Friday, April 29, 2011

Visit From a Small Planet

We get visits from extraterrestrials every so often. At least that's what the people who take their family vacations in Roswell, New Mexico insist. The Area 51 types are convinced that space aliens have come to Earth, and that's not just because they've witnessed Burning Man. If the little green men do indeed like to come visit, they picked a strange place to land in early 1977 - Meldrim Thomson's New Hampshire. It's not known what exactly happened, but witnesses claim they saw an unidentified craft crash into a lake in New Hampshire...where it was promptly swallowed up by the Loch Ness Monster, who must have been visiting his cousin Sasquatch somewhere near Bretton Woods (I guess New Hampshire lakes look so much like Scottish lakes). I kid you not; is the Manchester Union Leader ever wrong about anything?
In 1977, most ships were registered by their owners in Liberia. The reason Liberia was popular is the same reason Delaware is a popular place for businesses to incorporate: the rules in Liberia are incredibly lax, especially for seagoing vessels. Consequently, there were a number of rather messy accidents involving oil tankers and their cargoes in the '70s. Oil tankers with Liberian registrations (until Manuel Noriega was deposed, Panama was also a popular place for merchants to flag their vessels, for similar reasons). People who claim that businesses would be much better off with fewer regulations have never seen a Liberian oil tanker sink. Double hulls? Sure they keep oil from spilling into the ocean when a ship springs a leak, but who wants to go through the expense? Anyway, the cartoon above was inspired by the synthesis of crashing spaceships and sinking steamships flying the Liberian flag. (I should note in passing that a good chunk of the cruise ship industry uses boats registered in Norway, which makes me suspicious of Norwegian maritime regulations).

This strip gives me an opportunity to comment on the artist's technique for a moment. The comic strip above was drafted with a dark blue pencil (remember, blue did not reproduce on a film negative back then) and then inked using a quill pen and India ink. India ink was a favorite of most cartoonists because it was nice and black, and it produced a nice, clean, solid line. It also set very quickly. For a time I was inking my cartoons with a Rapidograph (a pen much preferred by draftsmen for making a line on a sheet of mylar, which is a clear plastic film rather than a woven sheet of paper) and Chinese ink. China ink is a more dilute ink than India ink, which would clog a fine-point pen like a Rapidograph, but it has issues when it is used in a quill pen. For one thing, you can't control the ink flow like you can with India ink; you may be drawing a line or writing letters on a piece of paper when suddenly a large bead of ink will come out of the pen, ruining your work. All you can do is either let it dry (or try to blot it dry without it spreading), and then paint it over with white-out. We had two kinds of correction materials - liquid and tape. The tape came in rolls and covered in strips, but there were seams between each strip of tape. The liquid had no seams, but was occasionally so thin that the line underneath shone through. And occasionally it would smear the ink. To avoid all that, I typically used India ink.

While I could work very quickly and efficiently with the Rapidograph (most of my early strips were done with one), it offered only a single line-weight; to vary the thickness, I typically had to trace a line multiple times. I could have switched to a pen with a thicker line weight, but that would have meant switching pens every time I changed lines, which would have been a pain. I would also have had to invest in multiple pens, which is an expense a modest college student really doesn't need. No, I needed a pen that could make a line sing and give it a personality, and that meant using a crow quill pen.

Just as there are multiple Rapidographs, quill pens came with multiple styles for the nibs, or tips of the pen. Some had a chisel tip, some had a ball tip and some had feather tip. The only problem with a quill pen was the need to dip the pen in the ink on a frequent basis, since the pen surface really didn't hold much ink. But it was possible to get a quill pen with a reservoir in the tip, which meant you didn't have to dip as often. The only problem was that a reservoir could occasionally release a bead of ink, which is exactly what you don't need when you're lettering a drawing.

Just as there were different types of pens and inks, there were also different types of paper that could be used. Typing paper is good and cheap, but ink tends to bleed on it, producing a messy line (some of the strips I drew in 1980 were done on cheap paper, and it showed). Card stock is a little heavier (and more expensive), but ink doesn't bleed as much on it. A third type of paper was a clay-backed paper (cotton fabric mixed with a clay slurry). It had a nice smooth slick surface, and the ink dried on top of it, rather than getting absorbed into the page. It could be a wonderful medium, but a bead of ink would smear so easily on that. On the other hand, you could make a nice solid black fill and then use the quill of the pen to etch a white line on the black fill. If you look carefully at the comic strip above, it has some of those white etchings on a black ink fill; that strip was drawn on clay-back paper.

When I come back in a few days, I will try to explain the blue lines in hockey.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Other Kinds of Roaches

Here's a little eye test. You remember those puzzles in the Kids section of the Sunday paper where two pictures are shown that look almost identical except for a couple of differences? This is the same exercise. As I mentioned, I redrew some of my cartoons. Aside from the differing line weights, can you spot the differences between the two cartoons? Bonus question: in this instance, what is a "roach"?
Coincidentally, Dave Browne, our long time secretary and editor of the Class of 1978 Notes for Technology Review included a nice little shout-out about the Blog in this month's edition, which goes to the MIT alumni. I knew bribing him would bring positive results!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pinball Wizards

Now, everyone knows that's not what you go to Wellesley for. Wellesley is the place to go for one of the finest liberal arts educations you can get outside the Ivy League (in fact, Wellesley is one of the Seven Sisters, so it is no slouch). MIT had a co-op arrangement with Wellesley in which students from either campus could cross-register for certain courses, and many students from one campus availed themselves of the offerings on the other campus - including those offerings of the opposite sex. In addition, the Wellesley parties also had Tuborg Gold on tap, so it was just like home. I never did take any courses at Wellesley, but I did find myself out there at a few of their mixers (there was a shuttle bus between the two campuses that trundled students back and forth during school hours - and fairly late into the evening for the party-goers). I also took advantage of the opportunity to put up flyers announcing our dorm's parties to the Wellesley co-eds. Some even showed up for a few minutes.

