Saturday, January 30, 2010

Goddamned Hobos

They're everywhere!

The floor of a parking garage across the street from where I found the first Hobo Signs:

It's a veritable Tutankhamen's Tomb of Hobo Sign, a Lascaux, a Bayeaux Tapestry of Hobo Culture... And surveyors and electrical engineers -- you ain't telling me this isn't as incomprehensible as Linear B. Find something mundane in this stuff!


From the annals of the World's Shittiest Jobs...

Freddie and I saw this poor bastard this morning as we made our morning rounds. Corner of Route 15 and Edwards Ferry Road in Leesburg. At the moment of the snap, the car's outside thermometer read 17 degrees, and snow was bucketing down.

Not something you'd subject yourself to unless you really had to.

(In case you have trouble reading the photo, the guy's dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, holding a sign that reads, "Liberty Tax" -- a promotional shill for a nearby tax-prep shop.)

(Post title explanation.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Je Te Plumerai

Here's my advice: If you're going to throw out your back on a Saturday afternoon, do it while engaged in some really butch activity like sawing up a downed tree for firewood. At any rate, don't do it the way I did -- preparing to saw up a downed tree for firewood. Swear to Christ: Got my chainsaw out of the back of the truck, walked it over to the apron of the garage to prep the saw -- chain oil, gas, chain tension adjustment -- put it down on the concrete, and blip went something in the Jingo sacroiliac.

Now I'm walking -- when I walk at all -- all hunched over like a ninety-year-old. It hurts even just to exist, let alone try to lead a normal life.

At least today there's good football to sit and suffer in front of.

In completely unrelated news, it has come to my attention that a childhood earworm song is, when more closely examined, deeply, deeply weird. I have hummed, whistled, and endured the torments of the damned to the melody of the voyageur signature tune "Alouette" since approximately the age of three. Only now, in my 49th year on this planet, have I actually bothered to look up the meaning of the French lyric. I think I'd always assumed that "Alouette" was a woman's name. I couldn't have been more wrong:

Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai

Je te plumerai la tête
Je te plumerai la tête
Et la tête - et la tête
Alouette - Alouette

An "alouette" is a skylark, a bird. Once considered a game-bird, if Wikipedia is to be trusted. That is, something that is eaten after being shot.

"Plumerai": first person future tense of "plumer" -- to pluck. "Je te plumerai la tête," then, may be rendered something akin to "I will pluck the feathers out of your head."

The song then goes on to describe other actions the singer intends to perform on the "gentille" skylark: "I will pluck the feathers out of your beak [huh?], I will pluck the feathers out of your neck, your back," and so on.

I know, I know, autres temps, autres moeurs, I get it, but Jeee-zis! You've got a bird that you've just caught, you're gonna make dinner out of it, and you sit down before you slaughter the thing and describe to it, in direct address and in gory detail, the order in which you are going to dismember its plumage.

And we teach this song to our kids!

Sorry if I just earwormed you. But the story must be told!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Folk Art 205: The Art of the Hobo

Those of you who have read this blog for some time may remember that I'm a little bit obsessed with strange markings that appear for no apparent reason on concrete surfaces, often in parking garages. What strange impulse led people to make these marks? It can't be that they wished to preserve their names and thoughts forevermore; if they'd wanted to do that, they'd have used a fountain pen, or possibly a Sharpie. No, what ties these mysterious graffiti together is that they are invariably executed in pencil.

A new working gig has brought me banishment to a whole new smoking venue -- a loading dock in Clarendon. But rather than stand around in the cold gawking, I have made excellent use of my time outside: I have documented the local concrete markings, with the thought in mind of subjecting them to rigorous scholarly analysis.

One would-be scribe left behind a strange combination of Arabic and Roman digits: 230.V:

Is this some form of code? Does it refer to a time? A geographic location? Perhaps it's a clue to a hidden treasure: On compass point 230, walk V steps and dig! You never know!

A lesser scholar might conclude that these markings are meaningless. Nothing could be farther from the truth! My expert eye and vast knowledge of folk art tell me that these are hobo signs left over from the Great Depression. (The fact that the garage was built in the 1990s only strengthens my argument. Because I say so, and I'm the Dad.)

If my hypothesis that these markings are indeed hobo signs is valid, then there remains only the matter of interpretation. The glyph reproduced below represents, I believe, the hobo's contempt for the building itself in which the garage is located:

A lofty mountain with some small boxlike dwellings perched precariously at the summit. Was there ever a more piquant critique of bourgeois life than this, from a happy denizen of the road and the wide-open spaces? I think not, sir! I think not!

Squinting my eyes and cocking my head to the side, I realize it may not be a mountain after all, but an extremely primitive attempt at perspective -- a road heading to (or away from?) a distant town where all the buildings lie flat on the ground and are only about an inch tall. My conclusion still stands, though: The hobo didn't care much for civilization.

