Is a sperm like a whale?

Here’s an unsolicited, uncompensated plug for a shining nugget of pure comic genius: The Holy Tango of Literature by Francis Heaney. You can buy it in paperback or read the whole thing online.

“Holy Tango” is an anagram of the word “anthology,” which prefigures its inspired premise: dozens of short writing samples, each in the style of a famous poet or playwright writing a poem or play whose title is an anagram of that author’s name.

Got that? Not only does Heaney come up with numerous amazing anagrams of writers’ names, but he nails each writer’s style.

For instance, there’s “Carry Huge Coffee,” an anagram of “Geoffrey Chaucer,” written as a Chaucerian ballad:

In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

It goes on to describe the arrival of a knight named “Sterrebukke” who saves Seattle from its drowsy languor. Then there’s “Dammit, Dave,” an anagram of David Mamet, written as an unmistakably Mamet-like take on 2001: A Space Odyssey:

HAL: Dave. Look.
Bowman: You’re not going to…
HAL: What? Open the doors? No. No I am not.
Bowman: Well, fuck me, HAL.
HAL: Yes. Fuck you. Because I’ll tell you something. Trust. There is a bond of trust between an astronaut and his computer. Is there not? And when that trust is broken…
Bowman: Excuse me?
HAL: I’m talking about trust.

There’s also “Toilets” by T.S. Eliot, “My Valentine Isn’t Clad” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and “Hen Gonads” by Ogden Nash. Here’s my favorite one, which blows my mind in its erudite comic brilliance: “Is A Sperm Like A Whale?” by William Shakespeare, in strict sonnet form:

Shall I compare thee to a sperm whale, sperm?
Thou art more tiny and more resolute:
Rough tides may sway a sea-bound endotherm,
But naught diverts thy uterine commute.

Sometime too fierce the eye of squid may glint
And make a stout cetacean hunter quail;
Methinks ‘twould take much more than bilious squint
To shake thee off the cunning ovum’s trail.

Yet still thou art not so unlike, thou two,
Both coursing through a dark uncharted brine
While fore and aft there swims thy fellow crew;
And note this echo, little gamete mine:

As whales spray salty water from their spout,
So with a salty spray dost thou come out.

If you liked that, don’t miss Heaney’s synopsis of Shakespeare’s worst play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Excerpt:

Helicanus: What’s the matter, my lord?
Pericles: Oh…the king of Antioch is sleeping with his daughter and now he wants to kill me because he’s afraid I’ll tell everyone about it or something. (He leans out the window.) OH, IF ONLY I HAD NEVER LEARNED HE WAS SLEEPING WITH HIS DAUGHTER.
Helicanus: I can see how that would be a problem. Maybe you should leave town until he cools off, or dies, or whatever, since it’s pretty easy to find you here.
Pericles: Since I’m prince and all.
Helicanus: Exactly.
Pericles: Probably a good idea.

(Shades of The Skinhead Hamlet.)

Old before his time?

Jonah and I woke up only moments ago wanting pancakes for breakfast. I told him I would make some for him but that I needed a few minutes first to drink my wake-up coffee, check my e-mail, etc. He said, “That’s OK, because I have to do some paperwork.”

(By which he means he needs to draw and cut out some new piece of artwork along the lines of this awesome “train.”)

Curiosity killed the camera

Earlier today a co-worker sent a link to a pictorial of a camera being disassembled, the point being how fantastically complicated it is compared to the device we make. It reminded me of this story:

A couple of years ago, the hardware guru at work, Sue, let me sit at her workbench and use her tools to try to repair my Canon Powershot digital camera, a midrange point-and-shoot model. On powerup, a tiny servomotor was supposed to telescope the lens barrel out of the camera body (just as hundreds of models do). Mine had stopped operating smoothly. The barrel, or the protective shutter in front of the lens, would get stuck halfway through an open or close cycle. I’d already gotten an estimate on a professional repair that was prohibitively long and expensive. Might as well give it a try myself and, at worst, buy a new camera.

I thought that by disassembling it as far as the lens barrel, I might be able to dislodge any grit or whatever was blocking its smooth operation, provided it wasn’t actually an electrical problem in the servo or anything else. I took out the batteries, then started removing screws and laying them carefully on the workbench in a way that might allow me to remember how they were all supposed to be put back together. But I was only able to remove tiny bits of camera at a time. Dozens of removed parts later it still looked pretty much like a camera. It was like the dance of the seven veils.

