November 30, 2005

The curious incident of the dog cartoon in the dimly lit bar

Many of my readers already know this, but I have a new job. Much as I enjoyed being a freelance copy editor at Cargo, the siren call of health and dental benefits has lured me away to Sterling Publishing, where I am now working as a puzzle editor. Apart from the obvious changes this entails (such as suddenly being called upon to test-solve way too many sudoku), it also means I no longer have ready access to the Cargo art department's scanner, on which I scanned many a cartoon.

However, my scanner withdrawal has inspired me to finally figure out how to work the discarded scanner that my friends Amber and Jeff salvaged for me from two of their friends. I don't have a Six Things for its maiden scan, unfortunately, but I do have a quick sketch I dashed off, for which there is a story:

I went to a bar in the East Village to see a 10-minute play that my pal Veronica was acting in. There were five playlets on the bill, one of which required props that the company had forgotten to bring. After some frantic rummaging in a bag, a woman asked if anyone knew how to draw. I was right next to her and said, well, sort of. She asked if I could draw a bench, a dog, and a horse. (At first I thought she said "a bitch, a dog, and a horse," and asked how I was supposed to differentiate between the bitch and the dog, but I was soon straightened out.)

Anyway, my bench and horse were at least recognizable as such, although they were very crappy drawings even by my standards. (Thirty-second renderings of things I don't draw frequently are pretty much bound to not come out well, I think.) But I liked the dog cartoon, so I saved it. And here it is.


Since caption contests are all the rage right now, feel free to leave comments with possible captions for the above cartoon, whether appropriate for the New Yorker or inappropriate, funny or intentionally deathly. I know it's not an automatically hilarious setup, lacking anachronisms or easy openings for pirate jokes, but I feel certain you all can rise to the ad hoc challenge nonetheless. I'll start you off:

"Man, that is some sloshy water. It almost makes me think we're about to have an earthquake, but if that were the case, then I'd be running around in a panic instead of sitting here calmly, since animals can sense earthquakes."

"You paid how much for this at Les Halles? You were ripped off."

"I'm glad they've started feeding me dog food, but I wish they would take me out of this birdcage."

Posted by Francis at 02:11 AM | Comments (28)

November 23, 2005

The equivalent of a guy wearing a tank top and ripped jeans with little pentagrams drawn all over them in ball-point pen telling you he's here to read your gas meter

I (along with most of e-humanity) receive spoof e-mails every day, sometimes three at a time, warning me about new addresses added to my eBay or PayPal account or whatever, and some of these messages look more believable than others. Today I got one with the subject line "Unauthorized access to your eBay account" -- and that doesn't seem implausible on the face of it, but somehow I don't think eBay would have added three exclamation points to the end of it. I half-expected to open the e-mail to read "d00d, this is TOTALLY eBaY!!!!"

Posted by Francis at 08:30 AM | Comments (6)

November 21, 2005

Theatre of the absurd

So last week, before my therapy appointment, I was waiting at the desk to pay and a fellow struck up a conversation with a woman behind the counter. I present that conversation here as a very short one-act play:

Man: Hey, do you know what those things are that look like Walkmans? I've been seeing them all over the place.


Woman: You mean...iPods?

Man: Yeah! Are they, like, some new thing? Because I've never noticed them before.


Posted by Francis at 08:05 PM | Comments (8)

Fan blades

My new officemate Alex and I were briefly discussing the news story about the rugby fan who cut off his own testicles to celebrate the fact that his team won. Between us, we decided that caring enough about rugby to cut off one's own testicles is probably a symptom of having too much testosterone in one's system to start with, and so perhaps his subconscious was just trying to fix the problem.

Posted by Francis at 05:13 PM | Comments (4)

God regulates commerce in mysterious ways

This morning, Rose remarked that the trouble we had in Boston last Thanksgiving finding an open supermarket that would sell us a pan (we needed an extra) was because of blue laws -- supermarkets aren't allowed to be open on Thanksgiving. This got me thinking about blue laws in general -- what good is a morality-legislating law that says you can't buy alcohol on Sunday when not even everyone who believes in a supreme being thinks that Sunday is the Sabbath?

