2000 Notebook: Transition XV
29 April 2000
News (Withheld) from Mother
What a week! After a short cruise off the west coast of Scotland aboard a very fast ship owned by an alleged whisky smuggler, I had an exhilarating ride south on a private jet. It was even more exciting than usual; Duncan announced shortly after takeoff that the plane was stolen. That has to be against some law somewhere! And within minutes after returning to the lab, I got a call from a fugitive friend who needed a safe place to stay until he could escape to another country.

This week’s events would make a great story, but I’m afraid it’s one I cannot repeat. Here’s why: this morning, I received an email message from my mother. She informed me that she’d bought a computer that allowed her to read this notebook daily.

I’m afraid that brings up the subject of censorship. I think censorship is generally a good thing, as did Mae West. “I believe in censorship,” she said. “After all, I made a fortune out of it.”

There are, of course, damaging manifestations of censorship, the worst of which is self-censorship. And so it is that I find myself under the thumb of the most intolerable censor in the world: me. How can I write about smugglers, rides on stolen jets, and harboring fugitives now that I know my mother’s reading this?

I’m not concerned about MI5’s alleged ability to surveil all the Internet traffic sent in and out of England, but my mother’s benign, well-intentioned monitoring is another story.

And that’s another story for another day.

30 April 2000
A Celebrity Mathematician Who Looks Good in a Rubber Dress on Shakespeare
It seems that the controversy of the week involves a celebrity mathematician who looks good in a rubber dress. The woman in question appeared on a television game show in her rubber dress, where she failed to answer a query about a Shakespeare play. She explained her ignorance on the subject by publicly confiding—certainly an oxymoron—that she found the bard’s work to be “dull as ditch water.”

The writer Hunter Davies came out in support of the celebrity mathematician who looks good in a rubber dress. He said he wouldn’t want to have Shakespeare’s works or the bible, even if he was on a desert island. “Boring, boring. Can’t understand why they’ve lasted so long. My theory with Shakespeare is that he got in first with all the clichés about the human condition. Reader’s Digest have done it much better since.”

The seemingly innocuous remark by the celebrity mathematician who looks good in a rubber dress resulted in two distinct strands of vitriol. First, a plethora of pedants launched a variety of semantic attacks involving the relative dullness of ditch water in relationship to other fluids. I must admit that I found it difficult to follow the learned discussions comparing and contrasting the qualities of ditch water and other tedious liquids. Some of the other pedants asked, at great length, whether “ditch water” was an alliteration of and/or simile for “dish water.”

Shakespeare’s disciples defended the author from the celebrity mathematician who looks good in a rubber dress and the friends of the celebrity mathematician who looks good in a rubber dress. John Sutherland, a professor of English at University College, London, wasn’t standing for any of the revisionist nonsense. “In my department, I’m happy to say, you won’t graduate unless you know all thirty-nine [of Shakespeare’s plays] well enough to take a six-hour exam on them—but we’re very old-fashioned.”

As for me, I don’t care. I’m agnostic when it comes to Shakespeare. I do believe, however, that celebrity mathematicians who look good in rubber dresses, bad novelists, and stuffy old professors are entitled to their opinions. Their inane comments are certainly more engaging than anything written several centuries ago.

1 May 2000
Slow May Day
It’s May Day, and Yevgeny is greeting the minor holiday with depressed bemusement. Yevgeny’s from Novosobirsk, and he’s seen the real May Day thing in Moscow. Tanks, missiles, tanks, troops, rockets, tanks, troops, more tanks, more rockets and missiles, more troops, and so on. As Yevgeny is happy to attest, that’s a real May Day parade.

And what do we have on this May Day? Not much, that’s what. Some kids threw paint on a statue of a dead politician then looted a fast food restaurant, hardly revolutionary behavior.

Since Yevgeny was obviously a bit depressed by this year’s limp imitation of a real May Day celebration, I decided to cheer him up.

“Yevgeny,” I asked, “what’s the difference between capitalism and communism?”

Yevgeny remained silent.

“In capitalism,” I explained, “man takes advantage of his fellow man. In communism, it’s the other way around.”

Yevgeny grunted. There wasn’t much more to say on an uninspired May Day.

2 May 2000
A Twenty-Dollar Film
All the magazines are stuffed with advertisements selling computer systems that allow anyone to make a film for a few thousand dollars. Although the wonders of modern technologies have significantly lowered the costs of digital video production, why spend more than twenty dollars?

I read about the twenty-dollar film at least a decade ago. A professor of filmmaking found his students annoying, which I suppose is normal. All the kids said they couldn’t make a film because they didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars. He told them all they needed was twenty dollars and some good ideas.

Here’s his explanation of how to make a twenty-dollar film. Come up with a good script, then buy a thirty-six exposure roll of color transparency film. Take one photograph to illustrate each scene. After the film is processed, project the images in conjunction with a recording of actors reading the script. That’s it.

The professor reasoned that since any film is just a collection of two- and three-minute scenes, the right words and two or three dozen slides are all a filmmaker needs to make a simple film.

