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.