It Took a Little Longer Than They Thought
June 28, 2018 10:00 AM   Subscribe

After 45 years, five books, thousands of columns, and appearances in more than 100 MeFi FPPs, The Straight Dope has published its last column.

Mostly written by "Cecil Adams" (believed to be a pseudonym for credited column editor Ed Zotti), the Dope has been a mainstay of the Chicago Reader since its debut in 1973 and is, of course, a casualty of a pending sale of that publication. While Adams says the idea of the column may continue online, or he may write another book, The Straight Dope Message Board will definitely continue.
posted by Etrigan (45 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
posted by praemunire at 10:01 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

posted by condour75 at 10:11 AM on June 28, 2018

TIL, despite reading The Straight Dope since I was a teenager desperately consuming the Reader when a copy of it made its way to my suburban high school, Cecil Adams was a pseudonym.

The end of things you've liked for so long they seem like they'd be around is part of getting older I guess; it's just that here in 2018, it also feels more like the universe is specifically trying to make a craptacular point.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:19 AM on June 28, 2018 [15 favorites]

I have fond memories of stumbling across the Straight Dope website back when I first got on the Internet as a high school student in the late '90s. (My local alternative weekly didn't carry it, as far as I know.) It stood out as a one of the few places on the early Internet with a lot of interesting content all in one place. Courtesy of the Wayback Machine, here's what the page used to look like back in 1996. The Straight Dope webpage existed before that, of course, but the Wayback Machine didn't.

The site has had a few other designs throughout the years (1, 2), some more successful/useful than others. I suspected that things were not going all that well when it went to its current clickbait-ad-infested design; but despite that, I still looked forward to reading the new weekly columns, and I'll miss doing that every Friday.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:37 AM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I discovered the The Straight Dope through a book of collected columns when I was in high school. I was so into it that I kept it in the passenger seat of my car and would read it behind the wheel at traffic lights.

Thankfully, I'm a little more disciplined with my iPhone.
posted by chinese_fashion at 10:38 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think I had the same book, inexplicably given to me by my parents when I was in third grade. The whole thing was riveting, but the sex chapter, with it's explanations of topics like the hanky code, really blew my mind.
posted by heatvision at 10:46 AM on June 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Cecil Adams used to be Dave Kehr in the column's early days, and went a long ways towards establishing Cecil's style. (The first book in the collection probably has a lot of K-Cecil in it.)

As for the column itself, yeah, end of an era. Probably lots of people mark the slow death of alt-weeklies at different points (Alison Bechdel, Matt Groening, and Lynda Barry ending their mostly-alt-weekly comics, for example), but the Reader, even after drastically altering its format, was still the Reader as long as it had Cecil. Sic transit gloria triviasnark.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:51 AM on June 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

Ah, sad to hear this but what a nice thing to be reminded of. It's hard to even remember what it was like when the alt-weekly was the only source for all the stuff we now do on the internet (the snarky individual columnists, the odd letters, hyperlocal coverage of tiny bands, etc). The Straight Dope, News of the Weird, balms for the oddball public transit rider.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:58 AM on June 28, 2018 [12 favorites]

Man, I read that headline in my RSS app, and I knew exactly what this post would be about. As a fan since 1986, this is a sad day indeed.
posted by kimota at 11:09 AM on June 28, 2018

Curious what Chicagoans think about the Reader change in ownership. All I heard was it was purchased by a black woman, which seems like one positive thing. But I'm not in or from Chicago and that's all I know.