That makes sense to me. But as a would-be minimalist, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

3 May 2000
The Sizzle in the Razzle-dazzle
I find it difficult to write. Take the preceding sentence, for example. I know that there’s a better way to express the thought, but I don’t know what it is at the moment, and I’m not patient enough to spend much time looking for it. Julian Green describes the situation very succinctly: “Thoughts fly and words go on foot. Therein lies all the drama of a writer.”

I suppose writing is like almost any other endeavor, creative or not. It always appears that other people manage to do it better, with less of an effort, if any. I found an example of this recently in the most unlikely of places: the documentation for AutoShare, the software I use to manage Internet subscriptions to this notebook. Here’s the paragraph that amazed me:

    Are you ready for AutoShare? The highly configurable feature cornucopia puts the sizzle in this razzle-dazzle extravaganza. AutoShare is truly the house of generosity when it comes to features and functionality. And yet at the same time, AutoShare is a jumping jackpot racing to do its thing without asking for much memory, even when your lists have tens of thousands of subscribers. AutoShare is the fun town that never sleeps!

Mikael Hansen is the author of the software, and, presumably, the person who wrote the preceding paragraph. The spelling of his name suggests that English may not be his first language, but the man certainly knows how to put the sizzle in the razzle-dazzle.

I don’t understand how his mind works. And, sadly, I don’t really know how his software works, either. So it goes.

4 May 2000
A Crap Story
I saw an advertisement in the Examiner for a thousand-dollar toilet seat from the Thomas Crapper company. I thought the offer was a juvenile prank, or perhaps a parody. Would anyone outside the military pay a thousand dollars for an unheated toilet seat? And anyway, “Thomas Crapper” sounds like the punch line to one of my seven-year old nephew’s jokes.

I mentioned this to Cheryl, who assured me that Thomas Crapper was a famous dead person who was in some way associated with the modern toilets we all enjoy. I asked my piss-poor dictionary to tell me about Thomas Crapper, and all it said was this:

    crapper (kràp´er) noun
    Vulgar Slang.
    A toilet.
    [From crap1.]

I checked with my worthless encyclopedia; it provided a single sentence that confirmed Cheryl’s assertion. “By the late 1800s, new refinements by English plumber Thomas Crapper and others made the inner workings of the toilet similar to those in use today.”

Ah, so that’s where the word “crap” comes from!

Well, no.

My crap dictionary—figuratively and literally—told me the word “crap” comes from “Middle English crappe, chaff, from Old French crappe, from Medieval Latin crappa, perhaps of Germanic origin.”

There must be some cause and effect relationship between Thomas Crapper’s name and his most noted achievement, but I can’t imagine what it might be.

5 May 2000
Losing Serious Marbles
Sometimes news travels faster. Other times, it travels slower ... especially when there’s no sense of urgency.

“Marbles” news travels very slowly. For one example, I just learned that marbles are called marbles because they were once made from marble. Surprising news. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of marbles, but I’ve never seen a marble marble. That “news” probably took at least a millennium to reach me.

Similarly, but different of course, the news about the British and world championships of marbles took exactly two weeks to reach me. The three-paragraph report I read didn’t explain whether the British and world championships were separate or simultaneous events, but it doesn’t matter. The interesting part of the brief story was the contrast in attitudes between the Americans and the Brits.

The Americans were gung ho, can-do, and very, very serious. The Americans trained for four hours a day before the games. Jeff Kimmell, the team’s manager, said they were demanding Olympic status for the sport.

“Why not?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s a mighty skillful game, and we have two guys in contact right now with the Olympic authorities.”

The name of the British team said all their was to say about their approach to the mighty skillful game. In the end, the Americans lost all the marbles to the new world champions, the Blackdog Boozers from Northgate.

6 May 2000
The Height of Cleverness
This morning I heard someone on a radio program say, “You’re not doing it well if you’re seen to be doing it well.” I took a break from washing the dishes to write that down, then went back to my kitchen duties.

Tonight, I can’t remember to what subject “You’re not doing it well if you’re seen to be doing it well” referred. I suppose it could be anything. In my experience, the ability to do anything well should be hidden behind the thing done well. When the main impact of a dance, a story, or a painting is to demonstrate the virtuosity of the dancer, the author, or the painter, the result is usually tedium.

I think François Duc de La Rochefoucauld was talking about such conceits when he said, “The desire to seem clever often keeps us from being so.” He also observed, “The height of cleverness is being able to conceal it.”

I’ve done so well at cloaking my cleverness that even I can’t spot it anymore.

7 May 2000
Shortest Poems Are Best
In the last week I’ve received routine correspondence from Dezmona J. Mizelle, a government trademark attorney, and from T. Nieuwenhuijsen, the Director of Loyalty Management for Kinky Love Motions airline.

I was delighted by the names “Dezmona J. Mizelle” and “T. Nieuwenhuijsen”; each sounded like an elegant short poem. Perhaps I should look through the phone book (poem book?) for other brief works, but two poems in one month is more than enough.

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©2000 David Glenn Rinehart