The cat and the hat

[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.

  • [When someone shared the right wing meme “shove the border wall down their throats like they shoved Obamacare down ours.”]

    Why are you in favor of a border wall?

    Why are you opposed to the ACA?

    Why are you in favor of a government shutdown?

    [Later in the thread, replying to “have a obligation to stop the eligals and drugs coming into our country.”]

    To support building a border wall to solve this problem, you have to believe (a) that this is a big enough crisis and (b) the border wall is the right solution.

    If you believe both of those things, ask yourself where that belief came from. If it came from people you know whose opinions you trust, ask where their belief came from.

    I think you’ll find it all originates as Fox News propaganda. Forgive me for presuming, but the fact that you didn’t know Obamacare is really called the Affordable Care Act reinforces this belief. Having successfully demonized Barack Obama, Fox News makes a point always to attach his name to things they want their audience to despise.

    No expert in immigration or border security takes either (a) or (b) seriously. But Fox News is committed to selling the urgency of the wall to those of us who aren’t experts.

    Why would they want you to despise the ACA and support a border wall? Because if the ACA is a success, that means the Democratic party sometimes deserves your vote. And if the border wall is a mistake, that means the Republican party sometimes doesn’t. And Fox News is in the business of making sure you think Democrats are the literal enemy.

    Hence the “let’s do to them what they did to us” framing of your original post: it’s part of a program to drive a wedge between us, to convince us all that we’re at each other’s throats. To make us forget that we have centuries of experience compromising and finding common ground.

    That, after all, is what democracy is – the messy business of figuring out what we can all agree on. As we’ve seen, it works wonders. It made us the most successful nation in human history. But democracy – “rule by the people” – is by definition a threat to those already in power. So they are forever trying to undermine it. It’s our job not to let them.

    [Later still, after a counterargument consisting mainly of “as far as Trump goes, he’s a intelegent business man.”]

    Is he? How do you know?

    I’m going to say something uncontroversial: Han Solo and Indiana Jones are two of the coolest movie characters of my lifetime. Both have loads of charm and wit.

    Harrison Ford plays them both. Have you ever seen him in a talk-show interview?

    The man is a block of wood with zero charisma. But give him a script and some direction, point a camera at him, and suddenly women want to have his babies, men want to start wearing fedoras and leather jackets, and movie studios want to pay him eight figures because they know they’ll earn back ten.

    You see where I’m going with this, right? Maybe Trump is an intelligent businessman… or maybe his real skill is in simply playing one on TV, with as much actual skill in leadership and negotiating as Harrison Ford has in archaeology.

    How can we know which is right? If you wanted to know if someone’s a successful businessman, one thing you would not do is believe the man’s own pronouncements about his prowess. In fact you’d do the opposite, knowing that only weak men feel the need to insist they’re rich and powerful.

    No, you’d look at the health of the companies he’s started. You’d gauge his ability to hire and retain top talent, and earn their loyalty and respect. You’d see how often he manages to achieve his goals by aligning the interests of different groups of stakeholders.

    By those measures, Trump is a failure on an operatic scale. Nearly every venture he ever started is now bankrupt and/or under criminal investigation. He employs his relatives because, like a mob boss, he can’t trust anyone else in his inner circle, which is a revolving door of backstabbers that leads, for many, to jail or ruin. In fact so few people are willing to work for him that some of the most coveted high-power jobs in Washington go unfilled. Virtually none of his campaign goals has been realized.

    “But he’s a self-made billionaire” you say. He is neither self-made nor a billionaire. (Why do you think he refuses to disclose his tax returns?) There has now been extensive reporting and judicial scrutiny that shows young Donald Trump burned through money faster than his rich father could find ways to skirt the tax laws to give him more; and that in the early 2000’s Trump was in such a dire financial situation that he had no choice but to link up with an international money-laundering cartel.

    Of course he says he a genius businessman. What else is he going to say?

    [Much later, after someone commented “it shows Congress we the people run this country not them.”]

    After their experience rebelling against King George, the Founding Fathers rightly mistrusted executive authority. That’s why they gave most of the power in the Constitution not to the President, but to Congress – the body consisting of the directly elected representatives of “we the people.” The job of the President is mainly to carry out the decisions reached by Congress.

    It’s true that, over the years, this balance of power has changed as Congress has granted more authority to the executive branch. This has happened bit by bit by bit, mostly when Congress has felt the need to punt on some politically difficult decision. It’s a design flaw in the Constitution. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to say that letting the President have his way means we the people are in charge. In fact it means the exact opposite.

    [Very much later.]

    I see plenty of debate on this thread, which is good. Frustrating as it can seem at times, that’s democracy! That’s literally exactly what democracy is.

    What I don’t see is debate about the basic premise:

    • Whether a crisis exists;
    • If it does, whether addressing the crisis involves making the southern border a little bit harder to cross.

    You’re all assuming the answers to the first two questions are “yes” and “yes” and have jumped straight to “is a wall the best way to make the southern border a little bit harder to cross?”

    That’s not an accident. That’s manipulation.

    Keep in mind that the oldest trick in the seizing-more-power playbook is to gin up some crisis, make enough people believe in it, and convince them that you’re the one who can solve it.

    So, does a crisis exist? How do you know?

    [Then came a meme: Dorothy asks The Scarecrow, “But how do you talk without a brain?” and The Scarecrow replies, “I’m a Democrat.”]

    What’s more important: scoring 🤣 points from people who already agree with you? Or finding common ground with those who don’t? One’s easy, fun, and a cop-out; one’s hard, thankless, and your civic duty.

    Obviously I disagree with the original post and some of the opinions in this thread. In response I have patiently tried to persuade others to understand my point of view. I have insulted no one. I invite you and everyone to treat your fellow countrymen with the same respect.

    [Finally, a right-wing meme asking why the government can erect so many thousands of miles of sound walls alongside highways but should be prevented from building a border wall.]

    Are you posing this question in a sincere effort to get an answer?

    If so, here’s mine:

    • These would make ineffective border walls. Effective border walls would have to be much higher and stronger, and they’d have to be built (and maintained) in much more remote and rugged places. They would therefore be much, much more expensive.
    • A wall would do very little to protect our lives, which are not meaningfully threatened by the southern border.
    • There are many better uses for the same money and manpower that would protect our lives from actual, serious threats.
    • History has shown the folly of erecting border walls.
  • [When asked if I can explain why it’s ok to spend $XX billion on foreign aid but not $X billion on a border wall.]

    Yes! It’s easily explained by this:

    Don Corleone understands that when you’re rich and powerful, doing favors for others places them in your power.

    When we give foreign aid to other countries, we can influence their policies to our benefit. On one end of the influence spectrum, we can threaten to cut off their aid. On the other end of the spectrum, we can offer to forgive their debt. Most of our international relations are conducted somewhere in between those two extremes: countries operating with an understanding that it’s in their interest to keep America happy.

    Only about 1% of our budget goes to all the foreign aid we give out. The return on that investment is tremendous. We recoup many times that small amount: in our economy, our security, and our ability to exercise power around the world.

  • Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.
    Trump Has Defeated Himself

  • [Someone posted a right-wing meme saying, “So Democrats want to impeach President Trump because of 4 million new jobs, low gas prices, defeating ISIS, …etc…”]

    No, that’s not why.

    [Then, in reply to “so what’s there big reason?”]

    There is of course disagreement on the exact grounds for impeachment, but here are some of the things different groups have said:
    Proposed grounds for impeachment and timeline

    In a nutshell:

    • Obstruction of justice, multiple counts (which is what they would have impeached Nixon on, if he hadn’t resigned first)
    • Lying under oath (which is what they did impeach Clinton on)
    • Violation of the Constitution’s “emoluments” clauses (designed to prevent bribery of the President)
    • Disclosure of classified information to a foreign enemy

    So, not nitpicky things. In addition to these, some have suggested other less-tangible grounds, like inciting hatred and a failure of moral leadership. There’s also a cluster of potential criminal charges relating to the Trump Organization, including fraud and money laundering. It’s not clear to me whether those would be part of any impeachment effort.

    Personally there are a few things I would add, like the concentration camps at the border where thousands live, and some die, in cages with inadequate care and no prospects for release or change – short of a massacre, one of the most monstrous atrocities in modern history.

