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Gourmet Office Supplies For the Discerning Weirdo

You know that weird kid in school who ate erasers, chalk, pencils, paper, glue, and so on? That was me. This Wikipedia article on pica (i.e., the symptom of eating things not meant to be eaten) is pretty interesting.

In my case, I can recall exactly when and why I began eating school supplies. It was the morning of the first day of second grade, and my mom was struggling to get me ready for school. I had my Big Chief tablet and my ruler, but I was also supposed to bring two sharpened jumbo pencils.

Jumbo pencils were those enormous pencils issued to children on the theory that our developing eye-hand coordination and small hands were better suited to writing with pencils that looked cartoonishly huge. I had the pencils, but they weren’t sharpened, and after a couple attempts, my mom realized that these pencils wouldn’t fit in the biggest aperture on her pencil sharpener. So with the clock ticking, she used a knife to whittle points on the pencils.

As a consequence, the tips of the pencils were rough and jaggedly hewn. Over the course of the day, I nibbled and chewed, obsessively trying to “even-up” the pencils into tidiness. As a consequence, I ingested a fair amount of wood and graphite. Unfortunately, I never did succeed in sculpting the pencils into their ideal form. I just made them shorter and shorter until there was nothing left.

Pica (according to the above-linked Wikipedia article) is often symptomatic of other mental illnesses, mineral deficiencies, or cultural traditions. In my case, pica grew out of obsessive compulsiveness.

I ate a prodigious number of pencils over the following years of school, but that wasn’t all I ate. I branched out to eat all sorts of tempting products like Elmer’s Glue and construction paper.

Because you, dear reader, are likely not a devourer of office products, I thought I’d give you my assessment of various inedible things. Consider this a public service.

1. Pencils and pencil shavings – If you’ve ever eaten a high-fiber cereal, you know exactly what the wood of a well-made pencil tastes like. The graphite is crunchy, but almost immediately lubricates the teeth so that they glide over each other on a film of black carbon.

2. White glue and paste – School glue tastes uncannily like yogurt, (paste therefore tastes uncannily like Greek yogurt) to the point that I’m more-or-less convinced that yogurt is just a non-adhesive variant of glue. I’m not saying this to diss yogurt. Yogurt is a perfectly fine thing to eat. But it does taste almost exactly like water-soluble white glue.

3. Paper – There is a huge variety in paper, with some forms of paper being more palatable than others. Notebook paper tends to have an unpleasant aftertaste, because of all the bleach. Rice paper is starchy, but serviceable. Construction paper is bitter – the richer the color, the worse the taste. And then of course, there’s the most misleading paper of all – Manila paper. The name is so appealing, but the paper is so appalling – all the bitterness of construction paper, but without even the comfort of construction paper’s fluffy absorbancy. In a perfect world, a billionaire industrialist would create a vanilla ice-cream flavored paper, and then systematically replace the world’s stock of Manila paper with vanilla paper.

4. Erasers – Stay away from gel erasers. Traditional pencil erasers get better tasting with age, but lose their chewiness. The best erasers are like dense, slightly yielding, unsweetened fine-grain sandpaper.

 

The Secret Origins of Poppin’ Fresh

The official story is that Poppin’ Fresh was created in 1965 by the Leo Burnett ad agency, (which subcontracted the animation work to Pacific Data Images) and based on a story written by Chet Noice and sold to Pillsbury.

But the truth is far darker. When faced with the long development framework associated with stop-action animation, along with associated budget issues and ad purchasing deadlines, Pillsbury turned to the notorious occultist Frodgick Meadstück. The assignment was simple – use the dark arts to create an adorable mascot suitable for TV and print advertising within three days, and for no more than $5,000 dollars (the equivalent of $37,000 when adjusted for inflation).

Meadstück approached the problem as a matter of conjuration, and chose to adapt techniques used to animate the traditional Golem of Jewish folklore, but with uncooked bread dough substituted for clay. A number of assistants were hired to help with the work, which almost immediately ran into snags.