(Love the Straight Dope and never knew Cecil was a pseudonym)
posted by latkes at 11:16 AM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's obviously a lot more ignorance to fight. I guess ignorance won :(
posted by Foosnark at 11:17 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Sorry Cecil I lost interest a long time ago when you stopped appearing in the free weekly. But back in the 80's, with Slug Signorino's pictures, you were really great.
posted by Rash at 11:18 AM on June 28, 2018

One of my first regular haunts on the Internet was the SDMB. Glad to hear the community will keep going.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:30 AM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

posted by potrzebie at 11:48 AM on June 28, 2018

posted by Novus at 11:58 AM on June 28, 2018

I've been a fan since the early 1980s -- picking up a copy of the Chicago Reader from a stack in the student center was a weekly habit during my college days at Northwestern. Cecil and the personal ads were the highlights ("Man with chicken seeks woman with same" was always one of my favorites). I lurked around the SDMB for a while in the late 90s and early 2000s, but then this site called Meta-something came along and stole my heart. TBH, I hadn't even thought about The Straight Dope in years, though I guess I vaguely knew it still existed.

There's a lot more stupid out there than there used to be, so I hope Cecil and Ed keep up the fight somewhere.
posted by briank at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry to see the column go.

SMDB is where I used to hang out, and had some of the best things I've ever read ("The horror of blimps" or basically anything by Scylla). But the Overton Window over there has been dragged severely to the right since the aughts.
posted by Horkus at 12:24 PM on June 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

posted by ZeusHumms at 12:33 PM on June 28, 2018

I also used to hang out on the SDMB a little over a decade ago . Typing that has made me realize just how long it's been! And the column was definitely what led me there in the first place. I've learned so much reading through its archives, and always enjoyed "Cecil"'s witty writing and down-the-rabbit-hole devotion to finding answers. It looks like they've pulled a lot of the archives, but one of my favorites was a relatively recent column on whether fantasy author Jim Butcher's Chicago "undertown" had any truth to it (A: sort of!). I will fondly remember it!
posted by capricorn at 12:50 PM on June 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Ah, man. I've been reading this for decades, and I've been subscribed to the weekly Straight Dope newsletter for longer than anything else. It was the first thing I signed up for when I got my first email address back in 199x.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:56 PM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by Lynsey at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2018

Finding the straight dope books in the zero section at the library was revelatory for me as a miscellaneous-information hungry child. The SDMB was my first forum I felt like a citizen of. Thanks Cecil!
posted by Sterros at 1:18 PM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

SDMB was my place for years (I'm still a Charter Member--I paid dues a few months ago). I don't go there as much anymore because a lot of the arguments have been gong on for decades and the right wingers aren't all that bright, and I have MeFi now. It's the end of an era though and I'm a little sad.
posted by ceejaytee at 1:36 PM on June 28, 2018

Longer ago than I care to remember, my roommate and I went to a wedding in Vegas for folks we knew only vaguely from the SDMB. We had a fantastic time, and the late night story telling was considerable. Somewhere along the way, I stopped visiting the board, but running across the column in random places still felt like an unexpected bright spot in my day.
posted by korej at 1:49 PM on June 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

posted by mdoar at 2:01 PM on June 28, 2018

It's strange, how our "Internet home" changes over the decades. My first home was alt.callahans, then SDMB, then MetaFilter.

We're still here, and should be for a good long while, which is great, but a "." for Straight Dope.

(And for Callahan's.)
posted by tzikeh at 2:44 PM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding tzikeh; one of my first internet homes was the newsgroup on USENET. We even had meetups!
posted by pjern at 2:52 PM on June 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I devoured the Straight Dope books when I was a kid. In a way, they were like a pre-internet Metafilter; you could browse and find something unexpected and interesting in every chapter. Perfect for magpie-brained kids who loved learning! The first volume is one of the books I kept from my dad's library after he passed; it's sitting on bookcase right now, a beat-up, dog-eared little paperback with my dad's name and the date he bought it written on the first page, as was his meticulous habit with every book he purchased. Perhaps it's time for a re-read.
posted by the thought-fox at 3:24 PM on June 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

posted by Anne Neville at 3:37 PM on June 28, 2018

Also a relatively early join-date charter member whose attention has drifted to MeFi and [sorry] Facebook-- can not deal with the art-related trolling threads with any patience, but a longtime home.
posted by Capybara at 4:21 PM on June 28, 2018


One of my fantasy jobs was to become Cecil after Ed moved on. Yet another potential dream life bites the dust.
posted by she's not there at 4:33 PM on June 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another ex-SDMBer checking in. Definitely the first place after usenet that I exerted any particular online presence, for probably about 5 years starting in 2002 or so. I think I paid charter dues? I also made about 20 online friends I still have to this day.

