Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

What do you get when you combine e-commerce and self-pleasure? Bad puns, is what. Lots of bad puns.

Oh, don't look so disappointed.

I read to Tom every night, sometimes Richard Scarry, sometimes Sandra Boynton, sometimes Mother Goose. The last thing you'd think would get you in trouble would be Mother Goose.

Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater

Had a wife, but couldn't keep her

So he put her in a pumpkin shell

And there he kept her very wel--

"Um. Hey, Tom?"

He looks up at me.

"Don't tell Mommy we read that one, OK?"

Man, I used to have a lot more free time.

Four years ago, at this exact moment, I made my first post to a long-forgotten Web site called GrapeJam. It was the inevitable (and inevitably unsuccessful) follow-up to another long-forgotten Web site called The Spot. Self-labeled a "sit.com" -- in what has to be the worst pun in the history of Man -- GrapeJam was ostensibly about the lives and loves of a reconstituted college comedy troupe, the Grapes.

What it was actually about was landing everybody involved jobs in television.

On the surface, the biggest problem that GrapeJam faced was the fact nobody within six or seven miles of the production was even remotely funny. You can label yourself a comedy troupe all you want -- comedy troupe, comedy troupe, comedy troupe! -- but eventually your audience is going to expect some actual comedy. The bastards.

A little deeper, GrapeJam faced a much more complicated issue, involving the nature of interactive story-telling. Meaning, of course, me.

GrapeJam fancied itself a television show, only temporarily stuck on the Web. The message boards and e-mail addresses always seemed like afterthoughts, sad little stabs at community-building, to give the "viewers" something to do until the next "episode" appeared. That attitude -- and the heads that contained it -- just begged to be messed with.

I didn't post to GrapeJam as myself -- I'm not quite that pathetic -- but as "Bernie Larkin," a former college pal and an abandoned member of the group. Bernie was an embittered, overweight, sad-sack computer programmer -- I didn't say he wasn't based on me -- who galoomphed onto the scene and started doing everything he could to plant a wrench in the works.

The people behind GrapeJam didn't have any idea who the hell I was or where the hell I had come from. They handled the appearance of an unexpected "character" on their "show" with all the aplomb of the Queen Mother faced with an angry biker gang: a curt dismissal followed by a refusal to accept the fact that I existed.

But everybody else bought Bernie completely, and was having a great time. Nobody was sure if I was actually part of the script or not and people began rooting for the Grapes to re-admit me. I got fan mail. There was a week or so there when I suspect Bernie could have just walked off with the whole thing, started his own site and taken a goodly portion of the community with him.

Which is the great thing about the Web, if you ask me, and why "shows" based on an exclusionary metaphor will never, ever work. Television studios have enormous, burly guards out front, to keep people from wandering onto the set and claiming to be part of the cast. Jumping the wall will likely get you shot.

But the Web invites participation, and the line between the front of a server and back is awfully fuzzy. Who's to say that someone is actually involved in a project or not? On the Internet, nobody knows you're a crasher. If anyone with a computer and a little rambunctiousness can start mucking with tightly organized systems -- Amazon, Epinions, doubly so for peer-to-peer networks -- then anything that expects less than total participation is just asking to be screwed with.

Which just sound like a hell of a lot of fun, doesn't it?

Ever since Tom was born, I've lived in fear of a single, terrible moment -- the day I leave for work and he notices.

Long ago, a friend told me that his son, as he gathered up his things to leave, would cry and cry, cry like the world was coming to an end. "Don't go, Daddy," he would wail. "Please don't go!" But my friend would pull himself away and walk to the car and quietly die, turning his back on his begging, pleading boy. It broke his heart, he said, each and every day.

How could I take that? How could I leave? How could I walk away from my son, tears cascading down his cheeks, wanting nothing but to be with his father? I've been dreading, fearing, loathing the day, knowing that it would come.

And a few weeks ago, it finally arrived. As 8:30 approached, I began to gather my things. Tom, playing in the next room, approached and looked up at me with his enormous blue eyes. He reached out and took hold of my finger and smiled a wonderful smile, a small, gentle smile just for me.

Then he marched me to the front door, pushed me out and closed it behind me. I heard him laugh as he ran back to his toys.

