Monday, May 28, 2012

The Kinorhyncha

Some of you might be familiar with the fantasy world of Middle Earth. Today's kids have J.K. Rowling, who has made a fortune on the exploits of Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts. In our high school days, we had J.R.R. Tolkien, who had introduced us to Frodo, Gandalf and Gollum. They captured the rapt attention of teenagers everywhere, plus the likes of Yes and Led Zeppelin, with their journeys in pursuit of a Ring.

But for those of us who were even younger, there were nonsense poems penned by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Carroll is known for "Alice in Wonderland", but he also created a poem called "Jabberwocky" that began thusly,

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll was perhaps more famous, but Edward Lear was no slouch himself when it came to nonsense poetry. He wrote and illustrated "The Owl and the Pussycat", and they set sail on a beautiful pea-green boat. Not to be outdone in nautical adventuring were the Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve, they did. But the ultimate in nonsense characters was the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, whose courtship was documented by Lear...

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo not only was the hero of Lear's courtship poem, but he even had a brief stint as a cartoon character on a Saturday morning TV show called "The Tomfoolery Show", back before the Power Rangers morphed into mighty and the Teenage Ninja Turtles had mutated (I know, when did Sponge-Bob's pants become square? Legend says it was the dawn of the 21st Century). This character was destined to become popular in a family with a cat named Bookalookle.

Anyway, in the intersection between fantasy and nonsense, we find science. Which brings us to the kinorhyncha, which must have livened up an otherwise boring junior high biology class many, many years ago. Look it up on Wikipedia and you get an explanation that it is a segmented, limbless animal, with a body consisting of a head, neck, and a trunk of eleven segments. Unlike some similar invertebrates, they do not have external cilia, but instead have a number of spines along the body, plus up to seven circles of spines around the head. Without cilia, it's hard to imagine that this animal moves at more than a crawl as it mucks about under water, but somehow it survives. Ask the question, "What's a kinorhyncha?", to the average mortal and you will get either bemused looks of confusion or an explanation that resembles the one found in Wikipedia. But ask a science nerd, and you're likely to get the following answer:
Which is exactly what it says in the textbook. Everyone knows this character should have had his own TV show.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Tomorrow, May 28, is Memorial Day. This is a movable holiday that commemorates everything our armed forces ever did to keep this country from being swallowed up by foreign influences (unfortunately, they could not have foreseen Citizens United vs. FEC, which allows foreign corporations, including those dreaded Chinese, to take over our government by surreptitiously influencing our elections with their advertising dollars). The greybeards have returned on their Harleys to visit the Vietnam War Memorial and to cause traffic jams in other parts of town. The typical Vietnam War veteran is just now getting old enough to qualify for Social Security, which is another reason we fought the war - so that the Commie Pinkos couldn't take away our Social Security and our Medicare. We are, after all, rugged individuals who don't need government handouts; long as we still have Social Security, Medicare, the VA, the GI Bill and the various branches of the military to protect our property rights, who cares if we get hosed by the mortgage companies and the guys who make car title loans?

For MIT, this is known as the beginning of Senior Week. It is the week after Finals are over, when the parents arrive to see their sons and daughters receive their MIT degrees, which for us was a sunny day on June 5th, 34 years ago. The entire week is given over to celebration, pomp and circumstance (with or without Edward Elgar). I got contacted by the Senior Class officers (well, it wasn't difficult, since I was one) to help design the masthead for their newsletter. In 1978, we are still in the Dark Ages; no SmartPhones, no Internet, no blogs, no chat boards, no MS Word, no PC Paint, not even DOS. We didn't even have word processors, just IBM Selectrics; the Tech had some fancy newfangled computerized compositers that enabled them to lay out newspaper pages on a computer screen, but that was them. The Class of '78 just had scissors, paste and access to the copy machines in the basement of Building 10. And my services. The result was the Screamin' Beaver...
All the news we needed to know about what events were where was in this handy little four-pager. Plus there was information about the Class Gift and other things that soon-to-be alumni and their parents would be interested in.

We have long since departed; now, some of our sons and daughters are graduating (some have already graduated and are ensconced in the business world). After this, there would be reunions once every five years, where we would measure how much hair we had lost and how much avoirdupois our middles had gained. Thanks to the marvels of e-mail and FaceBook, it is possible for us to all stay in contact with each other. And to suck up infinite hours of the day playing Farmville.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

What's the Buzz?