But why pinball? Well, it was a popular sport among the college crowd in Cambridge, and it wasn't because the Who's "Tommy" (the first rock opera!) had been made into a movie in 1975 with Elton John as the Pinball Wizard in huge, towering platform shoes. No, for some of the thursday staff, pinball had the same allure as Howard the Duck and Kiss. It was Old School and countercultural, all at the same time. In fact, the runs to the printer on Wednesday nights were all characterized by the same routine - a trip in our managing editor's car to the Harvard Square offices of the Crimson, where Louie, our printer, would take the negatives and hand us his customary request for a "Sprite, no ice", which we would dutifully fulfill at one of the pubs nearby. Then we'd order a midnight snack and play pinball for an hour while we waited for the issue to be printed. Gottlieb always seemed to have the hottest games, though maybe it was Stern that had the Reggie Jackson (did I mention that most of the thursday senior staff hailed from New York City?).

Pinball would remain king until sometime around the height of the disco era, in 1979, when the first video games started infiltrating the arcades (actually, Pong had been around since my high school days, and a home version showed up in my freshman year, but it wasn't until Space Invaders that the video games started muscling out the pinball machines). By 1981, Pac-Man arrived on the scene, and that was the end of the pinball era. Today, if you are in a fit of retro nostalgia, you can find all kinds of pinball games online, but it's not the same thing as feeling the flippers in your fingers and learning how to impart an English on the ball by banging the table just firmly enough to alter the ball's course, but not so firmly that you cause a "tilt".

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Architect's Dilemma

Actually, this is not such an unusual problem. Architects have to answer questions like this all the time in their professional lives. The quick answer is, "Call in the structural engineer."

I had a choice between engineering and architecture when I was in college (or as they say at MIT "a choice between Course 1 and Course 4). Architecture had two strikes going against it - first, the career prospects for an architect are heavily dependent on the economy of the construction industry, which tends to be more boom-bust than other professions. For a second, architects tend to have grand ambitions all out of proportion to what is achievable in the real world, and that clash between ambition and reality tends to become rather heated at times. Case in point was a graduate from the Masters Program in Architecture at MIT in 1975. He had a grand ambition to develop a string of settlements in Judea and Samaria. His name was Binyamin Netanyahu.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Food, Inglorious Food

Believe it or not, there was something nearly as bad as Commons. In the middle of Cambridgeport (a neighborhood just up Mass. Avenue from MIT), there was a McDonald's. You could find its Golden Arches tucked into Inman Square behind Hi-Fi Pizza, about a block away from Purity Supreme (which MIT students called "Puberty Supreme"; it was one of three grocery chains in the Boston area and competed for the MIT undergraduate food dollar with Stop 'n' Shop, which was on the river). This Cambridge McDonald's was famous for hockey-puck hamburgers, soggy fries and shakes the consistency of wet concrete, and it made Twenty Chimneys look good. You could eat there, at your own risk.
In 1977, McDonald's had instituted an advertising campaign for their hamburgers with the tag line, "You - you're the one - having your Big Mac Attack", suggesting that ordinary innocents could develop a sudden irresistible craving for Big Macs at almost anytime. A local comedian turned that into a "Big Smack Attack" ("smack" being the street slang for heroin). I turned it into a cartoon about acute food poisoning instead.

If I were still cartooning, I could have all sorts of fun with slogans such as "Run for the Border" or done a send-up of the attempt by Taco Bell to invite its patrons to snack on high fat, high calorie food late at night during "Fourth Meal" (as if their patrons didn't have enough opportunities to gain weight). But I would have had to disclose a certain conflict of interest on my part - I got into the advertising racket myself. In the same November 1977 issue that contained the cartoon shown above was an advertisement for a local Somerville eatery called Dick's Deli that featured some familiar artwork.
Dick's not only paid for this half-page ad in thursday, but Dick himself showed up at the thursday offices personally to drop off a complimentary selection of overflowing roast beef and corned beef sandwiches, loaded with lettuce, tomato, pickles and dressing, on these huge slices of marbled rye. Dick made the tastiest sandwiches in town for a very reasonable price (even in 1977, a $2 sandwich was a comparative bargain, especially when it was easily triple the size of the typical fast food burger). The only problem was that Dick was not much of a businessman; about three weeks after this ad came out, we called over to Dick's, and he was now driving trucks. The newspaper was out about $100 in unpaid advertising, which wasn't a whole lot for anyone except a struggling student newspaper that lived hand-to-mouth, as it was.

I ended up getting a lot of requests for my art services while at school, and even after I had retired from the comic strip business in 1985, I ran into people willing to pay good money for my artwork. Among other things, my cartoons were used to sell vitamins to kids; however the product was not fated to become popular, so the paychecks were not very big.

