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Because, mountains.

A trip home was long overdue, especially one filled with family, fishing, glaciers, hiking, and camping. And my visit last week to Alaska did not disappoint. After meeting my sister, her fiance, and my 2-year-old niece in Anchorage, we made our way to Seward, up through Talkeetna and Denali National Park, and on to Fairbanks (my hometown). (Fun fact, Talkeetna had a cat for their mayor, Stubbs, from 1997-2017.) Though the weather was already similar to late-October in Spokane, the chilly air and changing colors were more than welcome – it was absolutely perfect hiking weather. To avoid the crowds of end-of-season tourists in Denali, we took off on a 7-mile hike that started outside the park and traveled inward called Bison Gulch. Was it hard? Yes. Was it windy as hell? Yes. Did I complain? You better believe it. But damn…you can’t beat that view.

Joel (my SO) halfway through the hike looking back at the park entrance.

A few more because, Alaska.

Seward, Alaska

Hiking to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.

The Tanana River, outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Life Lessons from Peanuts

As a kid, I didn’t just look like Charlie Brown—I was Charlie Brown: loser, misfit, blockhead. Probably why I loved reading Peanuts so much.

It’s also why I enjoyed Bruce Handy’s essay on the “absurd precocity” of Charles Schulz’s nihilistic comic strip, adapted from The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life.

“On some level,” Handy writes, “Charlie Brown’s relentless suffering comforted me, a lightning rod, I think, for my own anxieties about my place in the world—Peanuts as catharsis, as worst-case scenario, with the awaited thunderclap of laughter substituting for the reassurance of a fairy-tale happily-ever-after.”

If I were a better writer, I could have written that sentence myself. But here’s where I part company with Mr. Handy. Sure, Peanuts taught me that life is cruel and people are terrible (lessons borne out pretty much every day, it seems), but it also reminded me that there’s beauty in the world. And beauty, wrote Dostoevsky, will change the world.

Like Charlie Brown, I’m still hoping.


It’s been a week since we last posted – on accounta we’ve been busier’n a borrowed mule around here. Don’t have much time for the usual profundity, so I’ll just leave these here for you:

14 Fun Facts about Roller Coasters – one of which is that they “were initially developed as a distraction from Satan’s temptations.”

Your semi-regular reminder that writing is hard.

Speaking of which, Comma Queen Mary Norris reports on “The Long Hot Summer of Grammar.”

A shallow lake, 16,400 feet above sea level in the Himalayas, holds the bones of as many as 500 people. But it gets even weirder, thanks to a recent DNA study.

Taco Very Much

Earlier this week, a 41-year-old man died seven minutes into a taco eating contest. “We are not ruling a cause of death yet,” said the sheriff’s department, “but we have an idea.”

Not to make light of an unfortunate situation, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned here: pace yourself. According to spectator Matthew Boylan, the deceased was noticeably faster than the other competitors. “It was like he’d never eaten before,” he told the Fresno Bee. “He was just shoving the tacos down his mouth without chewing.”

As it happens, I know a little something about taco eating contests. Thirty years ago, I was part of a four-man team representing the EWU Marching Band against the KZZU Breakfast Boys at the now-defunct Taco Time in downtown Cheney. There was one simple rule: Eat as many “crisp tacos” as you can in one hour.

The first 59 minutes went about as you’d expect: a feeding frenzy for the first 10 followed by a 49-minute descent into sweaty torpidity. As the seconds ticked down and the scoreboard showed a tie, I looked across the room at the KZZU deejays and sensed weakness. I turned to rally my teammates, but it was too late. One stared off into the distance, a piece of iceberg lettuce dangling from his lower lip; another was slumped forward in his seat, one hand clutching his belly in pain while the other held onto the edge of the table for support; the third appeared to be mumbling to himself, but it turns out he was just praying for deliverance.

It was up to me, then. With 8 seconds remaining, I grabbed the nearest taco and jammed it into my mouth, chewing and swallowing simultaneously as pieces of shell and bits of meat cascaded down my chin and onto my sweat-stained shirt. I resisted a sudden urge to vomit—an urge that persisted for the next several hours. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, as it were, and I had a vision of my dead great-grandmother.

