Thursday, June 24, 2010


I love maps. I haven't really given too much thought to why I love maps, but I suspect it's because they are an abstraction, a model of something that is real, but without the troubling overabundance of information that accompanies real things. Montana, for example, is ridiculous. It's a gigantic region of the surface of the earth, containing what is for all intents and purposes an infinite number of things. Rocks, trees, molecules, you name it. There's just too many of them for a finite being to take in. I can't look at Montana. That's where maps come in. They are finite things, which contain a finite amount of information, about something that is infinite. (Well, fine; maybe not infinite. Just very, very large.) Now Montana has visible boundaries, which distinguish it from the surrounding states. Now it's composed of a finite number (147,165 square miles) of things. Accept a given definition of a particular geographical feature (say, lakes, or mountains), and Montana has a finite number of them. Maps are a spectacular illustration (no pun intended) of how homo sapiens organize information: we categorize it. We put it into discreet, knowable packets. There are an infinite number of points between Billings and Great Falls, but there is a very finite number of miles. It doesn't really matter that there's an infinite number of points within a mile, merely that the mile itself is knowable. It doesn't even matter that the concept of a mile (5,280 feet) is highly arbitrary. What's a foot? Twelve inches, you say? What's an inch? It simply doesn't matter, so long as we agree on what it is, it's knowable. Why are Montana's borders where they are? Why aren't they somewhere else? It doesn't matter; they're knowable. We can comprehend them. We've put everything on one side of the line in the Montana-shaped box, and everything on the other side of the line elsewhere.

Both for work and personally, I use Google Maps somewhat frequently, which, given my love of maps, gives me a great deal of pleasure. Other users of the site will have noticed that the good people at Google have carefully stitched together a multi-layered quilt of photographs, taken by aircraft, spacecraft, and earth-bound photographers, giving their map of the world a terrific amount of detail. The thing is, I mostly don't use that part; there's too much information there. When I'm trying to get directions somewhere, I turn off all of the photo-graphical features, because I prefer the abstraction. I prefer the two-dimensional, simplified representation of the real thing, because it's more easily knowable. I do enjoy the photographs, and looking at places I've never been, but for actual information, I find the map too crowded when it contains every house and tree.

Getting back to abstraction (in the abstract), I do think it's funny when people (myself included) get hung up on our methods of organizing information. I shake my head every time someone drags out the old "platypuses (platypii?) are weird" meme, because to me they're really not more weird than giraffes, or for that matter, people. It's just that they have a particular set of characteristics which make them difficult to put into one of our (supposedly) clearly-demarcated boxes. People get hung up on the boxes. So do I, though: if there were a physical place on the surface of the earth which would be hard to draw on a map, I have a feeling that would make me terribly uncomfortable. It's quite strange to me, really, that humans have to try so hard to break down the gigantic universe of information into tiny, knowable chunks, and then we start to believe that the chunks are meaningful on some deeper level. It starts to matter that we've classified some people as a certain ethnicity, for example, and get lost in the fact that there are certain things that such classification does and does not tell us. In short, we can forget that we (or someone else) created the classification in the first place, because the reality was too complicated for us to comprehend.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way

US-12 goes right past the Michigan International Speedway, a massive structure located in what otherwise would be the middle of nowhere, but which on summer weekends can attract enough visitors to become Michigan’s fourth largest city. It’s worth pointing out that not only does US-12 go right past this cultural anomaly, its two paved lanes constitute the only road that goes anywhere near the place. I used to live in Saline, some 25 miles East of the speedway, and on race weekends I’d see bumper-to-bumper traffic headed West on Fridays and East on Sundays, all campers with lawn chairs strapped to the back, colorfully adorned with the paraphernalia of auto racing enthusiasm. I’ve never gone in for that sort of thing myself; never seen the appeal of it, really, but I’ve lived within a couple of miles of US-12 pretty much my whole life, so I guess something like the misadventure I had on Sunday was always in my stars, or cards, or entrails, or whatever. In any case, I should’ve seen it coming. It was a Sunday morning, though. I thought if anything, the hordes would be departing, a weekend’s revelry behind them, but no. At first, I mistook the roadblock for some kind of construction –related traffic control, an assumption which, in most other parts of the state during this time of year, would be fairly safe. All I saw was that my way was blocked by a multitude of state troopers and orange barrels. They would simply let me go once a backhoe or some such machine had finished working in the road, I thought. I was a fool, still whistling the fool’s optimistic tune to himself, oblivious to the cacophonous scratch of Nero’s fiddle. Sure enough, after a ten minute pause, they let me go forward, though barrels had been used to route my path onto the shoulder (which I thought nothing of at the time), and with the same having been done on the opposite side of the highway, all four lanes were sent to the West. I was beginning to wonder what they would do to accommodate the people who may want to go East, when I passed a sign which said “All Lanes Race Parking.” Sure enough, my makeshift lane was being diverted off the highway, and into one of the massive grassy fields used as parking lots for the Speedway. Not one of the lanes was left going Westward, towards my intended destination. I pulled up next to a state trooper who was directing me into the parking lot.