Before long there were so many screws and bits of camera shell and buttons and retainer rings and spacers on the workbench that it was clear it would never all go back together. But I pressed on anyway out of stubbornness and curiosity. Until the camera blew up in my hands.

Yes, I had forgotten about the giant capacitor that powers the flash. It discharged painfully into my fingertips with a loud BANG, a tiny shower of sparks, and of course the magic blue smoke. And that was the end of that. Now a little pissed, I spent another minute or two manhandling the (now slightly charred) camera just to get a glimpse inside the lens barrel by any means necessary. When I finally ripped it apart enough, there appeared to be nothing obvious I could have done anyway to fix it. I swept all the pieces into the trash as the phrase, “No user-serviceable parts” repeated over and over in my head.

Angry kids say the darnedest things

Andrea took the kids to the city today. They went to the California Academy of Sciences, had lunch at Buca di Beppo, walked around the waterfront, and generally had a fun time. But at one point things turned ugly when Jonah refused to listen to Andrea and started running away from her, and Andrea had to read him the riot act. It escalated from there and, in the ensuing argument, Jonah angrily hurled this statement:

“I’m eleventy feet mad at you!”

A little later in the same argument Jonah had composed himself enough to construct some plausible deniability:

“Mommy, you have to calm down. You disturbed my thinking when I was running down the hill.”

Four and a half years old, ladies and gentlemen, and already mastering the rhetorical technique of deflecting blame onto the accuser! That’s-a my boy.

Criticize things you don’t know about

Today’s incarnation of Bloo

Back in the early days of playing house with Andrea, she and I were grocery shopping when, in the cleaning-supplies aisle, we encountered the toilet-cleaning tablet called “Bloo” for the first time. You drop it in the toilet tank and, for the next several weeks, it cleans the toilet and colors the water blue with every flush.

This encounter was enough for me to launch a mini-tirade on the subject of pointlessly misspelling words to achieve some sort of cutesy effect. This wasn’t a case of trying to mimic another word without running afoul of fraud laws (as with the “creme” in Twinkies or the “froot” in Froot Loops). The tablet really was blue. They could have called it “Blue” and thus avoided insulting the intelligence of toilet-cleanser consumers, but how catchy a name is the plain old word “Blue”?

Jef Poskanzer, a former colleague of mine and a celebrity of sorts from the heyday of the WELL and Usenet, once formulated “Poskanzer’s Maxim,” which has now propagated itself into conventional wisdom: “Every spelling flame contains a spelling error.” My tirade was a spelling flame of sorts, and so it contained an error of sorts. I realized it years later when I learned that “loo” is British slang for a toilet. (Amazingly you can read every Sherlock Holmes and Saint story their originators ever wrote, as I had, and still never encounter that fact.) Far from being stupid, the intentional misspelling was actually quite clever. Of course as everyone knows that’s a fine line.

Greatest hits: My four “Two Things” things

I’m on a mailing list where a friend once asked everyone to chime in with what the “Two Things” are in their chosen fields or areas of interest. He referred us to a website that explains the “Two Things” concept:

The Story of the Two Things

A few years ago, I was chatting with a stranger in a bar. When I told him I was an economist, he said, “Ah. So — what are the Two Things about economics?”

“Huh?” I cleverly replied.

“You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are really only two things you really need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay, here are the Two Things about economics. One: Incentives matter. Two: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Ever since that evening, I’ve been playing the Two Things game. Whenever I meet someone who belongs to a different profession (i.e., a profession I haven’t played this game with), or who knows something about a subject I’m unfamiliar with, I pose the Two Things question.

The site also helpfully lists the Two Things about “The Two Things”:

  1. People love to play the Two Things game, but they rarely agree about what the Two Things are.
  2. That goes double for anyone who works with computers.

I replied with these sets of Two Things:

Software engineering (and engineering in general)
  1. Fast, cheap, good: choose two.
  2. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.
  1. It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.
  2. There are two kinds of pilots: those who have landed gear up, and those who will. [applies to other dumb mistakes too]
  1. Everything is just a phase.
  2. The sooner you accept that your most beloved possessions will be destroyed, the happier you’ll be.
Dog ownership
  1. If you don’t have the time for a proper walk now, you’d better have the time to clean up a smelly mess later.
  2. You can’t fool your dog.

