that, what more natural than to imagine being able to defend oneself with one's own firearm, if it came to that?

    Somewhat less natural, apparently, is to imagine the other potential victims around you, having imagined the same things, terrified, confused, pulling out their own firearms, and looking for the threat they have to neutralize.

    You're standing there brandishing a gun. Imagine that.

  • For decades the fans have been saying we could do Star Wars better than George Lucas if only one of us got control of it.

    Well, one of us did, and WE WERE RIGHT.

  • Life tip: “hurry up!” makes people go slower; “please take your time” makes them go faster.

  • Discussing the mysterious bad smell in my car:

    Andrea: It smells like stinky cheese.
    Me: Cheese? Really?
    Andrea: Well, something's definitely… fromaging.

Santa Claus is painting the town

This one has been sitting in my “drafts” folder for a long time (unlike some others from the past).

You better shut up
You better not say
The press gets a hold of this
They’ll have a field day
Santa Claus is painting the town

He’s tossing back drinks
And taking in sights
Hitting on chicks
And getting in fights
Santa Claus is painting the town

He works so hard on Christmas
That a break we can’t begrudge
His behavior seems unsavory
But really, who are we to judge?

So if you should get
A call from the jail
Do the right thing
And post Santa’s bail
Santa Claus is painting the town

(Previously.)

The Aristocrats!

My sleeping brain has done it again.

Warning: crude humor ahead, which is surprising since my waking brain doesn’t “work blue.”

In this dream, we were visiting our friend and Archer’s sometime Shakespeare acting coach Scott at his cabin in Muir Woods.1 He told Archer this joke:

Q: What do the townspeople call the King’s fucking-cake?
A: A cake fit for a Queen!

In the dream it took both Archer and me a moment to get the joke. (I first thought it was a play on the gay-man meaning of queen, but it’s not.) But then we both did, and both laughed. I was at once appalled that Scott would tell that joke to my 11-year-old son and perversely proud that Archer got it.

My sleeping brain came up with a dirty joke that I didn’t get right away! How does that even work?!

  1. He does not have a cabin in Muir Woods. []

The magic of the blockchain

[Cross-posted at blog.chain.com.]

You may have heard that the world of finance is getting excited about the potential of the blockchain (Economist, Financial Times, Forbes) and wondered:

What is the blockchain? What problem does it solve?

The blockchain is the technology behind the digital currency Bitcoin, but it has wider applicability. It is a collection of mathematical, recordkeeping, and communication procedures that makes it possible to trade digital assets securely.

Why is that a big deal?

Think of how useful it has been to digitize all kinds of information over the past generation or two.1 Digital information can be transmitted from place to place at lightning speed (literally), stored indefinitely, duplicated endlessly, and analyzed, processed, and transformed automatically, all without any loss of fidelity. This was all flatly impossible until quite recently. When it became possible, it didn’t just make things faster and more efficient. It enabled the creation of entirely new ways to produce and consume information that never existed before, and new industries built on top of them. Think Twitter, YouTube, Uber.

But money hasn’t been digitized – and has therefore been left out of all the dramatic innovation that has happened elsewhere in the economy – because digital information can be duplicated endlessly, which is at odds with the key feature of money: namely, that once you trade it away, you no longer have it. Think about it: without that feature, money would be useless.

If you have something valuable to sell, and I want to pay you with some digital data that I call “money,” what’s to stop me from keeping a copy of that data and then spending it again with someone else?

The blockchain, that’s what.

That’s impossible

You may now be thinking, “There’s no way to prevent the copying of digital data,” and you’d be right. Even so-called copy-protected data, such as a movie on DVD, doesn’t work on the principle of actually preventing copying. (It works by scrambling the data and refusing to descramble it unless the playback conditions are kosher. You can copy the scrambled data as many times as you like.)

And yet the blockchain does manage to prevent “double-spending.” You might now expect to hear an explanation of how it does so in terms of prime numbers, one-way functions, asymmetric encryption, and other arcana. But those are merely the implementation details, which we’ll save for another article. The main idea is this:

I don’t give you digital data as payment. I give the rest of the world a signed statement saying I paid you.