And so, if we're going to base our commerce on making sure that religious people don't go against the tenets of their faith when making purchases, I think there's a simple solution: everyone should have a "blue card" indicating their religious beliefs, with notations indicating their degree of strictness. For example, Jews would be prevented from buying bacon (unless, obviously, they had indicated when they applied for the card that they did not keep kosher), while Muslims would not be allowed to buy food before sundown during Ramadan -- and, of course, no Starbucks for Mormons. (There's trace amounts of caffeine in decaf, you know!)

Muslims might argue that they were buying food for dinner, not to consume during the day, but how could a store clerk know that? Better to prevent such behavior entirely.

(Vaguely related: Rapture heathens and karma bitches.)

Posted by Francis at 01:18 PM | Comments (10)

November 19, 2005

It takes one to know one

I guess I must be in a better mood these days, because I wrote a cheerful song for a change. (And for those of you who felt a slight tug in their hearts at the loss to the ages of my melodica solo on Jonathan Coulton's "Shop Vac": Rejoice! For herein lies melodica accompaniment to sate even the hungriest melodica enthusiast.) The song is about the kind of people I get along with; it's called "Freaks".

(UPDATE: Whoops, I did a last-minute remix of the vocals and ended up uploading a version of the MP3 with no metadata. Have fixed that. Now the genre will properly register as "melodica-based dance music".)

Posted by Francis at 05:26 PM | Comments (3)

Cross, part 4

A continuing dissection of one reader's experience reading about one man's journey into America's crossword obsession and that same man's obsession with macking on the ladies. (Not caught up? Read parts one, two, and three.)

Before I continue with chapter two, a reader pointed out an egregious mistake that I skimmed right over -- and it was right there on the first page of the introduction. Romano says a crossword has "a proportion of white squares to black squares that never falls below 70 percent". In fact, a crossword grid should never be more than one-sixth (or about 17 percent) full of black squares. Here is a picture of a 15-by-15 crossword grid with almost as many black squares as you can have and still stay under 30 percent, which I think most people would be startled to see in the New York Times:


Honestly, it's hard to cram in that many black squares without ending up with two-letters words in the grid somewhere. And that's not even quite the maximum -- you can squeeze in one more if you put one in the center square:


Although that grid would get rejected for having 80 words in the grid, which is two over the maximum of 78.

Now then. We left off in the middle of chapter two. Let's see which bit next aroused my ire.

As a general rule, while British puzzles are harder to solve than American ones, they're also easier to construct -- you as the builder don't need to agonize about coming up with stacks of three fifteen-letter answers, for instance, or undergo the drudgery of making sure that every letter in your puzzle [is cross-checked] (and that all the words are in the dictionary).

Where to begin? I corrected his bad description (previously noted) of cross-checking, which he words as "making sure that every letter in your puzzle connects to at least two others". And oh the DRUDGERY of it.

Honestly, a regular daily crossword is just not that hard to construct (for a crossword constructor). A themeless with stacked 15s, sure, now that's hard -- but that's not what most people make, and comparing the hardest American-style crossword to construct with the easiest British-style crossword to construct is a pretty egregious example of goalpost-moving. In many ways the two are not so comparable anyway -- while it is easier to construct the grid for a black-square cryptic, in which only half the letters in each word need to be checked, one does want to choose words which lend themselves to wordplay. And then there's writing the clues, which requires its own set of skills, and is certainly more difficult than writing American-style crossword clues.

But then some cryptics are what we here in America call variety cryptics, in which the grid often has some tricky gimmick which constrains the construction, and those can be a bitch and a half to make. Certainly this grid was harder to construct than any American-style crossword I've ever made (there's a link to the solution in the upper right, if you'd like to skip ahead to the reveal; should you solve it on your own, the final message won't make much sense out of context, but can be used in conjunction with the answer to this puzzle to reveal a combined final answer phrase).