Of all the jokes in the world, there are probably three or four commonly repeated types. Some jokes are based on the surprise ending or punchline, one that you do not expect. The second, for cartoonists, is the sight gag, which relies on an unusual, silly or ridiculous picture of something as the punchline. But by far the most common type of gag, for stand-up comedians as well as cartoonists, is the pun. The cartoon above is one of those, based on biological facts about mosquitoes. In this instance, it refers to the insatiable appetite of the female mosquito, which, as most biologists know, bites not because it is hungry but because it is pregnant, or rather is laden with eggs that cannot be fertilized without blood from a victim.

I just returned from the Texas Gulf Coast, a land where you can wake up in the morning to see a mosquito the size of a Bell Jet-Ranger helicopter hovering in front of your eyes, looking for the most convenient place to land. Sometimes, you don't even have to see them; if you hear a sound, clear and perfect as the C in the pitch pipe used by your elementary school music teacher, you know a mosquito has homed in on you. Mosquitoes carry their own variety of GPS onboard, and they know the exact coordinates of the nearest exposed piece of flesh on your body. You can swat all you want, but for each one you kill, two more will show up ready to draw your blood.
Incidentally, this is the sight gag - a big POW! followed by a ridiculous-looking divot in the wall, made, presumably, by the throbbing human fist in the picture. I conjured up that image on a warm, stuffy October night in Palo Alto when the windows to my apartment were open. Yes, even the San Francisco Bay Area has mosquitoes.

Texas has two varieties of mosquito. The freshwater kind hatch in any rain puddle and are fairly prevalent inland in the summer (which is a season that lasts six months on the Gulf Coast). They are small and fairly innocuous; you can usually swat them away and they'll leave you alone. But the salt marsh mosquitoes are big, ornery and will home in on you thirty seconds after you step out of your car at the beach. I think they have bands on their legs, which leads to them being referred to as tiger mosquitoes. You can swat at them all you want, but they only come back faster and fiercer. They have been known to range inland all the way into Houston, which is why you can always tell Houston schoolchildren - they're the ones with the mosquito bites all over their legs.

And fire ant stings on their bodies; the "far aint", as the locals call them, inhabit every pasture and playground. They're not big ants, but they are aggressive, swarming insects that overwhelm by sheer numbers and the ferocity of their bites. Their mounds are usually ubiquitous except when you're not watching where you're stepping; then you can end up with a rash of itchy ant bites in a surprising hurry. The "far aint" has not arrived in Massachusetts yet, which is a blessing, but its advance has been inexorable; supposedly it can be found in selected spots in Virginia.

Crickets can be found everywhere; they're even mentioned in the Bible. They don't swarm like ants or locusts, but they have been known to get into places and spaces from which they are hard to extricate.
 I never drew a cartoon about cicadas; these large green noisemakers show up in Houston just as soon as the temperature hits 90. Virginia has what are known as 17-year cicadas, which show up in mass quantities like a Biblical plague every 17 summers or so, then disappear a month later, not to be seen for another 17 years. Unlike their Texas cousins, these are brown with bright red eyes. In concert, they can create a din like a jet engine. They last showed up in 2005. However, the green Texas bugs have started showing up in Virginia, just like the fire ant, attesting to the agreeable nature of the Virginia climate; their recent arrival is evidence enough to me of global warming. Another recent arrival in Virginia is the stink bug; a six-sided beetle that you will not notice until you step on it, at which time it will emit a noticeable offensive odor. With that, the entomology lesson has concluded.

But let's not forget our old friend, the cockroach.

Friday, May 11, 2012

It's Go Time!

In the Spring of 1978, as I was preparing to depart MIT, degree in hand, a new game craze had begun to sweep the coffeehouses of Boston (or maybe just the Coffeehouse in the Student Center). It was called Go! and it consisted of a grid on a board and two sets of round flat stones (which meant it was a game for two players). MIT had seen its share of games prior to that (and we're not counting the strategic gamers). A lot of us were pinball fanatics, but that was a game of skill and coordination. Go! was a more cerebral game of strategy, in which players try to surround each others' pieces by placing stones on a grid; whoever captured the most stones when the board was filled up was the winner. Go! was not a novel game; a similar board game called Othello had been kicking around for a couple of years. But Go! was Japanese, and Japanese things were all the rage in the '70s (what else could explain the fascination with Pachinko machines?).