After eight hours of steady chanting and burning of incense, the first effort produced a plodding, silent doughmonculus with vacant, dead eyes that could only respond to simple commands. Screen tests were disastrous – the creature’s facial expression never changed, and it’s sole vocalization upon being poked in the stomach was a low, watery groan.

An assistant demonologist named Dortshlager suggested a slightly different approach based on a technique described in the blasphemous Pnakotic Fragments. A dough form was placed in the center of a pentagram drawn with cake frosting on a flour-dusted cookie sheet, and after an altogether bloodier and more protracted ceremony, a Babylonian demon of cattle diseases was trapped inside the gelatinous little blob.

In contrast to the dougholem, the doughmon was much more animated, waving it’s stubby arms and legs and unleashing a long tirade of presumably Babylonian agricultural curses against everyone in the room. As unpromising as this version looked, it was at least cunningly intelligent and capable of taking direction.

The budget was nearly exhausted, and time was growing short, so Meadstück bit the bullet and delivered a raving, violent dough boy to the Leo Burnett agency. Meadstück expected that he would get fired or sued, but in fact the ad executives were overjoyed.

The camera and set crews had lifetimes of experience with difficult talent, and in their estimation, “Beelphazor” was by no means the worst commercial actor that they had ever worked with. A little flattery, a little ego-stroke, and a production assistant running Beelphazor’s personal errands was all it took to smooth the demon’s hurt feelings.

Two days later, the commercial was cut, printed, and ready to air. The Pillsbury Doughboy was ready for his public debut.

The decades since have not always been easy for Poppin’ Fresh or for his handlers. He has sometimes successfully escaped from his underground lair and gone missing for days. His temper can still flair up at the worst possible time, as when he once threatened to inflict murrain on Dick Cavett. Advances in computer animation mean that film crews no longer have to deal with his tirades, and he is more-or-less completely retired from regular promotional work.

But his continued existence is tolerated at Pillsbury for a number of reasons. Meadstück and the other occultists who might have known how to banish him back to the underworld are all long dead, and in any case he doesn’t require much maintenance or storage space. Handlers can more-or-less keep him in line by threatening to pop him in an oven if he misbehaves, and his imperious demands for ziggurats and slaves can usually be deflected.

Next year, Poppin’ Fresh will be fifty, and the anniversary may be enough to call him out from retirement. If you meet him, poke him in the belly at your own risk. He will giggle, but he will likely remember. And behind his sky-blue colored contacts, his eyes reflect the flames of Hell.

Being Human (the North American one) Deserves a Bigger Audience

So as of last month, the North American version of “Being Human” began its fourth season. (The British original has been cancelled). And while new “The Walking Dead” episodes regularly draws huge numbers (on the order of 10-12 million viewers), “Being Human” gets a fraction of that number.

Which, in my aesthetic judgment, is unfair. Not because “The Walking Dead” isn’t great, but because “Being Human” is the richer narrative.

I love “The Walking Dead.” I’m a fan of both the comic and the show, and I am on the edge of my seat every episode. It’s well-acted, it’s well-paced, it’s got sharp writing and beautiful high production values that induce nail-biting anxiety and post-traumatic stress in its audience. “The Walking Dead” is a great end-of-the-world show, set in the fetid deep South in the last days of the human race following a zombie virus outbreak.

“Being Human” doesn’t induce the same kind of nervous anxiety as “The Walking Dead.” It’s about three attractive roommates living together in a Boston townhouse who could be described by the start of a cheesy Halloween joke – “A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost walk into a bar ….”

“The Walking Dead,” is in some sense a show about the gradual subtraction of humanity and morality from a hopeless world. It’s about things falling apart in an irretrievable way, and about the inevitability of death. It’s the zombie apocalypse as written by Camus, but with more exciting action sequences. It is in some sense a relentlessly grim and unforgiving story that spirals inward, closing off options and choices until none are left.