    Most are awaiting the report from the Mueller investigation, which is widely expected to contain revelations many times more damning than even the various bombshells that have already become public.

  • Holy crap, was Vice some amazing filmmaking. But I didn’t realize I should have emotionally prepared myself to relive all that.

  • [Someone posted a right-wing video purporting to show how insecure our border is.]

    Why is this all anyone’s talking about now? Is there suddenly a crisis so bad that all other government business must stop until this is resolved? Or is there some other explanation?

    Let’s suppose there is a terrible immediate crisis: terrorists, criminals, and drugs entering the country. Is that problem worse now than it’s ever been?

    Let’s suppose that it is worse now than it’s ever been. So let’s build a giant wall! If we put 10,000 men on the job, it can be built by 2030.

    Oh but wait. This is a TERRIBLE IMMEDIATE CRISIS. 2030 isn’t nearly soon enough. Never mind, we need a wall, we’ve got to shut down the government anyway until we get it!

    Oh but wait. 95% or more of terrorists, criminals, and drugs enter the country by air. With the government shut down, TSA agents aren’t getting paid and are calling in sick by the hundreds. As a result, our airport security is a fraction of what it should be.

    If there’s a terrible immediate crisis, why would Trump be making it worse by compromising airport security? (Not to mention food security, since FDA inspections are now halted.)

    Maybe there’s not really a crisis and/or the wall isn’t the right solution? But then why is Trump insisting on this wall?

    Could it be that, as a reality TV star, Trump knows an applause line when he hears it? And when during his campaign, as he tossed out outrageous but attention-getting off-the-cuff ideas one after another (remember?), the racists that flocked to him cheered the wall more than any other proposal, so he zeroed in on that?

    (Yes, racists. You don’t hear anyone calling for a wall on the Canadian border, do you? Why do you suppose that is?)

    Can the actual crisis be that, having committed himself so thoroughly to this idea, he now risks humiliation by admitting he never really thought it through?

    Have we crippled ourselves because one man is afraid of being exposed as a fool?

    [“Do you feel that some of the wall is fueled by racists?”]

    Well, racists make up part of Trump’s coalition, wouldn’t you agree? And what else explains their eagerness to wall us off from Mexico but not Canada – an even longer, even more open border?

    The answer can’t be “terrorists, criminals, and drugs only come from Mexico,” because (a) that’s not remotely true and (b) even if it is, and we made coming across the southern border harder, don’t you think they would just start coming over the undefended northern border instead? (To say nothing of our long coastlines.)

    Isn’t it possible that part of the answer is our northern neighbors are mostly white and English-speaking, and our southern neighbors are neither?

    Anyway, we have effective border controls: satellites, drones, sensors, patrols, all of which is working today, all of which we could scale up very quickly if we felt the need – which isn’t true for a wall. Thanks to those controls, illegal border crossings are about one-third of what they were twenty years ago, and if it wasn’t a stop-everything crisis then, why should it be now?

    Unless, as I say, the crisis is actually about Trump having to save face somehow.

    [“I don’t see how trump is racist? And if I’m in favor of a border wall does that too make me racist?”]

    Neither of those things is what I wrote. I said that there are racists among his supporters – the KKK called Trump “our guy” – and those racists liked the sound of the wall because of what it represents: keeping brown people out of America.

    When Trump saw he had a winning line with “build the wall,” he doubled down on it, because as a showman, that’s what you do. He built up a whole story about how we need it urgently, so that non-racists could buy into the idea too. But a story it is.

    [“Do you not think it’s a problem that illegal immigrants are coming into our country?”]

    Sure it’s a problem, but only a small one. If some of those immigrants are criminals? Well, so are plenty of Americans. If some of those immigrants go on welfare? Yes, it costs us all a few cents more, but nothing compared to the price we all pay for, say, Trump’s big tax cut for the wealthy, or the trade war he started with China.

    Anyway, most illegal immigrants are here not because they snuck across the border, but because they started as legal immigrants who overstayed their visas. A wall would do nothing to address that. A wall would do nothing to address the smuggling of drugs hidden inside legal shipments, which is how most smuggling happens. A wall would not stop a terrorist in Mexico from buying a $300 plane ticket, flying to Canada, and entering the United States literally by crossing the street.

    When you say “of course the wall won’t be 100% perfect,” what you’re overlooking is that it will be close to 0% perfect. We have worse problems, and better solutions, that need our attention and our money.

    We are all racist, but as with all of our worst impulses, some of us have learned this about ourselves and chosen to exercise control over it, others haven’t. When I refer to racists, I’m talking about those folks.

  • [On a lighter note, in response to “Anybody know what to do if you accidentally washed your remote. Asking for a friend.”]

    Now you can only watch clean shows.

  • Disavowed.
    Kremlin: Allegations Of Trump Being A Russian Agent Are ‘Absurd’ And ‘Stupid’

  • [Someone posted a hateful right-wing meme. Someone else challenged him. Original poster answered, “I don’t know anything about it tbh”]

    Then why amplify the message by reposting it? A sincere question.

  • I’m hearing “no worries” in response to “thank you” more and more often. I consider it rude. Here’s why: “no worries” (or the similar “don’t worry about it”) is what you’d say if someone apologized to you for some slight or injury or inconvenience. Saying it in response to “thank you,” as when you’ve just done something for someone, implies that you were inconvenienced but don’t mind. That’s a very different sentiment from “you’re welcome,” which implies that it’s your pleasure to do things for that person.

  • [Someone linked to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax plan can get the rich to actually want to make all Americans richer. Here’s how.]

    Sounds something like my Sigma Tax idea.

  • [Right-wing meme: raising the flag at Iwo Jima, caption “Nobody called it toxic masculinity when we were saving the world.”]

    There are EVIL VILLAINS working to DESTROY AMERICA.

    They do it by hijacking the DOPAMINE CIRCUIT in your brain. Yes, yours.

    Dopamine is the pleasurable REWARD CHEMICAL your brain releases when you ACHIEVE SOMETHING.

    It’s what makes dumb games like Tetris, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush ADDICTIVE.

    Memes like this are churned out by TROLL FARMS. They pay MONEY for this kind of thing.

    You get a DOPAMINE HIT when you repost it or when someone “likes” it, just like a game.

    Its message seems harmless and true, but it’s actually HARMFUL and FALSE.

    FALSE: No one is calling masculinity “toxic.” Instead, there’s something else called “toxic masculinity,” separate from real masculinity. (Real masculinity is, “Let’s get this unpleasant job done.” Toxic masculinity is, “That fag smiled at me, let’s beat the shit out of him so no one thinks I liked it.”)

    HARMFUL: This trains conservatives in how to mock and ignore liberals. (There are similar memes shared by liberals that ridicule conservatives.) Seems tiny by itself, but multiply it by hundreds of different memes and millions of shares and likes, and you’ve got a nation that can’t reach compromise on anything, or even talk to one another.

    The troll farms that produce memes like this are bankrolled by BILLIONAIRES who benefit from a WEAK AMERICA. Don’t let yourself be an unwitting soldier in their army! When you see something like this that triggers that satisfying TRIBAL FEELING (“Haha, those coastal elites are the worst, amirite?” or “Those clueless rednecks just don’t get it, smdh”), that’s the time to stop and BE SUSPICIOUS of its motives.

    Stop letting them divide us. We’re the UNITED States of America.

  • [Right-wing meme: Nancy Pelosi says “Our security is fine, we do not need a wall” and also says, “I’m canceling the State of the Union address due to concerns about security.”]

    “Like the ski resort full of girls hunting for husbands and husbands hunting for girls the situation is not as symmetrical as it might seem.”

    [“I don’t understand?”]

    The security threat of a few bad people sneaking across the border and fanning out across North America in an attempt to disappear is pretty different from the security threat of all our national leaders concentrated in a single easily targeted location at a time of diminished law-enforcement capacity.

  • [In reply to Roger Stone Arrested for breakfast, Trump Caves for lunch. Can’t wait to find out what’s for dinner..]

    Unfortunately it’ll probably be something dramatic that Trump feels he needs to do to prove he’s winning.

  • Hope Adam McKay and I both live long enough for us to get some distance from this era, for him to make an amazing movie about it, and for me to see it and laugh and cry.

  • [On whether to spring for a high school ring.]