In addition, there were few gaming options that were compatible with the Coffeehouse milieu, which tended to be dark and given over to butcher block. It would be a few years before the first electronic games would show up, and at least a generation before gaming apps for iPhone would give us Angry Birds. Nintendo Wii did not exist, which contributed to the ennui of those late night hours. And there was no Farmville, which was something of a blessing. But there was Go! And there was coffee, which contributed to many a spirited game around the coffeehouse tables. Go! playing was as serious as chess was to chess enthusiasts, and many of the strategies that were used to avoid losing chess matches went into a typical game of Go!
The Go! craze probably lasted longer at MIT than it did in other parts of the country, and when it subsided (about a year later), students went back to playing backgammon, which was two sets of stones on a racetrack and was always popular. These days you can play these games and many others on your phone or your iPad, which is nothing like the real thing. You can always spot gamers (and texters) by the extreme calluses that have built up on their thumbs. And by the general unwillingness of most auto insurance companies to sell them a policy.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Little Siesta

MIT Students were a hard-partying studying bunch. That meant the number of hours devoted to sleep every night ranged anywhere from 6 to zero, and like Elvis, many of us wished that there were more than 24 hours in a day. Every so often, lack of sleep would catch up with a student. It's just that the timing could not be predicted. Fortunately, MIT had sofas. And the sofa in the common area of our dorm floor was just comfortable enough to snooze on.
MIT also had nice cushioning on the chairs in the Student Center library, which tended to encourage certain responses that were unintended.
It wasn't just humans whose sleep patterns got thrown out of whack.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Squirrel Gods

Ping-pong was a familiar pastime at MIT. We also created some interesting games that involved five or six of us running around a ping-pong table while hitting the ball to each other. We also developed a game called "fling-flong". Let's just say we were creative with our table tennis variations.

The ping-pong ball of choice for most of us was Halex. If there could be a premium ping-pong ball, Halex made it. Halex balls were favored because they were evenly-balanced, not lopsided. You knew that by the sound...and by the way they bounced. A well-made, evenly-balanced ball goes "tink" on the table. One of those cheap Chinese balls goes "clink" and doesn't bounce in a straight line. In fact, you can't really tell the difference between a cheap ball and one that is damaged.

It was easy to damage a ping-pong ball. If you stepped on it, it would either crack or it would crease, which is almost as bad. Once a ball gets creased, it is hard to get the dimple out. Not that there aren't those who will try. The thing to remember about ping-pong balls is that they are thin, delicate membranes enclosing a volume of air. Air, when heated, expands. And that membrane is stretchable. So you can heat a ping-pong ball in a way that will cause the crease to come out of the skin, but you can't heat it too much...
A ball in this condition is said to have elephantiasis and cannot be salvaged. The only sensible solution is to sacrifice it to the Squirrel Gods. Which we had plenty of occasions to do.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Butcher Bloc

MIT has architecture. Architecture by I.M. Pei, architecture by Eero Saarinen, architecture by Alvar Aalto and now architecture by Frank Gehry (the Stata Center, affectionately known as Toon Town). The MIT Architecture Department is located on the upper floors of Building 7 and it has the distinction of handing a degree to the architect of Israeli settlement expansion - Binyamin Netanyahu. I took more than a couple of classes at the Architecture Department, but I determined in 1976 that architects were almost as unemployable as English literature majors and transferred into Course 1 (Civil Engineering).

To enter the Architecture Department, you had to ride up the elevator in Lobby 7 and stop at the message written on the wooden beams, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin". The upper floors where the architects hung out had looked like other parts of the Infinite Corridor at one time, but the architects had in the '60s decided to customize their space with nooks and lofts and gangplanks and cubbyholes, created with plasterboard and timbers, and decorated with graffiti (exquisitely Lee-Roy lettered and pithy to the nth degree), posters (hundreds of them) and Helvetica lettering. Architects in the '70s were big on Helvetica; it was a sans-serif font that was popular with advertisers, and it was clean and dynamic. Another thing architects in the '70s liked a lot was butcher-block furniture. It said rugged but polished, spare but elegant, and it reminded people of Northern California, wine and cheese. And it was comfortable, once you got used to it. Crate and Barrel was built on sales of butcher block items. Butcher block was the Birkenstock sandal of the progressives of the era. You knew you were in a liberal household if you saw butcher block furniture; it was like seeing a Curtis Mathes TV console in a household in Dallas.

