The cat and the hat

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Stories

[This story, from 2 June 2012 and just recently rediscovered, is one of a few that I wrote for my kids to model creative writing for them and to whet their appetite for doing it themselves.]

Once upon a time there was an old cat. The cat was so old that he was losing some of the fur on top of his head. “Meow,” thought the cat, which meant, “I wish I had a nice hat to cover my bald spot.”

As it happens, there was a nice hat that the cat’s person sometimes wore. But it was high on a shelf — too high for the old cat to jump.

“Meow,” thought the cat, which meant, “That hat would look great on me. I wish I could reach it.” But try as he might, he couldn’t.

At that very moment, the cat’s old enemy, the mouse, appeared from his hole. “Meow,” thought the cat, which meant, “A nice mousey meal will make me feel better.” The cat pounced at the mouse, but being so old, his pounce was very slow, and the mouse had plenty of time to disappear back into his hole. “Meow!” shouted the cat in frustration, which meant, “Not only am I going bald, but I can’t even catch a mouse anymore!”

The mouse heard the cat’s “Meow” and understood it (because at mouse school they teach cat language for self-defense). Even though the cat had been trying to eat him for years, the mouse felt bad for him. Then the mouse had an idea. Maybe he could cheer up the cat. Maybe then the cat would stop chasing him!

“Squeak!” said the mouse from his hole, which meant, “If you’ll promise to stop trying to eat me, I’ll help you get that hat.”

The cat (who understood mouse language thanks to an after-school mouse-language class he once took) laughed and said, “Meow!” meaning, “If I, a cat, who’s an expert at jumping and climbing, can’t get that hat, how can a mouse possibly get it?”

The mouse poked his head out of his hole. “Squeak,” he said, which meant, “Oh I can get it, alright.” He added, “Squeak?” meaning, “Do we have a deal?”

“Meow,” the cat nodded skeptically.

The mouse disappeared back inside his hole. For a moment, the cat heard nothing; but then there came the sound of tiny mouse feet marching up through old tunnels he’d dug in the walls over the years. Then silence again for a moment; and then to the cat’s astonishment, a tiny hole appeared in the wall just above the shelf, right behind the hat. A moment later the mouse’s nose appeared through the hole, and as his tiny claws dug the hole wider, the rest of the mouse emerged.

“Squeak,” called the mouse from high above the cat, meaning, “We have a deal, right?”

“Meow,” agreed the cat admiringly. So the mouse gave the hat a push and down it tumbled from the shelf — right onto the old cat’s head.

The mouse re-entered the wall, scampered down his tunnels, and came back out through the hole near the floor. “Squeak,” he said to the cat, meaning, “That hat looks nice on you.  You should go look in a mirror.”

The cat went to a nearby mirror and took a look at himself. “Meow,” thought the cat, meaning, “I look years younger! I’ll bet I could catch that mouse now!” And with one quick pounce, the mouse was trapped beneath his paws!

“SQUEAK!” said the mouse, meaning, “HEY! WE HAD A DEAL!”

The cat brought his face closer to the trapped mouse. Terrified, the mouse watched the cat’s mouth open and thought, “Squeak,” meaning, “This is the end.”

And then the cat poked out his tongue to give the mouse a grateful kiss.

“Meow,” said the cat, and meant it.

Decade done

Another year, another silent prayer that next year’s social-media utterances are less fraught and more fun. (Previously.)

  • [A friend made a “time to make the donuts” post.]

    “Time to make the donuts” is my first waking thought most days.

    The weird thing is, a different Facebook friend made a “time to make the donuts” comment (to which I made the same reply) a year ago, as one of the very first posts of 2018.

    So a new year is now “time to make a time to make the donuts” post.

  • Continue reading “Decade done”

All for nothing?

See Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in 3D. When it begins, and the title and opening crawl recede into the the starry backdrop, the depth effect is amazing. It is the best part of the movie.

The second best part of the movie is five seconds near the very end: a wordless look that passes between Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and another character. You’ll know it when you see it. That Oscar Isaac — he can do more with a look than the rest of the movie can do with $XX million in special effects. It’s worth the price of admission.

The third best part of the movie is the subversiveness of casting Keri Russell, a famously beautiful woman, as a character whose face we don’t even see.

The fourth best part of the movie is that they never mention midichlorians.

The fifth best part of the movie is that John Williams gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on-screen cameo.

The sixth best part of the movie came after it ended. As my wife and I drove home, there was a long stretch of baffled silence while we separately mulled over what we had both just seen, and she suddenly exclaimed, “What?!” in a way that caused us both to laugh and laugh and laugh.

The relationship of The Rise of Skywalker to Star Wars is the same as that of the modern-day Church to the original teachings of Jesus: the result of generations of people with opinions and ambition troweling layers of ponderous meaning and import on top of something that once was compact and simple and wonderful.