When the "Big Mac Attack" cartoon came out, thursday was still riding the notoriety of the Consumer Guide to MIT Men, and had actually attracted a stable of five different cartoonists. Stickles was still the featured comic, but there were other popular strips such as Dybosphere, Snails, Goldberg and Ornblatt on the back page.
When thursday folded in 1979, both Stickles and Dybosphere were transferred to the Tech, which actually had a robust comics page in the '80s. One could say it was Super-sized.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Music For All Tastes

I went to a performing arts high school when I was growing up, the result of being a Baskir Musician and minimally proficient on a musical instrument. I could blow air into a flute in such a way that a sound was produced, thus allowing me to be mistaken for Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull, for any of you Miley Cyrus fans reading this). That ability gave me an appreciation for classical music - as long as I didn't hear it on a classical music radio station. Today, there is a wonderful broadcast medium called the Internet and a source called YouTube that are able to bring the sound and sight of all kinds of music to anyone who desires it (and who doesn't desire to hear a mash-up of Tuvan throat-humming with Lady GaGa's "Born This Way" over the Finale of Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony played backwards?). This veritable feast for the ears was not available when I was growing up. In my day, which was the '70s, music was only available on phonograph records or magnetic tape, and there was only one source for broadcast music - radio. The divide was pretty stark - all the pop music and rock and roll, the stuff that played on 45 RPM records known as "singles" - was broadcast on the AM radio band, while the really esoteric stuff that the hippies liked was broadcast on progressive rock stations on the FM band.
AM radio was great because the sound bounced off the ionosphere, and if the station had a powerful transmitter, you could hear it for hundreds of miles. The drawback was that the sound was kind of staticky, especially whenever there were thunderstorms nearby. FM radio, by contrast, had no static and was clean, clear and crisp, but the broadcast waves only traveled in a straight line, so the signal would peter out if you got more than 75 miles away from the transmission tower. Therefore AM radio tended to be noisy music, noisy advertisements and noisy disc jockeys, while FM was either delicate music or spacy art rock, presented in hushed tones by announcers who felt compelled to tell you vague little details about what you were listening to - either because they had gotten a PhD in 17th Century Baroque Music or because the brownie they had just consumed had opened their eyes to a heretofore hidden and unknown world that everyone in the listening audience just had to be told about, man.

What I was unaware of at the time was that the '70s were the opening salvo in a battle for supremacy between the AM and FM formats. The tinny, blaring Top 40 stations on the AM band had been king in the '50s and '60s, but as stereo equipment became more sophisticated and more powerful, FM began to take over, and by the '80s, the music stations had largely abandoned the AM band in favor of the cleaner sound on  the FM band. That left an opening for the likes of Rush Limbaugh to find himself a constituency to talk crap to. Today, the choices have expanded even further. Into the mix have come satellite and Internet broadcasters, and it is even possible for listeners to go completely "off the grid" by plugging an iPod into a dock outfitted with speakers, programming it to play a thousand or so of your favorite tunes and setting it on "shuffle" mode, essentially creating your own radio station - only without the DJ's and the commercials. In a way, this has put all the power back into the hands of the listener (as opposed to the music director who programs the radio station and picks out the 40 or so tunes that will play in rotation that week). But it also has made the life of the musician much harder, because there are no mass groupings of individuals who can be reached from one radio station in each city, and therefore no sales of records in the millions. "Thriller", which sold 35 million copies (mostly in vinyl, which is really impressive) for Michael Jackson in 1983, would not have the same success today.

Along with radio, musical genres have evolved over the decades. New wave did not exist in 1975, but by 1995, it had driven out most of the other formats that existed in the '70s and morphed into alternative rock. Then by 2005, alt rock had largely succumbed to the influence of 'Tweens - those 12 and under who tended to like the boy bands and girl singers plucked from obscurity by Disney Studios. Oldies music used refer to songs that were hits in the '50s; now it refers to songs that were hits in the '70s and '80s. And "beautiful music" became "easy listening" became MOR became New Age, but never ceased to be boring.
Music has changed since the early days of rock and roll, but the appreciation for a nice, slow love song in those romantic late night hours has never faded.
Incidentally, "Tear the Roof Off the Mother..." was a big hit for George Clinton and his band, Parliament-Funkadelics, back in early 1976 (and that line could have been "We're Gonna Turn This Mother On"). The classic funky style of that record would eventually find its way into other P-Funk hits in the '70s and '80s such as "Atomic Dog", whose signature line, "Bow-wow-wow, yippie-yo, yippie-yay" would get borrowed by Snoop Doggy Dog when he hit the rap scene in 1993. His drummer had a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia; I found myself there one Sunday afternoon when I was looking to buy a residence close to my office. The giveaway was the Gold Record for "Flashlight" (a P-Funk hit from 1977) that was hanging on the wall.
I could not sign off without acknowledging a certain debt I owe to country music. The sound may have been cotton-pickin' awful, but the lyrics have always been pure genius. In fact, I collected a whole page of my favorite lyrics and submitted them to The Last Word, which was thursday's immensely popular back page of familiar and often amusing quotations. Many of them ended up gracing the walls of the MIT dormitories, including this popular lament, heard often on the old variety show Hee-Haw:

Where, o where are you tonight
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over and thought I found true love.
You met another and -pfft!- you was gone.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Standards of Learning

As I have gotten older, I have found it much easier to take tests. Throw anything at me and I can usually get a passing score, whether it's an ethics test (which we have to take every year), a test to get my LEED certificate or a test to get permission to drive on the airfield. Thanks to testing, I am a Certified Member of the American Association of Airport Executives and qualified at administering CPR. I find the tests largely useless and irrelevant, but I know how to get a passing grade!

Ross took his share of tests while at MIT, and there always seemed to be some pitfall. Either he'd lose his notes or he'd forget to sign his name. He would qualify as a solid "B" student, but test-taking always seemed to create problems for him.
Indeed, when I was in school, I met someone who aced a three-page test and would have done even better overall if he had noticed the fourth page. Fortunately him and those of us who went to MIT in the '70s, there were second chances. Some classes, particularly 18.01, which was the first of two freshman calculus courses, gave you two chances to get a passing grade on the exam. In addition to that, you would review each exam with the proctor afterwards, so it was possible to raise your score by showing how you solved the problem to the proctor's satisfaction. In true Tom Lehrer "New Math" fashion, it was more important to understand what you were doing, rather than to get the right answer.