Architects in Cambridge, Massachusetts, generally got their butcher-block knick-knacks and their Lee-Roy sets and their sheets of press-on Helvetica lettering from one place - Charrette's. The store took its name from the charrette, which is essentially a jam-session for architects where they all sit in a circle around a butcher block table, with four blank walls behind them and rolls and rolls of onion-skin paper and drafting dots, and they try to come up with a Big Idea. It took its pricing policies from the guys who sold Lamborghinis.
 Charrette's was known to sell just about anything an architect could want, but there was one item they didn't have. It came in a cereal box and it could enable the user to reproduce a drawing by tracing the outline.
I've not been to Charrette's in decades. I've not been in Crate and Barrel, either, despite every opportunity (it has spread nationwide from Boston, like a virus). I don't know what I did with that Tricky Tracer (I suppose I could have reproduced some of my cartoons with it). These days, architects are moving ever so grudgingly away from sketchwork done with mechanical pencils on onion-skin to computers and AutoCAD. In fact, the divide between architects and engineers has been redrawn; the mathematically-inclined among us prepare our spreadsheets and our PowerPoints on Dells, while the artistically creative types flit about with those slim, shiny rectangular objects emblazoned with an apple.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Sounds of Silence

I've written about stereos before, but I neglected to mention headphones, which are the last essential component to add after you've acquired the receiver, the amplifier, the speakers, the turntable and the tape deck (okay, this is 1980s technology - no CD player, no input from the cable box, no TV, no DVD). Headphones serve two purposes. If you live in an apartment complex and worship death metal, they help you keep peace with the neighbors. At other times they cancel out the outside noise and allow you to hear every sound your stereo reproduces. Bose has noise-cancelling headphones that are supposed to play back a sound that masks all outside noise and allow you to doze off blissfully. But for most of us, the headphones of choice were Koss products; I realize the techno DJ's all prance around with headphones from Dr. Dre, but they have those as fashion accessories. Koss not only cancelled the noise but brought it - in massive quantities.
Musical reproduction technology was made portable by Sony, which rolled out the first Walkman in 1980. The first Walkman was essentially a radio; later it was modified to play cassette tapes and compact discs. Towards the end of the 1990s, a new technology came out called DAT, but it quickly flamed out. Now, of course, there are iPods and Smartphones, and you use ear buds to listen to them; the early Walkmans had headphones.
I can't close without mentioning the headphones you find in the airliners. These days, they're padded like real headphones and they attach with universal jacks, but when stereo sound was first introduced on aircraft, the early headsets looked like today's earbuds, only they were attached to hard plastic stalks as opposed to dainty hairstrand-like wires. I still have permanent creases in my inner earlobe from listening to those cross-country. And a permanent dislike for anything by Olivia Newton-John.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pencils Down

I've taken many tests in my lifetime. Thanks to the wonders of multiple choice and passing grades of 70% or higher, I can now claim to be a Certified Planner, a Certified Member of the American Association of Airport Executives and a LEED-accredited professional. I'm not sure what it has done for me except add a good chunk of the alphabet after my name.

I'm certainly a better test-taker than I was in school (although I've frequently failed tests of my blood sugar). In those days, exams were important and a little unsettling. Exams at MIT were no different, although unlike high school, those tests were frequently open-book. There was a reason for that; MIT never tested you on how well you could memorize the material, it wanted to see what you could do with all you had learned. For that reason, a good set of notes was important - as long as you remembered to bring them.
As I said, MIT always tested your ability to use what you had learned. For that reason, the exams always challenged your creativity and your ability to think outside the box. It really didn't matter how good your notes were...
Freshmen got introduced to exam-taking during Rush Week. MIT featured a Freshman Orientation Exam that asked any number of strange questions, including one about the angle of the dangle that I won't bother repeating; you'll just have to take the exam for yourself.

MIT also recognized that students sometimes had a bad day, so some classes, particularly freshman calculus, allowed do-overs on the exams. Not that it helped, necessarily...
Freshman calculus exams (at least in my day) also had the unique feature that you always reviewed the results with the proctor immediately after the exam, and in doing so, it was possible to improve your score (or in some cases to lose points) by showing how you did your work. It was Tom Lehrer's New Math, in that it was more important to understand what you were doing rather than to get the right answer.

However, if all else failed, MIT had another lifeline for overwhelmed students.
A final note: test-taking was not quite over after the last Final of your senior year. Those of us who entertained thoughts of going on to grad school had one more set of tests to take - the GRE's. Students wishing to get into law school took the LSAT's, and there were exams to get into medical school or business school. These were fairly rigorous exams built around multiple choice questions. Unlike MIT, however, there were strict rules about analytical aids in the exam room.
Technology is a wonderful thing, however; now the proctors will strip-search you to remove your Smartphones and iPads.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Sound of Music