    Hahaha! I got suckered into buying mine. In thirty-five years I’ve worn it exactly zero times.

  • Just heard the mini story on Point Roberts. Did you know U.S. gas pumps switched briefly to metric when gas broke $1/gal, to cope with the pumps’ 99.9¢/gal limit? @romanmars

  • It only takes some idiots to ruin things for everyone.

    Part of a vaccine’s effect is to make it harder for a virus to infect you if you come into contact with it. Harder, but not impossible.

    Most of a vaccine’s effect is that when you multiply that first effect by vaccinating everyone, the virus can’t spread. You are much less likely ever to come into contact with it.

    If enough people forgo the vaccine, they increase your risk, even if you’ve gotten it.

    “Idiots” is not a strong enough word.

  • [Friend posts God ‘wanted Donald Trump to become president’.]

    God also wanted World War II to happen.

    God is a dick.

  • [Someone writes a post ridiculing the idea that drug addiction is a disease.]

    I lived for several years without chickenpox. I didn’t want chickenpox. But then the people around me got chickenpox and I was exposed repeatedly. My immune system put up a fight but to no avail. I got chickenpox. Once I got it, I tried and tried to get rid of it. It took some time, but finally I was chickenpox-free.

    I lived for several years without smoking. I didn’t want to smoke. But then the people around me started smoking and I was exposed repeatedly. My intellect put up a fight but to no avail. I started smoking. Once I started, I tried and tried to quit. It took some time, but finally I was cigarette-free.

  • [Right-wing meme: “They came to take part in the American Dream. European Christians built this nation. They didn’t come to bitch, collect welfare, demand citizenship, wave the Mexican flag, wage jihad, or replace the Constitution with sharia law.”]

    They didn’t demand citizenship?

    They didn’t wave their native countries’ flags?

    They didn’t try to impose their religious views on others?

    How sure are you about these statements?

  • [Right wing meme: “Bush 41: We have a border crisis. Clinton: We have a border crisis. Bush 43: We have a border crisis. Obama: We have a border crisis. HRC: We have a border crisis. Trump: Let’s build a wall and end the border crisis. Media: OMG, Trump manufactured the border crisis!”]

    It’s true that a southern-border crisis has been a recurring theme for a long time. It’s misleading to say that presidents and presidential candidates have been saying so, but then to leave out what they did about it. That makes it sound like it’s only gotten worse and worse until Trump decided finally to address it. In fact it’s gotten mostly better over the past 15-20 years. What Trump has manufactured is the sense that things are worse than they’ve ever been – also that a wall is any kind of solution.

    Please read this: President Obama Also Faced A ‘Crisis’ At The Southern Border.


    When the surge of migrant children began arriving in 2014, the Obama administration tried some of the same tactics as the Trump administration.

    The Obama administration housed migrant children in temporary camps on military bases. And it pushed for long-term detention of migrant families while their asylum cases played out in immigration court […]

    But then, those tactics shifted […]

    According to [migrant rights expert] Michelle Brané, the Obama administration deserves credit for learning from its mistakes.

    “The Trump administration has done basically the opposite,” Brané said. “They took exactly what failed, and expanded on it.”

  • A little hug becomes huge instantly
    If you just add silent E


    Gonna be honest: when he turned a twin into twine, six-year-old me was a little freaked out.

    [Friend writes, “Just watch out for the lesser-known invisible E.”]

    The one at the end of “mic,” you mean?

  • At this point we could probably attach generators to the founding fathers spinning in their graves and generate a small city’s worth of electricity.

  • [Left-wing friend posts hateful and ignorant right-wing meme. Other liberals reliably heap scorn on it.]

    Not sure what calling this disgusting or stupid will accomplish other than making someone who agrees with it feel defensive, and harden them in their opinions. Me, I’d ask why Trump deserves having his flaws overlooked when so many others (like Obama) are summarily dismissed as the enemy.

  • [Aggressive right-wing meme says “Fuck open borders” among other things.]


    This is a sincere question.

    Why “fuck” these things? (As opposed to “I oppose open borders,” for example.)

    Why fuck these particular things? (As opposed to “fuck climate change” or “fuck corporations paying zero taxes on billions in profit”?)

  • “Nice guys finish last” is not enough of a reason not to be a nice guy.


    …because “virtue is its own reward.”

  • [Right-wing meme: “If theres even one homeless child in America we have no room for illegal aliens.”]

    Not sure why you tagged me in this post. Is it to see whether I have a countervailing opinion?

    I’m not in favor of illegal aliens. (Or homeless children!) But if you want to know what I think is wrong with this meme, here’s something: homelessness is not a product of illegal immigration. It’s a function of the economy and of public policy, both of which have been badly out of balance for many years now. We could house all homeless people for next to nothing, comparatively speaking. We just have to decide to, instead of deciding that billionaires pay too much tax, for instance.

    Generally speaking, immigration expands the economy (up to a point). A good, legal immigration policy would help solve homelessness, not worsen it.

    It’s not like America is an egg carton with illegal-alien eggs taking up the spaces of citizen eggs.

  • [Right-wing tweet from one Cloyd Rivers: “When you reward mediocracy and give kids a trophy just for playin’, you end up with fast food workers who think they deserve $15/hr. Merica.” Someone points out that $7.25/hr is not a livable wage. Rivers: “Let me learn you some knowledge. Minimum wage ain’t supposed to be a career. It’s meant for high school/college kids with no discernible skills, not adults supportin’ a family.”]

    I wonder where Cloyd Rivers thinks higher skills will come from for most folks. Underfunded public schools? Unaffordable colleges? On-the-job training, maybe, but if you start as a fry cook, what are your career opportunities?

    [Friend points out there are plenty of affordable community colleges and trade schools.]

    Fair point. Of course even if you can get college paid for, you still have to be able to afford the time it takes to attend it, but that’s a whole nother discussion.

  • Headline: 40% of voters would re-elect Trump.

    OK. How many of those have access to news other than Trump propaganda?

    If that’s the only information you had, you’d vote to re-elect him too.

  • I’m excited to see Captain Marvel this weekend, but am still not over the fact that the real Captain Marvel now has to call himself Shazam.

  • How strange is it that we’re getting Captain Marvel and Shazam movies just a few weeks apart?

    Also, for nostalgia’s sake: Captain Marvel saves the day

    [Someone posts about Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.]

    Ah, EW+DG! <3 Blazing a trail that Xena, Warrior Princess never acknowledged.


    Ginger or Mary Ann? (Mary Ann of course)
    Jennifer or Bailey? (Bailey)
    Electra Woman or Dyna Girl? (Dyna Girl)

  • Who are these people who leave a Marvel movie as soon as the credits start to roll?

  • If you virtue-signal but don’t actually embody the virtue you’re signaling, that’s clearly bad. If you do embody the virtue, then avoiding signaling it can be thought of as a higher form of it, just as anonymous giving is a higher form of charity than non-anonymous. On the other hand, you then open yourself up to a charge of false modesty, and lose an opportunity to model the behavior for others that you’d like to see them adopt.

  • [In reply to a meme of a guy working on a home-improvement project, caption “This will only take an hour / 8 hours later”]

    Reminds me of Hal fixing a light bulb

  • I don’t understand how people tolerate raspberry seeds.

  • [Friend’s son got a moving violation which says “Bring ONE parent to court.”]

    Just like a Wonka Golden Ticket! “You may bring one member of your own family but no one else!”

  • Don’t say “iconic.” Don’t say “way, shape, or form.” Don’t say “changed forever.”

  • I wrote a thing you might enjoy reading!
    Understanding the Stellar consensus protocol

  • Fear of competition is a nice way to tie a lot of current narratives together.

    White supremacists are wedded to a philosophy that can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas on its merits, so they have to annihilate threats to their story.

    Gerrymandering and voter suppression are meant to protect powerful politicians from competition.

    The tech and telecom giants fear competition and so engulf and devour their competitors before they pose a serious threat.

    Wealthy parents who doubt their children’s ability to compete buy admission into prestigious colleges.

    On an individual basis, many of these behaviors are rational. As a society we must be more aggressive about insisting on fair competition in the public sphere, the only sure protection against decline.

  • Took Archer for one of these tonight. His verdict: it’s like sucking toothpaste through a straw.

  • Culturally appropriate(d) breakfast.