Clausa nostra

A cynic might point out that this actually is something like how Christmas works. Good thing I’m not a cynic.

You better not talk
You better not squeal
You better pay up
‘Cause this is the deal:
Santa Claus is shaking you down

He tells you that toys
Don’t pay for themselves
While over your shoulders
Stand two burly elves
Santa Claus is shaking you down

He sounds all buddy-buddy
He calls you by your name
If something happened to your house
He says that would be a shame

“Now don’t make me leave
A lump of cold lead.”
“Don’t you mean coal?”
“You heard what I said.”
Santa Claus is shaking you down

(Previously.)

Spider bin

[It’s the rainy season and time to cover up our patio furniture.]

Spider bin! Spider bin!
The bin we keep our outside-stuff in
Need a tarp, any size
I reach in, a thousand eyes
Look out! Out from the spider bin

Is it gross? Listen, dude
Zillions of babies in every brood
Can they jump on your face?
They can jump almost any place
Hey there, they’re in the spider bin

When I let in light
And I cause them alarm
With the speed of fright
They dash right up my arm

Spider bin! Spider bin!
Arachnophobes, do not look within
Put on gloves, tiptoe toward
Lift the lid, greet the horde
To them, our stuff is one big hangout
Where they can let their fangs out
We’ve got a spider bin!

RMS, titanic

One afternoon in 1996, as I worked with my partners at our software startup, the phone rang. I answered it, and a voice on the other end said, “Richard Stallman?”

This was disorienting. Richard Stallman was the legendary technologist who had created the Free Software Foundation, dedicated to freedom from corporate and government control for those who program computers and those who use them. He founded the GNU project, dedicated to creating an alternative to the Unix operating system unencumbered by patents and copyrights. He was famously ensconced in an office at MIT, not a house in a northern California suburb doubling as office space for our startup. Why would someone call us looking for him, there?

Or did the caller think I was Stallman??

The moment was even more baffling because I was then at work (as a side project) on a book about Stallman’s other great creation, Emacs, the text editor beloved by programmers. So there wasn’t no connection between me and Stallman. But he wasn’t involved in my writing project; he had merely invented the thing it was about. That was a pretty slender thread. How do you get from that to expecting to find the great man himself in our humble headquarters?

Three years earlier I did work briefly with Stallman, after a fashion. The GNU project was releasing a new file-compression tool called gzip. Stallman wanted files compressed by gzip to have names ending with “.z”. In an e-mail debate with him, I argued that this would make them too easy to confuse with files created by “compress,” a predecessor to gzip, which used a “.Z” filename suffix. The distinction between uppercase “.Z” and lowercase “.z” would be lost if those files were ever stored on, or passed along by, an MS-DOS computer, which permitted only monocase filenames. Stallman, in his typical mulish way, refused to allow any consideration of how Microsoft software behaves to influence what the GNU project should do. But I was insistent, not least because I believed that the potential for confusion would harm the reputation of the GNU project, and I wanted GNU to succeed. I was on Stallman’s side! I was joined in my opinion by a couple of others on that thread. In the end Stallman relented, and as a result gzip used (and still uses) the filename suffix “.gz”.

This was a rare concession from a man whose primary goal with the Free Software Foundation was the repudiation, on principle, of the entire edifice of intellectual property law. The creation of actually useful software was only ever secondary to that goal.1 To the extent that Microsoft owed its existence to intellectual-property plunder, Stallman would have seen it as a moral obligation not to allow it to affect the design of GNU gzip.

Stallman was never one to allow pragmatism to overcome principle, an outlook that extended far beyond his professional pursuits and into all aspects of his public persona, with results often off-putting and occasionally problematic. In principle, why should anyone object to an impromptu solo folk dance in the middle of a fancy restaurant (as recounted in Steven Levy’s recent Wired article)? No one should, of course — in principle. In practice, most of us would agree there are good reasons to keep your spontaneous folk-dancing inhibitions in place. But Stallman is not most of us. In principle, it’s merely being intellectually honest to engage in a little devil’s-advocate hypothesizing on the Jeffery Epstein scandal, and how Stallman’s colleague Marvin Minsky might have been involved. In practice, for a prominent public figure — one with authority over others — to do so at this moment, and in that way, betrays at best a cluelessness that’s just this side of criminal. It’s what forced Stallman to resign recently from the organization he’s led for over three decades.

But in 1996, when the phone rang at my startup, Stallman was, to me and my colleagues, simply a legendary hero hacker and fighter against oppression. When I said, “Hello?” and the voice on the other end said, “Richard Stallman?” the effect on me wouldn’t have been too different if it had said, “Batman?”

