Keep it in perspective

pale blue dotCarl Sagan taught us to look at the Earth as a pale blue dot, which is how it looked to the Voyager 1 spacecraft in a picture it sent back years ago as it raced to the edge of the solar system.

…every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam […] Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

But with all respect to the late, beloved Dr. Sagan, for really putting things in perspective he can’t compete with this blog post by Dick Hardt.


I wrote a new Mucoshave rhyme the other day. It’s one in an occasional series I’ve been doing for a long time, based on the old Burma-Shave road signs.

You will never
Run out if
You squeeze out
Your handkerchief

Older ones:

Supply of shave cream
Comes and goes
But you always
Have your nose

Sneeze it out
Smear it on
Scrape it off
Beard is gone

Nose is full
Of soft green goo
Use on beard
And mustache too

When you pick it
Do not flick it
Lube your face up
That’s the ticket

Here’s one contributed by my friend John Sweet:

A foamy gob
All nice and hot
Feels like lather
But it’s snot

How God tells you not to eat that fast-food cheeseburger

I was at the counter of Carl’s Jr., ordering a cheeseburger and fries, when I reached for my wallet and… it wasn’t there.

(*cue Psycho music*)

For maybe the second time in my whole adult life.

I’m pretty sure it’s at home in the pair of shorts that I too-hastily changed out of yesterday. But it sure is an unsettling feeling not to have any money, credit cards, or ID. Fortunately, Danger provides free peanut butter, bread, apples, and bananas, all of which I ate for lunch. Mmm.

Games magazine, or how my career was launched

I’ve resurrected another post from my defunct old website in response to a Ken Jennings blog topic — this one about a puzzle that obsessed him as a kid.

The one that obsessed me for a while in seventh grade was in Games magazine, and it led more or less directly to my present career as a computer programmer. It was called The Calculatrivia Marathon.

In late 1978, shortly after I began attending Hunter College High School, Games Magazine published a contest that it called “The First — and Maybe the Last — Calculatrivia Marathon.” First prize was:

A 16K Apple II Home Computer System (with both integer and floating point BASIC in ROM, RF modulator, and cassette tape recorder)

The contest consisted of dozens of trivia questions, each of whose answer was a number. Entrants were required to answer all the questions, then plug the resulting numbers into a fearsome-looking mathematical formula to determine the value of “x.”

I don’t know exactly why this contest captured my imagination, nor why the first prize was so appealing to me (I had no particular interest in computers before then) — but it did, and it was. I set to the task with a single-mindedness that my new teachers wished I would devote to my homework.

At one point I got stuck on the question, “Number of Best Actress Oscars won by Katharine Hepburn.” (Little did I imagine then that in the future I would become involved with The Internet Movie Database, which can supply that answer in a matter of seconds. But in 1978 there was no World Wide Web and we had to do research the old-fashioned way.) I called the research librarian at the New York Public Library and asked the question, and was amazed when the librarian replied without hesitation, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that; it’s a contest question.” Did they somehow keep track of all the trivia contests going on in the world? Well, I guess that’s what made them research librarians at the prestigious New York Public Library. I tried a research desk at a less prestigious library and got my answer. (Three, at the time; she later earned a fourth for On Golden Pond.)

After I assembled all my trivia answers, I consulted my math teacher, Ms. Krilov, for help in interpreting the formula. At the tender age of twelve, you see, I’d never seen a fraction with another fraction in the numerator or denominator. After that was cleared up, I plugged in my numbers and began calculating.

The first two or three times I got totally different answers. But in the end I got a number I could feel pretty confident about. It was something like 117345.0625.

The contest had been hard, very hard — and I had finished it. Surely only a very few others had gotten as far as I had? My chances of winning the grand prize were clearly very, very good. Of course, I had no idea what such phrases as “BASIC in ROM” meant. During the few months before the contest winner was announced, I went to the school library and checked out “A Basic Approach to BASIC,” by Henry Mullish, and read it cover-to-cover. Then I read it again. When it was due back, I re-checked it out.

In this way, while waiting to hear from Games Magazine, I learned to write computer programs; and today, programming is my livelihood and my chief avocation.

In the end, I didn’t win — my answer wasn’t even right. That might have been the end of my programming career right there, but for my new friend Chuck and his dad’s home computer…

Assume the worst

So far, this blog seems to be pretty Ken-Jennings-driven.

The first thing to know is that I’ve been reading Ken’s blog and posting in his forums.

The second thing to know is that in a recent blog post, Ken poked affectionate fun at the venerable old formula behind Jeopardy!

The third thing is that humorless NY Post reporter Michael Starr has a tin ear for satire and informed the world that quiz-show darling Jennings was now biting the hand that fed him.

The fourth thing is that this story was picked up by the AP and appeared far and wide in the media. A stampede of indignant dittoheads flooded Ken’s site, posting outraged ad hominems on his message boards. Most would make a sailor blush. Ken shut down his message boards and deleted most of the offensive ones, but good-humoredly kept a few of the less stomach-turning ones.

In the aftermath, after message-board access was restored, I posted the following. (Follow the link to see the original on Ken’s message boards and the creative discussion that is now ensuing there.)