This is a fundamental and surprising insight into the nature of money: the token of exchange doesn’t matter as much as that everyone agrees an exchange took place. When everyone agrees on that, then I can’t double-spend that token, even if I’ve made a copy of it, because whoever I try to spend it with will know that token is no longer mine to spend. And they’ll know that you can spend it… and you’ll know that they know it.

The money at the bottom of the sea

Here it’s worth taking a little digression into the story of the Yapese and their Rai stones.

The Yapese live on Yap, an island in Micronesia in the South Pacific. You may have heard of the giant stone discs that they use as a traditional form of money. Hewn out of limestone rocks on Palau, some 200 miles away, and standing on edge, they tower over their owners, who sometimes have to stand on tiptoe just to peer through the holes drilled in their centers.

These coins weigh thousands of pounds each. They can’t be kept in a coin purse or even stored indoors, so they are propped up for display in public places. When it is time to spend one, the coin never moves – that would be too difficult, and might damage the coin (or the mover!). Instead, news of the transfer filters out to the Yapese, who maintain an oral history of the ownership of each coin. This shared “ledger” of trades ensures that only the current owner of a coin can spend it, no matter where it’s physically situated.

In fact, a rai stone being transported from Palau to Yap by outrigger canoe once famously sank to the bottom of the sea in a storm. When the sailors got home without their cargo, the Yapese did not doubt the fact of its existence, and since its location didn’t matter, they proceeded to trade it just like their other giant coins.

Imagine that an earthquake strikes the island of Yap. No one is hurt, fortunately, but all the stone discs are dislodged and they all roll downhill into the sea. No problem – the rai economy could still continue! Now imagine that, instead of an earthquake, collective amnesia strikes the Yapese. No one can remember who owns what! In that case the rai economy is destroyed and actual economic value is irretrievably lost. This illustrates that, in a very real sense, the record of trades is the money.

That kinda makes sense

Right?

Think about depositing money in the bank. You go to the bank and hand the teller some cash. Does the teller put the cash in a box with your name on it? No. Some of it goes into a vault, mixed with everyone else’s money. Some of it is put to work in the form of loans. In what sense is your money still in the bank? In the sense that the bank maintains a record of what it owes you if you ever come asking for it.

(To keep the bank honest, you also maintain your own records – deposit receipts, a checkbook register, etc. Occasionally your records and the bank’s may disagree. We’ll come back to this idea.)

Don’t we already have secure digital asset trading?

In a word, no.

The problem is that there are multiple recordkeeping systems that have to be reconciled with one another. When you swipe your debit card at a gas station (say), you initiate a series of steps in which you, your bank, the gas station, the gas station’s bank, and the card-processing network all have to make updates to their records. For efficiency, those updates are usually batched together with others, and they happen at different times for different participants in this transaction. The updates get transmitted between and among the participants, and those transmissions produce acknowledgements that also get transmitted. Each party has to incorporate the others’ details into its own recordkeeping, and if everything doesn’t agree, there may need to be some sort of dispute-resolution step, unless the cumulative error is small enough that it’s not worth it and someone just eats the loss.

All of this transaction clearing and settlement is comparatively slow and expensive and happens long after you drive away from the pump. The gas station has some “counterparty risk”: it has let you have its gasoline without being sure that it will get your money. (But that risk is small compared to the value of letting customers pay this way, which is why the gas station accepts it.)

This is all because no one involved – not you, not the banks, not the gas station or the card network – can be quite sure at any given moment where the money is,2 only that if they follow these procedures, it usually ends up in the right place. Each entity therefore does its own recordkeeping as a check and balance on the others – just the same way that you keep all your deposit receipts (you do, don’t you?) in case your bank ever shows the wrong balance on your account.

How does the blockchain help?

The blockchain is a ledger that is immutable, distributed, and cryptographically secure.

  • Ledger means that it’s a historical record of trades;
  • Immutable means that once a trade is added to the ledger, it is permanent and unchangeable;
  • Distributed means that everyone gets a copy of it (and keeps getting updates as they happen); and
  • Cryptographically secure means that that everyone can trust what’s in it.

If the parties in the gas-station example were all on the blockchain, what would be the steps by which the gas station gets paid?

  1. You add a transaction to the blockchain stating that some funds that you control (because in an earlier transaction, someone else transferred them to you) now belong to the gas station.

