Thursday, February 04, 2010

Quick!

Look over there!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Years of the Decade

Judging by government and public policy:
  • 2000
  • 2006
  • 2007
  • 2005
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2002
  • 2001
  • 2003
  • 2004

Monday, December 21, 2009

Torches Are Good Too, Though

Is it just me, or are at least two guys in this Nepalese mob wearing The North Face brand coats?

If there's a better way to identify yourself as a Nepalese Maoist -- and simultaneously as a rich and fussy outdoorsman -- than by wearing a coat named after the Chinese side of Nepal's most famous mountain, I don't know what it is.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wikipedia Sentence for Today

"It is unknown precisely when humans first began splashing their friends with water."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Publicity

Yesterday, the Senate Majority Leader announced a compromise health insurance bill, which will go before the full Senate. To the relief of many, the bill contains provisions for a public insurance agency to compete with private insurers. The details of the public option to come are important, of course, but what I want to know is: What's it going to be called?

The government has a rocky history with names. The three existing federal health insurance plans are good examples. "SCHIP", the most recent, is also the most clunky. "State Children's Health Insurance Program" is certainly descriptive, but it telescopes into an acronym nobody knows how to pronounce. Is it s-chip? Ship? Skip? Wikipedia doesn't even venture a guess.

"Medicare" is just dumb. Is it supposed to be short for "Medical Care"? Of the various concepts involved in the Medicare program, retirees and insurance didn't make the cut, ousted by a smash-up of two words that express one concept between them.

"Medicaid," by constrast is a rare success. In parallel with "Aid to Families with Dependent Children," Medicaid expresses the notion of medical aid, to the poor being strongly implied.

Other government programs are seldom better. Some are illiterate acronyms, like the DEA, which stands for "Drug Enforcement Agency." Others are even worse, like "Social Security," a name so vague it could literally be applied to any government program with equal plausibility.

Legislators are seldom careful, but in this case I think they should take a moment to select an appropriate name for their baby. The government, and a few key legislators in particular, have the power to control the words that hundreds of millions of people use. Every psychotic on the street has the CIA on his lips. The fact that our mental wards aren't full of people raving about the OSS is an accident of nomenclature. Except for the IRS, the post office and the voting booth, most of us have very little tangible interaction with our government. Conservatives are afraid that the government will exert control over our everyday lives, but as it stands, only 10% of Americans will even be allowed to buy into the public option. What will it be to the rest of us? Just a name.

Eat of This Candy, For it is My Body

... and we're back. The most important news of the last month, I'm sure you'll agree, is that Necco Wafers are switching to an "all-natural" composition. This is no small feat for a candy that could plausibly be mined from chalk seams or deposits in alkali flats, but if the accompanying photo is any guide, Necco Wafers have actually become more pallid and unreal with the change. Any candy that comes in shades of brown and gray is going to resemble mineral more than vegetable, but when Necco Wafers become pale brown and pale gray, eating them edges one step closer to pica.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Moral Scrip

The New York Times -- and not even the Style Section -- has started reporting on coupon-clippers, a subject formerly the domain of Wife Swap and USA Today. These articles always have a strongly moralistic tone, and never more than in a recession. We hear about Heather Hernandez, who bought $160 worth of groceries for $30, and the implication is obvious: Why aren't you doing this?

"Coupons were not in vogue during our period of gluttonous consumption," but now that our GDP has fallen, the Times is suggesting that this boom in the coupon sector will ease the downturn. Later on, a spokesman for a coupon company suggests that "folks are going back to the basics, trying to live simpler lives," and are expressing this Arcadian simplicity by redeeming coupons.

At no point does the article note that using coupons is not real thrift. Reusing pickle jars, or starting a compost heap is thrifty. Coupons are just loss-leaders, mere marketing devices that stores use to get you inside their doors, where you will hopefully buy merchandise with a higher profit margin. Yes, some people game the system, piling coupon on coupon and cheating the stores out of their profits. And yes, the stores put up with it because the cost of people taking unfair advantage of coupons is outweighed by the customers who use them as intended. But the use of coupons doesn't add anything to the economy, doesn't save anything, and doesn't constitute a decline in "gluttonous consumption". Praising extreme coupon-clippers is exalting people who -- by unfair means -- are making things more expensive for you and me.

Articles about coupon freaks, like the concomitant articles about people who root through the gutters for pennies, manage to channel the normal human desire for thrift into a gigantic free rider problem. The obvious answer to the question of "why don't you do this?" is that if we all did it, the stores wouldn't issue so many coupons, and the mint wouldn't issue so many pennies. Rather than urge us not to be free riders on merchants' goodwill, the Times is pretending coupons are so much moral scrip, redeemable for prudence, diligence, conscientiousness, and ample smugness.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wikipedia Sentence for Today

"Murad III's mismanagement may have led to early Ottoman defeats in the war, but he sired more than 100 children with 1,200 concubines."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Socks

Our correspondents direct us to Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, an unpublished and subsequently extirpated video game written in 1993. While the frustrated prospect of seeing "caricatures... of George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon" is galling, what I find really interesting is the cult of Socks the Cat that apparently swept the nation between 1992 and 1995/6.

All presidents have pets, and all presidents' pets are popular, but Socks was something else. Do you know whether Ronald Reagan had a pet? Do you know what George Bush Sr.'s cocker spaniel was named? Do you care? The dog, evidently named Millie, was "featured in an episode of Murphy Brown," (and what an exciting episode that must have been) but otherwise minded her own business.

But for the first few years of Bill Clinton's presidency, it seemed like the only facts anybody knew about him were that he could play the saxophone and that he had a pet cat. Of course, my perspective is skewed from being 8 at the time, and more interested in cats than health insurance reform -- if they could only see me now -- but Wikipedia cannot lie: Socks's cultural references page is more than twice as long as any other pet's.