“Being Human” on the other hand, is a show about damaged people (the archetypical damaged people, really) who are trying to heal themselves and mitigate the harm they have caused and suffered. It is mythic and hopeful, with rays of light among the dark – in contrast to “The Walking Dead.”

“Being Human” is a story that spirals outward, opening up options and choices, both in the narrative and in the progression of the characters. The writing is smart and funny, and the cast is excellent. It is one of the best shows on TV, and it deserves heaps of critical praise.

Without intending any disrespect toward nihilists, I think nihilism in art is sometimes easier to pull off than humanist idealism. Or at least, it’s harder to succeed at writing hopeful drama that doesn’t come off as saccharine or sentimental, whereas nihilism by its nature avoids those particular pitfalls. So when humanistic art succeeds, I tend to be more impressed. And “Being Human” succeeds.

Of course, neither “The Walking Dead” nor “Being Human” deserve to be pigeon-holed into neatly opposed styles. Part of the tension of “The Walking Dead” comes from that show’s internal debate over whether our better or worse natures will prevail at the end of the world. And “Being Human” has elements of nihilism – the vampires in particular seem to have drawn a pretty tough hand when trying to do good – it’s hard for bloodsucking creatures of the night not to fall into bad habits.

But I think it is fair to contrast the two stories with the following shorthand. One show is grim (there isn’t really any comic relief in “The Walking Dead”), while the other is cautiously optimistic. Both shows deserve lots of attention, ratings, and praise.

A Site Visit to a Lego Modular Building

My mother-in-law surprised me this Christmas by giving me the Lego Pet Shop, one of an ongoing series of buildings being put out by Lego for adult fans. I had great fun putting this set together, which consists of two three-story townhouses, with a pet store on the ground floor of one of the buildings.

Lego Pet Shop Exterior

(Photo courtesy of Craig Wyzik. http://www.flickr.com/photos/wyzik/7329983166/ Reproduced subject to Creative Commons License).

For some reason, the designers at Lego decided that one of the townhouses should be presented as being remodeled. A paint tray and bucket sit on the floor, and a painter appears to be goldbricking. He’s only managed to lay one swath of paint across the wall of the room, and judging by the thickness of the paint in that one swath, he’s just running his paint roller back and forth over the same spot.

Lego Pet Shop Interior Views

The upstairs floor is quite unfinished – just a few cardboard boxes sit in the otherwise empty bedroom, although the terrace garden is still looking good. And I can see why the owner decided to spruce the place up a bit – those dark brown walls are pretty depressing. But I am really concerned about that contractor.

I went online to see if other Lego fans had finished out the townhouse rooms, and oh my god there are some focused and highly motivated builders out there.

Lego Microbuild Furniture

Lego Microbuild Furniture2

Lego Microbuild Furniture3

Some townhouse furniture from master builder Johnathan Grzywacz (whose astonishing work is on display at http://www.flickr.com/photos/26864031@N00/).

And finally, some people thought that this Lego set needed just a bit more detail.

ibrickcity-lego-moc-avenue

(Photo courtesy of ibrickcity.com. See http://www.ibrickcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ibrickcity-lego-moc-avenue.jpg ).

 

 

Why “Raising Hope” Matters

This post is about a TV series, and about why that series is worth watching.

Neither my wife nor I began as “Raising Hope” watchers. We came to the show late, and only through the blessings of Netflix. And it is not the sort of show that we are usually attracted to. It’s a family sit-com with a high-concept premise (our hero encountered a female serial killer, got her pregnant, and then decided to raise his baby daughter after the baby’s mother is executed for her crimes).

My wife had a Facebook discussion with one of her high school classmates, and the topic of TV came up, because the classmate works in that industry. “Raising Hope” is having trouble finding its audience, and that’s a shame, because it deserves an audience.