That’s all! When you commit to the idea that the record of trades is the money, there is no separate clearing or settlement step needed. The trade is its own settlement. As soon as you add that transaction to the blockchain, you lose control over those funds and the gas station gets control over them. The gas station can now add its own transaction to the blockchain transferring those funds to someone else – and you can’t.3

Would you like to know more?

In the original Bitcoin blockchain, there is one type of asset – bitcoin – and a predefined way in which new bitcoins can be “minted.” It is possible to generalize the idea of the blockchain, however, so that it can encompass many different kinds of asset (dollars, airline miles, corporate securities, loyalty reward points) with differing rules for issuing units of those assets onto the network. The next article in this series will take a closer look at the mechanisms behind the blockchain (including explaining why it’s called a “blockchain”) and describe some reasons and ways to alter the Bitcoin blockchain to make it suitable for other uses.

  1. I like to think of that scene in All The President’s Men when Woodward and Bernstein have to thumb through thousands of Library of Congress call slips one by one by one, hour after hour after hour. Today a few tap-tap-taps at a computer terminal are all that’s needed. []
  2. To say nothing of what the money is – which, as we’ve seen, is the record of who has paid what to whom. In this example (and in the economy at large) that record is a kaleidoscopic agglomeration of many differing and overlapping records, some of which lag behind others, some of which will never agree. It’s no wonder people are confused about money. []
  3. Of course it isn’t quite that simple. To achieve the cryptographic security that allows everyone to trust the contents of the blockchain, it takes a little time for the transaction to propagate across the network and for other participants on the network to certify it. []

The flip-around thing

After seeing the film The Martian, my sister Suzanne posed a science question about it to me, one that I can imagine many other moviegoers had as well. Here’s (an edited version of) her question and (an elaborated version of) my answer. Spoilers ahead!

Q: ‎My very first thought when NASA finally realizes Watney’s still alive was, great! It’s only been 40-something days. Surely there’s a way for the Hermes crew to go back for him. And then I waited another hour before the movie caught up.

What I don’t understand is why that idea became such a big aha/eureka moment for that dude who thought of it, why the “top minds” at NASA rejected it, and why it took so long to get behind it as a plan. Why didn’t anyone think of it sooner? Why couldn’t they expedite the rescue by boosting thrusters or whatever‎ to do the flip-around thing earlier?

A: The movie was great (and very faithful to the book), but it could have done a better job of explaining why the Hermes-return solution was such a big deal.

Star Trek makes space navigation seem like steering sea vessels. Star Wars makes it seem like driving hot rods. Other movies, video games, etc. – and even Interstellar, which took pains to depict some exotic science accurately – give the impression that it’s just a matter of pointing your ship where you want to go, and going there. For better or worse, that’s the mental frame of reference that audiences bring to movies about space.

In fact space travel (given our present technology) is much more like firing a gun. The spaceship is the bullet. You get one main chance to aim correctly, and then BANG, off you go. After that there is no changing course. Tom Hanks puts it like this in Apollo 13: “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” (Something no real astronaut would say, understanding that there is no time Sir Isaac Newton isn’t in the driver’s seat).

In fact it’s even harder than aiming a bullet because a bullet reaches its target, or misses, in fractions of a second. A spaceship bullet is aimed at something that’s months away, at a target that’s in motion, and it travels – or more precisely, falls – through a medium governed by gravity, where the sources of gravity – the Sun, the Earth, Mars, etc. – are all in motion relative to each other, creating ever-shifting “currents” tugging the spaceship this way and that.

Once the Hermes fired her engine for the return trip to Earth, that was pretty much that. It had almost no fuel left for other maneuvering. There was no “doing the flip-around thing.” It would have taken a fair bit of inspiration even to think of looking for a return-to-Mars trajectory (let alone a return-to-Mars-and-then-Earth-again one!) plus a lot of luck that one existed, plus a lot of work to actually find it, plus a lot of daring to attempt a critical resupply during the high-speed gravity-assist Earth flyby, all of which the movie depicts a little too simply.