One of the reasons I have been so happy that I found metafilter was it scratches the same itch the SDMB did in its heyday for me.
posted by hearthpig at 4:35 PM on June 28, 2018

I remember reading the Straight Dope pocketbook during a summer visit to my Grandmother's house in 1988. I remember her living room, the couch, the television, the smell of honeysuckle from the veranda, and the view of the sea.

Wow, does this ever take me back.
posted by JamesBay at 6:03 PM on June 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've been following Cecil for I don't know how long, but I don't think I've ever been to the website or seen a book. It's been entirely in alternative (free) newspapers. Lately (2003-today) in 7Days of Burlington,VT.
I wonder how much Google cut into his business (and also that of reference librarians). I always took his word as gospel.
posted by MtDewd at 6:21 PM on June 28, 2018

posted by limeonaire at 6:28 PM on June 28, 2018

Oh gosh, in the good old days of the early 2000s, when my internet addiction involved a mixture of mefi,, the Guardian message boards (RIP) and the SDMB. (With the Brunching Shuttlecocks, tvgohome, and on Fridays). Mefi and askmefi are the only ones I still visit daily after almost 20 years, God love you all.

But it's weird to revisit the SDMB occasionally and see some of the old usernames still hanging out and posting daily - a lot of them probably old geezers by now (and some of them old geezers then!).
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:28 AM on June 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh my lost youth! SMDB was one of my early internet haunts, along with Brunching Shuttlecocks and Heartless Bitches International. I can't even remember what my screen name was. I just remember that SMDB was where this sheltered religious kid learned that gay people were hilarious and truthful and smart and maybe not destined to hell. I will always be grateful to Cecil for making that possible, even though I left when the boards grew too harsh and right-wing for me. It broadened my mind and validated my love of learning and search for the truth when no-one in my meat space was interested in expanding their horizons.
posted by harriet vane at 5:51 AM on June 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another former Doper here - found the SDMB after the books. Left a long time ago but still remember when I enjoyed it. This news leaves me crushed, like a can of pineapples.
posted by hawthorne at 6:10 AM on June 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

As for the column itself, yeah, end of an era. Probably lots of people mark the slow death of alt-weeklies at different points (Alison Bechdel, Matt Groening, and Lynda Barry ending their mostly-alt-weekly comics, for example), but the Reader, even after drastically altering its format, was still the Reader as long as it had Cecil. Sic transit gloria triviasnark.

A thread about Cecil Adams then mentioning Alison Bechdel, Matt Groening, and Lynda Barry feels like some sort of Mount Rushmore of people who helped me become the adult I am via newsprint.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:10 AM on June 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


And one of my favorite pieces of writing on the internet (I dunno, the first time I read it it hit my funny bone squarely and with force) is still on the SDMB: The Horror of Blimps - by Scylla.
posted by Lafe at 6:33 PM on June 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I discovered the Straight Dope during a family trip to Chicago. Slug Signorino's artwork is what drew me in.

I found the SDMB a few years later, but only commented a few times. For a time, it was a great place to read smart and civil debates between conservatives and liberals. I don't think I'll ever find a forum that can provide that again.
posted by riruro at 8:23 PM on July 4, 2018

Those books meant a lot to me as a kid. I think the column has gone kind of flat in recent years - presumably Zotti is just getting tired - but it's still sad news.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:18 PM on July 7, 2018

LTTP, but I absolutely loved doing deep dives into the Straight Dope archives as a kid, specifically the version that straight listed every question in one long plaintext page. The rando links in the Weird Earl's section were real fun, too.

