Friday, May 22, 2015

The moral of The Three Little Pigs

It's taken me over half a century, but I just realized what the lesson of The Three Little Pigs is.

This is something that has bothered me. When I was in high school, one of the English teachers offered a class in children's literature. I'm not quite sure what syllabus should have covered. She got sick a week or two in and we had a substitute for about half of the class. Mostly, the sub just had us read and write the occasional book report. One she said something that has stuck with me for forty years. She told us she didn't like Dr. Seuss; They were just cute stories with no moral. She preferred the classic fairy tales. Unfortunately, I wasn't brave enough to challenge her or engage her on the subject.

The "I should have said" that has lurked in my mind all these years has been to compare Horton Hears a Who to The Three Little Pigs. Ask a kid the moral of Horton Hears a Who and almost all of them will say "A person's a person no matter how small." Ask a kid the moral of The Three Little Pigs and most of them will verbally stumble around for a few moments before coming up with "build brick houses?" And none of my high school friends could come up with a better explanation. We all knew the original version must have had a more coherent lesson, but the versions we were familiar with did not lend themselves to easy interpretation.

When the real teacher returned from the hospital and whatever put her there there were only about three weeks left in quarter. I gave her a little essay written by Lester K. Dent that included the formula that he used to write all the Doc Savage stories. She turned it into a nice lesson about the narrative arc. I also decided that the substitute had not read much Dr. Seuss.

So, what is the lesson of The Three Little Pigs? Again, I have never seen the original version. I can only speculate based on the versions I grew up with which were the product of two stages of bastardization. First, was the Victorian English stage of eliminating the more earth elements and, second, was the American stage of making it cute. After trying to strip those two layers away and imagine what the original looked like, I think the intended lesson was "plan ahead and don't take any shortcuts." Though it was probably more wordy and in High German. The first pig built his house out of straw, a substance that was cheap, easy to work with, and produced almost instant results. He was the first to pay for his actions. The second pig built his house out of sticks, a substance that was a little harder to come by (nobles owned the forests and there were very strict rules about collecting wood), a little harder to work with, and more time consuming to produce results. Destroying the second house was more difficult for the wolf. The third pig used bricks, a material that could not be found in nature. He either had to make them or work to make money to buy them.

The progression is probably also important. It says, life is not black and white. The pigs show a grey middle ground. It's isn't just "this is this is the right way and this the wrong way." The pigs choices are bad, better, and best.

Of course, the whole thing might just have been an infomercial by big brick.

Coming soon: What does Goldilocks teach us about breaking and entering?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Last night I set up my first crowd funding effort

WellsFargo just drained Tessa's (Clever Ex-wife's) checking account to apply to the balance on her credit card. Like me, she's been barely hanging on since we lost the house and split up. We're trying to pay down our debts, but it's not always possible to make full payments on time. She's missed some payments. She's currently enrolled in a retraining program funded by the State of Washington. They cover the tuition so she can to take classes to improve her programming skills. The state also sends her a small living stipend. When her stipend was deposited earlier this week, WellsFargo seized the entire amount. Her rent check, written on that same WellsFargo account, is going to bounce. She has nothing to live on. When she called to explain her circumstances to the bank, the collections agent cut her off and said, "You're not getting that money back."

In the first twelve hours after I put the crowd funding page up, WellsFargo contacted me three times on Twitter asking me to get Tessa to call them or DM them. They were oh so eager to see what they could do to help. As long as it was just between Tessa and the bank, they were happy to see her tossed out on the street. Now that it's gone public, in however small a way, they're falling all over themselves to work something out.

This why people hate banks.

The details of what she needs are on the GoFundMe page. Please help.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Really, why do I try?

In all my years of blogging, the post that got the most comments was the simple question "Am I the only one who still thinks of unlined paper as 'typing paper?'"

Today on Twitter, I repeated someone else's mild joke about President's Day and, so far, I've had fifty favorites and retweets, by far the most I've had for anything I've ever said.