“You can’t stop here,” he said. He was all business, and his business was not courtesy.

“But I don’t want to go to MIS,” I said, ignoring the hand gesture with which he was waving me on, “I want to go West.”

“Well, you can’t. Move along!”The line of cars behind me began to honk their horns in unison. It was clear I had no choice. Once in the parking lot, I pulled up to a yellow-shirted attendant, who was attempting to wave me into a parking space.

“Do you have a pass?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I would like to leave.” He looked puzzled.

“Oh. Well, just head that way,” he suggested, waving his hand vaguely, and without giving the impression that he was at all confident in his prescription, “they’ll help you.” I ventured off in the direction indicated, closer to the speedway, and, I imagine, the more expensive parking, wondering who “they” might be. Having gone nearly a half mile, I pulled up to another attendant.

“Do you have a pass?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I would like to leave.”

“Oh.” There was a long pause. Evidently, no one had wanted to leave before. “Ok. Um, go up to those campsites, and take a left, and that’ll get you back out to 12.” Perfect. I didn’t see any campsites, but I guessed that must’ve been his quaint, parking attendant term for RV parking spaces. I found a driveway and took a left, and saw US-12 in all its glory, some hundred yards ahead. There was a booth at the end, probably only for checking people in, as it seemed that no one had ever tried to leave before. I drove right past it, waving at the attendant. I was through with his ilk, and would not be needing his assistance, thank you very much. I took a right at the end of the drive, and was on my way.


More barrels, and a police car barricaded the road ahead. A cop waved me to the right, back into the speedway. I pulled up to the first attendant.

“Do you have a pass?”

“No, I would like to leave.”

“Oh. Well, you can’t go that way without a pass.”

“I don’t want to go that way. That cop sent me here.” I gestured behind me with my thumb.

“Well, you can’t go that way without a pass.” Apparently, whatever this guy’s job was, the training for it involved only one very brief session. He then suggested that I head East a half a mile through the parking lot, take a right, and the driveway would take me back to US-12.

“I already did that,” I said. “That’s what I was doing when the cop sent me this way. It’s a loop.”

Another cop approached the car. I thought about how they all had matching sunglasses.

“What’s the problem here?” He seemed like the kind of guy who takes being in charge very seriously, but in fairness to him, context might have colored my perception somewhat.

“I want to go West.”

“Ain’t gon’ happen,” said the parking attendant, in a tone that suggested he thought he was being helpful. His drawl seemed to deepen as he spoke. The cop nodded in assent.

“The road’s blocked. You can’t go West on 12.” I wondered if he used that tone of voice with his friends. I concluded that he must not, because no one who did so could have any friends to speak to.

“Well, what should I do then? I can’t go back East, either. Are you suggesting that I spend the day at MIS?”

“Not without a pass,” offered the attendant, smiling. I was enraged. I wanted to kick his teeth in.

“Not my problem,” said the cop, stepping away from the car, and waving me in the direction the attendant had indicated. He was ending the conversation on his own terms. He had no idea how to help me, so obviously the best thing was to tell me to piss off.

“Gee, thanks” I muttered, rolling up my window and heading for the driveway again. Once again at the start of the loop, this time I took a left, and headed towards the back side of the blockade at which my ordeal had begun.

Fortunately, before I got there, I noticed a small dirt road cutting off US-12 to the South, blocked by two cops, who were in the process of telling the driver at the front of a short line of cars that they couldn’t get to MIS that way, and had to take the long way around.

“Let’s pretend I’m an ambulance,” I said, rolling down my window. “How the hell do I get out of here?”


“I want out.”

“Where do you want to go?”


“Well, you can’t take 12.”

“Uh huh. Figured that out on my own.” I regret the tone I took with him, because he actually seemed sympathetic to my plight (for a cop). Either that, or I should have been more hostile at the beginning of the ordeal, because hostility gets results. In any case, he was the first person I’d met who seemed to be able to wrap his mind around the fact that I might not be interested in staying at the racetrack.

“Well, you can head South, and when you get to a T-intersection, turn right, and that’ll take you back up to 12.”

“Will it still be blocked off up there?”


“Well, thank you very much. Have a good day, officer.”

I rolled up my window and he stepped out of the road to let me through.

On the winding dirt road, going through what I believe to have been the Ozarks, and barely avoiding being run off the road by a near-constant stream of North-bound (and soon to be re-routed) race fans in (without exception) large pickup trucks, I called the state police office in Lansing.