Good grief: I got a glimpse of one of the nastier comments last night before Ken took it down, and I gotta say, whether or not people can muster a sense of humor, the very least they can do is to mind their manners.On the bright side, it inspired me to write the following: my bid to make the inevitable Ken Jennings biopic (I see Bruce Willis as Jennings) into a musical. I call this showstopper “March of the Easily Led.”–

Assume the worst!
Assume the worst!
First things first:
Assume the worst!

Is it possible he joked?
Never mind, ’cause I’m provoked

Assume the worst!

“I kid because I love”
Is not something I’ve heard of

Assume the worst!
Assume the worst!
It’s for scandal that we thirst
Assume the worst!


My friend told me a rumor
It was some left-coast thing called humor
Does Ken expect us all to be brainiacs now?
In pop culture he’s enshrined
For the motley in his mind
It’s holy to me but he tipped the sacred cow

The world may be on fire
But the things that raise my ire
Are the ones that I can quickly comprehend
Global warming, Middle East
I can follow not the least
But mess with Jeopardy! and you mess with me, my friend

And to think I thought I could leave all the thinking to thoughtless over here!

Assume the worst!
Assume the worst!
By the Post I’ve been coerced
Assume the worst!

Should we give him the doubt’s benefit?
I just can’t see the zen of it

Assume the worst!

Must leap to TV’s defense
Into Ken I’ll knock some sense

Assume the worst!

We thought that he was one of us
‘Til he started making fun of us

Assume the worst!

He cashed the check
Then trashed Trebek
He won the prize
Now he cracks wise
A household name
Has he no shame?

His fame must be reversed!

Assume the worst!
Assume the worst!
Except when George Bush does it first…
Assume the worst!

Of course these are just lyrics. I would love it if someone played Loewe to my Lerner, Rodgers to my Hart, Rodgers to my Hammerstein, O’Sullivan to my Gilbert, and composed a melody for it.

– Bob


Ken Jennings’ blog topic for today is iconoclasm, which put me in mind of an essay I had on my old website about James Bond, now resurrected for your reading pleasure.

I’m a James Bond fan who hates nearly all the James Bond movies.No, I don’t mean to say that I’m a fan of Ian Fleming’s written adventures instead; I’ve only ever read one (Goldfinger, and it was just OK). I mean that the promise of the first two movies — Dr. No and especially From Russia With Love — was squandered in every movie thereafter.In the beginning, the James Bond series was for grownups; now it’s for kids. Sure, there always were exciting action sequences and nifty gadgets, but they were by no means the focus of the movies. The focus was James Bond’s worldly bachelor, gentleman-adventurer lifestyle. A story, possibly apocryphal, is told of casting the role of James Bond for Dr. No. Sean Connery auditioned for the producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, giving an adequate but unremarkable reading. A few minutes later, one of the producers glanced out the window to see Sean Connery walking away down the street “striding like a panther,” and that’s when they knew they had their man. This story underscores that the original emphasis in the movie series was simply on Bond’s manliness, aspired to by millions of the burgeoning Playboy generation.

In From Russia With Love (which had a plausible and somewhat sophisticated story that actually centered on authentic-seeming espionage, the only one of its kind in the whole series), the familiar James Bond musical theme swells as Bond simply arrives at the airport in Istanbul looking for his contact, then again as he checks into his hotel. That’s because those are the minutiae of the lifestyle, which is what audiences came to see. In modern James Bond movies, that music is reserved for the dozens of credibility-defying stunts that the screenwriter has contrived, performed with vanilla action-hero aplomb by a generic Bond who isn’t really a character at all, and certainly has nothing that can be called a lifestyle.

By the time of Goldfinger, the third movie, the series had begun to descend into self-parody. The easily identifiable components of the first two movies — girls, martinis, guns, explosions, gadgets, saying “Bond, James Bond” — became ingredients in a formula that lacked the one truly essential element: savoir faire.

My new blog

I am finally motivated to start my own blog, though what I’ll put here I really don’t know. For now I’ve got to get something written down to surmount the first-post obstacle.

I’ll probably write about fatherhood from time to time. I may give updates on my various self-improvement projects, such as learning to play music and improving my fitness. (“Self-improvement is masturbation.” –Tyler Durden. To which I say, “OK.”) Perhaps I’ll post some greatest-hits articles from my old website (now offline) and from e-mail, etc. And I’ll almost certainly relive past glory from my pre-fatherhood days of book-writing, plane-flying, company-starting, etc., though you should not get the idea that fatherhood put an end to my adventures; on the contrary, it’s my biggest one yet, and I’ve still only just begun.

Among the things that made me finally start this blog is Ken Jennings’ blog. Ken is the Jeopardy! über-champion from a couple of years ago. He’s also a terrific blogger; his blog is among the handful I read daily. Coincidentally, the day I started reading it, he blogged about the unavailability of the Kevin Kline Pirates of Penzance movie on DVD, while a DVD of the Central Park version of the same production arrived at my home from Netflix. So I sent him mail about that coincidence and we began a correspondence in which I posed some of my clever movie-connections puzzles to him, and eventually to the readers of his message forum. Oh yeah, those puzzles are something else I can put here.