I stammered something along the lines of, sorry, this is Zanshin, in California; Richard Stallman works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The voice said, “No, this is Richard Stallman.” What I had taken for a question mark was really a period. (Or possibly an exclamation point.)

In principle, it makes perfect sense to shorten, “Hello, this is Richard Stallman” to “Richard Stallman.” Those four other syllables seem superfluous; might as well save the effort it takes to utter them. In practice, of course, it is decidedly odd when placing a phone call simply to declare your own identity and expect your intention to be understood, especially when you leave off anything like, “May I speak to Bob Glickstein please?”

Stallman was calling me, it turns out, because of the book I was writing. He wanted to know if I would consent to giving the book away for free. (A few years later Stallman would put the same pressure on his biographer, Sam Williams, as recounted in the Salon.com review of Williams’ book.) I said that I was not unsympathetic to his request — after all, Emacs, the topic of my book and the output of many programmer-hours of labor, was distributed for free by the FSF. But how could I consent, when my publisher had production and marketing costs to recover? What about the value of all the time I had invested, couldn’t I reasonably expect some compensation for that, especially since I was not yet drawing any salary from my startup? I additionally thought, but did not say out loud, that unlike Stallman himself I had not earned a MacArthur genius grant to fund my writing and programming whims.

Stallman had no answer for the questions I posed, other than to reiterate a few times his certainty that the book should by rights be free. We ended our call, and (as it turned out) our professional association, at a stalemate on this topic.

As with the gzip episode, I was nominally on Stallman’s side. I would have given serious consideration to his request if he could have compromised somehow, or if he could have spoken about the prospects for earning revenue from a product even when it’s given away for free, or, hell, if he could simply have articulated some understanding of or sympathy for the objections I raised. But he was doctrinaire. The principle was the one and only consideration for him.

The paradox of Richard Stallman is that this single-mindedness made him remarkable and allowed him to achieve remarkable things; but his disregard for pragmatism in favor of an insistence on principle cost him the goal of freely distributing my book, on this occasion — and, on another occasion twenty-odd years later, also cost him his career.

  1. Ironically it’s that secondary goal at which the FSF has been more successful by far (despite the many who have rallied to Stallman’s anti-copyright banner — myself included, with varying degrees of conviction over the years). Intellectual property law is as constraining to individuals and organizations as ever. But you and I and everyone we know and, not to put too fine a point on it, our entire modern information economy, depend daily on infrastructural software created by the FSF. []

Just got it, part 4

I saw Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid when it came out in 1982. In it, Steve Martin, as a 1940’s-era film noir private eye, is cleverly intercut with scenes from actual film noir classics from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

At one point he visits Burt Lancaster in a scene from The Killers and finds him apparently hungover, so offers to make him a cup of his “famous java.” He goes to the kitchen, gets a saucepan, and shakes coffee grounds into it from a bag. He shakes and shakes and shakes and shakes and it goes on so long it becomes hilarious.

Finally he tosses in two whole eggs, breaking them open with a fork and stirring them into the coffee grounds, shells and all.

I always thought that the eggs were a bizarre little comic button on the coffee-making sequence. He stirs whole eggs into coffee grounds, haha, the weirdo! But as I learned just recently, this is in fact a common practice in some places.

What’s more, this is often referred to as “Swedish coffee,” and Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers is “Swede Anderson.” I get it now!

(Previously.)

I am not a shady Internet cigarette affiliate

If you’ve ever read a post on this blog and wondered why occurrences of the word “cigarette” were linked to a shady (now defunct) online cigarette store called Cigazilla, the answer is this blog was hacked. It happened some time between 2012 (when the most recent Wayback Machine snapshots show no Cigazilla links) and 2015 (when the earliest backup I still have shows Cigazilla links embedded in the text). I suspect some unpatched WordPress exploit, or an exploit in one of the few WordPress plugins I use, allowed this to happen.

Please let me know if you see anything else on the site that looks like it doesn’t belong.

Klein, bottled

I am in no way likening myself to Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to get myself in trouble, so right off the bat let me say that I am in no way likening myself to Jesus Christ. Yet when I think about a thing that happened to me in the summer of the year I turned eleven, I feel a certain kinship with him. And I don’t just mean being Jewish.

This story begins several months earlier, when I turned ten and received the most consequential birthday gift of my life: a portable Panasonic tape recorder.

Remarkably, a photo survives of me opening that gift. Clearly I am pleased.

Observe the nerd-tastic football jacket that isn’t.

You can draw a straight line from that moment to my participation as one of the founding members of the Internet Movie Database.