The reason I like programming computers, see, is because my ability to get the job done is rarely related to the size of my ass.

I've been crawling around in fine, silty dust under my house all morning, making my way around the foot and a half of clearance the foundation graciously allows me. I'm moving a cable plug from one wall to another -- we swapped sides with the sofa -- and it's ugly, dirty, messy, awful work.

It's not so much the sweat turning the dust to mud or the thin coating of black death that my lungs are getting that bother me, so much as the fact that every time I have to crawl over a drainage pipe or under a water uptake, my ass gets in the way. I worm my chest through a too small space, pull myself along with my arms and... Damn.

This sort of thing never happens when I'm programming. I just walk down into the code, peeling back layer after layer, until I'm where I can fix the problem. Panting and out of breath, my butt wedged between a pipe and a supporting beam, I can't help but wish that reality worked the same way. Helicopters would lift the house off the foundation, and half the flooring would roll away, letting me drill a quick hole for the cable without even getting my knees dirty. I'd punch a rectangle out of the wall for the junction box and loop the wire through just as the house settled back down. Problem solved.

But instead, a spider crawls across my face. The physical world sucks.

I'm cheating on Don DeLillo's "White Noise."

I feel terrible, of course -- I love it and all, but sometimes it's just too stifling, to overwhelming. I sneak away every once in a while to read something easier, to have some fun, to stop having to think all the damned time. I "accidentally" leave it at work so I have an excuse for some sack-time with, say, John Grisham or Sue Grafton -- with someone easy and cheap and uncomplicated.

They're just flings, of course. They don't mean anything to me. I only really love "White Noise."

But I've got to be careful, because I think Don is starting to suspect.

When I'm in charge -- and don't think it won't happen -- restaurants will be required to put a little symbol next to each messy sandwich on their menus.

"Warning!" the symbol will say. "This shrimp poor boy may sound amusingly off-beat, but, honestly, it's just a bunch of slippery critters stuffed into a too-flaky, too-long roll. Please don't order it if you're here for a business lunch. Judging from how awkward you look in that tie, you're probably going to embarrass yourself badly enough without having to worry about picking shrimp out of your lap the whole time."

Through extensive trial and error, I've discovered that there are a few places that you simply do not start casual conversations: VD clinics, elevators, funerals. And, of course, the circus.

Hello, kids! And welcome to Fun-Time Story Theatre!

Once, long ago, in a faraway land, there was a mommy and a daddy and two little boys and a doggie. They all lived together in a pretty house that had a lawn and windows and a porch. Every night, their porch was visited by a mysterious stranger that they had named Bernard, the Gastrointestinally Unhappy Cat. Bernard always left a present for the daddy. And every morning, the daddy would open the door of the house to go get the newspaper, discover Bernard's present and mutter an expletive. Then he would hose everything down.

The end!

Miracles of Marketing: First in a Series

"Refreshing fruit medley" sounds a whole lot better than "small dish of grapes and cantaloupe."

Supermarkets suck. I spent fifteen minutes shuttling around Ralphs last night, looking for a simple can of chili. Is it with the canned meat? No. The canned beans? No. The soups? No. The Spaghetti-os? Oh, yes. Of course. Silly me.

When I'm in charge -- and plans are being made -- supermarkets will make sense, laid out the way people think. Everything above, for instance, will be on one aisle, because they're all in cans. Fruit salad, too. Dog food. Sodas and beer. Cans, you'll think as you walk into the store, cans. And there they are.

The laundry detergent will be next to the soap, because they both clean things. Toothpaste next, then deodorant, then toilet paper, then paper towels. Because when I need one I always need all the others.

The sauerkraut will be next to the hot dogs which will be next to the ground beef which will be next to the hamburger buns which will be next to the bread which will be next to the butter which will be next to the eggs which will be next to the Bisquick which will be next to the syrup. Sauerkraut and syrup belong on the same aisle. Am I the only one who can see that? It just makes sense.

Last night was the sixth anniversary of my first -- and only, I add for emphasis -- blind date.

After I arrived late -- which is always a great way to make a first impression -- we headed off towards the restaurant and into the yawning void that had instantly sprung up between us. The chill in the air came in handy because it was a hot August night and neither my air conditioning nor window handles worked.