Finally, he also refers to how, unlike British crossword makers, Americans must make sure that all their answers are in the dictionary. You know, because every dictionary has words and phrases like "Netscape", "Howard Stern", "Pez dispenser", and "rated PG", and British crossword writers are free to include any made-up words they like as long as they are well clued; for instance, "Sneaky professional coming back inside is covered with goo" is a fine clue for SLORPY.

For the maker of a cryptic, structure and layout are the easy bits; the hardest part is making the clues work. For this reason, the editor of a puzzle in a British newspaper tends to be the most prolific or even sole creator of the puzzles that appear within it.

How does the second statement follow from the first? Is he suggesting that people send in grids which the editor then clues for them? And I will weigh in on the plausibility of that "sole creator" thing in a moment. First:

Since cryptics are easier to construct that American puzzles, you don't need legions of freelance contributors, overseen by one all-powerful editor, to make sure one appears in your newspaper every day of the year. All you need is one guy reliably cranking them out for you....

This seemed pretty implausible to me, but since I do not actually live in the UK, how would I know if there was some newspaper I don't know about whose puzzles are all constructed by the same guy? So I asked the NPL's Kea (who does live in the UK, and is an accomplished cryptic constructor himself) if this was indeed yet another made-up fact and he replied, "Yes, it is pretty much tosh." He explains:

For the "plain" daily cryptics in The Times, we have a regular team of about a dozen people, whose work is edited and scheduled by a crossword editor. The Guardian and The Independent similarly have regular teams, and I assume the other "quality" newspapers are the same.

For "variety" cryptics, there are three main outlets: the Listener in The Times (on Saturdays), Enigmatic Variations in the Sunday Telegraph and the magazine crossword in The Independent (on Saturdays). All three are supplied by "legions" of freelancers, though I think the Independent does have a core team of setters. Each of these has its own crossword editor (the Listener has two), separate from the daily crossword editor.

A few people are on the daily teams of more than one newspaper (and several of us submit variety cryptics to all the available outlets), but I don't know of any daily cryptic crossword that's sustained by a single person.

Wow, fact-checking is hard! That took, like, five whole minutes.

And thus we have come nearly to the end of chapter two. But there is one more excerpt before we go, which I think neatly encapsulates the problem with this book.

[A]nyone looking into the history of the cryptic is struck by the letters editors seem to receive every time their paper's old constructor is replaced by a new one. [Recalling, of course, that papers do not actually have a single constructor.--Ed.] Most of these letters are either bitter reproaches or paeans of praise -- again, reflective of the strange personal intimacy that characterizes the relationship between English solvers and constructors. Many of them, though -- it seems to be a cottage sport for some solvers -- contain speculation, based on the puzzle's content and form, about the character and habits of the constructor. "He has had an inadequate legal training of which he is ashamed, attended Harrow and not Eton, and is fond of long walks and dogs"; "He's a man of the cloth and a recent widower who drinks." (I made these two up, but they catch the general spirit of the thing.)

Making things up does indeed catch the general spirit of the thing.

Posted by Francis at 01:10 PM | Comments (6)

November 17, 2005

He who steals my bandwidth steals trash, if I decide to upload some trash

A little object lesson in why you shouldn't link directly to images from other people's sites. And also in why you should maybe pay attention to comments.

(Thanks to Alex for the link.)

Posted by Francis at 11:23 AM | Comments (0)

Deadly Cindy

I subscribe to Truthout, which is a website that compiles various news articles of interest to uberliberals like myself, and sends out regular e-mails with links to those articles. I generally like receiving the updates, although they arrive a bit too frequently, and they do tend to change the headlines in their e-mail subject lines to sound more breathless than the originals, which makes me roll my eyes. But they probably didn't intend for this headline to sound sensationalistic in quite the way that it does:

6 Soldiers Die, Cindy Sheehan Pleads Not Guilty
Posted by Francis at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

November 16, 2005

Give 'em hell, Harry

As time goes on, I become more and more convinced that choosing Harry Reid as Senate Minority Leader is the best move the Democrats have made in years.