“Nana?” I asked. “Is that you?”

The timer went off. It was over. The judges approached the two tables, examined each of the contestants’ mouths, and huddled briefly before rendering their verdict: EWU Marching Band by half a taco.

I don’t want to toot my own horn or anything, but I was responsible not only for that crucial final half taco, but also for 27 whole ones during the hour-long contest. That’s nowhere near Joey Chestnut’s world record of 126 in eight minutes, but still—not bad for an amateur.

It’s Like “Inception” for Punctuation Nerds

Over at the Spectator, David Crystal reviews Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, who was kind enough to grant permission for an excerpt of the book to be published by the Paris Review – which is where I first learned that a semicolon, along with the comma, colon, and period, was once regarded as a precise measurement of a pause.

On Aesthetic Disputes

In the seventh in a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard at The Point, she writes that “[t]he plurality of aesthetic points of view is a product of the genuine diversity between human beings, and the fact that they are free to judge for themselves what appeals to them. It should occasion respect, not contempt.”

But, she hastens to add – you knew there was a but, right? – “there is a fine line between respecting others’ right to their bad taste, and opting to participate in it.”

True, I suppose…to a point. Whether you agree with her or not, though, Callard’s always worth reading.

It’s Happening

Courtesy of the inestimable Jill Poland, who once did yeoman’s work for us here at helveticka world headquarters, comes this terrifying story from The Hustle about the use of AI to write “creative ad copy.”

Now, my batting average on predicting the efficacy of such things is, at best, somewhere around .500 – which is about as good as you can reasonably expect when you’re predisposed to think that most ideas from Silicon Valley are stupid anyway. So I’m loath to weight in on this one.

But I will say that, given the number of comma splices and rogue apostrophes and misplaced modifiers and random capitalization and subject-verb disagreement I see every single day from actual human writers, well…it couldn’t get any worse, could it?

I, for one, welcome our new robot writer overlords.


“We’re inundated with media stories about how we’re not getting enough sleep, not spending enough time with our families and whiling away our days glued to screens. There’s just no time to stop and think any more. But is that true?” Probably not.

The feel-good story of the week comes to us courtesy of the New Yorker: “How Mosquitos Changed Everything: They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history. And they’re not finished with us yet.”

“How and why has the left changed? When did it adopt so many attitudes – identitarianism, censoriousness, puritanism, a propensity for moral panics – traditionally associated with the conservative right?” A libertarian millennial’s new book aims to answer some important questions.

Stop! Grammar Time!

Because these things matter, if only to keep the barbarians beyond the gates for a little while longer:

An abbreviation is a shortened word or phrase. Like Wash. instead of Washington.

An initialism is an abbreviation whose letters are individually pronounced. FBI, for example.

An acronym is an an abbreviation that forms a word: YOLO, AWOL, GIF. (Sometimes, they become actual words – like laser, from Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.)

Look at it this way: Both initialisms and acronyms are types of abbreviations. It’s just that one creates a word and the other doesn’t.

Just One Year Ago

On August 4, 2018, helveticka celebrated its 30th anniversary. The occasion was marked by an exhibit titled CX30: Creative Experiences, Thirty Collaborators. It featured 30 collaborators who played an important role in helping us reach this milestone. In case you missed it, here’s a link to the site that features each of their individual stories. A year later, many of these creative partners are still lending their expertise to our projects.

photograph courtesy of Chad Ramsey

Above are 24 of the 30 exhibit subjects – mostly local, but some from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle – who joined Linda and me during our anniversary celebration. Now that’s one serious talent pool.

Thank you, Internet…

…for all things design and cat – the best of two wonderful worlds.

Cat pin puns from Niaski: Pablo Picatso, Piet Meowdrian, and Keith Hairball. (There are more, of course. A lot more.)

Love me a cat sitting chicken-style.

So sweet I could melt – but this is even SWEETER.

I should probably get back to work now.

Travis Rivers, RIP

When I entered Eastern Washington University in the fall of 1985 as a freshman music major, I had no idea what I was getting into. I just remember that the possibilities seemed endless. I literally believed that I had a chance of playing in a major symphony orchestra.