This could occasionally get you into trouble because it was possible to answer the question correctly on the test and not be able to adequately explain to the proctor how you did it. There were no allowances for dumb luck. In much the same fashion, it was also possible to score worse on the make-up test than on the initial test...
I should also mention one last test that allows for second chances - the SAT test. It is actually the first test, since it's the one that determines early on whether you are MIT material, and you take it in high school. You can take that test as many as three times. In sophomore year in high school, there is the Pre-SAT, which is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It lets you know what areas you might want to bone up on in order to raise your score. Then in December of your senior year, you take the SAT, and if you don't like your score, you can take it again in February. My SAT's indicated that I was proficient enough at mathematics (I was soon disabused of this notion when I started taking Differential Equations and courses in Probability and Statistics) but my English comprehension skills were woeful. In short, I had the proper skill set to become a consultant.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Family Oblast

My brother came up with this one. Unfortunately, it turns out to have been inaccurate. Not only was there a Stickles coat of arms, but there is an entire racket that has grown up around the selling of that coat of arms - and all other Scottish and English memorabilia. In fact, you have to put up good money to buy even a JPG image of the Stickles coat of arms (Thank you,!). But it must be good business; there are several sites that will sell you the Stickles coat of arms, including, which will put it on a tee-shirt and mail it to you. If you look at the historic background that accompanies the sample images, you will learn that the Stickles family can be traced all the way back to Somerset, England, and to William Sticlegh who established an estate there sometime around 1327, intending to eventually send his fictional great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson to MIT.

But that's small potatoes, which are more an Irish delicacy than anything English (or even Scottish - they tend to go for inedibles such as haggis). The Baskir family has not only its own coat of arms, but even an entire country, complete with its own university and an airline (which for me is a perfecta, given my presence in the aviation business). I only found out about the airline, Baskirian Airlines, because one of their planes collided with a DHL cargo plane over the Alps six or seven years ago, an unfortunate incident made possible by the sophisticated and seamless European air traffic control system, which somehow managed to lose track of the two planes. I also found out that there is a horse called the Baskir Curly; it is known for its calm, friendly and intelligent personality and for its work ethic. It also has a curly-haired mane.

Bashkortostan these days is a Republic inside Russia (equivalent to a state in the U.S.), but many centuries ago, before the Mongols came, it was a country all to itself. It is nestled up against the Ural mountains on the European side of Russia and its capital is Ufa, a city of almost 1 million. In olden days, the country was known as Baskiria (pronounced Bashkiria), and the original Baskirs can trace their origins back almost 25 centuries. This is their coat of arms:
Largely a Muslim state, Bashkortostan claims to have about 2,000 Jews. At least one of them ended up in Kiev in the late 19th Century; that was my great-grandfather.

I found out about the land of the Baskirs the way anyone finds out about anything these days - through the Internet (that was also the source of the Napoleonic diary, in which the Emperor's valet recounts being entertained by a traveling band of Baskir musicians). There are not many Baskirs in America, but there seem to be quite a few in places like Turkey. In fact, I do not own rights to my name on the Internet; the site belongs to a Turkish photographer.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Happy Passover

There were a couple of Jewish jokes in Stickles. It was only fitting, since MIT had a robust Hillel Society and Stickles' creator was Jewish. But these were not your typical Jewish jokes. They were inspired by the rituals we went through as kids in a Jewish family. Three brothers meant three bar-mitzvahs, in the days when a bar-mitzvah was a simple ceremony as opposed to the gaudy spectacle it has since become. For one thing, my parents had a party for the three sons in the house, whereas today requires the rental of a ballroom in a hotel or country club, at a minimum. There were no limousines, no fancy catered lunch, no socks and tee-shirts as party favors and no throwing of candy after the haftorah reading at the synagogue. And the cantor's rendition of the haftorah was recorded on a vinyl long-playing record as opposed to a CD, for home study. But it was still a celebration of a boy becoming a man, and the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins still came from near and far to witness it. Which meant we didn't have to go to school that week.
My brother came up with this joke. If you're a Jew, you get it, and if not, one of your Jewish friends will explain the words to you.

Passover was an entirely different celebration with an entirely different set of little quirky traditions, at least at our house. Everyone knows about the four cups of wine and the eating of raw horseradish - a delicacy so powerful we referred to it as Jewish Dristan, due to its uncanny ability to clear even the stuffiest sinuses. In Texas, they have hot pepper-eating contests; we had horseradish-eating contests (and no fair eating the wimpy pink stuff that comes in a bottle!).

Passover had other rites that would always amaze any non-Jewish guests we had at our Seders. I will skip the folk dancing, which seems to have been an affectation of liberal New York Jewish emigres and tended to sop up a good chunk of the evening after the Passover meal had been eaten (but before the afikomon hunt). Usually there was a time in the service where the kids, being full from dinner and bored with the after-dinner songs, would start casually dipping their fingers in the wine-goblets and then running their fingers around the rim of the glass. One of my friends asked what the religious significance of the exercise was. I told her it was to make the glass whistle.