Instead of spending all this time researching a book, I should have just gone on social media, written "So, what's the deal with mammoths?" and appended a hashtag for Jerry Seinfeld. It would have instantly made me Mr. Mammoth throughout the internet and gotten me an appearance on the Tonight Show and a fifteen minute NPR feature.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Why I hate my life: Reason 4264 (unrelated to being single on St. V Day)

Well, I just did the stupidest thing I've in a long while.
My browser slowed down and eventually froze up. This occasionally happens. Usually, I just close everything and restart. The whole thing takes less than five minutes. It's annoying but an easy fix. That didn't work this time. This occasionally happens. When it does I run the Restore function. This is a little more of an inconvenience since it usually takes over ten minutes. That didn't work. So, I ran it a second time. It still didn't work.
I've never been in this spot. At the bottom of the Restore window that informed the operation was a failure was a link that said consider refreshing your settings. "Okay," I thought, "why not?" I clicked the link and hit go. As soon as I did, I had second thoughts: "Maybe I should find out more about this before going through with it." I tried to to stop it. I even turned off the computer. When I turned it back on, the reset process was still chugging along.
When it was finished, my worst fears were realized. The computer began running through the "Welcome to Your New Computer" presentation. After impatiently waiting through that nonsense and actually getting to part of the computer that I actually use, I began assessing the damage. The good news is that all of my files are still there, though that would have been easy to fix since I back them up regularly. The bad news is that all of my programs are gone. All. Of. Them.
I started by reinstalling Google Chrome. That was the one bright spot in this. Once I logged in to Google it asked if I wanted to restore all of my customizations and promptly downloaded all of my bookmarks, add-ons, and my auto-fill file. That was the last good news. I tried opening up some files and discovered that Office is gone. I can download Office without charge. All I need to do is enter the 85 digit serial number on the disk. That's in a box along with the rest of the contents of my desk, and the desk, in a storage unit in Washington. I can probably muddle along with Google Documents though I won't have any of the language modules that I bought for Office. Those disks were in the desk drawer and are in the same box, in the same storage unit, in the same state that I am not in. The disk for my OCR program was also in that drawer (my desk was pretty well organized). My solitaire games are gone, but I wasted too much time on them anyway. And on and on.
Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Well, this sucks

I just read an article on Buzz Feed by a woman talking about dating for the first time after her marriage fell apart. It's not really about dating in general, it's about a dramatic turn of events specific to her story. What struck me at a personal level was the way she described the appalling prospects for a woman in her late fifties (i.e., women my age). She "watched half in fascination, half in horror as eHarmony’s computerized compatibility matrix churned out a slew of Santa Claus look-alikes." Ever since my beard rather abruptly turned snow-white a few years back, I've been a little put aback by the sudden display of grand-parent respect shown by young people and offers of senior discounts by public employees. Now, I find that, for some educated women my age, the very existence of single men who look like me is considered a "horror."
I can't tell you how eager I'll be to begin dating, if ever.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Boston Charlie

It wouldn't be Christmas without a rendition of the greatest carol of all time.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie
Lyrics by Walt Kelly, Music by Traditional (whoever he was)

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Duck us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' Polly Voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, Woof, Woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, Goof, Goof!

Tickle salty boss anchovie
Wash a wash a wall Anna Kangaroo
Ducky allus bows to Polly,
Prolly Wally would but har'ly do!

Dock us all a bowsprit, Solly --
Golly, Solly's cold and so's ol' Lou!

A Holiday Warning

This is a rerun of a post I wrote around this time a few years ago. I think it's still relevant.


The men in black (MIB) entered UFO lore in 1956 in a book entitled They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. The author was one Gray Barker who had been a member of one of the first American UFO groups, the rather ambitiously named International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Though Barker's book dealt with a number of paranormal topics, the largest part of it dealt with his former boss, IFSB founder Albert Bender.

In 1953 the IFSB was about two years old with a few hundred dues paying members (called "investigators") who all received the Bureau's newsletter Space Review. The group was doing well enough when, in October 1953, Bender suddenly stopped publication of Space Review, and dissolved the IFSB. The last issue of the news letter gave only this explanation.
STATEMENT OF IMPORTANCE: The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by order from a higher source. We would like to print the full story in Space Review, but because of the nature of the information we are very sorry that we have been advised in the negative.
According to Barker, the reason Bender had so abruptly ended the group was that three mysterious men in black had visited Bender and warned him off. But before they did, the MIBs were good enough to explain at least part of the true secret of the flying saucers. UFOs, they said, actually come from Antarctica. They have bases in both polar regions and regularly fly between them. Bender told a different story in his own book in 1963.

Enough UFO stories end with the craft departing due north or south that Barker's version of Bender's visitors has been adopted by conspiracy theorists who believe in a decidedly terrestrial origin for saucers. My personal favorite version is that saucers and MIBs are Atlanteans from within the hollow earth, but the theory that they are Nazi refugees from super-scientific bases beneath the ice cap has its devotees, too.