Tom Lehrer once remarked, "I'd like to take you now on the wings of song and help you forget for a moment your drab, wretched lives". MIT was a contributor to the musical scene, and it's not just because Tom Scholz had a band or Charlie Bruno once dropped a piano off the Baker House roof. Despite our penchant for science, MIT had its own musical influences, from the radio station known as WTBS (that is, until Ted Turner bought the name for $25,000) to the Glee Club to the Chorallaries to the Musical Theatre Guild to the All-Tech Sing (where the student group with the best set of vocal chords was rewarded with the opportunity to carry home the heaviest object the MIT Student Center Committee could filch from the streets of Cambridge). Music was in the air, and it wasn't just because the Coffeehouse had brought in a folkie from off the streets of Cambridge to help the late-night studiers snooze the early morning away.
I went to a performing arts high school myself, so I had an appreciation for instrumental and non-instrumental music. In the '70s, music, particularly popular music, underwent a technological revolution. First came the first crude synthesizers, capable of playing a single note that sounded like it had been produced on a synthesizer (that meant a variation of a sine wave, or, getting creative, a square wave). Then followed quadrophonic stereo reproduction, which was based on the theory that if two speakers produced a sound twice as good as mono, then four speakers were twice as good as stereophonic. It was like a musical hologram, so lifelike, you could swear the musicians were in the same room with you (and if you played your AC/DC record loud enough, you could almost believe Angus Young was shredding on top of your bed). Soon would come revolutions in musical portability, from the boombox to the compact disc to the Walkman, eventually leading ear buds and iPods (though that happened much later). You could improve on the sound quality all you wanted, but the musical quality didn't always follow.
Incidentally, this strip got changed a couple of times as the musical fashions changed; this version featured a recognizable Van Halen lyric, while an earlier version had used the lyrics of a Parliament-Funkadelics song.

Being MIT students, we were always in a perpetual arms race regarding the size and power of our electronic stereo equipment. It was not enough to be able to throw the sound of your stereo system off the far wall of the building across the courtyard; being heard in Kendall Square from the confines of your modest dorm room on Ames Street was the objective. Some of my dorm mates had stereos with floor- mounted speakers that could faithfully reproduce the scratch in a record such that it could be heard at dinner in the Walker Dining Room. But try as we might, we could not get a reproduction clear enough to identify that curse word that got slipped into "Louie, Louie". (A note: some of you might not be familiar with the hissing, crackling and popping associated with vinyl records, having grown up with nothing but compact disks, or for the even younger among you, an iPod full of MP3 files. There are esoterics among us who will argue till the cows come home that long-playing vinyl produces a much richer, fuller sound than a compact disc, even if CD reproduction is clean, clear and accurate, and has none of the pops associated with scratched vinyl. I never got that far; I just know that it's a lot easier to produce that wikka-wikka sound that rules hip-hop by scratching a vinyl record than by trying to manipulate a sound file you filched off of SoundCloud.)
People know Bose for Wave Radios these days, but at one time, the House of Bose produced some of the most massive stereo speakers ever conceived. They ruled the roost until miniaturization made it possible to render ground-shaking sound out of little table-top units. This led to the consolidation of stereos from piece-together systems plugged together with jacks and speaker wire down to single piece boxes decoratively configured to look like they got pulled out of a Jedi warrior's fighter jet. Nowadays, you can create a decent clangor from a couple of speakers jacked into your desktop computer or from that docking port your iPod uses.

There was only one problem with stereos loud enough to wake the dead - they frequently did.
I had to redraw this strip, too. You see, the normal person (or one who does not live in Manhattan and attend the theatre regularly) would consider midnight to be way past their bedtime. The typical college student (and in this regard, MIT students were all too typical) would consider midnight to be the early evening. Later, I understood that 1:00 am was a good time to go out to a rave, but by then I was an old fogie of 35...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hearts and Minds

The Reagan Years were a curious time. For one thing, they caused a rethinking of the fashions of the time. There was the Preppy look, which made button-down shirts and Dockers popular with college students who only a few years earlier were content to wear their hair shaggy and show up for the lectures in gym shorts, flip-flops and tee-shirts (weather permitting). This was an outgrowth of the whole "dress for success" movement, which tried to convince young professionals that looking good was a sufficient substitute for being competent. Along with that went the fraternity-bred notion that anything Greek was cool, which caused some of the dormitory living groups to slip Greek letters into their names.