The show is not perfect, but it is a fine piece of theater, and frankly deserves respect from entertainment industry professionals and executives, notwithstanding the vagaries of personal taste or critical aesthetic choice.

Here are some reasons why:

1. The show talks about money and class distinctions in ways that television rarely does. With notable exceptions (“Roseanne,” “Good Times,” “Veronica Mars,” and “Friday Night Lights” come to mind as shows in which money and class distinctions were well-handled or realistically portrayed), economic reality is treated as a convenient plot device, applicable only when needed. In many TV shows, questions of money, employment, the lack of money, social stratification, class conflict, equity and wealth distribution, and related topics are usually either ignored, or played on only intermittently as specific plot points.

In “Raising Hope,” most of the episodes focus on the dynamics of the Chance family, who are firmly and unequivocally poor, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of all the other characters. They are working poor, and while their poverty isn’t desperate, it is omnipresent. The Chances are not sentimental about their poverty, and they are all too aware that they are devalued as human beings because they are poor. But the show isn’t a bad parody of a Clifford Odets protest play. It’s a show about people who happen to be poor, not about poor people. (Just as “The Big Bang Theory” at its best isn’t a show about smart people, but about people who happen to work in the sciences).

2. The acting on the show is outstanding. Everyone on the show punches above the level of traditional sit-com acting – and in so doing, they make their characters believably human and worthy of admiration. This may be in part due to the serious stage drama backgrounds of the lead actors.

3. The show is smart, and aims at a smart audience – it plays lots of games with story structure, genre, pacing, and style. Certainly the Coen brothers are a major aesthetic inspiration for the show, as is “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Beyond cleverness, the show is well-written. For instance, the “A” story in one episode is about a character’s efforts to get her wedding ring out of hock before her husband figures out that she’s been pawning it over the years for cash, and how her efforts collide in farcical ways with her son’s search for a perfect engagement ring for his fiance.

If this were some hack sitcom, the joke would involve the son unwittingly buying the mom’s ring and giving it to his fiance. But the episode jumps past the easy jokes and has a fresh and welcome twist. The mom confides in the future daughter-in-law, cleverly outmaneuvers her husband and son, and neatly sidesteps the potential for confusion or misunderstanding, while also tying up the seemingly unrelated “B” story involving the future daughter-in-law.

4. The show has heart. Early episodes were more uneven when it came to tonal considerations, and a person who only watched the pilot might get the impression that the show is an acidic satire with a mean, exploitative streak. But by the middle of the first season, the tone stabilized, and it was clear that the writers felt empathy for all the characters, no matter what odd quirks they might possess.

For instance, one of the secondary characters (“Frank”) is at first glance nothing more than a stock weirdo of the sort that inhabits many sitcoms – a vaguely menacing man-child coworker of the main characters. But the show almost immediately exposes Frank’s sweetness, in an early episode where the main character discovers that Frank is an obsessive artist who has built an astonishingly detailed scale model of the town, wherein he alters events to ensure that truth, beauty, and justice prevail in a way that isn’t possible in the real world.

As I said, the show isn’t perfect. Some episodes work better than others, and some episodes take daring chances that don’t quite pay off. But the show is certainly good enough and funny enough to deserve attention, not only from people who work in TV, but from anyone who likes good comedy.

In Which I Diagnose My Underlying Problem

Okay, so my sister and my wife had an email exchange that included a link to the following article:
http://freelancefolder.com/5-surprising-causes-of-creative-block-and-how-to-overcome-them/

It seemed relevant to me, because I struggle with procrastination. So I joined in the email discussion. But as I did so, I was overtaken by my own ADHD.

So herewith, my musings on the question of creative blocks.

That article on creative blocks cites fear, perfectionism,
overscheduling, procrastination, and health, and then suggests that
procrastination may be masking some other issue such as fear or
perfectionism.