As the service wound down to a finale, it was time for the Feats of Strength. There were a couple of songs at the end of the service, one of which had thirteen verses. If the folk dancing had not worn us out, it was our challenge to sing all thirteen verses in one breath. It wasn't until I was ready to go off to MIT that I developed the breath control to get through all thirteen verses, and I had run cross-country track in high school. It became the stuff of a Stickles strip.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Presidential Politics - 1976

My sophomore year on campus, 1976, was an election year. It was the second year of the presidency of Gerald Ford, the Liberator of Poland. Gerald Ford was made possible by Richard Nixon, who resigned in August 1974, promptly taking a good chunk of the Republican Party with him. November of 1974 had seen so many Democrats elected to the House and Senate that the more liberal among us began to imagine a Democrat in the White House in 1976. Massachusetts had been the only state in the nation to vote for George McGovern in 1972, and it became the only state in the nation to say, "I told you so", when Nixon resigned. I could replay the whole sorry, sordid story of Watergate, the Burglars and everything else, but you know it already and it's just too embarrassing an American story to recount. Suffice it to say that I knew something odd was going on in Texas when every billboard advertising George McGovern's candidacy was being defaced with a hammer and sickle; only later did I learn that the graffiti was the handiwork of Donald Segretti and his Dirty Tricksters (and only much later did I learn that George McGovern's Texas campaign in that awful autumn was led by an energetic young man named Bill Clinton).

Anyway, you've already heard about New Hampshire and its wacky conservatism (and how the state, tailor-made for the Reagan Revolution, turned against him in the '76 primary). I was more interested in the Democrats, though, and one Democrat in particular - Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma. Senator Harris had a wife, LaDonna, who was a full-blooded Native American, also from Oklahoma and almost as famous as him. He also was a populist, preaching a brand of economic democracy that had been popular in the days of Bob LaFollette, a senator from Wisconsin who ran a third-party campaign for president. Harris' campaign manager, Jim Hightower, would go on to write books, get elected agriculture commissioner in Texas for two terms and then host a radio show and write a newspaper column. What endeared Fred Harris to me was that he was approachable - I got to meet him up close and personal in a friend's living room with about a dozen other supporters, and I would see him out on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This was not true of the other candidates.

With one exception. In the winter months of 1975, I was invited, as one of two thursday staffers, to ride the bus from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, with an obscure governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. He brought two busloads of student newspaper reporters with him to see the Allman Brothers, who were Close Personal Friends of his. Carter was different from anyone else in the race - he was folksy and homespun, he had been on a nuclear submarine and he was a peanut farmer. And he preached folksy, downhome honesty and integrity, which was refreshing after four years of Nixon and Ford. His whole campaign featured him, his toothy grin and his peanuts. He had positions on the issues, but some of us on the bus were convinced that the answers he gave to questions we students asked him were different from the answers he gave when professional reporters from the city newspapers joined us in the conference room. That would become the trademark of his presidency, according to more than a few observers. His brand of outsiderism would resonate with the voters in 1976, but not with the Washington insiders, who were every bit as persnickety a bunch then as they are now. Hence, after a dramatic series of events in Iran that concluded with US hostages being taken, and a short, sharp economic free-fall that consisted of high interest rates and a disconcerting run-up in oil prices and unemployment, Carter became a one-term president, losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. But he would go on to become one of the most influential ex-presidents we've ever had, surpassed only by (you guessed it) Bill Clinton.

Anyway, back to Fred Harris. Presidential primaries in 1976 were nowhere near as short and decisive as they are now. The Iowa caucuses were a relatively new phenomenon, intended by some to try to steal away some of the influence New Hamsphire had on the primaries. They succeeded in putting Jimmy Carter on the map; after pouring the bulk of his resources into the state, Carter won the caucuses and used that victory to springboard himself to the top of the heap on the Democratic side. But Fred Harris managed a decent-enough showing that he could campaign hard in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which held primaries on successive Mondays in late February and early March. That's when I got involved. I organized an MIT student chapter, hoping to put Harris over the top in Massachusetts.

I also went to New Hampshire one weekend. A dozen of us carpooled up to Manchester, New Hampshire, slept in sleeping bags on the floor of someone's apartment, and trudged into the cold, snowy winter of the Manchester suburbs, stuffing mailboxes and sticking flyers under screen doors - hoping to sway a few votes. In the end, Fred Harris ended up coming in woefully back in the pack; Jimmy Carter went on to win the state's Democratic primary, followed by Morris Udall and George Wallace, the segregationist. Harris and Birch Bayh would battle for one of the also ran slots, which fell to Bayh as the night wore on. Harris limped on into Massachusetts and ended up folding his campaign after picking up only 8 percent of the vote (Massachusetts selected Henry "Scoop" Jackson, senator from Washington State, as its favorite - with 24%).

If nothing else, I felt good about having convinced 17% of the MIT student body that Fred Harris was worthy of becoming president (according to a referendum sponsored by one of the non-partisan student groups), besting the rather enthusiastic campaigners lined up behind Birch Bayh. In 1980, I would help organize Stanford University for John Anderson when he ran for president in the Republican primary - and later I would work for his third party candidacy. That was another glorious lost cause that should have succeeded; instead, Ronald Reagan would fulfill a lifetime quest to become president, and nothing in America was ever the same again.

I learned some things from my participation in the 1976 presidential campaign. For one thing, most students didn't want to be bothered. They had other things on the mind - studying, athletics, UMOC (Ugliest Man on Campus - a charity fundraiser in which students campaigned to see who could bring in the most money based on how ugly they were in a costume - or not in a costume) and student politics (known to most of us as "grease"). Most were conventional liberals, which meant that they liked the politics of Morris Udall, an environmentalist congressman from Arizona (try finding that these days!), but not the populism of Fred Harris (in the thursday offices, however, Fred Harris was regarded as a liberal sell-out, and besides, the new Howard the Duck comic book had Kiss in it!). They also found the whole thing irrelevant to their day-to-day lives. Nowhere was that attitude more prevalent than in the West Campus dormitories (McCormick, Burton and MacGregor), which led to this cartoon...
(One day I shall have to discuss nitrous oxide, which has certain amusing properties known only to dentists).

