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Odd Lots

  • Amazon is selling hand-made (in Latvia) steampunk thumb drives incorporating copper pipe caps and a Soviet-made pentode vacuum tube. LEDs light up the glass from the bottom of the tube when there’s power available at the USB connector. (Thanks to Bill Meyer for the pointer.)
  • Tonight would be a good night to see Mercury. It’s never easy because the planet never gets too far from the Sun in the sky, but with smartphone apps like Sky Map (on all Android phones by default) it’s certainly easier than it once was. Start by finding Venus in the west, immediately after the Sun goes below the horizon. (You can’t miss Venus.) Mercury lies roughly on a line between Venus and the Sun. There are no bright stars in that part of the sky, so if you see a star near that line, it’s not a star but ol’ Merc himself.
  • Speaking of the Sun… Here’s a solid overview of the history of solar science. It’s a long piece, and even if you choose not to read it, the photos and diagrams are worth the visit.
  • Betelgeuse continues to dim for unknown reasons. It’s fallen from 10th brightest star in the sky to 24th brightest. Orion is the first constellation I can clearly recall seeing, and these days, it just looks…off. This may mean it’s about to go supernova…for large values of “about.” (Hundreds or more likely thousands of years. Stars are never in a hurry.)
  • I’ve been following the coronavirus epidemic using a dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins. Who knows how accurate it is, but one does get a feeling that China is currently in a world of hurt. I got the link from my friend Charlie Martin, and he’s got a good article about the issues involved.
  • This is a little weird, but it’s one more telltale that the technical publishing industry I loved for so long is no longer with us. I went searching for a book on installing, configuring, and customizing the MediaWiki software, and found…nothing. There’s plenty online, but I’m talking about book-length treatments. If you know of one let me know. My longstanding heuristic is that if it’s not on Amazon, it isn’t available.
  • How to turn a waterway into wine. At least it wasn’t a Zinfandel.
  • Ah, but this was a sweet, sweet hack: Some guy wandered around downtown Berlin pulling a little red wagon full of smartphones, all running Google Maps. Wherever he happened to be during his wander, Google Maps reported a traffic jam.
  • If politics bores you as much as it bores me, here’s a solid distraction from all the tiresome yelling and screaming: The economics of all-you-can-eat buffets. Eat quick: My instincts tell me that as a category buffets are not long for this world.
  • Finally, you’ve heard me say that there’s funny, there’s National Lampoon funny, and then there’s Babylon Bee funny. This may be one of the Bee’s best pieces yet–given this season’s nonstop nonsense.

Green Grow the Russians, Oh!

A song got stuck in my head the other day, but I had forgotten the words. No, wait: I never entirely knew them to begin with. They made no sense, but that didn’t matter, as for the most part they were unintelligible. About all I could clearly recall at first was the line:

I’ll sing you five-oh; green grow the Russians, oh!

And with that, a whole dumpster of brain sludge emptied out into my forebrain. It is a tale (probably) worth telling.

Ok. In the summer of 1963, I went to Boy Scout Camp for the first time. I was 11. It was at Camp Owassipe, the big Scout reservation inland of Muskegon, Michigan. The camp at that point was 11,000 acres huge, and that first year we were at Camp West, one of several camp centers within Owassipe. Camp West was for tent camping (no cabins) and was a CCC project from the ’30s that had not been well-maintained and after thirty years was falling apart. But it was right on a lake and we loved it.

Part of the Camp West experience was eating three meals a day in a big log-lodge mess hall that must have held two hundred tweener boys. The food was hot dogs and hamburgers. We didn’t care; we were lower-middle-class upstarts and had no issues with hot dogs and hamburgers. I don’t remember there being any green vegetables, and I was good with that.

But one thing none of us had ever experienced before was singing songs after meals. There were several college-age junior scoutmasters at Camp West, and they led the digesting masses in several rousing pieces before sending us on our way. I remember only two of the songs, and only one clearly: Rise and Shine. One of the mess hall song leaders was a junior scoutmaster named Jory, so as you can imagine, most of us sang:

Rise and shine and give God your glory, Jory!

Being tweener boys, it was funny even after singing it seventeen hundred times. Fortunately for us, Jory was a good sort, a little overweight and very much the showman. For all we could tell, he was singing it too.