I think my problem is procrastination, but caused by something other
than fear or perfectionism. I think my procrastination is caused by
anomie. Or ennui. Or existential dread. Or something else that you can
only talk about while wearing a beret and smoking French cigarettes.

Here are the symptoms I experience -

Torpor.

Sleepiness.

Tension headaches.

Extreme interest in a project, but only until actually beginning that
project, at which point anything other than the current project
becomes much more interesting. This is why I spent a substantial
fraction of my time at the U.T. law library during finals reading the
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, instead of whatever it was I went
in there to study in the first place. Contracts! Oh God, did I
remember to study for Contracts? Wait. Did I take my Contracts exam?
Yes, yes. I must have taken my Contracts exam. I mean, I’m licensed
and everything, and I remember something about Hawkins v. McGee.

Did I take Statistics in college? It seems like I did, but when? I
have this nagging feeling that it was T-TH 9:00 – 10:30 in McFarlin
3.101 during the fall semester in 1984, but wasn’t that the same time
as my Soviet Foreign Policy class? Did I ever clear up that schedule
issue, or did I just WP the class?

And while we’re at it, did I ever turn in that Current Events
assignment that I was supposed to do for Government during my
sophomore year in high school? It was junior year, wasn’t it? Did I
actually take a class called “Government?” That doesn’t sound right.
Maybe it was Social Studies. I mean, that’s what they called it in 4th
Grade, so maybe they were still calling it that in 11th Grade as well.

I heard that most of the building where I attended high school is now
condemned, and now houses tire fires, mutant mole people, and rogue
artificial intelligences trapped inside old surplus TI-83 scientific
calculators. Well, that’s what I heard.

Where was I? I was listing my symptoms. Oh right. I’m easily distracted.

Distraction.

Is “mutant” superfluous when describing a mole person? I mean, if a
human being had developed long digging claws and an extremely
sensitive sense of smell, wouldn’t such a person be regarded as a
mutant whether formally identified as one or not? I could just say,
“mole person” and leave out the bit about mutation. You know, “Strunk
and White” and “avoiding needless words,” and all that.

So I guess my ideal job would be one in which I could work on a
variety of creative projects, cycling through each project as I got
bored, and maybe switching gears every 17 minutes or so (I’m guessing
on the 17 minutes. We’d need to set up an environment where I could be
observed by graduate students through one-way mirrors for a few months
as I worked on things, to determine if there’s a fixed, predictable
length of time in which I remain engaged in a particular endeavor, or
if other variables come into play. Anyway, let’s say for the sake of
argument that I can only remain focused on an activity for 17 minutes
at a time).

That can’t be right. I mean, what about playing computer games for
24-36 hours at a time? Hmm. But as I think about it, even those
marathon game playing sessions display a kind of punctuated
equilibrium, because I tend to wander, or jump back and forth between
a number of different games.

Symptoms. Right.

Um. On that link, where they cited health as one of the factors
associated with creativity, it seemed like they were focused on
physical health, exercise, eating properly, and so on. Is that too
narrow a view. I mean, diet, sleep, exercise – those all affect mood,
which could be viewed as just another symptom. So isn’t it possible
that procrastination (as a confluence of moods, mental acuity or lack
of same, and physical condition) is really just a symptom of a health
pathology?

So one of my symptoms is procrastination. Which is also what I was
worried about in the first case, so everything I said about other
symptoms collapses into being merely commentary on the fundamental
symptom of my creative block, which is procrastination. Or rather,
procrastination is just a general label for a broader range of issues
that could all be subsumed under the title of creative block.

So one of my symptoms is that I’m creatively blocked.

The good news is that I’m not uniformly blocked from producing
creative content. I’m only blocked from producing the creative content
that I’m supposed to be working on at any particular time. Therefore,
I can be (and actually am) quite productive, as long as I’m not
expected to work on any specific thing at any particular time.

If I can work this up into something requiring ADA accommodation, I
will live like a king.

Now, where was I?

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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