The early '80s also caused a reconsideration of certain discredited products, whose manufacturers must have decided that if Ronald Reagan could beconme popular with the electorate, then Taster's Choice Instant Coffee could once again be taken seriously (especially if it was hawked by a Ronald Reagan lookalike). Spam, which had been the butt of a Monty Python skit, was dusted off and promoted as a tasty and nourishing treat (that is, until it became the common reference for electronic junk mail, which it did, starting in the Clinton Years). The selling of Spam became so successful that the makers of Velveeta returned it to the grocery shelves, along with a sister product, Mexican Velveeta. There was no single cheese like Velveeta (a clever way of saying that it was a gooey amalgam of multiple cheeses), and best of all, it made a creamy Mac and Cheese (unlike real cheese, which tended to break down into clumps of protein and oil when melted, unless you blended it with flour to make it smooth). It seemed there were no end to the possibilities for rehabilitating the image of discredited products...
In fact, William Westmoreland went to his grave believing the Vietnam War was the right thing to do, and he even wrote a book stating as much.

The final act of attempted rehabilitation was the brief boomlet of attention Richard Nixon received just before his death; the party line was that he was a misunderstood forward thinker who, except for one little mistake, did a lot of good while he was President (and guess what that one little mistake was). While having George W. Bush in the White House did make him look good by comparison, the most recent Gallup survey shows the public still regards Nixon as the worst President of all time. But he enabled comedians Rich Little and David Frye to have illustrious careers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Party Animals

I attended many parties in my time at the 'Tute. Some were good, some were bad, some were pretty ugly. We were a segregated floor, so we had a little bit of a challenge getting a good coeducational dance party to happen. But our social chairman in my freshman year had a girlfriend (and so did a couple of the other upper-classmen who handled our social committee) and our hall tutor that year was hitched to someone from Simmons, so we had ways to draw a half-decent crowd to Fassett Lounge (that dungeon downstairs from the East Campus desk and the mailboxes) where we held our parties. Eventually they graduated, taking their mixtapes of Queen, Clapton, Montrose and 10cc with them, and our parties went progressively downhill from there. But Ed (who was hall tutor both before and after the hall tutor who was there my freshman year) had a car, so when we couldn't bring the party to us, we went to where the party was. And we had a way of bringing the party back home with us.
Everyone knew what a good party needed booze, drugs, loud music, coeds publicity. Boston has dozens of colleges in the area, and that meant usually dozens of events each weekend competing for the youthful college partygoer (MIT had its share of those who did not go to parties - they could be found living in the Student Center library or working diligently on the problem sets posted on the wall in the Math building. There were also those amazing creatures who hung out in Walker Memorial all weekend playing strategic games). Two things were necessary for a successful party to happen - the right audience had to know about it, and they had to have a way to get there. A couple of us had cars, so that part was taken care of. But to get the right audience, we had to get the word out in the right places - Wellesley, Simmons, Emmanuel, Wheelock (all women's schools) and McCormick Hall (MIT's women's dorm). That meant a road trip the weekend before to put up posters. Being a creative sort, I ended up designing some of the posters.
This particular event was one of the last parties I ever witnessed at East Campus. Within six months, I would be off to Stanford, where I learned that a grad student lives an even more reclusive existence than the typical MIT undergrad. This was the late '70s. I had yet to find out about Ladies' Nights, Million Dollar Legs Contests and mechanical bullriding, which were all things single people in Dallas did for entertainment. I was too early for mosh pits, hip-hop, grunge and all night raves. But I was just in time for music videos; many a dull Strat's Rat could have been saved by a Michael Jackson moonwalk.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cucaracha Cha-Cha

This is a typical morning at MIT, circa 1976. While most students were usually sound asleep until 9 or 10am, the cockroaches were already awake when the sun came up. That's because they were nocturnal.

MIT had roaches for the same reason most urban spaces had roaches: there were plenty of things for a roach to eat. In addition, the roaches bred faster than we could kill them off. They knew how to get into any space, and their adaptability made them indestructible. We did not have medicine cabinets in our dorm rooms, just open shelves, so roaches could get into our toiletries. Fortunately, we had dresser drawers, so we never found roaches in our personal effects, although I did end up squashing one inside my sneaker once (yecch!)