Panicking, I unleashed the pre-planned joke I had brought with me. Don't place too much significance on the fact that I carried around an emergency joke, because, man, does it make me look like a weenie.

"I'm very self-deprecating," I said, "but I'm not very good at it."

She looked out the passenger window, at the rows of apartments sliding by. I figured that since she wasn't slapping her knee and laughing uproariously, she hadn't heard me. So I said it again.

"I'm very self-deprecating, but I'm not very good at it," I said. And then added helpfully, "Ha ha!"

She turned to look at me -- she was a lawyer, so she was very good at turning to look at people -- and said, "I heard you the first time."

Then her voice dropped a degree or two and she added, "I hate that."

Ah. Yes. Of course.

Please allow me to kill myself now.

But, ultimately, I had my revenge. I showed her. I married her and fathered her children. Ha! Take that!

The red Explorer roars past me on the right, dodging in and out of traffic, honking its horn furiously at anyone who has the nerve to obey the speed limit.

Pasted to the back is what looks like a homemade bumper sticker, dumped to a laser printer using a cartoon font:

Liberal's
SUCK

And grammar does, too, apparently.

I bought a whoopie cushion the other day -- no, seriously -- and printed on the back of the package were the words: Made in China.

And since then I've been able to think of nothing but a small Chinese man, sweat pouring off him as he works a churning, dangerous machine, stamping out whoopie cushions in the darkest corner of a filthy factory. He's shaking his head, this man, slowly and in quiet amazement.

"Americans," he thinks. "Americans."

I want one of those new fangled stealth devices that everybody's got -- y'know, the ones that make other people invisible to you instead of the other way around.

I want to step off an escalator and just stand there, thinking about where I'm going to go next as people pile up behind me. I want to change lanes on the freeway, suddenly and with no regard for who else might be out on the road. I want to straddle an entire aisle in the video store, totally oblivious to anybody clearing their throat in a desperate attempt to get past.

The world seems so much easier when there's nobody else in it.

I wasn't ogling her, so much as basking in the natural beauty that surrounds us each and every day of our lives, if we only open our eyes to see it.

And then I walked into a door jamb.

I have made, I believe, four loaves of bread in the five years since I've gotten married. That would be pathetic, but it beats the hell out of the two pints of ice cream.

After Tom was born, both Joanne and I agreed that she should quit her job and stay home to raise our new son. Joanne thought it was important to bond with the child, to watch him grow and learn, to communicate our values and sense of right to him as soon as possible. I thought was was important to get out of going to her office Christmas party.

Things I Always Meant to Do: "Where's My Pants?" World Phrase Book

If you're ever traveling in Japan, remember this sentence: "Zubon wa doko ni arimasuka?" If you're lucky, someone close by will know.

Six or seven years ago I started to collect -- meaning I spent an afternoon collecting, and have been intending to get back to it ever since -- how to say "Where's my pants?" in every human language. I figured, hey, you wake up disoriented and confused in some foreign land, the first thing you're going to want to know is where your pants are. How you got there, if you have any money and who this person handcuffed to you is can all wait until you're back in your trousers. Priorities, people, priorities.

I ended up with a dozen or so languages -- English, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Swedish, Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin), American Sign Language -- all from just pestering my co-workers. I could have gotten one more, but the woman who knew Vietnamese was too shy to tell me.

I've since lost the file I was saving the phrases in, so the Japanese is the only one I remember well (beyond English and Spanish, which were my two contributions). But it has come in handy, despite the fact that my pants-losing days are hopefully behind me:

I was at a Dodger game once, high up in the cheap seats, and I spent the forth inning standing up and shouting the phrase as loud as I could. Because, dammit, I felt like it. Nobody paid me any attention except a slender Asian man, fifteen or twenty rows down, who kept turning around suddenly, looking very, very confused.

So I told the TiVo to record "The Stepford Wives," but because of schedule changes, it ended up saving Laura Bush's speech to the Republican Convention.

Hey, I didn't say it. The TiVo did.

My degree is in political science; I program computers for a living -- something this silly was probably inevitable.

Two years later, I went back to see Cook again, but he cut out, never showing up to perform.

Some people crack under the pressure of fame, I guess.

I'd never seen a rolling mid-life crisis before.