Now, the other song. Our Scout troop was based at our Catholic church, and what we sang at school were either Catholic hymns or odd little songs in songbooks published by the Sisters of Providence, which were more or less junior Catholic hymnals with some kid stuff tossed in for seasoning. (Gregorian chant wasn’t the sort of thing you sang at Scout camp.) I’m guessing that most of the other kids were Protestants, because they knew the songs and we didn’t. The song leaders assumed that we all knew the songs, and didn’t take time to teach them. We learned them by listening to the other kids. Except this time, the lyrics were nowhere near as clear–especially with half the boys horsing around and generating plenty of QRM. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the weirdest kid song ever. This has “Baby Shark” beat all cold: Meet Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!

It was a counting song, like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which gave us some clues, at least. It started out with a grammar puzzle:

I’ll sing you one, oh; green grow the rushes oh!

What is your one-oh?

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be it so.

First of all…rushes? This was pre-Vatican II, and although we were taught Bible stories, we did not read them from the Bible, even baby Moses in the rushes. (This was a Catholic peccadillo that ended with the Council.) The word “rushes” was not in our working vocabulary. We knew them as “cat tails.” However, the Russians loomed large in almost every part of life in that era. They were the emblematic Bad Guys of my grade school ’60s, who we were sure would first beat us to the Moon and then kill us all with nuclear missiles. So we insulted them at every opportunity. Swapping in “Russians” for “rushes” made no objective sense, but it made perfect sense to Cold War era tweener boys.

Alas, we couldn’t quite parse the clause “evermore shall be it so.” Sister Marie Bernard would have circled that in red and taken points off. So we sang “and evermore shall be a stone.” It was a good guess, and better still, we could diagram it if we had to.

Some of the others were obvious, like “Twelve for the Twelve Apostles.” Which made this a God song, just like “Rise and Shine.” Ditto “Ten for the Ten Commandments.” “Eleven for the Eleven Who Went to Heaven” was also obvious, in part because not much rhymes with “eleven” but “seven” and “heaven.” (The word “leaven” was not yet in our vocabulary books.) Were there only eleven people in Heaven? Kind of a lonely place. Our Mass books were crusty with saints, and we had to wonder where they all ended up.

After ten it got a little freaky. “Nine for the Nine Bright Shiners?” What were they? God’s baseball team? “Eight for the April Rainers?” I remember singing this as “April Rangers.” Maybe the April Rainers were God’s farm team. Farmers like rain, no?

“Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky.” As with the saints in Heaven, this figure seemed a little short, especially since you could see every star there was in rural Michigan night skies in 1963. Maybe the songwriter lived in Chicago, where you might see seven, if you were lucky and had good eyes.

“Six for the Six Proud Walkers.” I believe I heard this one correctly, but that didn’t prevent us from singing “Six for the Six Loud Talkers.” Given that talking in class was a sort of secular mortal sin, we assumed these guys were not among the eleven in Heaven. Besides, Pride was a Capital Sin.

“Five for the symbols at your door.” Hmmm. I heard that word as “sinfuls” which while wholeheartedly Catholic seemed off somehow. Maybe it accounted for the semiregular visits by the Jehovah Witnesses, who much annoyed my very pious mother.

“Four for the Gospel makers.” I’m pretty sure everyone was singing “Gospel Writers,” which at least made sense numerically, and we were back to God territory. (Every writeup admits that some of the lines came in multiple versions.)

“Three, three, arrivals.” Huh? I swear, the first time we sang the song, this came to me as “Please clean the rifles.” “Three, three survivors” was what we ended up singing, lacking any strong clue as to who had survived, nor what trials they had undergone. Without being able to name them, I recalled the three guys who got thrown in a furnace by the Babylonians but survived because Jesus was in there with them, and you did not mess with Jesus.

“Two, two little white boys, dressed in all their green-oh.” I’m also pretty sure this is what everybody was singing, even though the definitive version is “lily-white boys.” Supposedly this is about the two main stars in Gemini, which on bad nights might well be the only stars you could see in Chicago. As for dressing a star in anything, well, you dress the star of your choice. I’ll watch–from a hundred million miles or so.

One, as mentioned earlier, was a stone. If it was all alone, it should have ducked down a Chicago alley, which in 1963 were gravel-paved and where most of our stones came from.

My following two years at Boy Scout Camp were at a much newer campground, which did not have a mess hall. They delivered hot food in giant thermos bottles from a jeep, and we ate at picnic tables. We sang some songs around the central campfire in the evenings, but beyond a somber item about Chief Owassipe none of them have stuck even a little.