Posted by Francis at 06:22 PM | Comments (0)

Pope Pius XIII's excellent adventure

And you thought Pope Palpatine I was the first new pope since John Paul II. Apparently you were wrong (as are a lot of bogus Catholics).

Posted by Francis at 02:24 PM | Comments (5)

The things that should bot be

Incidentally, I have an article in the current issue of Cargo in which I review some robots. The one I most wanted to keep was the Aibo (because it is a fucking robot dog, people), followed closely by Lego Mindstorms (coming in second only because it requires a certain amount of actual work to play with -- but programming it was pretty damn fun, honestly). The one I least wanted to see ever again was the Robosapien, which seems like a terrific amusement for children and a terrific annoyance for adults, with a "speech" capability that mostly consists of one-liners whose amusement value doesn't last.

Posted by Francis at 10:21 AM | Comments (9)

November 15, 2005

More about Merriam-Webster

Here's a little demonstration of how bad the interface is at I was looking for the phrase "charge d'affaires" but left off the final S. I got this list of ten suggestions as to what I might have been looking for:

1. cheerleaders 2. cheerleader 3. chain-reacted 4. charge-coupled 5. carjacker 6. chirurgeon 7. shorthaired 8. sledgehammer 9. Khurramabad 10. carjackers
Posted by Francis at 04:37 PM | Comments (4)

I define you!

Merriam-Webster is now accepting user contributions to its "Open Dictionary", which means that my fellow puzzle constructors can all start lobbying for "rotini". The five words featured on the front page at the moment are busticated, dinged, tramedy, Floboe, and adorkable. Anyone care to try guessing what those mean before looking them up? ("Dinged" is being used in a different sense than MW currently features.)

Posted by Francis at 11:57 AM | Comments (6)

I know I'm just going to be providing irrelevant hits for people searching for gay porn, but oh well

Risible spam subject line of the day: "You once said you liked hard erections. Howdy."

Posted by Francis at 11:38 AM | Comments (6)

November 14, 2005

The song remains the game

For those of you who were in L.A. for the NPL convention and would like to complete your collection of the songs performed as part of the Saturday night extravaganza, Dan has finished recording the two that he wrote. And here they are!

How Things Start

(The two songs I wrote for the extravaganza are here. If you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, go here for further explanation, along with links to a whole bunch of puzzles.)

Posted by Francis at 11:30 PM | Comments (0)


Have you ever thought, "Gee, I would really enjoy death metal if it featured only one guy on an acoustic guitar, and if the song titles were really goofy"? Then you'll enjoy Impaled Northern Moonforest. Don't miss the MP3 section, featuring such songs as "Awaiting The Blasphemous Abomination Of The Necroyeti While Sailing On The Northernmost Fjord Of Xzfgiiimtsath", "Summoning The Unholy Frozen Winterdemons To the Grimmest And Most Frostbitten Inverted Forest Of Abazagorath", "Gazing At The Blasphemous Moon While Perched Atop A Very Very Very Very Very Very Very Forsaken Crest Of The Northern Mountain", and "Grim And Frostbitten Gay Bar".

(Thanks to Gary for the link!)

Posted by Francis at 09:11 AM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2005

Always postpone meetings for time-wasting Web games

Little Fluffy is once again slacking off on their job of helping me slack off, but Jim has stepped in to point me to Babycal Throw, a game which didn't at first seem like it would be addicting, and then an hour or so later I had to admit just might be. The game rules aren't very clear, so I'll attempt to explain them here:

Little guys (babycals??? I have no idea) walk across the screen. Each is carrying a bag. Clicking on one makes it throw its bag in the air; you want that bag to hit another one of the little guys on the head, which makes it start running in the other direction. Then you want to hit that running guy with another bag, and so on. Each time you hit it, you get more points, so you want to keep it running back and forth on the screen as long as possible.