“Hello,” I began, “I’ve just been stuck at Michigan International Speedway for an hour, while trying to drive West on US-12. I’m going to be traveling the opposite direction this evening, and I would like to know if the road is going to be blocked again.” The voice on the other end, who had identified himself as Lieutenant so-and-so (I’m terrible with names), sounded exactly like Ben Stein.

“Michigan International Speedway typically accommodates between fifty and a hundred thousand people on race weekends.”

“So, will the highway be closed?”

“Between fifty and a hundred thousand people will be leaving Michigan International Speedway this evening.”

“So, you’re saying I should take an alternate route?”

“Between fifty and a hundred thousa—“

“Thank you, Lieutenant” I interrupted. “You’ve been very helpful.” I hung up the phone.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

I Am A Vigilante

Swinging the door open to my left, and trying not to think about the nature of the discoloration near the handle, I stepped into the restroom, and I saw him. I have you now, you bastard. He was there, as I imagined was his habit, using the middle urinal: the one that doesn’t flush properly. This hulking, lumbering oaf of man-like appearance was the one whose foul bile was left daily to pollute the lavatory with its loathsome odor. His back was to me, preventing me from seeing his eyes, but I could tell that they gleamed with hatred for all his fellow beings, whose every breath was poisoned with the reek of his abhorrence. Fair Justice had delivered him into my grasp; now was the time for action. I must strike now, and rid the community of man forever of this pest. But what was I to do? I am a man of thought, of feeling, of dreams and aspirations perhaps, but not of violence. Were I to attack the brute head on, unarmed and unaided, his fists would surely make short work of me. But what of Justice, bespoilt thus, and by such a creature? Had her cause left to it no champion? No defender? If I did nothing, did I not share in the guilt of my antagonist? Alas, while my heart wrestled thus with itself, the brute finished his vile work, and without seeming to notice my presence, brushed past me and out the door, without so much as casting a glance in the direction of the sink, soap and towels. (Disgusted as I was, I cannot claim to have been surprised to find that he was not among their votaries.) A short while later, having fulfilled my own purpose for venturing thither, and after disposing of his filth (for indeed, all that the middle urinal requires is that the handle be held down for a short while longer than usual), I pried open the door with a paper towel, dropping it in its proper place as I departed, and sulked back to my desk, cursing my cowardice. I had my foe within an arm’s length, and in my weakness had let him escape, to perpetrate perhaps still greater crimes against his fellow creatures.

Some two days hence, I once again found myself in that same place, for though it was with a heavy heart I returned, necessity compelled me thither with what, if you will excuse my use of the term, I shall call regularity. Little could I believe the vicissitudes of fortune, for there again was my foe, and unrepentantly committing his habitual crime! I have you now, you bastard! But wait: surely I was deceived, I thought, for this was not the same brute as before. Does there exist some confederation of beings so indifferent to the plight of their neighbor? Surely not, for what could such creatures desire in associating with one another? Could there be a more absurd notion than a community of the antisocial? Nay, what I beheld must surely go by another name, that of Anarchy. I was defeated. Perhaps, overcoming my cowardice and taking advantage of my superior agility I may have bested one man, but this was far worse. This wasn’t merely a crime, it was systematic misanthropy. It was chaos. Their habitual unruliness required not the narrow blade of Justice, but the broad, inescapable net of the Law.

What was I to do? Certainly, one man cannot of himself be Law, for that would amount to nothing less than tyranny, but mayhap, like Moses of old, insignificant man that I am, I could give Law. Yes! Give them the Law, and yea, let it be writ upon their very hearts! Perhaps their malformed consciences merely had need of some dictum to follow, to lead them down the path of clean living. Morally, I was presented with little less than a Divine imperative, both to protect the community in which I found myself from further misdeeds, and also to guide these wayward souls, that they may no more offend the dignity of their brethren.

My plan having been hatched some short while after the aforementioned second encounter, I arose from my desk, and stepping across the hall, removed my latter-day Stone Tablet from the laser printer. Grasping the Notice in one hand, and clutching in the other a scotch tape dispenser, I swiftly, and purposefully, made my way back to the restroom. Destiny, it seems (and there is no shortage of evidence to this fact), has a taste for the dramatic, for no poet could have composed a more fitting end to my sordid story but that I should find once again, and for the final time, the stink of human micturation wafting through the air! Emboldened in my purpose, I strode to the spot of the offense, determined that none might catch me, and learn from what ignorable authority came my Notice. Swiftly, yet with great care, I removed four pieces of the tape, and affixed the Notice on the wall above the urinal, a rallying cry of Justice in a world of wanton cruelty. In plain letters, it read:


Having thus giv’n the Law to the Idolaters, with a flourish of my hand I pressed and held down the handle of the troublesome urinal, banishing forever the cruel injustice which I and those of like conscience had before suffered in silence. Out, foul urine! Trouble no more the works of man!
Justice, be thou ever so well-served!