    [In reply to “That is the most unappetizing thing I have ever seen on a plate!” and “Ew!”]

    You do not like them. So you say.
    Try them! Try them! And you may.
    Try them and you may, I say.

  • We are all racist. Those who claim not to be are worse than those who acknowledge they are and are actively fighting it.

  • [In response to the all-black-and-white Steamboat Willie Lego set.]


    On another note: ohhh, it’s the boat that’s called Willie! I always thought Mickey was called Steamboat Willie in this cartoon, which made me wonder why it’s celebrated as the debut of Mickey Mouse.

  • [My congressman advances a bill protecting local TV-station ownership, which would force Sinclair out of some markets.]

    Now that’s striking at the root.

  • When a news headline says that such-and-such Supreme Court justice cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 case, couldn’t you say the same thing about any of the five?

  • [Another right-wing meme about addiction not being a disease, because you don’t “walk outside and catch crackhead.”]

    AIDS is a disease, right? But you don’t just walk outside and catch it, you have to engage in some pretty specific behavior, and then your insides become disordered in a particular way. Same with addiction.

  • The hot takes you read or heard over the weekend about the Mueller report were probably all wrong. Please read this.

  • Baklava Galactica

  • On the bright side, maybe this will give a boost to projects like Solid, IPLD, and others that seek to redecentralize the net.
    EU Puts An End To The Open Internet: Link Taxes And Filters Approved By Just 5 Votes

  • [Friend asks, “So now we have Republican congressmen quoting Mein Kampf on the floor of the House. How do we end this fucking nightmare?!”]

    By pooling our assets and buying out Fox and Sinclair.

  • Strongly recommend the Story Pirates podcast (for both kids and adults).

  • [A tweet said Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were spotted having lunch together. AOC tweeted BREAKING: We had labneh.]

    omg i love her

  • [Friend posts, “You land a guest role on one of the Law & Orders. Are you a judge, witness, perp, bystander, or defense attorney?”]

    I’m fired after a day and a half of production because I can’t stop glancing into the camera lens.

  • President Buttgiggle. I’m ready.

  • [Friend posts meme: “Companies that have self checkout machines are not hiring and training people for jobs of the future, they are training you to do it for free.”]

    I’m not unsympathetic to this argument, but could you not say the same about the mountains of other kinds of automation that have obsoleted various jobs since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? None of us today gives a thought to the idea that we’ve been trained to operate elevators “for free”…

  • The OA, season one, was powerfully weird and held my attention for that reason; but it was also frustrating, seeming to lack a strong narrative through-line. Season two is equally weird but also deeply satisfying.

  • [Archer’s 14th-birthday photo.]

    One year out of date
    (A year that he reports was great)

  • Notre-DAMN

  • Pipe through

    perl -pe ‘s/([01]+)/chr(oct(“0b$1”))/eg’

    to read Mayor Pete’s message to the bots.

    Pete Buttigieg Stuns Campaign Crowd By Speaking To Manufacturing Robots In Fluent Binary

  • [Friend posts news about an old workplace destroyed by fire the same week I spend a week working in NYC.]

    I see your “personal history gone” and raise you being waist-deep in hipsters, boutiques, coworking spaces, tasting rooms, and specialty bakeries, all in a part of Brooklyn where, in my time, you didn’t dare go.


    (And we liked it that way!)

  • Unoriginal headlines are unoriginal. terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad

  • On the political question of whether to pursue impeachment, I have this observation: the Constitution says we must, and we already have one party of ignoring the Constitution. We don’t need two.
    The Mueller Report Was My Tipping Point

    [Someone points out it’s not “must.”]

    You’re right: technically it’s only “may.” But our Congressman, Jared Huffman, is right about why it’s really “must.”

  • Explore all the branches of the story tree – then add some of your own!
    Kill Ralphie!

  • Seventeen years. Never not a rockstar. (Only now it’s a little more literal.)

  • Why is this the road sign for “playground”? I haven’t seen a seesaw at a playground in decades. Do kids even know what that silhouette is?



  • [Right-wing meme: “There are over 350 million guns in the United States right now. If guns were really about killing people you’d all be dead by now.”]

    If the point of this post is that more guns does not mean more gun violence, that’s simply wrong. There is a well-established correlation showing the very opposite.

    [“I’m just saying that it doesn’t matter if there’s more or not. If someone wants to hurt you by way of a gun they will get one legal or not.”]

    You’re right: if someone’s determined to shoot me, then one way or another they’ll find a gun and shoot me. The number of guns sloshing around won’t change that.

    But it’s wrong to conclude that the number of guns therefore doesn’t matter, because you haven’t accounted for unpremeditated shootings. Very many people get shot by accident, or because a situation escalated farther than it would have if a gun hadn’t been involved. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess this accounts for the majority of gun violence.

    It is hard to argue that reducing the total number of guns would have no impact on that number. Impossible, actually, since where it’s been done – whether by law, or with buyback programs, or just social pressure – it’s been shown to work exactly as expected. Reduce guns, reduce gun violence.

    I’d like to know what motivated you to repost this meme to begin with. It’s labeled “defend the 2nd,” which suggests you’re concerned about gun rights. But gun rights are as permissive as they have been at any time in this country’s history. There is no crisis looming where we lose those rights.

    Nevertheless, something moved you strongly enough – outraged you, possibly – to make you publicly take a side on this issue. I’m guessing this was the result of seeing others online taking a similar position, all premised on the idea that gun rights need defending. You’ve amplified that message: now others who see your repost will have a stronger sense (one they can’t quite put their finger on) that our gun rights are under a threat that must be fought against.

    If there is no real crisis, then why do these memes exist? What is their purpose, if not to preserve gun rights? Whom do they benefit?

    The answer is: politicians, who have identified this as a useful wedge issue, one about which it’s easy to whip up strong emotions on both sides regardless of the actual facts. Why that’s useful to them: because if you think the liberals are coming for your guns, you are much less likely to band with them against the REAL outrages. Like babies dying in American concentration camps. Like multibillion-dollar corporations paying zero dollars in tax, while all the rest of us pay thousands more. Like oil companies concluding privately that they’re destroying the planet, while paying to publish “research reports” claiming the greenhouse effect is a hoax. Like public lands being sold off to private companies, public policy being sold off to foreign governments, and on and on.

    They fear us uniting to address these challenges, so they are strongly motivated to keep us divided. Constantly beating the drum about things like gun rights and abortion are a great way to do that.

    What if we stopped marching to their beat? What if we stopped letting them trigger us all the time and started demanding action on the things we can all agree about?

  • [On “May the fourth.”]

    I resist the dumb pun. As far as I’m concerned, today is Dave Brubeck day.

  • [Friend posts a pun about onions.]

    Now I’ve heard it allium.

  • [Someone posts a meme describing a fantasy of Trump getting re-elected, declaring a Vietnam war 2.0, Gen Z kids getting drafted to fight, and soldiers doing Fortnite victory dances over slaughtered rice farmers.]

    Jesus Christ

    [Then, when that got a laughing-face reaction.]

    Sorry, I should have been clearer: Jesus Christ, this is deranged, and not in a good way. It frightens and depresses me that you find humor in it.

  • Hello in heaven, Mom! You have now missed twelve years of anecdotes and updates about your grandsons. I badly want to be able to tell them all to you and hear your reaction, but honestly I already know exactly what it would be: kvelling your brains out.

  • [Right-wing meme about Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner: “Bruce was limber, Bruce was quick, Bruce went liberal & lost his dick.”]

    Anyone can be transgender. The only connection with liberalism is, liberals are the ones who believe it doesn’t make you any less of a person.

  • It pains me to admit it now, but I poked fun at gay people when I was young. Also, I had some stereotypical racial prejudices.

    These were attitudes handed down to me by my culture, fueled in large part by having no actual gay people (that I knew about) or brown people in my life.

    I’m happy to say that I’ve long since outgrown those attitudes, but at least I can understand racists and homophobes: they lack an exposure to diversity that, in my life, helped to dispel my ignorance.

    But no one’s not exposed to women. For the life of me I cannot understand those men who treat women as an underclass.

    [Friend writes, “Undersized genitalia… just guessing.”]