Like this: Around the same time, my family became one of the earliest subscribers to HBO. Home Box Office had the unique and, to a budding cinephile like myself, irresistible proposition in those pre-cable-TV days of showing movies uncensored and uninterrupted by commercials. Consumer videotapes were not yet a thing (much less laserdiscs and DVDs, and streaming could not even be imagined) and so movies could not be enjoyed on demand — unless you were content to replay just the audio of a movie you had recorded by placing a mic near the TV’s small speaker. I recorded many movies this way, listening to them repeatedly the way other people listened to their favorite records. Occasionally I listened to one tape so many times that I memorized it, and years later this questionable talent landed me the job of IMDb Quotes Editor.

Another of HBO’s main attractions from its earliest days was its “On Location” series, a collection of unexpurgated performances inaugurated in 1975 by the comedian Robert Klein (one of the top performers, with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin, keeping the flame of standup comedy alive during the decade between its flowering in the 60’s and its explosive ubiquity in the 80’s). I was a fan, and in 1977, HBO aired a followup concert, “Robert Klein Revisited.” I tape-recorded it and there was just enough time before summer vacation for me to memorize big chunks of his routine.

School was out and we were among the annual migration of Jewish families from the swelter of New York City to a couple of months of bungalow-colony life in the Catskill mountains. Bungalow-colony life did not include TV. (And, in case contemporary readers need reminding, there was no Internet, nor any personal electronics.) For entertainment, we went outside.

Late one Friday afternoon, sitting at the picnic table in front of my bungalow, I “did” some of Robert Klein’s recent show for a couple of my friends. They laughed at the jokes, which felt tremendous, and even though it may have begun in conversational fashion, by the end I was in full-on performance mode. We all had a good time, even if some of the words coming out of my mouth went over all our heads.

The next Friday, one of my friends suggested I give a repeat performance, this time for a bigger audience. Without my really knowing what was happening, the word had spread about my “show” and there was now a group of a dozen or more kids in front of my bungalow. Rather than sit at our picnic table I stood atop it. I did exactly the same material in exactly the same way as the week before. And I killed! My mom, amazed, watched from the door of the bungalow as her very own Borscht Belt tummler worked the crowd, a story she told and retold for the rest of her life. (My dad would arrive later that evening, along with all the other dads after a week at work in the city.) Meanwhile, my original couple of friends, who’d heard exactly the same routine a week earlier, listened to my new fans’ cheers with pride at having been in on the act at the beginning.

One week later, my Friday-afternoon act had transformed into a ritual. Someone announced it over the P.A. system! The crowd in front of my bungalow had grown to 20-30 people, including a few bemused adults. My original couple of friends were now my handlers, prepping me for my performance. All of this had somehow happened without any involvement from me. For my part I was awhirl at being the center of attention, but was also growing reluctant to do the show. For one thing, I had no new material, and largely a returning audience who’d heard it all before. For another, I simply didn’t understand at least 10% of what I had memorized, and so I could do nothing other than repeat it as faithfully to the audience as my tape recorder had repeated it to me and hope that they responded just as faithfully with the laughter that the recording had led me to expect. I had no ability, none at all, to riff, edit, or otherwise adapt the material to the mood of the “room.” I could not have articulated that at the time, but thinking on your feet is of course an essential skill at the heart of standup comedy, and I was vaguely aware of, and uncomfortable about, not having it.

As expected, my recitation of Klein’s lines was received less enthusiastically than the week before, for the expected reasons. There was still laughter and applause, but none of that energy that flows like a current between audience and performer when things are going well. I was considerably less thrilled to be the center of attention. Still, it was enough of a success that when the following Friday rolled around, I was enjoined to perform yet again.

But I found very quickly that it was no longer about me or the act — if it ever even had been. The ritual was now about the ritual itself. A couple of friends, having armed themselves with water pistols, proclaimed themselves my bodyguards and insisted on escorting me during the preliminaries leading up to the show. This included a trip to the P.A. shack, where another self-appointed minion was in charge of announcing the upcoming show to one and all, and where my job apparently was to supervise the announcement. On the way back from there we encountered another group seeking to do crowd control or distribute fruit juice from my mom or perform some other show-related job, and my bodyguards got bossy and territorial. It was tribal, and it was ugly, and I didn’t like it. Before long, too many competing interests trying to impose too many different kinds of organization on an event too flimsy to bear much organizing in the first place caused the whole thing to fizzle. I did not go on, and the ritual did not repeat, and I was relieved. (Anyway, it was time for the summer to become all about Star Wars.)

To sum up: I had a message, and I delivered it to a growing and receptive audience. Yet my delivery of this message was the seed crystal around which an elaborate structure formed, a structure that had little or nothing to do with me or my message, and everything to do with the needs of the people forming it: their need for power, their need for meaning, their need to feel useful, their need to be part of something larger than themselves. Does this make you think of any major world religions, and the humble message-delivering central figure they all claim in common?

Again, can’t stress enough: not likening myself to Jesus. For one thing, his message actually was his. For another, I don’t doubt his riffing ability.