Considering “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh”‘s cloudy origins and multitude of verse variations and interpretations, I can’t say we did it much violence. After all, see this, from the song’s entry on Wikipedia:

“The musicologist Cecil Sharp, influential in the folklore revival in England, noted in his 1916 One Hundred English Folksongs that the words are “so corrupt, indeed, that in some cases we can do little more than guess at their original meaning”.

We were from Chicago. Corruption there was so ubiquitous that most people didn’t even notice it. As for guessing, well, we guessed, and our guesses were as good as anybody’s. If it came back to me fifty-five years later, I’d say its evolution as an earworm was very robust. Plus, it propelled me to a long and motley career of writing silly lyrics to well-known songs.

As for the Russians, they were the wrong color, unless they were like bell peppers. You never can tell with Russians.

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Solar cycle 24 is crashing, and we’re still three years from Solar minimum. 24 really does look to be the weakest cycle in 100 years or more.
  • And if you don’t think the Sun influences Earth’s climate, read this, about the Sun’s indirect effects on climate and why they make climate so hard to predict.
  • I doubt the payback would be more than the cost of the equipment and the electricity, but you can mine bitcoin with a Raspberry Pi–or better yet, a whole farm of them. (Run them from a solar panel?)
  • Speaking of the RPi: I burned a new NOOBS micro-SD last week, and used it to install the latest stock Raspbian. What I discovered is that this latest release has a terrible time detecting any monitor that isn’t straight HDMI. I’ve been using the RPi with older 4:3 DVI monitors through an adapter cable ever since I got my first board, and the board had no trouble figuring out the size of the raster. I’ve screwed around with the config file with only partial success; even telling the board precisely what mode your monitor speaks (1600 X 1200, 75 Hz) doesn’t guarantee correct video.
  • When I was much younger I wanted a PDP-8. And then a PDP-11, which I almost got because Heathkit actually made a hobbyist PDP-11 desktop. I settled for an S-100 8080, because there was actually software for it. I recently stumbled on a hobbyist PDP-8 system based on Intersil’s IM6120 chip. It’s not hardware you can buy; you download the PCB design and the software, get somebody to make the board (not hard these days) and then stuff it yourself. Runs FOCAL-69 and OS/8. Paleocomputing at its best!
  • From the It’s-Dead-But-the-Corpse-Is-Still-Twitching Department: Aetna is pulling out of the Obamcare exchanges entirely next year, citing $200M in losses.
  • You won’t believe where Earth’s atmospheric xenon comes from! (Actually, you will…but you have to say that these days because clicks.)
  • Excellent long-form piece on why we should fear an ideologically uniform elite. From the article: “If you really want to live in a world without tyranny, spend less time trying to show others why you are right and more time trying to show yourself why you are wrong.” Bingo. Because no matter what you think, you are always wrong. About everything. Nothing is simple. Nobody has the whole story. Ambiguity is everywhere. Certainty is poison.
  • How many times do we have to say this? Eat fat to lose weight.
  • We could use more research here (can’t we always?) but it’s certainly possible: Eating more salt may help you lose weight. Could be; I determined by experiment that salt doesn’t affect my blood pressure, so it couldn’t hurt to try.
  • A correlation has been found between consuming lowfat or nonfat dairy products and Parkinson’s disease. No such correlation is seen with full-fat dairy products. My guess: Your brain is mostly made of fat, and people who eat low-fat dairy tend to eat low-fat everything. So this is yet another reason to go low-carb high fat, even if you don’t need to lose weight. Fat is a necessary nutrient!
  • After decades of difficult research, scholars have finally decoded the lyrics to the “O Fortuna” movement of Carmina Burana. And…they aren’t in medieval Latin at all. (Thanks to Sarah Hoyt for the link.)