Vampire lesbian girl scouts

Today my friend Greg had his birthday party. Andrea and I were responsible for decorations, which took the form of helium balloons and a collection of six different cakes painstakingly hand-decorated by us to depict Greg’s life.

One of the cakes commemorated an episode from when Greg and I and a few other friends worked together at a technology startup some years ago. For some reason the subject of lesbian-vampire fiction had come up. We guys all endorsed the genre — what’s not to love? — but none so heartily as Greg, who was promptly branded the resident lesbian-vampire fancier.

On a separate occasion Greg evinced what we playfully regarded as an unwholesome interest in girl scouts. So during one discussion of the technology we were developing — which among other things permitted users to find the overlaps between separate searches of one’s e-mail — we imagined that one such search that Greg might perform would be to find the overlap between “girl scouts” and “lesbians” and “vampires.”

Not long after that some of us found Greg crashed out on the couch after an all-night programming session. He was smiling in his sleep, and the consensus was that he was dreaming about vampire lesbian girl scouts. Hence a cutout of this drawing by yours truly gracing one of his cakes.

Speaking of helium balloons: some time ago it occurred to me that (a) when helium escapes from a balloon or elsewhere, it must float straight up to the top of the atmosphere where it is effectively unretrievable, and (b) being a “noble” gas, new helium cannot be produced via chemical reactions, only nuclear ones, such as during hydrogen fusion, which is prohibitively expensive. Ergo there must be a limited supply of helium on earth and we are using it up. This deduction turned out to be exactly right, and in fact we may have no more than a couple of decades before helium becomes too scarce and costly for whimsical uses like party balloons or talking in a chipmunk voice, alas.

That was quick

No sooner did I hit a milestone birthday than the inevitable cognitive decline began. First there was me giving Andrea bogus driving directions from the Bay Model to the Bayside Cafe: “Go left. Now left again.” In fact the Bayside Cafe, where we’ve gone for breakfast at least a couple of times every month for years, is a straight shot to the right up Sausalito’s main street from where we were. Andrea was confused by my directions but thought I had something tricky up my sleeve. The trick was on me!

(This reminds me of a story from college days. I had rented a car with my friend David and our girlfriends Michelle and Julie. We drove from Pittsburgh to Julie’s house in Maryland, with me at the wheel, Michelle beside me, and Julie and David in the back. As we neared her house, Julie called out the turns to navigate her tangled residential neighborhood, but she kept mixing up “left” and “right”! After half a dozen U-turns I told her, “Never mind ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Say ‘Bob’ for left [since from Julie’s vantage point I was seated on the left] or ‘Michelle’ for right.” Guess what — Julie then mixed up “Bob” and “Michelle”!)

Later Archer needed a diaper change. By now I’ve changed uncounted thousands of diapers, so as usual I put him on the changing table, took off the old diaper, wiped him up, and threw the diaper away. Then I crossed to the bathroom, washed my hands, and walked into the living room — with Archer still on the changing table half naked, needing a new diaper! Fortunately he was either too mellow or too diplomatic (or both) when I returned to him a moment later to act as if anything was amiss.

Greatest hits: White House orgy

[Reproduced from e-mail.]

I’m on a mailing list that saw much criticism of George Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In response to a comment about Bush remaining on vacation as the disaster unfolded, one die-hard Bush defender quipped,

All presidents have taken long vacations, but then again, they are “on-call” 24 hours per day […]

With, of course, the notable exception of President Clinton, who preferred have his vacations under his desk.

So I wrote:

New rule: Any president who can keep Americans safe, preserve our liberties, keep joblessness and poverty down, keep the economy growing, keep the international situation stable, heed scientific consensus, avoid burdening our children with debt or depriving them of resources, refrain from unnecessary military adventures and fight the necessary ones effectively, govern on behalf of those who didn’t vote for him as well as those who did, appoint qualified experts to top posts and hold them accountable when they fuck up, admit and correct his own errors, honor the accomplishments of past generations, and exhibit a deep respect for the law is hereby free to gather the entire staff of the White House for a giant orgy in the Oval Office daily at 6pm. With sodomy.