The hobo, as a race, was never among life's mathematicians. It is easy to imagine the frustration experienced by No-Count Louie the Louche while trying to perform subtraction of fractions by sheer force of will until Decimal Doc the Subtraction King came along and showed him how to convert one-fourth into 0.25:

Hobo legends and lore speak of three hobo brothers, Larry, Moe, and Geoffrey the Jimson-Jiggler. The brothers each had three magical hairs that stuck straight out of their heads that gave them the powers of second sight (Beatin'-Avoidin', or just "B" in hobo parlance), prestidigitation ("Rube-Diddling," or "R"), and the ability to change the weather ("Nature-Fuckin'," or "N"). One day, Geoffrey the Jimson-Jiggler clean forgot which hair was which, and Larry and Moe, ridiculing him, labeled them for him with duct tape and cardboard, which drove Geoffrey to madness. He prestidigitated a tornado that destroyed the city of Kankakee, Illinois. No one in Kankakee remembers this because they were hypnotized by an apologetic Larry and Moe.

This is where we get the expression "get out of my hair."

Below, we are greatly privileged to see a folk-art illustration of this legend, now lost in the mists of the Great Depression:

No one knows this today, but the hobos of the Great Depression were a dab hand at computer user-interface design. Granted, they did not themselves possess computers, but then again, nobody else did, either, so who's to say otherwise, eh?

Below we see a primitive but effective mockup of a three-tabbed Search module. This design would be deprecated today (modern usability testing being the cruel mistress that she is), but -- pretty good for 1934, right?

Hell, I've done worse mockups myself. With a computer.

So that's our art-history lesson for today, kids. Tune in next week for an exploration of the folk-art left on the door of the third stall on the left at the Union Station men's room.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Great Twitterature

They got something hysterically funny going on at Sadly, No!

Great Twitterature Down the Ages

You gotta read the comments. By the time I get to this:

Lincoln’s Log: 87 yr ago the bid doodz started country, vry sad for guyz who died here but we shd kp goin

I'm LOLing...

This, also.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


I follow Harry Shearer's radio show occasionally -- it's in my podcast queue, at any rate, and I'll listen to it if everything else is used up.

I was a little impatient with his seemingly endless negative harping on last summer's switchover from analog to digital TV transmissions. I am impatient no more. On this subject, the man was speaking the absolute truth. Over-the-air digital TV blows moribund ursine cock.

We supplemented our satellite television with a tiny little 13-inch TV in the kitchen. It was nice to have around while cooking and cleaning up. Having the news, or "The Simpsons" or "Seinfeld" on in the background while we were doing trivial tasks was a nice little treat, and I could follow football progress while checking something in the oven.

That, of course, went bye-bye last June, when the Big Switch happened. One day, just -- boom! Yer teevee don't work no more. We got used to not having it, of course, but deep down inside, we kinda missed it.

So this Christmas, our treat for ourselves was the smallest flat-screen I could find. Naively, I thought it would come equipped with an antenna for receiving digital signal. It sorta said it right there on the box -- "digital-signal ready," or some such. I was not so silly as to believe we would get hi-def signal -- I do know the difference.

So I opened it up, set it up in its spot, plugged it in, turned it on, and... Bupkis. "Searching for channels," it chirped onscreen. "Nope, not finding any! Wouldn't you just like to put your fist through my screen? [Y/N]."

Sighing about how nothing's ever easy anymore, I Googled up some info I perhaps should have known before buying the thing. We're 40 miles or so from most transmitters, and "digital-ready" televisions don't come with antennas -- the manufacturers assume most everybody's got cable or satellite reception. I would have to buy an antenna.


Popped into, ordered up a spiffy black plastic jobbie that sits flat under the set. Not much footprint, nice and sleek-looking, got great reviews from users, and looked like just the thing. Boom. Ordered. Done.

It arrived Monday. Whimpering quietly, I tore open the box, set it up according to the instructions, turned on the set, scanned for channels: "1 channel found... 4 channels found... 6 channels found..." Brilliant! I've solved it!

Not so fast, Chuck-o.

Channel 4 comes in for a couple of seconds -- pixellation all over the place, audio and video out of sync, and then: "Signal was lost." Channel 5 doesn't come in at all. Same for Channels 7 and 9. No PBS. A religious channel does come in, and I contemplate doing the dishes with a pious droner in the background. I likewise contemplate chucking the whole damned thing into the recycle pile.

But I'm nothing if not persistent when faced with a technical challenge. I reconfigure the antenna, removing the amplifier. Worse. I turn it various directions, rescanning for channels each time. Some improvement, but the core broadcast channels either break up immediately or are so badly pixellated that they're unwatchable.

I've got two options now: Get a bigger, outdoor antenna, post it on the roof, and run a cable through the wall into the kitchen. That stands absolutely zero chance of happening when we've got a satellite dish up there receiving perfectly good signal.

My other option is to chuck the whole thing.

Guess which one's going to happen.

Thanks, FCC!