It was a different time, of course. Professional orchestras were still economically viable, for one thing. And doesn’t every eighteen-year-old have more confidence than sense?

One of the things that sticks out from my first week of classes was the humorlessness of the professors. Theory, aural skills, music history: it was a dour bunch, with maybe two exceptions. The first was Richard Obregon, who, in a moment of weakness (and, in retrospect, somewhat irresponsibly), gave me his recipe for cactus coolers; the second was Travis Rivers.

Travis, who died last week at the age of 81, was every bit the nattily dressed walking encyclopedia that people remember. But he was also a kind, thoughtful, and extraordinarily funny man. As chairman of the department, he’d frequently roam the halls, hands behind his back and a twinkle in his eye as he’d chat up students, offer a wry observation, or crack a joke so dry it would sometimes take a day or two before you’d get it.

He was a hell of a writer, too.

Around 2001 – more than a decade after I’d left EWU – I began writing music criticism for The Local Planet, a short-lived alternative weekly that handled news more irreverently than the Spokesman and covered arts more seriously than the Inlander. It wasn’t the sort of publication you’d imagine Travis would read, and yet, a day or two after my first piece appeared, there it was: a congratulatory email from the man himself. I was surprised he’d remembered me at all, to be honest. But he knew I had a talent, he wrote – not so much for musicianship, as it happened, but for writing. And he’d always known I’d find a way to do it for a living.

Travis was one of those quiet people who made an outsized difference in a lot of lives. And I’ll be forever grateful for the time I knew him.

Pagans and Heathens and Hippies, Oh My!

Over at The Baffler, there’s a great piece by Edward Millar and John Semley on one of my favorite films of all time – 1973’s The Wicker Man – and the subgenre it begot: folk horror. “[A]t its core,” they write, “folk horror is speculative fiction about the failures of the Age of Enlightenment.” Contrary to supernatural horror (like, say, The Exorcist, which also came out in 1973), folk horror “inverts rather than negates Enlightenment philosophy: the mob sacrifices the individual, peasant superstitions supplant science and reason as the true source of knowledge, a holistic and animistic conception of the universe overtakes an atomistic and mechanistic one.”

The Exorcist did to horror what 2001: A Space Odyssey did to science fiction; what The Good, The Bad and The Ugly did to the western; what The Godfather did to crime dramas. But while William Friedkin’s classic is rightly considered one of the scariest films ever made, The Wicker Man is – for me, anyway – even more terrifying. Thanks to Millar and Semley, I now have a better understanding why. And now I really, really want to see Midsommar.

What Goes Around…

Kevin Drum’s helpful “Short Primer on Modern Nuclear Reactor Design” includes a mention of thermal breeders – a type of reactor that produces more fuel than it uses.

Sound too good to be true?

Not when you consider that, on December 20, 1951, Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1, near Arco, Idaho, became the first power plant in the world to produce electricity using atomic energy. That’s an impressive feat in and of itself. But there’s more: In 1953, testing confirmed that EBR-1 was, in fact, breeding fuel. The reactor operated safely for 12 years.

So when Drum says that breeder reactor technology represents one of many ideas that “deserve buckets of money for research to make them ever cheaper, more reliable, and easier to maintain,” keep in mind that we had a working one sixty-six years ago.

Generating electricity.

In Idaho.

The Dark Side of Marketing

“The Cosmic Crisp is debuting on [sic] grocery stores after this fall’s harvest,” writes Brooke Jarvis in The California Sunday Magazine, “and in the nervous lead-up to the launch, everyone from nursery operators to marketers wanted me to understand the crazy scope of the thing: the scale of the plantings, the speed with which mountains of commercially untested fruit would be arriving on the market, the size of the capital risk. People kept saying things like ‘unprecedented,’ ‘on steroids,’ ‘off the friggin’ charts,’ and ‘the largest launch of a single produce item in American history.'”

It’s the result of 22 years of research and development. It’s the first of its kind named by consumers. And its launch plans include a bevy of social media “influencers.”

It’s…an apple.

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