Hopefully, the many cool science things that the movie does depict accurately will whet audiences’ appetites to learn more and thereby discover for themselves just how audacious and unlikely the rescue plan was. Meanwhile, go play with NASA’s interplanetary trajectory browser!

Remembering the past no guarantee of not repeating it

In February of 1992, Apple Computer flew me from Pittsburgh to California and put me up at the Cupertino Inn for a series of job interviews over a couple of days. I extended my stay in order to visit a few other companies too.

One of the companies on my list was a tiny e-mail startup in San Rafael called Z-Code. I was planning to visit them in the afternoon after spending the morning at a prominent computer magazine, interviewing for an editorial position. That visit went very well, and so had the interviews at Apple; and having driven from Cupertino to San Francisco for that interview, I now had a sense for how long the return drive would be, and how much farther out of the way a visit to Z-Code would take me.

If I hadn’t been such a Star Wars nerd I might have skipped it altogether. But I knew that Skywalker Ranch and Industrial Light and Magic were in San Rafael somewhere and I harbored a secret hope of spotting them as I navigated to my Z-Code visit. I visited Z-Code and, to my surprise, found that opportunity more compelling than the ones at Apple and at the magazine. Two months later I was living in California and working at Z-Code and the rest is history.

Now, almost a quarter century later, I’ve had a very similar experience. I interviewed successfully at a number of well-known medium-to-large-sized companies over the past several weeks but found a tiny startup – that I had almost dismissed, at first, as not worth my time – to be the most compelling. Tomorrow I begin at Chain.com.

Shut your mug

At Google (where I no longer work, as of about a month ago) there was a thriving culture of discussion on internal mailing lists covering every topic from politics to parenting to the latest developments in the high-tech industry. Certain topics, and certain modes of expression, were forbidden by Google’s legal team for fear of some opposing lawyer making expensive hay out of a Googler’s utterance, in context or out, in the discovery phase of the lawsuits that came Google’s way almost daily. An exuberant peon could write “Feature [X] is going to crush competitor [Y]!” and suddenly Google could be looking at a serious antitrust complaint, for instance. (For more on how companies can be on the hook for the innocent utterances of its employees, see Jamie Zawinski’s classic article about the “bad-attitude” and “really-bad-attitude” mailing lists at Netscape.)

All Googlers were required to take a training course annually to reinforce the rules surrounding internal online communication, but passion, arrogance, and ignorance could sometimes undermine that training, and occasionally someone would write something inadvisable.

At times like these, a member of Google’s legal team named Doug – who seemed to do little else but read internal discussion groups – would swoop into the thread and respectfully remind everyone to “communicate with care.” On one such occasion, his remarks transformed the thread into one all about him and his polite but firm reminders. When a couple of folks contributed short poems on the topic, I composed and posted this (1 May 2012).

Doug I am!
I am Doug!
Do you like to shut your mug?

I do not like to shut my mug.
I do not like to, I-am-Doug.

Would you, could you, if we’re sued?
Could you, would you, if we’re screwed?

I would not, could not, if we’re sued.
I could not, would not, if we’re screwed.

Will you, will you, on your blog?
Will you, will you, lest we flog?

I will not, will not, on my blog.
I will not, will not, lest you flog.

Would you like to in the press?
Try it, try! Don’t make a mess.

I would not like to in the press.
I do not think I’ll make a mess.

Could you shut your mug in tweets,
In Facebook posts, and in the streets?

I could not shut it in the streets!
Not in my posts and not my tweets!
I do not think I’ll make a mess
And will not shut it in the press
Not on my blog
Not lest you flog
Not if we’re sued
Not if we’re screwed
I do not like to shut my mug!
I do not like to, I-am-Doug!

You do not like it, so you say
Try it, try it, and you may

Saaay…
I do now like to shut my mug!
I do so like it, I-am-Doug!
And I will shut it in the press
And I will never make a mess!
And I will shut it in my tweets
In Facebook posts, and in the streets,
And if we’re sued
And if we’re screwed
And on my blog
No need to flog
I do so like to shut my mug!
Thank you, thank you, I-am-Doug!

Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or what?

Last night I dreamed I was at the beach with my kids. We saw a food shack with its menu painted on a board in front, and one item on the menu was a “Tomato Rahway.” “Do you know Tomato Rahways?” I asked my kids in the dream. “We had them when I was little. It’s an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato under the cheese.”