Odd Lots

  • A study performed almost fifty years ago has come back into the light, in which half of a reliable (i.e., institutionalized) sample population was fed saturated animal fat, and the other half was fed vegetable oils. After almost five years researchers found that low cholesterol was not heart-healthy. For every observed 30 point drop in cholesterol, overall mortality went up 22%. Step away from the corn oil!
  • Again, not new (from 1998) but intriguing: A study showed that people on a high-fat diet exhibited a better mood than those on a low-fat diet. I’m always in a better mood when things taste better, and fat tastes better than almost anything else you could name.
  • We are slaughtering so many sacred cows these days: A brand-new study shows that only 20-25% of people exhibit BP sensitive to sodium. And not only that: Among the others, the ones who ate the most salt were the ones with the lowest blood pressure.
  • OMG: Cheese is as addictive as crack! Actually, it’s not. And today’s fake science is brought to you by a former vice-president of PETA. Yes, scientists have a constitutional right to vent politicalized nonsense and swear fealty to political parties and ideologies. I have a constitutional right to mark down their credibility if they do.
  • I’ve been saying for a long time that counting calories is worthless, based on research that goes back almost sixty years. If The Atlantic piles on, I suspect the debate is over.
  • For her eighth birthday recently, I gave my niece Julie three books on the visual programming language Scratch. Julie, who, when her mother told her she was too young for roller skates, tried to make her own out of Lego. I’m not sure what she’ll do with it…but trust me, she’ll think of something. (Thanks to Joel Damond for the link.)
  • Due to an intriguing gadget called an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, we can say with pretty reasonable confidence that human beings were top-of-the-food-pyramid carnivores long before we ever domesticated plants. Yes, it’s a long-form piece. Read The Whole Thing.
  • Look at the US Drought Monitor. I remember when much of California and Nebraska were dark brown. If this be climate change, let us make the most of it.
  • This may be funnier if you’re deep into RPGs, but I found it pretty funny nonetheless. I suspect that I dwell somewhere in the Diverse Alliance of Nice Guys. And hey, that’s where Space Vegas is.
  • Beware the Bambie Apocalypse! (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)

Odd Lots

  • I had some fairly sophisticated oral microsurgery about ten days ago, and it kind of took the wind out of me. That’s why you’re getting two Odd Lots in a row. I have things to write about long-form but have only recently found the energy to write at all. Promise to get a couple of things out in the next week.
  • Some researchers at UW Madison are suggesting that sleep may exist to help us forget; that is, to trim unnecessary neural connections in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the brain. Fair enough. What I really want to know (and am currently researching) is why the hell we dream. I doubt the answer to that is quite so simple.
  • Ultibo is a fork of FreePascal/Lazarus that creates custom kernel.img files for the Raspberry Pi, allowing direct boot into an embedded application without requiring an underlying OS. I haven’t tried it yet (still waiting on delivery of a few parts for a new RPi 3 setup) but it sounds terrific. Bare metal Pascal? Whoda thunkit?
  • Humana just announced that it is leaving the ACA exchanges after 2017. As I understand it, that will leave a fair number of counties (and some major cities) with no health insurance carriers at all. Zip. Zero. Obamacare, it seems, is in the process of repealing itself.
  • NaNoWriMo has gone all political and shat itself bigtime. You know my opinions of such things: Politics is filth. A number of us are talking about an alternate event held on a different month. November is a horrible month for writing 50,000 words, because Thanksgiving. I’m pushing March, which is good for almost nothing other than containing St. Patrick’s Day. (Thanks to Tom Knighton for the link.)
  • Paris has been gripped by rioting since February 2…and the US media simply refuses to cover it, most likely fearing that it will distract people from the Flynn resignation. Forget fake news. We have fake media.
  • I heard from a DC resident that there was also a smallish riot in Washington DC today, and so far have seen no media coverage on it at all.
  • Cold weather in Italy and Spain have caused vegetable shortages in the UK. Millions of small children who would supposedly never know what snow looked like may now never know what kale looks like. Sounds like a good trade to me.
  • Trader Joe’s now sells a $5 zinfandel in its house Coastal brand, and it’s actually pretty decent. Good nose, strong fruit. Seems a touch thin somehow, but still well worth the price.
  • I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Gahan Wilson’s cartoons in Playboy and National Lampoon, but Pete Albrecht sent me a link to an interview with Wilson that explains why he did certain things the way he did, like his brilliant series called “Nuts” about how the world looks and feels to small children.

Odd Lots

On the Cover of the Trolling Stone

Well, we’re big clown hoaxers;
We got loads of coaxers
And they freak everywhere we go:
They freak about noses and they freak about clothes
And they freak when we simply don’t show.
We’re takin’ all kinds of risks
To get arrested and frisked,
But the risk we’ll never know
Is the risk that they’ll hail us
‘Stead of screaming to jail us
On the cover of the Rolling Stone!

Odd Lots