That Allman Brothers concert we saw in Providence was actually pretty decent - except that Gregg Allman had a huge bandage on one hand that interfered with his guitar-playing. There were rumors about it - drugs, Cher, a motorcycle accident. We didn't know or care; as long as he was vertical and singing, it was a great show.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Everybody Loves Ralph

While MIT in the '70s had plenty of unusual characters, I still had to invent Ralph. He was not as back-to-nature as Grogo, he was not as venomous as the Batterfiend and he really wasn't the pinball-playing, Springsteen-adoring Marvel Comix character that The Rat was. Unlike the denizens of Bexley, he really didn't have a political viewpoint.
His perception of reality came from a slightly different perspective.
He could be quite a shocking eyeful sometimes.
Everyone had their own theories about him.
But they were just theories. He could have fit in at Bexley, except Bexley was too political. He was at once nihilistic, capitalistic, boisterous, sullen, laid-back and manic, with his feet on the ground yet floating through life. You just couldn't pin him down...

Incidentally, the word "random" was used to refer to somebody of little importance or interest. In the theater or the movies, they would be the "extras" - people who just fill up space behind the main characters. MIT had a large number of randoms. When they get out in the working world, they end up as assistance vice presidents.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


For studious types, we MIT students watched a lot of television. There were three mainstays. "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was the British counterpoint to the American "Firesign Theater" - only Firesign made records, while Python had a weekly television show. Then there was "Star Trek" - already in reruns for eight years, but still popular with Trekkers and Trekkies alike.

The final name in our television Trinity was Carson. Whereas Star Trek would come on just before the evening news and just after the awful evening dinner at Walker (or for the more unfortunate West Campus types, Lobdell), Johnny Carson came on just after the late news, at 11:30pm. We had just concluded our prime-time problem sets and we were ready for a break. Carson was our nightcap. He was host of the "Tonight Show" and a television icon in his own right. He was not the first Tonight Show host - Jack Paar had been keeping the chair warm on that Beautiful Downtown Burbank set way back in the early '60s, and Steve Allen before him. But the Tonight Show was identified with Johnny Carson, and it stayed that way even after Carson retired and Jay Leno took over for him in the '90s.

Carson's longtime sidekick was Ed McMahon and his bandleader was Doc Severinsen. Together, they created any number of other regular characters, including Floyd R. Turbo (American). This raises the question, "Kiss my Rapidograph". Or rather, what does any of this have to do with Stickles?
They also created a number of routines that they repeated on a regular basis from show to show. "How ___was it, Johnny?" was one of them. Carson would say something like, "Last night I stayed in a room at the Beverly Wilshire that was so small!" To which Ed and almost the entire audience would respond, "How small was it, Johnny???" Carson would then conclude with, "It was so small, the mice were round-shouldered!" And if the audience response to the joke was something less than Carson hoped for, he'd start explaining it, "Well, you see, if the mice were round-shouldered, then it must have been a really small room." It was a routine that could be done with almost anything. "Yesterday, I completed a problem set on Bessel functions that was really tough!""How tough was it, Johnny??""It was so tough, I filled out a drop card for the course the next day!" Yuk,yuk.

Carson also would appear regularly as Carnac the Magnificent, a magician who could "read" the answers to questions printed inside letters sent to him. He'd hold the envelope to his forehead and pronounce, "William F. Buckley, Pierre of Paris and Noam Chomsky". Then he'd tear open the envelope, pull out a card and read the question, "Name a master debater, a foreign caterer and a cunning linguist".

The final Carson routine was his compendium book. For example, he'd pull out a CRC Manual and start reading from the molecular formulas for different hydrocarbons or cite the molecular weights of different elements. At the end of Carson's exposition, Ed McMahon would chime in with a customary, "You know, Johnny, I'd be willing to bet that your book has every fact known to science! Nothing has been left out! That book has everything in it!!", to which Johnny would respond, "You are wrong, hydrogen-sulfide breath!" and proceed to read off a series of made-up facts that were not included in the CRC Manual.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Stickles? Well, I borrowed some of his material...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Extinguishing the Flame

There are some questions you don't want the answers to...
One of the more ubiquitous items in the East Campus dormitory was the fire extinguisher. Each floor had two issued officially to it and they were located in recesses built into the hallways. At least that's where they were supposed to be located. Sometimes they disappeared into the dorm rooms of individual students. There were no worries; they would always be replaced. Not only that, but there were spares. Third East had 40 students and 42 fire extinguishers. On Second East, there were not only multiple extinguishers charged with plain old water, there were even a few CO2 extinguishers. Those were the nuclear option; they spit smoke and dry ice and they made a horrendous sound when their contents were discharged. The water extinguishers were just wet - and lots of it. After all, if that obnoxious freshman in the lounge were on fire, you wanted to be able to douse the flame. And they were convenient; if they lost their charge, you could recharge them with a bicycle pump.

Fire extinguishers were good offensive weapons - and good defensive weapons. I even acquired one. I'm not saying where it came from, but there was a laboratory somewhere in the Infinite Corridor that needed a replacement. I never had to use it much, but I could if I had to (make my day!). And you could have had my fire extinguisher - the moment you pried my cold, dead fingers off the trigger.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Oh, Those Wacky Kids!

Before we get to this day's cartoon, a brief PSA for any MIT alums living in the Washington, DC area. And for my friends at LTA or one of the other community theaters that I happen to haunt:

The MIT Concert Band ( is giving two outdoor performances this weekend in the DC area, the first on Saturday April 16 at 6:45 p.m. in Market Square in front of the City Hall in Alexandria, and the second on Sunday April 17 at 1:30 p.m. at the Sylvan National Theater, next to the Washington Monument.  Musical selections include works by Holst, Jager, Mennin, and others.   Both concerts are free and open to the general public.