I was briefly awake in the middle of the night after that dream, and I marveled at how my subconscious was able to dredge up the memory of Tomato Rahways after perhaps forty years of not thinking that phrase even once.

When I woke up for real this morning, the first thing I did was a Google search for [tomato rahway]. 1 It doesn’t exist, at least according to the Internet, and it now appears my brain conjured out of whole cloth not only the phrase “Tomato Rahway” and the association with a very specific food item that I probably never even saw let alone ate, but also the idea, like a cherry on top, that it was an old childhood memory, which apparently it wasn’t.

What the hell, brain?

Anyway, I officially proclaim that the name for an open-faced grilled-cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato is now “Tomato Rahway.”

  1. In the process, I stumbled onto a Googlewhack for [“tomato rahway” -plum], which links to this. []

Kill Ralphie! saved!

[Cross-posted at kill-ralphie.blogspot.com/2015/06/kill-ralphie-saved.html.]

In the 1980’s, students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University were on the Internet, but there was no World Wide Web yet – no browsers, no websites, no Google, Facebook, or YouTube; in fact, no video and almost no graphics, just text. But there still existed social communities online, organized into discussion forums on numerous topics. Usenet was the biggest of these. Carnegie Mellon had its own internal collection of discussion forums called bboards.

One bboard was called “Kill Ralphie!” When someone posted to Kill Ralphie, they were contributing a chapter to an ongoing story about a hapless lad who is alternately placed in immediate mortal danger, then rescued, both in the most creative and entertaining ways possible. I was an enthusiastic participant back then, along with many others at CMU. Writing for an audience of fellow contributors was a formative experience for me that improved my prose and humor skills from “immature” to “slightly less immature.”

Well, guess what? Kill Ralphie! lives again! I’ve taken that old pastime and turned it into a fun new website. Please check it out, contribute chapters, and enjoy: kill-ralphie.com.

From the home office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

There is nothing I can say about David Letterman that isn’t already being said in tremendous quantity, and occasionally quality, all over the Internet. (Example.) Nothing, that is, except to relate my David Letterman Dream.

Background: I was a David Letterman fan from the very start of his national TV career. I saw him as a new comic doing stand-up on The Tonight Show. I rejoiced when a snow day meant I could stay home from school to watch his short-lived daytime program. His HBO special, “David Letterman: Looking For Fun” seemed designed to appeal especially to me, personally. I was there for the first episode of Late Night, and many more thereafter. His arrival on late-night TV just as I began the slow transformation to adulthood assured me I was inheriting a hipper and more interesting world than the genteel one inhabited by Johnny Carson and my parents. I didn’t know then to call it “postmodernism,” I just knew that there seemed to be a secret joke at the heart of pop culture and Dave and I both got it.

A few years later, halfway through college and finally living in a place of my own, feeling alternately independent and lonely, my sleep-wake cycle shifted crazily late and life an unpredictable whirl of schoolwork, friends, and cherchez la femme, Letterman became my reliable daily refuge. His frequent willingness to expose the machinery behind Late Night — the offices, the studio, the local environs, the staff and crew — was the first clear indication I ever had, and a strangely reassuring one, that a future writing top-notch TV comedy awaited me if I wanted it.

In a nearby parallel universe, Dave and I were buds.

I visited that parallel universe once in the most vivid dream of that sleep-deprived period. I got onto the elevator at the ground floor of Rockefeller Center with Dave and several others, some celebrities, some not. We all chatted amiably. As the elevator rose, it also shrunk, because 30 Rock, it turns out, was a pyramid, and that’s what pyramids do to elevators. So at each stop a number of people were forced to get out. Finally it was just me and Dave riding the last few floors to the top. Together we hatched a scheme where I would come on Late Night as a guest. Dave would introduce me as a big celebrity. (“Ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction…”) We’d make up movie premieres, charity events, and awards ceremonies for me to describe having attended. The joke would be on the audience as they tried to figure out where they were supposed to know me from.

To this day I half believe that if I had ever actually befriended David Letterman and pitched that idea to him, he would have gone for it, and I’m just as sure that no one else on TV from then until now would have.