The cockroach is one of those creatures, like the shark, that has been around almost since the beginning of time and will be one of the last creatures remaining on Earth when it gets swallowed up by the supernova-ing Sun. In fact, if Christian potboiler novelist Tim LaHaye wanted to be factually accurate, his end-times milieu would have an Earth inhabited by nothing but sinners - and cockroaches.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Dirty Little Secret

MIT has a Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The Department is home to the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel and the Flight Transportation Lab, and that Lab is home to one of the four university campuses of the National Center for Excellence in Aviation Operations Research, better known as NEXTOR (the other campuses being at the University of California at Berkeley, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland). In addition to that, MIT sits under one of the departure tracks for Boston Logan International Airport, which was and still is one of the busiest airports in the country. Logan Airport is located just east of downtown Boston in a community known as East Boston, separated from Beacon Hill by the Harbor. In our day, 1974-78, there were two parallel tunnels that brought traffic from Boston out to the Airport; thanks to the Big Dig, there is now a third tunnel, named for Ted Williams, that crosses the Harbor. There is also the Blue Line, a creaky old subway not as creaky as the Green Line (nothing could possibly be that creaky), that brings passengers to a depot where they catch a shuttle bus to the airport terminals. And recently, there has commenced a new sort of bus/subway combination that runs between South Boston, Downtown and the Airport.

Logan Airport's location means that airplanes cross to the north, the south and across the MIT campus. In fact, when the wind is from the south, one can look south across the Charles and see the 747's come swooping in a low turn south of the Prudential Building, then thunder north above the Green Building and East Campus on their way to Europe or the West Coast. There may have been louder airplanes (the DC-9 and the 727 were plenty loud), but nothing was quite as menacing.
The toilets on aircraft are not supposed to vent to the outside the way old trains did (in fact, they warn you not to flush the toilets while the train is in the station), but airplane toilets do have vents to the outside that are used by siphon trucks that suck out all that blue liquid in the plane's toilet holding tanks and take it somewhere to get disposed of. Occasionally those vents malfunction, and if the malfunction occurs when the airplane is in the upper atmosphere, the blue goo leaks out and freezes to the outside of the airplane...and sometimes those frozen chunks of goo break off and fall from the airplane; people whose houses lie under the approach to an airport have reported being pelted with "blue ice".

Plane toilets present other hazards, but mostly to the passengers who use them. Some passengers have reported sitting down on the seat, doing their business, then flushing the toilet - and getting sucked in so tightly that they need help being dislodged. New model aircraft toilets have a vacuum boost that enables them to carry away waste products with minimal use of flush water. Buildings that are designed to environmentally responsible standards have a similar toilet hazard; they also come equipped with toilets that reduce water consumption by use of suction. You can tell a vacuum-assisted toilet by its flush, which sounds like the approach of a tornado. Again, anyone who sits too firmly on the seat is at risk of having their posterior sucked in. However, Man is an ingenious animal who has discovered that the suction can be defeated easily by dropping a cellphone in the toilet (this is what is meant by a dropped call)...which must explain why so many people insist on taking cell phone calls in restrooms.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Look What the Cat Dragged In

I introduced Walden to Stickles readers about one semester after I had introduced Cindy, the cat's owner (I say "owner" because I've yet to find anyone who is a cat's master; "owner" defines someone who pours the cat food out of the bag). Walden was modeled after a real cat named Woodstock, and Woodstock had become famous for being a write-in candidate for president of the Class of 1978 in my sophomore year (I wrote about Woodstock in an earlier blog post).

Walden was a male cat, and males of the feline persuasion are known by a particular characteristic.
Veterinarians will tell you that male cats that are not neutered will continue to engage in marking activity even after they have been spayed. It's a sort of an instinctive action that does not turn off once it has been turned on.
Walden was also a curious cat. Curiosity will get a cat into all kinds of trouble...
Nitrous oxide was a hot commodity in our dorm; it was usually dispensed in little canisters called Whippets which were used to discharge whipped cream on top of ice cream sundaes. It could also be procured in balloon quantities. It livened up many a party; people who inhaled it would fall down laughing (or just plain fall down). Helium, by contrast, just made you talk funny.

I've owned many cats in my life. I've only owned one dog, and he tends to drive my current cat nuts.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rush Limbo

In Boston, there is a ritual that is as old as time and as regular as clockwork. Just as the swallows return annually to Capistrano and the buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio, the college students return to their various campuses in the Boston area. It is a congregation that can be detected in the increased traffic on I-95 and the larger than usual clusters of backpacked, unruly ragamuffins clustered around the bag claim at Logan Airport. 
The freshman arrive at MIT, usually in the last week of August (Stanford, being on a more relaxed, California-style timetable, usually doesn't see its first students until the third week of September). They begin the unusual mating process known as Rush Week, at which time they will decide their living arrangement for the next four years. The frats choose first, rushing their picks of the young, peach-fuzzed frosh who wander by looking for a good time and a warm place to sleep for the night. The leftovers stumble their bewildered way into the dorm system, and the dregs drift into Bexley to plot their careers as MoveOn organizers (okay, we didn't have MoveOn in my day, but there were any number of radical causes about, including thursday).