We don't usually get the MIT Band in town, and what makes it even more special is that it's MIT's Sesquicentennial Anniversary. The other special event is Teens n' Theater, who are recreating HELLZAPOPPIN (and for any of you who remember the famous expression, "Tech is Hell", this is most appropriate) on Friday at 2pm and 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday, also at 2pm (April 15-17). Then on Monday, April 18, you get to pay your Federal Income Tax, which is its own special form of Hell.

Anyway, I don't recall how many showers I took when I was a student. It was certainly more than I had intended (and I'll get to that in a future post). There were certain hazards that awaited anybody who bathed - such as mischievous dorm mates...
There was actually one student on our floor whose towel was ripped off, so he came out of the men's room wearing nothing but a Time magazine. Professor Diamond would have been disappointed it wasn't Newsweek.

Finally, I cannot conclude without mentioning another particular hazard of the dormitory bathrooms - Springfield Oval. Things may have changed in the intervening 35 years, but in our day, the toilet paper used in the dormitories was the Oval, and it made Black Cat feel comfortable by comparison. Oval was reconstituted sandpaper - brown and scratchy. It was not for delicate skin, but it was cheap and it got the job done - sort of. I never drew a strip about Springfield Oval, which I realize was a gross misfeasance on my part - in hindsight.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Things That Go Bump in the Morning

The year is 1975. The month is November. It's a couple of months into my sophomore year at MIT, and I'm starting to find out about all the little nuisances that make campus life so interesting. For one thing, sophomores receive grades for the first time (freshman, at least in our day, were graded "pass-fail"). For another, you learn when the truck arrives to pick up the garbage. Usually, it's 7 in the morning, when most reasonable persons are already awake. MIT students, being unreasonable (especially about their late night hours) are mostly sound asleep when the truck arrives, and even though they could sleep through their neighbor's stereo cranking out "Physical Graffiti" by Led Zeppelin, they tended to be disturbed by the truck.

An artistic note: you probably have noticed the blue lines that shadow the inked drawings on most of the cartoons. Having pretensions to being a good artist, I sketched all my cartoons before inking them. Instead of using a Number 2 pencil, I used blue pencils. Blue was preferred because most copiers in those days could not reproduce a blue line. It disappeared, leaving a clean cartoon. When we created the newspaper, each edition was laid out on a storyboard, which was a ruled page that corresponded to the actual newspaper page. It was all black and white in those days, and we made photo plates - negatives - of the finished storyboards, which we would take to the printer at the Harvard Crimson, who would collate the negatives, turn them back into positives, put them on a press and then print the newspaper. The photo camera that made the negatives also could not read blue pencil, so the finished cartoons had no tell-tale blue lines (and neither did the storyboards, which were often covered with blue edit-marks). Since I kept only the originals, they all have blue marks, which show up on the scanned color images. I never drew Stickles in color; that would have been an extra complication in my life, and MIT provided plenty of those to its undergraduates, as it was.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Musical Interlude

I was born into a musical family. In fact, one of Napoleon's diaries recounts a concert he witnessed by the Baskir musicians...

"...Certainly more barbaric music had never resounded in His Majesty's ears, and this strange harmony, accompanied by gestures at least as savage, produced the most burlesque spectacle that can be imagined..."

Later, that burlesque spectacle would be recreated by my father on The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men, which was the subject of a previous blog post. My father was inspired by folk singers like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie to learn to play guitar and sing folk songs. He, in turn, inspired his three sons to take up musical instruments. I learned enough piano to be able to play it without breaking it, whereas my brother became quite proficient at waking me up with Chopin's "Marche Militaire", played at concert-hall volume. I was a flutist, which was good enough to get me into a performing arts high school and drafted to play in the orchestra pit for several high school musicals. I also got a chance to play "Bourree", by Jethro Tull, before a packed house at my high school. One thing that all flutists in the early '70s got used to was chants of "play Jethro Tull"; it was kind of like the long-haired guy who shows up at every rock concert and demands to hear "Free Bird".

My father also inspired this particular cartoon...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Traffic and Weather Together

 In 1982, the Weather Channel went on the air, providing a ready source of weather information around the clock and providing a career opportunity for Warren Madden, Class of '85. The early versions of TWC, which didn't have nationwide radar coverage and were kind of choppy in their reportage, nevertheless were a marked improvement over what was then available. In the '70s, weather radar, when it was available on the local newscast, was monochrome white-echoes-on-a-black-background, refreshed by a slow sweep. Color radar would not start appearing on local television until the early '80s, and when it did, those stations that had it promoted it to high heaven. In the '70s, weather radar, even in its grainy form, was something of a novelty. But it had the same drawbacks as today's modern air traffic control system has, which was that there was a tendency for "ground clutter" to appear on the radar picture, sometimes interfering with echoes showing actual areas of rain.

About the same time weather radar became the fashion on television, traffic broadcasts from a helicopter were added to broadcast radio. Now, they have all sorts of enhancements, including stationary CCTV cameras that broadcast freeway congestion to central monitoring stations or even your laptop, if you know where to look. Google can even show you the level of congestion on the major thoroughfares - which is handy, since it allowed me to figure out which roads were passable when one of those Nor'easter snowstorms hit in January. People still drive like maniacs in the snow, but at least you can get a little advance warning.

Those early traffic copters were little helicopters that looked like bugs. They were annoying as bugs, and I'm not talking about the sound of the rotors. Occasionally, you'd get a traffic jock who'd feel like bantering with the DJ, and that meant that they would tell you nothing about the wreck that was causing the backup that you had been sitting in for the last twenty minutes. Not much has changed on that front...