    Then I really cannot understand them 😉

  • [Friend writes, “I never watched Game of Thrones, and overhearing all the hype is confusing me. Did it have a dragon named… Drogon?”]

    Two responses, can’t choose between them, you decide.

    1. “When he gets in a scrape
    He makes his escape
    With the help of his friend
    An ape named Ape”

    2. Better than a chimp named Cheetah

  • I’ve always considered myself an ally for women, but have always harbored this bit of unuttered skepticism: as long as there exist women willing to trade on sex appeal, what hope of equality can there be for the rest who aren’t?

    That bit of skepticism, I realized not long ago, rested upon a bedrock of unconscious bias: the assumption that the gatekeepers will always be ones on whom female sex appeal works.

    That need not be true. In fact it needs not to be true.
    Where women call the shots

  • [A friend posted about the Democrats’ inability to frame issues well.]

    I heard a Fresh Air interview years ago with a Democratic Party strategist lamenting this gap in messaging skill. Don’t remember who it was, but I do remember him pointing out (correctly, I thought) that part of the difference relates to the conservative preference for authority, which allows their echo chamber to line up behind and amplify their message of the day; while progressives, more committed to democracy per se, have the proverbial cats to herd. So even though they do have a message of the day, everyone is reading from their own scripts, to the detriment of the party. I also remember Terry Gross asking him what some recent messages of the day have been, and he couldn’t answer, because he doesn’t read them. 🤦

  • [Friend posts news story about segregation in the Bay Area being worse now than in 1970 and comments, “Typical liberal policymaking!”]

    I have no trouble at all believing that segregation is an unintended consequence of liberal policymaking, but which policies do you think are responsible, and how do you think they contribute to segregation?


  • Me: I have nothing left to teach you about being cool.
    Jonah: I know.

    [When an astonished friend asked if he really played the legendary Sweetwater Music Hall.]

    Ahem, he tore the roof off of Sweetwater.

  • Dear @CanadaDry, I bought the 10-ounce bottles of tonic water from @SchweppesGB because they were glass and yours were plastic.

  • Does Donald Trump belong in prison or in command of our nuclear arsenal?

    Pelosi: Why not both?

  • Personally I think she would be great rebooting Ackmena, the bartender role made famous by Bea Arthur.
    Emma Thompson Tried to Be in Star Wars

  • Neal Stephenson has blown my mind with his latest book, Fall; or Dodge in Hell. Didn’t want it to end but couldn’t stop reading. Sure it’s fiction but it will change your IRL ideas about cosmology and theology, to say nothing of fake news and filter bubbles.


    The Baroque Cycle remains my favorite work of his, and those who read that first will find Fall to be a satisfying bookend of a sort to that one.

  • [Friend posts this photo with the comment, “Omnipotence ain’t all that I guess”]

    Marriage = 1 man in pants + 1 man in a kilt

  • Thy birth this day we note with cheer
    As in years past, and now again
    It cometh up but once each year
    The natal day of dear McKen-

    (Sorry, “McKenna” doesn’t fit at the end of a line of iambic tetrameter.)

    Happy birthday!

  • Fourth of July – what a day to lose the Little Drummer Boy challenge!

  • How could anybody be expected to handle school on a day like this?

  • [Storm left a large broken tree branch dangling right over someone’s house.]


  • Have they tried Hare Krishna?

  • [Home Depot owner is a major GOP donor.]

    Home DepNO

    Home Despot

  • I don’t entirely agree with this op-ed’s prescription against boldness, but I definitely agree with this:

    “I wonder what would happen if the Democratic nominee simply refused to talk about Trump. No responding to whatever stupid nickname he comes up with. No sweeping denunciation of some deed of his that any sensible American already knows is wrong. Just the articulation of better solutions to America’s problems. Trump would go mad with the lack of attention. And maybe then, thank heaven, he’d go away.”
    How Democrats Defeat Donald Trump


    Michelle Obama said it first, and better: When they go low, we go high.

  • [Right-wing meme: “Musslamic Democrat, Ilhan Omar, has threatened members of Congress. She’s told several Republicans that she’ll send them ‘shawarma’, to ‘give them a taste of her culture.’. Share to say arrest her now!” A friend ridiculed the ignorance on display.]

    This is evil genius at work. The meme creator(s) knew just what they were doing.

    The sentiment and tone will resonate with some people even if they don’t know what shawarma is (or do know, but somehow gloss over that part of the message). They’ll repost and spread the meme.

    Those who oppose messages like this one will fixate on surface errors (“shawarma,” “musslamic,” etc.) and dismiss the person reposting it as an idiot.

    They may even call out the mistake publicly, causing a defensive reaction by the poster: entrenchment of their attitude vis-a-vis the meme, hostility toward those pointing out the error.

    Wedge between right and left driven deeper. Mission accomplished!


    “will fixate on surface errors”

    …overlooking the more important ones, like the fact that the comma goes inside the quotation marks.

  • Held the door open for a black man at the post office today. He said, “Thank you, my brother,” and it was the best feeling in the world.

  • Ironically, the word that came to mind to describe Huffman’s reasoning was “unimpeachable.”

    [Friend comments, “Love Huffman! So smart and thoughtful. Would love to see HIM president.”]

    100%. If you want to love him even more, I can recommend his podcast.

  • [After a mass shooting, friend posts, “I actually find it reassuring that POTUS felt he needed to make an anti-racist, unifying statement this morning, no matter how hypocritical and scripted. I don’t even care about the deflection to mental illness and video games. It feels like a desperation move.”]

    Worse dictators than Trump have been brought down by public opinion.

  • [Slate tweets, “Jimmy Carter’s revolutionary efforts to diversify the courts changed the law forever. Trump is undoing that achievement one judge at a time.”]

    “Forever”? The second sentence contradicts the first sentence.

  • Everyone please stop saying “X changed Y forever.” We don’t know yet. changed forever

    [A friend points out the observation by Heraclitus that “you never step in the same river twice.”]

    OK, “X changed Y forever” is allowed again, as long as you add, “and so did everything else.”

  • Ask any mermaid you happen to see
    What’s the best tuna that doesn’t advertise on Tucker Carlson?
    (Hint: not @StarKistCharlie)

  • Have you seen the cool fan theory that it’s only a fake cancellation? Is The OA Fake-Canceled or Am I Just Losing My Mind?

    [“Wishful thinking,” writes a friend.]

    But a “take all my money” moment if true.

  • I left Google four years ago. Just sayin’.

    [A friend writes, “You are the king of good timing!”]

    That sounds like a character from The Phantom Tollbooth. “What land is this?” wondered Milo, and no sooner had he uttered it than a balding, middle-aged man appeared, wearing a crown and announcing, “Welcome to the Kingdom of Good Timing!”

  • What’s the name for the phenomenon where you saw some episode of some show once, and then months or years later you see a random rerun of the same show and it’s the same episode?

  • [Friend tweets, “All these people calling for recession so they can buy a house seem to misunderstand how this works. Sure, the price of that house you have your eye on might drop by 40%, but so will your net worth. And that job that’s paying your salary? They’ve told you to clean out your desk.”]

    Oh and not for nothing, the human misery all around you increases. But whatevs

  • The proprietor would not let me pay him for fixing, on the spot, a pair of expensive sunglasses I bought from him years ago and which have held up so well that he hasn’t seen another penny from me since. So instead I am urging all my northern California friends to give the SunGlass Galleria of Marin their business.

  • [Friend writes, “What do you call a sophomore who boysplains to his math teacher? An algebro. (The letters on my rack in a recent Scrabble game.)”]

    In the version of Scrabble I play with my family, a word like this is acceptable if you can supply a definition that meets with general acclaim.

    Also: what does Wyldstyle wear under her top? A Legobra

  • [Re: storing solar power.]

    Every home should have its own molten salt tank.

  • Trump, soon. Bananas – Executive Orders

  • Unintentionally hilarious typo: Better safe then sorry.

  • Go to your Facebook settings, then to “Security and Login,” and turn on “Two-factor authentication.” This prevents hackers from accessing your account even if they guess (or otherwise obtain) your password. (Let me know if you’d like more info about how this works.)

    After you’ve done that, go to the “Apps and Websites” section of settings and disable the access to your Facebook account that you may previously have granted to other apps and websites.