My all-time favorite post, from a submitter who fancied himself a bit of a smartass:
Cecil, you're my final hope
Of finding out the true Straight Dope
For I have been reading of Schroedinger's cat
But none of my cats are at all like that.

This unusual animal (so it is said)
Is simultaneously live and dead!
What I don't understand is just why he
Can't be one or other, unquestionably.

My future now hangs in between eigenstates.
In one I'm enlightened, the other I ain't.
If you understand, Cecil, then show me the way
And rescue my psyche from quantum decay.

But if this queer thing has perplexed even you,
Then I will and won't see you in Schroedinger's zoo.

Randy F., Chicago
To which Cecil sent the epic response:
Schroedinger, Erwin! Professor of physics!
Wrote daring equations! Confounded his critics!
(Not bad, eh? Don’t worry. This part of the verse
Starts off pretty good, but it gets a lot worse.)

Win saw that the theory that Newton’d invented
By Einstein’s discov’ries had been badly dented.
What now? wailed his colleagues. Said Erwin, “Don’t panic,
No grease monkey I, but a quantum mechanic.

Consider electrons. Now, these teeny articles
Are sometimes like waves, and then sometimes like particles.
If that’s not confusing, the nuclear dance
Of electrons and suchlike is governed by chance!
No sweat, though — my theory permits us to judge
Where some of ’em is and the rest of ’em was.”

Not everyone bought this. It threatened to wreck
The comforting linkage of cause and effect.
E’en Einstein had doubts, and so Schroedinger tried
To tell him what quantum mechanics implied.

Said Win to Al, “Brother, suppose we’ve a cat,
And inside a tube we have put that cat at —
Along with a solitaire deck and some Fritos,
A bottle of Night Train, a couple mosquitoes
(Or something else rhyming) and, oh, if you got ’em,
One vial prussic acid, one decaying ottom
Or atom — whatever — but when it emits,
A trigger device blasts the vial into bits
Which snuffs our poor kitty. The odds of this crime
Are 50 to 50 per hour each time.

The cylinder’s sealed. The hour’s passed away. Is
Our pussy still purring — or pushing up daisies?
Now, you’d say the cat either lives or it don’t
But quantum mechanics is stubborn and won’t.

Statistically speaking, the cat (goes the joke),
Is half a cat breathing and half a cat croaked.
To some this may seem a ridiculous split,
But quantum mechanics must answer, ‘Tough shit.
We may not know much, but one thing’s fo’ sho’:
There’s things in the cosmos that we cannot know.

Shine light on electrons — you’ll cause them to swerve.
The act of observing disturbs the observed —
Which ruins your test. But then if there’s no testing
To see if a particle’s moving or resting
Why try to conjecture? Pure useless endeavor!
We know probability — certainty, never.’

The effect of this notion? I very much fear
‘Twill make doubtful all things that were formerly clear.
Till soon the cat doctors will say in reports,
“We’ve just flipped a coin and we’ve learned he’s a corpse.”‘

So saith Herr Erwin. Quoth Albert, “You’re nuts.
God doesn’t play dice with the universe, putz.
I’ll prove it!” he said, and the Lord knows he tried —
In vain — until fin’ly he more or less died.

Win spoke at the funeral: “Listen, dear friends,
Sweet Al was my buddy. I must make amends.
Though he doubted my theory, I’ll say of this saint:
Ten-to-one he’s in heaven — but five bucks says he ain’t.”
posted by Rhaomi at 6:21 PM on July 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Without prompting, I remembered about half of that poem.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:10 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I missed this thread a month ago, but I'm glad I still have time to reminisce. I found Straight Dope through a newspaper, as an appreciation of Cecil Adams' untiring struggle against general ignorance was published in my local newspaper in Iceland back in 1999. That winter I read my way through the archive, learning a lot along the way. I picked up a lot about American culture which came in handy as I would spend most of the next decade living in the US. But usefulness aside, it was remarkably fun to read. I never took the step from the column to the message board, but it was certainly one of the finest websites of the early web.
posted by Kattullus at 3:55 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

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