You get way more points if you can manage to hit more than one guy at the same time and get them running in unison. It also extends your game to hit more than one guy at once, because apparently there are only so many bags in existence; you start with 30, and you earn more any time a babycal (or are the babycals the bags? I just don't know) leaves the screen after having been hit with two or more bags. If you've hit the little guy four times before he runs off, you'll get three more bags. If you had two guys running in unison and hit them both four times before they run offscreen, you'll get six bags. But you're only allowed to add up to 100 more bags (which is what the other counter in the upper left corner is keeping track of), so you can't keep going indefinitely. I've broken 10,000 points exactly once; Jim says his highest is around 30,000.

I clicked on the "more games" link that appears at the beginning of the game to see what other mysterious Russian games might be on offer; mostly they're pretty bad, but I really liked Orbox, a puzzle game with I forget how many levels...25, I think. Lots of fun (and there's no penalty for dying), but there is one very irritating level (the next-to-last one, if I recall correctly) in which the blocks appear in random positions, and you just have to keep trying new ones until they arrange themselves into a solvable formation.

Posted by Francis at 11:38 AM | Comments (7)

November 10, 2005

Cross, part 3

Continuing with my comments on chapter 2 of Crossworld. We're up to page 40.

The crossword puzzle was simply nuts to a populace seeking distraction from the task of hauling their loot to the bank every Monday morning...

Is this a usage of "nuts" I don't know?

In his brilliant book about the New York banking industry, Where Are the Customer's Yachts? or A Good Hard Look at Wall Street, the humorist and (I hope) inveterate crossworder Fred Schwed Jr. tells the tale of the bowl of nickels placed by the exit of a club car bearing sundry millionaires to Pennsylvania Station in 1929; it was there for the convenience of the nabobs, who were thus spared the necessity of having to reach into their pockets for the subway fare downtown.

I quote this merely because of that parenthetical "I hope". I guess I should be pleased that he's being so open about completely making shit up. "It is a little-known fact (because I am inventing it even now) that Emperor Hirohito did not surrender in WWII because the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb; he had become so enamored of crosswords (well, it seems plausible, doesn't it? I mean, he probably knew English) that he could no longer do battle with the country responsible for their creation."

Jon Delfin played some [crossword songs] by way of Saturday-night entertainment at the 2003 Stamford [tournament], and the 500-odd participants (an easy crowd, granted) roared their approval.

Jon didn't do this in 2003 that he recalls, although, he says, he may have done so in a video that was shown that year. He and Leslie Billig did perform a selection of crossword songs at the tournament, but that was in 1995.

Regarding a puzzle whose grid contained the phrase SUPERBOWLLXXXVI:

Any non-American who happened to solve enough cross-clues to yield the string LXXXVI would tear his hair out wondering what on earth word or phrase could contain it, and soon rip the puzzle to shreds.

This seems, oh, I don't know, like a...stupid thing to say? I think most British people have at least a passing familiarity with Roman numerals. And I have heard of the World Cup, so it doesn't seem implausible that they might have heard about the Super Bowl in passing.

In pointing out that British-style crosswords are nigh-impossible to solve for an American who isn't familiar with their rules, he overreaches considerably in suggesting that the converse is true, and that handing a NY Times crossword to someone from the UK would stymie them utterly.

...American-style puzzles require that every letter appearing in them has to be connected to at least two others, while British-style puzzles allow -- in fact they prefer -- there to be as many unchecked letters as possible.

Firstly, that's a crappy description of checked letters. A letter has to be connected to at least two other letters? If the middle letter of a three-letter word is unchecked, it's still connected to the letters at the beginning and end of the word. (He means that each letter must be used in two words: one going across and one going down.) And saying that British puzzles prefer as many unchecked letters as possible is kind of a crazy statement. I don't know how strict UK puzzles are, but over here, at least half the letters in every word in a cryptic grid must be checked. If they prefer as few checked letters as possible, why even construct a grid? Why not just have a bunch of clues to solve?