  • My wife sent me to the store
    I cannot remember what for
    What comes after the ampersand
    In “Honey, pick up some Pampers and”?
    – Ogden Bob

    [Friend urgently asks if this is an oblique way to say we’re expecting again.]

    No, it’s just my way of letting you know what a rhyme for “ampersand” is.

  • [Friend posts this image and writes, “This is from the page you have to go through to register for a SECURITY conference that I’ve chosen not to name. Can anyone explain to me any way this can possibly be useful?”]

    These are security researchers, so this has to be the sort of mischief where they hope X% of website visitors will reflexively enter one of their other passwords.

  • I’m going to go out on a limb and say that John [Roderick]’s whimsical pronunciation of “UFOs” (as “oof-o’s”) can be traced back to James Belushi’s performance in the 1987 comedy Real Men.

  • The eyes of the nation turn expectantly to Vice President Pence. Conversion therapy center founder who sought to turn LGBTQ Christians straight says he’s gay, rejects ‘cycle of self shame’

  • “Doonbeg boondoggle” is a headline phrase for the ages.


    History nerds of the future will challenge each other with questions like “What was the Doonbeg boondoggle”?

  • This is an example of some of the political e-mail I get. I will never respond to or even open messages of this type: the ones that are trying to trigger me, to tap into the hatred they assume I must feel, my supposed eagerness to see Trump humiliated.

    I do not hate Donald Trump. I am not eager to see Trump humiliated. On the contrary, I am eager to see him stop humiliating himself: to honor his oath of office for once, to put the good of the country ahead of his petty interests. Any time he does that I will cheer him gladly. But it won’t be without considerable surprise and some suspicion, since he consistently acts in the same way as the senders of this message: relying on and appealing to our basest instincts.


    It’s 0% Trump hatred, 100% affection for American ideals and institutions.

    OK, OK, it’s close to 0% Trump hatred.

  • “Psst! What does a yellow light mean?”
    “Slow down.”
    “OK. What… does… a… yellow… light… mean?”

  • Cold turkey has not worked for me in the past. What has been working for me lately has been paying closer attention to the protein content of the things I eat. The more protein I get, the less I crave sugar and carbs. I still allow myself a bite or two of sweets a couple of times a day, and that seems to be enough to keep the addiction monkey satisfied while I slowly but steadily lose weight.

  • Does Superman supermansplain?

  • Wondering what the deterrent value is of two weeks in prison.

    I mean, we’re trying to get our kid into college right now, and two weeks in prison seems like a very small price to pay for taking a shortcut through the process.


    Better not chance it. I mean, I can only count on white-person justice, not celebrity justice.

  • [Friend posted about the San Antonio teacher who asked his students to describe the positive aspects of life as a slave as well as the negative.]

    If this was the teacher’s subversive way to expose and then challenge the students’ unexamined racism, then good effort, I say, but misguided and tone deaf. If it wasn’t, then sheesh.

  • Preordered.
    We Are Indivisible: A Blueprint for Democracy After Trump

  • Just noticed that all the e-mail notifications I receive from Facebook have an:

    X-Mailer: ZuckMail [version 1.00]

    field in the header. 🙄

  • A eye-opening challenge: on your next visit to the grocery store, try to avoid plastic packaging completely. Let me know how you do.

  • On one recent visit I wanted some cold cuts. I could have bought the prepackaged kind, but, plastic. So I went to the deli counter, where they could slice me some fresh meat and wrap it in wax paper. They did that – but then they slid the wax paper package into a ziploc plastic bag! (I asked them to take the plastic bag back.)

  • [Friend posts about the assassination of the Panama Papers reporter two years ago by a car bomb, which none of us had heard a single thing about.]


  • Wow, look at Neil Hamilton in the 1930’s! He was Commissioner Gordon on TV in the 60’s. He died on this date in 1984.

  • My investment in Will Donald Trump complete his first term is presently +26%

  • Everyone go see Maiden. Hollywood couldn’t write a more rousing story of adventure and redemption than the one these real-life women lived.

  • The Google Wave team is all like, “SEE?”
    The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is… Google Docs

    [Someone points out how slow Google Wave was.]

    They never got the chance to make it fast.

  • Holy cow!
    GEO Group Running Out of Banks as 100% of Known Banking Partners Say ‘No’ to the Private Prison Sector

  • Yes, there has always been corruption. Yes, government is usually maddeningly inefficient. But there was a time, not that long ago, when a prevailing commitment to the principles of our nation actually truly counterbalanced those things, and real good got done. There will be such a time again, IF WE WILL IT.

  • You don’t fix a bug without adding regression tests.
    Every article of impeachment against 45 that’s introduced to public should be presented along w/ proposed changes for how we prevent this in future…

  • [Someone refers to Trump supporters as dummies.]

    Dummies? Or people stranded in information landscapes saturated by Fox News and conservative talk radio?

  • Vaccinated: f u, flu.

  • [Cycling friend laments the filling up of a protected bike lane by cars thinking they could park there.]

    To be fair, I’m on your side and I’d still probably make that mistake.

  • To help my kids keep abreast of the news, I summarized today’s headlines for them. It looked like this.


    I would pay good money for a website that was just an interactive, browseable, up-to-date version of this. No joke.

  • Watergate happened in a Washington populated by men who had personally gone to war and learned a visceral lesson about the evils of fascism and authoritarianism. Today’s Washington has forgotten.

  • When you pull the lid off the Han Solo in Carbonite roaster, does Harrison Ford emerge, shivering and blind?

  • [Friend wonders if Republicans defend Trump because they know Pence would be worse.]

    Not according to When a Vice President Becomes a Threat

    “If it was just a matter of magically snapping their fingers… pretty much every Republican senator would switch out Pence for Trump.”

  • [Friend responds to the latest Trump outrage with the usual “If Joe Biden acted that way Republicans would go ballistics with cries of ‘Traitor!’”]

    If Joe Biden poured himself a glass of lemonade, Republicans would go ballistic with cries of “Traitor!”

  • [Friend posts, “What is it with the last two GOP Presidents and their love of childish nicknames?”]

    cough can only feel big by belittling others cough

  • My Yom Kippur character: Atoney the Tiger. His product is Fasting Flakes, so terrible that it’s easy not to eat them. “They’re GRRRRR-oss!”

  • The world needs a @scottmccloud-style explainer for the Trump scandals.

  • [Paul Krugman tweets You know, it would be one thing if American democracy had been overthrown by sinister super villains. In fact, the guys who seized power are tacky, lowlife crooks.]

    That the feet on the ground are “useful idiots” doesn’t change the fact that Putin fits the bill to a T.

  • IMPORTANT: Institutions Work

    These days it can feel like they don’t and never have. This is an illusion: the result of a decades-long effort by the powerful to dismantle them. Why make that effort? Because THEY WORKED TOO WELL to let them get away with whatever they wanted.

    Young people especially, who may not remember a better-functioning time: have faith in the power of institutions as a force for good, and let’s repair the damage.

  • The power to enforce subpoenas seems to me like a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing.

  • “Are my methods unsound?”

    “I don’t see… any method… at all, sir.”

  • “Going into the details of Anti-de Sitter / Conformal Field Theory would require another book entirely.” – @seanmcarroll in Something Deeply Hidden

    Me: Shut up and take my money!

  • Trump said the quiet part out loud – “We’ve taken control of the oil” – lending credence to the theory that the Trump presidency has been a project to, among other things, secure Syrian oil fields for Russia.

  • From those to whom we give the greatest authority we must demand the greatest accountability.

  • “No one is above the law, not even the President of the United States.”

    I’ve seen this a lot lately, but it’s wrong. It should be:

    “No one is above the law, LEAST OF ALL the President of the United States.”

    The law must constrain the President MORE than it does everyone else.

  • [Friend tweets, “If you feel a need to debate Trump and his moron army – don’t know why you would, but some people do…”]

    “don’t know why you would”

    Because they are our countrymen and (for a lot of them) it’s not their fault they live in places where the conservative propaganda machine has a media monopoly.

  • Quick, to the newspapers to find out what to think about the Gell-Mann effect!

  • Dudes, look. I get it. As a white man I too feel anxiety about re-leveling my privilege. I’m committed to it, though, because, y’know, justice.

    But keep this up and you’ll blow it for all of us. Re-leveling won’t stop at equality… and we’ll deserve wherever it does end up.