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Spirit of '76

One of the significant events of my college years was the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, considered to be the birthday of our country. In Boston (where it all began), the hoopla began at least a year earlier, in 1975, when the Bicentennial of Paul Revere's Midnight Ride was celebrated. And it gathered momentum, as the first of the Bicentennial Quarters was issued (one design for each state). Everyone was getting into the spirit - even TimeLife Books, which decided to issue a serial collection of Beethoven's best known compositions - in honor of the Bicentennial. I had no idea what linked the two. It was like two entirely dissimilar objects in a pod...
Beethoven's bicentennial birthday had already occurred in 1970. The bicentennial of his death will occur in 2027. The Bicentennial of Tchaikowski's "1812 Overture" will occur next year - an event that will be celebrated by the flying of a flag at Fort McHenry, noting the defeat of Napoleon by the Czar's army.

But I digress.

In true countercultural fashion, there were not one but two Bicentennial celebrations. Ordinary people, fueled by the patriotic consumption of Coca Cola (it adds life!), decided to visit all the epic historic sites. Usually in the daylight hours, they'd pack their kids and their Kodak Brownie cameras in their station wagons and trundle off to the battlefields at Lexington and Concord to see where the intrepid Minutemen had fought the mighty British Redcoats to a standstill. However, this was not adventurous enough for Jeremy Rifkin. These days he rhapsodizes about Life Without Fossil Fuels as head of the Foundation on Economic Trends, but back in the '70s, he was a hairy populist (yes, he had hair at one time) and he promoted the idea of a People's Bicentennial, free from the grasp of commercialism, capitalism and Coca Cola.

The first salvo in the War of the Bicentennials was fought in late April during the commemoration of Paul Revere's midnight ride. Culturalists and counter-culturalists alike gathered at the Old North Church to hear stirring speeches about the events that occurred exactly 200 years ago that night. Then the counterculturalists dashed off to Concord for the re-enactment of the Woodstock Festival. We arrived just before midnight - and just after the rains had hit - and proceeded to camp out in a big muddy field to listen to Utah Phillips and Arlo Guthrie and other populist faves. Long past midnight, all ten thousand of us (the numbers may have been plus or minus 50 percent; I've never claimed to be able to estimate the size of a crowd - especially in the dark) were still awake, though considerably punch-drunk. Then, as the first rays of sun began to appear, a cannon-shot rang out. And another. And another - all at ear-splitting volume. The Official Bicentennial Committee had arrived with their flags, their 18th-Century Revolutionary uniforms, their marching bands - and Gerald Ford, the Accidental President. He may have been wearing a Whip Inflation Now lapel pin and he may have spoken on the historic occasion we were here to witness, but none of us on the Counter-Cultural side of the divide quite knew. At some point it all ended, and the cold, sleep-deprived and hungry Counter-Revolutionaries decided that it was time to go home.

There was one problem, though.  The Official Committee had brought with them ten or twenty or fifty or two hundred marching bands and fife and drum brigades (we lost count), and both mighty armies had to cross the same bridge to get to their cars. So as the players tried to leave the field, the marching bands refused to yield. A stand-off soon ensued over who was going to cross the bridge first, and after a tense half hour in which nothing moved, both groups crossed in a chaotic double-time. It was two in the afternoon, and as Air Force One soared overhead carrying President Ford back to the White House, I was sound asleep, lying with my head on my knapsack, next to my friend's station wagon. I went back to MIT and slept the rest of the day. After all, it was Patriot's Day.

But I digress.

My father was a Renaissance Man. He was a carpenter, auto and appliance mechanic, scientist, petroleum geophysicist, patron of the arts, reader of plays, moutaineer, avid cyclist, and he had even recorded a song for "The Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men" (recorded one sweaty evening in an undisclosed location in Houston, Texas, by Bicentennial Folklorist Mack McCormick, it was a recording of drinking songs, bawdy sea chanties and playground taunts featuring the likes of Alan Lomax, Buster Pickens and Lightnin' Hopkins, and you can buy a used copy for $200 on

He hoped to share his Renaissance ambitions with his sons, which meant that I would get phone calls of inspiration bright and early at 7am, when I was in no mood for inspiration.
But I digress.

The crowning moment of the Bicentennial Year was not the big celebration on July 4, but in November, when America was freed from the last legacy of the Nixon years. Gerald Ford, having liberated Poland from the Russians, went down to defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter, who made an improbable rise to President after having been a crewman on a nuclear vessel, a peanut farmer and a governor. Carter would go on to suffer an improbable series of misfortunes that included winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and the euphoria of 1976 would give way to the ennui of 1977...
But I digress...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Miracle of Birth

Some cartoons were just not meant to be completed. This is one that got, er, aborted...
Now, I'm not sure where the text for this particular mechanics problem came from, mainly because I never knew this cartoon existed (actually, I forgot I had even started drawing it). But I think somebody showed me this problem in a textbook at one time, and I just couldn't resist.

On the other hand, there was this cartoon...
Believe it or not, if you were watching TV in 1978, this commercial was actually on the air rather frequently, courtesy of Preparation H. Now, I have no idea how Madison Avenue works; the hamster wheels that turn in the heads of those who write television advertising are more mysterious than anything Rube Goldberg could have  imagined. But somehow this advertisement got written and actually broadcast on television. And now I know that hemorrhoids are a problem for women who've given birth (Thanks a lot for TMI!). A generation later, Madison Avenue has filled the evening news with ads about overactive bladder, Low T (er, they now are so bold as to refer to it as low testosterone) and Bob, the Enzyte Guy. These are things I never knew were medical problems that needed urgent attention; I always thought our biggest concern was toenail fungus. Fortunately, my medical insurance provides excellent coverage.