For his 2003 book about cryptics, Sandy Balfour chose as a title the phrase "Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose" for very good reason. Once you've applied your store of cryptic know-how to that clue, you get REBELLED -- because "crimson rose" can be "red" and a synonym for "pretty girl" can be "belle", so if you place the latter within the former, "rebelled" is what you come up with.

In the margin of my book, I have written "DOLT!" This shows a complete misunderstanding of how cryptic clues get solved; for those of you that don't know, a cryptic clue includes both a straight definition of the answer and wordplay that leads you to it, with no indication of where the break is. So "Puff up insane general" would be a clue for ENLARGE ("insane" indicates that you should anagram the letters in "general", and "puff up" is a synonym for "enlarge").

Anyway, this clue does in fact indicate that you should put BELLE (pretty girl) inside RED (crimson), but "rose" is a definition of the answer -- it's a synonym for "rebelled".

And now I must go get ready for work. More later.

Posted by Francis at 08:05 AM | Comments (11)

November 08, 2005

You are getting very one train station closer to home

Last night I was supposed to be part of a focus group on beer (and if I can think of two more things about the experience, there will eventually be a cartoon on the subject), but they always overbook these things in case some people don't show up, and I was one of the three people that they didn't end up needing, so I got paid $75 for taking a subway into Manhattan and sitting around for 30 minutes. I was happy to leave early, but I had gotten four jokes out of the sitting around, and was expecting the focus group itself to give me more material! Ah well.

Annoyingly, the train back into Brooklyn was overcrowded, so I didn't get to solve crosswords on the way home except for the last few stops, but while I was standing around listening to MP3s, I saw this class being advertised on the back of the Learning Annex flier that the woman next to me was reading:

How to Become a Certified Hypnotist: It's a Rewarding Career...and Profitable!

Funny, if you left off those last two words I would have assumed "Rewarding" was a code word for "Profitable".

Posted by Francis at 08:26 AM | Comments (5)

November 04, 2005

Hey, Sean, how about "Camilla Toilet-Bowles" for next week? I'm just giving you that one for free

I haven't picked on reprehensible New York Post editorial cartoonist Sean Delonas in a while -- mostly because it's so easy -- but this week he has truly out-outdone himself with not one, not two, not three...oh, wait, no, it is three...still, that's a hell of a lot...editorial cartoons about how unattractive he finds Camilla Parker-Bowles. And he didn't even draw a cartoon for the other two days of the week!




But lest we see Mr. Delonas as a one-issue cartoonist, he throws several other barbs in today's offering as well, including a not-dated-in-the-slightest reference to Bill Clinton as a horndog, as well as a "Dogocrat" peeing on a taxpayer to signify...something, I'm sure. Classic.

Posted by Francis at 01:32 PM | Comments (11)

November 03, 2005

I call this next trick "Walking the Dog in Four-Dimensional Space"

Christ almighty, yo-yo tricks have come a long way since Tommy Smothers.

(Note: Leads to massive Quicktime download. Thanks to Okapi for the link.)

Posted by Francis at 11:57 PM | Comments (1)

November 02, 2005

Singing the blues

I hadn't been planning on posting this long-ago live track, since the sound quality is not so great and I would like to go back in time and not have my voice crack (I do have a long and proud history of singing outside my actual vocal range), but I played it for a friend and he really liked it -- and upon relistening, I decided I did as well. So this is from a show I played in Santa Fe in...1992, I think, featuring a drummer whose name I forget (unconscionable, since I had a crush on her) (update: it's Amy Frances -- she looked me up!), a bassist whose last name I forget (first name was Dave, although he also went by Vade...I want to say it was Wiedman? I'm not sure) (re-update: Nielsen. It was Nielsen), and Charles Rothschild on trumpet; it is a cover of New Order's "Blue Monday".

Posted by Francis at 09:07 AM | Comments (2)

November 01, 2005

Catching the red-eye

You will all excuse me, I need to take a last-minute flight to Birmingham.

(Thanks to Samalee for the link!)

Posted by Francis at 04:13 PM | Comments (5)