  • Prediction: McConnell will soon have to inform Trump it’s time to resign, because he can no longer protect him against removal from office. Trump will fulminate for a few news cycles and then make a surprise state visit to Moscow. There he will seek asylum from American justice and resign the presidency, not via prime-time address to the nation but by a tweet saying, effectively, “Fuck all y’all.” There will be a period of confusion about whether we have a president or not, and ultimately the Supreme Court will have to decide whether the fuck-you tweet is official-enough notification to make Mike Pence president.


    You heard it here first.

    [Various entertaining alternate scenarios proposed.]

    This is what I predict will happen, it’s not what I hope will happen.

    What I hope happens is much closer to the climax of Moana, where someone figures out how to put back into Trump supporters the heart that’s been stolen from inside them, and they are magically unmonsterified. “This is not who you are.” Moana – Know Who You Are

    [A friend posits the Pence-pardons-Trump gambit.]

    That seems like the obvious thing but AIUI a presidential pardon from Pence doesn’t get Trump off the hook for state charges that NY investigators are itching to bring.


    The Onion is thinking along the same lines I see. Trump Ties Thousands Of Balloons To White House Roof In Attempt To Sail Away From Impeachment Inquiry

  • A treat! Amazon Prime Video is presently streaming one of my favorite movies, Movie Movie, an homage from 1978 to the old-fashioned double features of the 30’s. The first “feature” is a black-and-white boxing melodrama; the second is a Technicolor musical extravaganza. Both are very tongue-in-cheek and affectionate and hilarious.

    Here’s what makes it extra special. When it was originally released on video in the 80’s, it was the depths of the Ted Turner colorize-everything-yes-even-Casablanca era, and those idiots colorized the boxing melodrama (even though George Burns introduces the film saying the first half’s in black and white). From then until now, that was the only version I’ve been able to find anywhere – but the version on Amazon Prime is restored to its proper form. Hooray! Watch and enjoy.

  • Had a quantum-mechanics insight recently as a result of reading Sean Carroll’s terrific new book, Something Deeply Hidden.

    The book makes a case for the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics, as opposed to the more traditional Copenhagen interpretation.

    In the Copenhagen version, there are many possible outcomes for submicroscopic events, and nature randomly chooses one, but only when the event is “measured” by an “observer.” The probability of each possible outcome is given by a mathematical formula called a wave function, and the process of nature choosing one of those outcomes is called collapse of the wave function. “Measurement by an observer” could be taken to mean interaction with any macroscopic system, as if there’s one set of rules (“quantum physics”) for submicroscopic interactions and another set of rules (“classical physics”) for larger ones.

    Where is the transition from quantum to classical? How does nature choose an outcome? Copenhagen doesn’t say. It just says, “Do the math and you can predict the behavior of nature to an unprecedented degree.” In this it’s right, which explains why the vague epistemic underpinnings of Copenhagen have gone largely unquestioned for so long.

    In the Many Worlds interpretation the wave function does not collapse. When the wave function says a submicroscopic thing can zig left or zag right, then reality branches and both outcomes really happen. When an observer measures the outcome, the observer becomes “entangled” with the possible outcomes and now there are two observers, one who saw the thing zig left and one who saw it zag right.

    What’s the meaning of “are” in that last sentence? Obviously we all experience just a single reality. If I saw the thing zig left, where’s the “me” who saw it zag right?

    This is the insight I had: the other “me” exists in the same sense that the “me” of last year exists. Absolutely real and completely inaccessible from this reality.

    [Friend objects that this would mean other universes are robbing ours of energy.]

    My understanding is that this objection is based on a non-rigorous understanding of the law of conservation of energy.

    When the wave function branches, the total energy after the branch must equal the total energy before. That means that (in the simple case of two equally weighted outcomes) the total has to be shared across two realities, so each has half the energy of before.

    But so what? Inside each reality, the absolute energy of everything is scaled down equally, meaning that the relative amounts of energy remain unchanged, and that’s all that matters to our experience. A muon is still as heavy as 207 electrons, in other words. That it’s half as heavy as a pre-branch muon is irrelevant – there are no pre-branch muons around to compare it with.

    [Friend uses Zeno’s paradox to point out a supposed fallacy: “If they halve the distance between them every 10 seconds, how long until they’re actually touching?”]

    If they also halve their sizes every ten seconds, they’ll never touch. Infinity isn’t just for very very big numbers; it’s also for very very small ones.

    Our intuition says that the total energy value being spread among branching universes must deplete sooner or later, but (a) why should we trust our intuition when it comes to this? and (b) maybe it will, raising the fascinating but completely speculative possibility that there are “leaves” at the ends of the branches of the multiverse to be found when some minimum energy value is reached.

  • Hey, alla youse
    Have you heard the news?
    Today is the birthday
    Of my sister Suze

    I think that she’s fine
    That sister of mine
    But one thing she’s not:
    She’s not twenty-nine

  • Visited Houston last week. Saw this at the Johnson Space Center! It was part of their fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Apollo 11. Who sees the problem here?

    [A friend spots it: it should be Edwin Aldrin, not Edward Aldrin.]

    Of all the places!!

  • Dear Toyota USA,

    We were considering a new RAV4. Welp, not anymore.

    – A California Couple

    Toyota’s Support of Trump Emissions Rules Shocks Californians

  • [During a devastating wildfire season.]

    Incredible (and yet not) that the lack of any word from the White House about the situation in California isn’t news.

    [A friend comments about Trump.]

    To be clear, it is unsurprising and frankly uninteresting that Trump has said nothing. The surprising thing is that no one has commented on his saying nothing; it’s completely normalized now.

  • [Halloween.]

    Selected subject lines from today’s political e-mails:

    • Avoid fright this Election Night
    • A spooky poll
    • Truly scary
    • A scary thought
    • Treats, not tricks
    • Here’s what’s spooky
  • [Friend posts health meme: “Balto didn’t bust his ass across the Alaskan tundra in 1925 to get those vaccines for dying children, for you to send your kids to school without being vaccinated in 2019.”]

    The full story is much, MUCH more amazing than just “hero dog delivers life-saving serum.” Also, Balto gets rather more of the credit than he deserves. Check out The 1925 Serum Run to Nome

  • [In response to scaremongering about the prospect of Elizabeth Warren as the Democratic nominee.]

    If Warren’s elected and her ideas do turn out to be terrible, at least they will have been enacted within the framework of actual policymaking. We’d still have the machinery of government in place to fix any mistakes. But with Trump?

    That’s about all the thought this takes.

  • [Right-wing friends praising Trump’s handling of China.]

    For generations, the United States has been a beacon of hope for people all over the world. Desperate families fleeing violence and crushing poverty have found justice and opportunity here.

    Now when they come, we literally steal their children, sell them into adoption, and give the profits to Betsy DeVos.

    I might feel better about the administration’s efforts on our trade imbalance with China and prison reform and whatever else if it weren’t for little things like that.

    How do you reconcile your support for Trump with that?

    Or with “abusing power for political gain,” “mishandling classified information,” “undermining duly enacted federal law,” “obstruction of Congress,” “obstruction of justice,” “profiting from office,” and “fomenting violence?” (The (Full) Case for Impeachment)

    Or with the strange fact that nearly everything Trump does harms our institutions and alliances and aids Vladimir Putin?

    This is a sincere request for information. I have not yet found any Trump supporter willing or able to answer this question in any way other than “so what? all politicians are crooks,” which is no answer at all. Can you?


  • [On the publication of the White House tell-all A Warning by Anonymous.]

    Prediction: “Anonymous” will turn out to be “John Barron.”

  • Thirty-one years ago
    Upon this date
    Two kids fell in love
    When they stayed up late

    On this very day
    Twenty years before now
    They made it official
    By exchanging a vow

  • [Friend wonders why Trump would pardon soldiers convicted of UCMJ violations over the objections of everyone: “There’s no clear benefit to Trump.”]

    Trump, thinking: “When the shit hits the fan I’ll need the army on my side. Maybe if I pardon some soldiers…”

  • [Friend mentions Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.]

    One of my very favorite books of all time.

  • Northern California doesn’t do fall colors, much, but my street managed to eke this out this morning, for which I’m grateful.

    [Friend writes, Look out for that volcano at the end of the road!]