You'll notice I haven't mentioned the co-eds (ladies, if you will); in the '70s, MIT did not have sororities, so the fairer sex was doomed to end up in McCormick, although there were options - Baker, East Campus, Senior House, WILG, Burton, No. 6, and so on. One of the fraternities, Sigma Nu, actually decided to admit women - and was promptly drummed out of the national fraternity by its incensed elders, whereafter it became known as Epsilon Theta. No other frat followed in their footsteps, formally, although some informal living arrangements were arrived at by consenting couples in both the fraternities and the dorms. One dorm acquired a Combat Zone hooker that way.

Bag claim is always an interesting place; it is the only time you will see your fellow passengers in an upright position. It's always entertaining to play Match the Passenger With the Bag. Airport adminstrators are no fun at all, though; they warn you politely that some bags may look alike, so be sure to check the claim tag first before grabbing your suitcase. Except in Philadelphia, where in true Brotherly Love fashion, there is a rather stern warning that "This Is Not Your Bag!" affixed to the ugliest green Samsonite ever manufactured.

Two end notes: as I mentioned before, I have a terrible time drawing dark faces in a comic strip, which explains why Stickles had no African American characters. This strip has one, and as my father hastened to point out in politically-correct tones, it is one of the baggage porters. I corrected that injustice by casting a dark-faced Harvard student in a later 8-panel strip - also set at an airport. The second has to do with the intro; it never happened to me, but one of my colleagues from my early consulting days told me that It Actually Happened to Him that a flight attendant mixed white wine and red wine together to produce rosé. He also told me a story, about a young man with a severe lisp who wanted to become a Fuller Brush salesman, that I shall not relate here, but I will tell it to you sometime in a bar somewhere after a half-dozen beers.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dismal Science

To show you how little things change over the years, here is one of the earliest "Stickles" cartoons to ever be printed in the MIT student newspaper.

According to the notation, the date is March 17, 1975. The economy is in recession (sound familiar?). We have a president who is coming up for re-election. And gas prices are high ("high" in those days meant over a dollar a gallon). Because the price of oil is on the increase, inflation is a concern.

On the other hand, America in the '70s had not experienced the kind of mortgage meltdown that was to occur in 2008. In fact, the first time American banks got into trouble was in the '80s, when a rogue office of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC for short) decided to practice extreme laissez-faire regulation, cozied up to the Texas banking industry and allowed them to engage in acts of finance you can't show on television or print in a family newspaper. However, instead of home mortgages, the catastrophe was precipitated by commercial lending. Billions of dollars were lent to build office buildings, subdivisions and shopping malls with money presumably set aside to finance homes, to the point where there were not enough tenants to fill all the spaces. When the price of oil suddenly and precipitously dropped in 1986, the real estate brokers ran out of tenants to fill their properties and went bust, and their problems became the problems of the Texas banks and savings and loans. In the end, the taxpayers were called in to bail out the lenders (to the tune of about $500 billion), a new agency called the Office of Thrift Supervision was created to clear up the muck, and the FSLIC was no more. The taxpayers were probably still paying to untangle the mess when 2008 came along and with it a new set of problems. It seems we never learn from our mistakes.

But that was not the proximate cause of our miseries in 1975. Instead we had runaway inflation - nothing like what we would experience in 1980, but bad enough, and triggered by gasoline getting expensive. In those days, we did not have solar and wind power, and we didn't have hybrid cars; the average Chevy got about 15 miles to the gallon, which is about what the average Hummer gets today. Our leaders vowed to Whip Inflation Now and our Fed raised interest rates, which led to a sharp, nasty recession in 1974 that spilled over into 1975. The cycle would repeat itself in 1980, which is when we experienced interest rates that briefly touched 20% (try getting a home mortgage at those rates!)

Today, of course, inflation is under 3% and interest rates, which were sky-high all throughout the '80s, are so low that you can get a 30-year mortgage for less than 4% fixed. But the bankers give you the stink-eye when you come in looking to borrow for a home. They ask you for everything but a blood test and your next of kin. Hence demand for homes continues to drag along. And people who depend on homebuilding for a living can't find work. But if you want to borrow $20 billion for a leveraged buyout, bankers can't do enough for you. After all, debt is therapeutic.

Gerald Ford lost the election in 1976; the electorate remembered how bad things were a year earlier and gave the Republicans a thrashing. Barack Obama stands for president again in 2012, having only a marginal amount to show for all his efforts since 2009 to revive the economy. That he stands any chance at all of re-election is testament to the quality of his opposition.