The MIBs are the key to the mystery. The most mundane explanation that has been offered is that they work for the American government and that they are trying to hide the truth about the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. But that could itself be disinformation. No government has the ability to do what the MIBs do. Think for a moment about the men in black. They have appeared all over the world. They have a special interest in unidentified flying objects and in protecting the polar regions. They seem to actually know what is in the minds of the people they visit. Who has the ability to manage an intelligence network like that? Ask yourself: Who has the ability to travel everywhere, at any time, and even seemingly to appear in two places at once? Who has a special interest in protecting the polar regions? Who knows when you are sleeping? Who knows when you are awake? Who knows if you've been good or bad?

I think you know the answer.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and be good for goodness sake.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Mammoth in a thong

In an effort to make science even sexier than it already is, Hope Jaren has introduced ‪#‎ThingIStudyInAThong‬ on Twitter. This is my contribution.

Mammoth in a thong. The real reason they went extinct?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

I'm looking good, tonight

My big sisters got together and bought me a new hat for my birthday. It's a Stetson Temple Fedora, the equivalent style and color as my last one (the styles and pallet of Stetson have changed some over the years, so it isn't exactly the same). It arrived in the mail today. Looking snazzy and needing to take it out for a test ride, I walked up to the store and bought a some Q-tips, an job interview shirt, and a battery for my watch. I'm ready for anything. Except snake attacks (note to self: stock up on forked sticks).

And, I don't want to hear any cracks about Fedoras. This is my seventh one. I've been wearing Fedoras since before most hipsters were born or imagined.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Britannica breaks my heart

While hunting for some old images of moeritherium, I came across this:

Everything on it is wrong. Admittedly, the order Proboscidea has a big bushy family tree and many of the lineages and connections are the subjects of active controversies. But this goes beyond valid controversy; it's just wrong.

Starting at the bottom.

The genus Moeritherium is not the ancestor of any later proboscidean species. Though it had a nice long run of its own (almost twenty million years) and produced about a half dozen species, it was a side branch that ultimately left no descendants. When Charles W. Andrews unearthed the first Moeritherium at Fayum, Egypt in 1901, the oldest known proboscidean fossils were gomphotheres from the early Miocene. His discovery pushed the history of the order back to the earliest Oligocene--ten million years, but they didn't know that yet. It was an easy jump to make from earliest elephant to ancestor of elephants and Andrews announced his discovery that way. However, additional discoveries by him and by others soon raised questions about that conclusion and most Twentieth Century paleontologists were content to call it a cousin.

Trilophodon isn't a recognised genus or species at all. The word was coined in 1857 by Hugh Falconer to describe a sub-genus of mastodons that included the American mastodon and about half of the family that later came to be called gomphotheres. The other half, he called Tetralophodons (the terms describe an element of tooth architecture). The words are used today as adjectives, not as formal names, for different types of gomphotheres. The illustration is probably supposed to be Gomphotherium angustidens, the most common and best known Old World gomphothere.

Depending which species the Britannica artist had in mind, they might have managed to get the relationship somewhat right with Platybelodon. It is a trilopodont gomphothere. It produced the final species of the sub-family Amebelodontinae.

As far as mammoths being descended from platybelodons, no, just no. Mammoths are not descended from trilopodont gomphotheres or from tetralopodont gomphotheres or any kind of gomphothere. Their last common ancestor existed about 23 million years ago before the various prodoscidean genera left Africa.

Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth, is not the ancestor of modern elephants. In fact, it didn't evolve until long after the three surviving elephant species had reached their current forms. The idea that it is an ancestor originated in the earliest days of paleontology, before evolution or the ice ages were understood or accepted. Johann Blumenbach, who first recognized that mammoths were different enough from modern elephants to need a unique scientific, name thought of them as a less refined local breed of elephant and named them Elephas primigenius - the primal or original elephant. It didn't take long for naturalists figure out that the mammoth was different enough to need its own genus - Mammuthus. Outside of creationist literature, I'm not sure where you would find a source that claims mammoths are ancestral to elephants written since the 1880s at the latest. Plus woolly mammoths weren't that large. While they weighed as much African savanna elephants, they were much more compact, shorter and thicker.

African and Mammoth/Asian elephants diverged from each other about seven million years ago. Each of those lines produced several species before the modern ones appeared, coincidentally around the same time, 2.5 million years ago. Mammoths separated from Asian elephants while their common ancestor still lived in Africa.

To sum up: four relationships that are wrong, one species that never existed, one in the wrong chronological order, one visually incorrect (in size), and Asian elephants aren't blue. A correct illustration should look something like this:

When did Britannica become so sloppy?

UPDATE: An editor at Britannica just tweeted me to thank me for bringing the problem to their attention and to say they'll get right on fixing it. My faith is restored.