    Ha. Take a closer look at that “volcano,” those are the real colors of fall around these parts.

  • The buck stops everywhere else.

  • If you’re old enough, you might remember Disco Demolition Night. Literally overnight we all went from listening to disco music on our top 40 stations to asserting “Disco sucks!”

    It’s not that we stopped liking disco music. It was more like oh hey, I have no opinion on this topic and here’s a fun new one to have!

    Of course once we decided to “have” this opinion, we had to defend having it. I personally remember sneering at those who failed to agree that disco sucks.

    This is how I understand Trump’s base of support.
    Disco Demolition Night


    Disco lives forever!

  • On what would have been my Mom’s birthday, there are a thousand reasons I wish she were still around, but at least I’ve been spared the constant diagnosing over long-distance phone calls of video-streaming devices and services.

    Oh who am I kidding, I would secretly have loved that. Miss you, Mom.

  • [About the Star Wars-themed Instant Pot.]

    Please let it make the sounds of Aunt Beru’s kitchen.

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Excellent, and I didn’t expect it to be about what it was about.

    Knives Out: Excellent, and I didn’t expect it to be an allegory for what it’s an allegory for.

  • If you have a resolution in mind, why wait for the new year? Meatless Mondays begin for me today.
    Meatless Monday

  • Saturday night. Choose one:

    [01] Alright for fighting
    [02] S, A, T-U-R, D-A-Y… night!
    [03] Everybody loves
    [04] Live from New York, it’s
    [05] Fever
    [06] Divas
    [07] Special
    [08] Sunday morning
    [09] Fish fry
    [10] High n dry
    [11] Another
    [12] One more
    [13] Same old
    [14] Jukebox

  • Competition makes everything better. That’s the whole idea behind democracy, and also capitalism. Without competition, those systems can’t work.

    Unfortunately, the first impulse of a person or a group with some power is to limit the competition they’re subject to. Big companies buy up small challengers. Political parties close access to debates. Anti-trust laws get weakened. Power consolidates.

    America won’t be America again until we can restore robust competition in public and private spheres. That might seem impossible, but Represent.Us has a very credible plan that is already starting to work. They need your help to bring it to full fruition. Please give your money and time.

    End corruption. Defend the Republic.

  • Fallen fire.

  • My nerves are not equal to our current historical moment. The fight-or-flight phrasing of the political e-mails I’m getting are not helping.

  • I was having a rough time dealing with the political news yesterday, as I sometimes do. Getting some family time in after work helped. And so did these words from Heather Cox Richardson’s (amazing, essential) daily summary, which identified my dejection as the calculated product of a group both cynical and desperate, a realization that caused the power of my dejection to evaporate as if by magic.

    “The Republicans are not trying to make a case, or to persuade anyone; they are simply trying to dominate by making this all so painful we stop caring and let them get away with excusing their president for abuses that no one contests.

    “It is a travesty… but remember that they would not behave this way if they thought they had it sewn up. They know their only hope is to convince the majority of Americans, who disapprove of Trump, either to believe their lies or to get so tired of the screaming that they give up. It is classic abusive behavior.”

  • 75 years ago today, a surprise enemy attack in the Ardennes forest against exhausted and undersupplied American troops marked the beginning of our bloodiest battle in World War II – and, after more than a month of miserable fighting, arguably our greatest victory.

    The threat against American democracy then was not as great as it is now, coming as it does from within, by those whom we have entrusted to protect the Constitution but who have, in word and deed, demonstrated their undisguised hostility to it.

    What must you, a patriotic American, do? Freeze in a ditch through a long Belgian winter without adequate food or clothing while shells explode and shrapnel flies by?

    No, though a hardy earlier generation did just that. If they could do that, YOU can certainly show up at an event TOMORROW AFTERNOON in support of impeachment. Find one near you at

    Think showing up won’t make a difference? In fact it’s the one thing the other side fears. PROTESTS WORK. Getting us to think otherwise is their whole strategy. It’s the reason they’ve been spamming the news and social media with deflections, distractions, polling, and scaremongering about impeachment backfiring, etc. It’s to discourage us and wear us down. Don’t fall for it.

    If we don’t preserve the rule of law, you’ll miss it when it’s gone. And you’ll feel even worse knowing you could have done more. SHOW UP.

  • [Friend posts link to article about The Married Kama Sutra, with this excerpt: “When the man is loading the dishwasher, and the woman must come over, because he’s loading it wrong, it is called ‘The Dishwasher Position.’”]

    In our house it’s me who fixes the wrong dish loading of my wife. We’re kinky like that.

  • [Trump is impeached. Friend posts a meme: “America doesn’t need a new president, America needs a new Congress!”]

    I guess you support Trump and disagree with today’s impeachment vote. Can you explain why? I’d sincerely like to understand your position. Because everything I’ve heard to support impeachment is overwhelmingly damning, and nothing I’ve heard in defense of Trump makes a lick of sense.

    [“I don’t really have anything too back up why, but he’s done a lot of good for this country…”]

    “he’s done a lot of good for this country with jobs”

    Are you aware that though the number of jobs has indeed been increasing, another number called the Jobs Quality Index has been plummeting? This means that more jobs than ever are unskilled, low-wage jobs without security or benefits.

    “national debt”

    Are you aware that when Trump took office, the national debt was 19 trillion, and it’s now 23 trillion? Are you aware that the deficit (the amount by which government spending exceeds revenue each year) was declining when he took office, slowing the accumulation of debt, but that it is now growing again?

    “spent more time working with the president and the rest of the republicans”
    “I really don’t expect any [of] them to help each other”

    Are you aware that Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives have worked together to create and pass more than three hundred bills, most with strong support from both parties (covering such things as drug prices, election security, and worker pensions), but that Mitch McConnell has sent them all to a “graveyard” in the Senate where he refuses to let them be debated?

    If you were not aware of these things before, does being aware of them change your mind? If not, why not?

    If you were aware of these things before, why are you willing to overlook them?

    As I said before, I really, really want to understand your position. Please help me.

    [“trump isn’t the best president we’ve had but he is better than any of the candidates the Democratic Party had/has too offer”]

    Again I must ask if you’re able to articulate why?

    [“you win”]

    If you think this is about me trying to win something, then I have failed to explain myself, and I lose.

  • In 1980, shortly before the release of The Empire Strikes Back, a Time magazine article previewed and explained the “Episode V” in the opening crawl. (The original Star Wars was not yet “Episode IV: A New Hope.” It was retroactively retitled for a subsequent re-release.) That’s the first we heard of George Lucas’s nine-movie plan, which was then slated to wrap up in 2001. That seemed impossibly far off to 14-year-old me – half again as distant in time as my lifespan so far – but when I made the effort to imagine finally getting to see that film in that unknowable future, it felt like it would be a glorious culmination, a completion, a bookend for the first few volumes of my own life, the apotheosis of moviegoing.

    Now that it’s actually here it feels like just another holiday-season errand to take care of.

  • [“Friend posts link to Warning lights are flashing for Democrats as they impeach Trump.]

    “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

  • [Someone posts a meme of a crying baby labeled “Official seal of the United States Democratic Party” and the comment, “The truth hurts Democrats.”]

    I know I’m making a pest of myself and I’m sorry. But I have a lot of affection and respect for you which is why I am so eager to understand your posting of things like this meme, which makes no sense to me. What purpose could you be trying to serve by insulting so many other Americans, at a time when everyone on all sides complains about the political divide in our country? Where do you think that divide comes from? It comes from you, and people like you, doing things exactly like posting this meme, and signaling in other ways that you refuse to engage with anyone who disagrees with your dear leader.

    How did he become your dear leader, and how did you become convinced that he can never be wrong, so everyone else always must be? That’s what makes no sense to me. That’s what I’m frankly desperate to have you explain. Because the twentieth century sent us many very clear warnings about the destruction and suffering that awaits all of us as long as you and people like you keep deepening the divide instead of trying to reach across.

  • [Ken Olin tweets, “I truly believe the only reason Trump lies so much about things that are incredibly easy to check, is because he’s insane.”]

    Insanity [paraphrased]: doing the same thing again and again and expecting it to work.

    Trump’s lies keep working.

    We keep expecting facts to work against them. We try and try and keep failing.

    We are the insane ones.

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


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 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!


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.