He was riding one of those giant Harleys, cushioned and windshielded and lumbar-supported, basically a Barcolounger with wheels. His Harley shirt was streached tight over his gut and his Harley helment covered thinning, sandy hair. A Harley keychain dangled from the ignition. I would have been willing to lay a bet on what kind of socks he had on.

His license plate read "EZEE RDR."

And, really, you can't get much easier than that.

It's wrong -- wrong, dammit -- to laugh at people just because they're dumber than you.

Unless they're annoying. Then it's fine. Go right ahead.

If you pay attention, there are subtle signs that maybe this whole New Economy thing isn't working out. Last night, shopping at Ralphs, I found the following list at the bottom of the cart I grabbed as I went in:

  • Potatos

  • Coffee

  • Corn-cob

  • SOS Pads

  • Diet Pepsi

  • Q-Tips

  • Nectarines

  • Bananas

  • Wheat Bread - Honey

  • Lactaid

  • 2 Haagen Daz

  • 12pk Angel Soft

  • Ziploc Container

  • Pasta Sauce

All of it written on a HomeGrocer.com note pad.

Things I Always Meant to Do: Seven Deadly Sins Week

I love this idea. It's got that whole last-days-of-Rome feel to it. Plus, if you're committing a mortal sin, there's a technicality that exempts you from being considered a boring geek.

Each morning, I was going to pick a Sin -- Pride, Lust, Covetousness, Envy, Anger, Gluttony and Sloth -- and spend the day indulging in it. Doesn't that sound like an enormous amount of fun? "Hey! Today's Gluttony! Cool! Where are my big pants?" I was going to print t-shirts, send invitations to the local clergy, just go all out.

For a while, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to manage adultery -- generally, somebody else needs to be involved for it to be considered adultery -- but then it was pointed out to me that the Sin is just Lust, which is pretty easy to pull off all by yourself.

Of course, I never got off my ass to actually do any of this. My big, beautiful plans, all left to rot. Normally, completely abandoning any initiative whatsoever would mark the project as an abject failure, but I like to think that I decided to start with Sloth and have just been really, really good at it.

OK, OK, I know it's not politically correct, but some people just deserve to be tied to a chair, doused in gasoline and have matches flicked at them.

Since then, I've seen three more electric cars, two of which were getting around the same way.

One thing about staying home from work to recuperate: I have to struggle off the sofa for every damned call that comes in, and four-fifths of them turn out to be from some slack-jawed rube, cold-calling me in the hopes that I'm dumb enough to buy something.

The phone rings and I waddle over the phone and pick it up.

"Hello?"

There's a pause, which instantly identifies this as a cold-call. The computer waits to hear me, then patches me through to the slack-jawed rube they've got squatting in a cube somewhere.

"Hello?" I say again.

"Hello," says the slack-jawed rube, the hubbub of his slack-jawed comrades behind him. "Is, ah, Mister or Missus..." -- there's a pause here, there's always a pause -- "...Kahnesh... there?"

I laugh a hollow, bitter laugh. "We're not interested," I say.

"Um," he says. "In what?"

"In whatever it is that you're selling."

"I'm not selling anything."

"I don't believe you."

"Um. OK."

"Now go away."

"Um. OK."

"And if you call here again, I'll find you and kill your cat."

So Joanne and Tom and Mike and I are out for a little family drive down the 101 -- just as 2.4-kids-and-a-mortgage as you can get -- when a red Lexus goes rocketing by. In the front seat is mom, frizzy-haired and haggard; in the back are two teenage girls, their effusive blubbliness obvious even over the rapidly expanding distance between us. They sing along to music we can't hear.

And the sides of the car are plastered, wallpapered, with countless magazine pages, color photos ripped from what has to be dozens of different publications. They're tearing themselves to shreds with the speed of the Lexus, but each is still recognizable, and each features the same pearl-white grin and tanned face. Hanging from the back of the car is a hand-lettered sign that reads:

Britney

Spears

or Bust!

I look over at Joanne and say, "What do they mean 'or'? What good is one without the other?"

And then she hits me.

Just for the record, a foley catheter doesn't make amusing movie sound effects.

Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.

Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").

My e-mail address is greg@eod.com. I'd love to hear from you!

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