Even more amusing than the mere fact of a celebrity cat is how quickly he washed up. We can see the Socks the Cat Fan Club on Geocities (a double relic), which was abandoned in 1997, fully twelve years before Socks died in obscurity, and just a few days into Bill Clinton's second term. The Clintons, no doubt aware that the bloom was off the rose, got a puppy shortly afterward, but the magic was gone.

Some might say that people forgot about Socks in Clinton's second term because he provided us with a much more prurient interest, and I'm sure there's something to that. As a culture, we don't usually know much about new presidents, so we tend to seize the most accessible handles, be they saxophones, or a goofy tendency toward mispronunciation, or blackness, and when actual stuff happens, we're quick to drop our earlier preoccupations.

On the other hand, saying that Clinton's sex scandal forced Socks out of the public eye because it was more interesting rather misses the point, and the mystery too: Socks was never interesting at all; he was just an ordinary cat.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wonkavision

Reuters reports that Cablevision, a major provider of cable in the New York area, is introducing "a service to enable subscribers to interact with commercials by clicking on their remote controls." The article explains at length why advertisers might appreciate this service, but is conspicuously mum on the benefits to consumers -- other than offering a hilariously roundabout way to get free paint.

On the other hand, those of you who live in the New York City media market (um, are there any of you?) will know what I mean when I say that I've been interacting with those Cablevision ads for a while now, chiefly by means of the mute button.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Is Life a Boon?

The New York Times reported yesterday on the death of the oldest person in the world, at age 115. This is a genre I like very much, not because I take any pleasure in the death of old people, but because as a category of news, it is sui generis.

The story "World's Oldest Person Dies" is published about once every six months (they last ran it in January) and unlike normal obituaries, the deceased is almost never interesting for what they have done -- merely what they have not done. Sex, race, achievments, cause of death and even age are adventitious. Consequently, while obviously newsworthy, the articles are almost completely inane. Who else could receive an obituary notice from the Times saying "she worked as a maid... until her retirement?" Most pathetically of all, the lede of this latest obituary mentions how much the deceased liked ice cream.

At the same time, "World's Oldest Person Dies" isn't just an isolated event. Human lifespans are carefully circumscribed -- everyone seems to just poop out at age 115 or so, making this a reliable event where
"World's Oldest Lightbulb Burns Out," or "World's Oldest Car Breaks Down" never could be. The very nature of the story means that its recurrence is utterly inevitable, and I find that comforting. Whatever else may happen a hundred years from now, the New York Times will still be lighting the world's oldest fools the way to dusty death.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I'm not going to see it anyway, and the critics don't seem to think it's worth mentioning, let alone explaining, but maybe someone can tell me: Why is the title misspelled?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More Knuckle Tattoos

Christian:
ECCE HOMO
SOLA FIDE
1832 Reform Bill:
IRON DUKE
EARL GREY
Redundant:
HAND HAND
FIST FIST
Update:
MIES ROHE

Liberty Means Responsibility

Liberty Mutual, the insurance company previously best known for selling insurance and not making a big deal out of it, has launched a website. Of course, Liberty Mutual already had a website, one of those sedate corporate pages with an "investor relations" button, and a list of industry awards and a photo montage of happy, multiracial people who, presumably, are insured.

Insurance being a boring business, you might think that would be an appropriate website. But as any marketer will tell you, you need to reach out to all your key demographics. Boring people buy a lot of insurance, it's true, but what does libertymutual.com have to offer the sanctimonious?

And so The Responsibility Project was born. Featuring the kind of cheesy moralizing that can normally only be found on anti-drug websites, The Responsibility Project provides a space for incredible goody-goodies to meet and swap tips for responsible living. What do we learn, browsing the archives?
  • We learn about a woman who halted a runaway shopping cart before it dented somebody's chrome. Nobody thanked her.
  • We learn about a woman who hand-delivered a dead letter. The door was "slammed" in her face.
  • We learn about a woman who snitched on a timecard cheat. She was "given the cold shoulder."
  • And we learn about a woman who was "fired for telling the truth."
A disgusting combination of self-pity and pride pervades these stories. "Did I do the right thing," they ask?
"Of course you did the right thing," the commenters respond. "We all do the right thing."

Far be it from me to say that people should let their co-workers get away with timecard fraud. But when Liberty Mutual gives them a forum to get together, preen their moral feathers, and egg each other on to ever greater acts of responsibility, they've gone too far. These little insurance companies incarnate might seem like good customers. I'm sure they always lock the gates to their swimming pools, get their chimneys swept yearly, and have more radon detectors than radon atoms in their basements.

But this thing is getting out of control. Do you really want to insure someone who would never leave the scene of an accident? If somebody is "fired for telling the truth," will she pay her premiums on time? It's the timecard cheat, after all, who gets the money; all the snitch gets is a cold shoulder. If The Responsibility Project is right, and virtue is its own reward, whose reward is cash? Not the responsible people, and not Liberty Mutual.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Let Us Think Cool"

The Pope, viceroy of God on Earth (Midwest Division) is taking the summer off, "blogging light", and exchanging his dalmatic for a cool summer tunicle. I must admit I'm surprised to learn that pontiffs get any vacation at all, but in the sultry weather of Kansas in August, it might be cruel to expect anyone to officiate in full vestments. Blogging from subtropical New York City, I know I can sympathize.

Rather than commemorating saints' days and suggesting prayers, the Pope is kicking back and handing down tips to beat the heat. Freed from temporal responsibility, he's going to yard sales, fantasizing about snow, and meditating about hell (which, we are supposed to understand, bears some resemblance to Kansas in the summertime.) In between, he brags about the Popemobile, and describes a pact he made with his buddy Phil to take a vow of chastity together before his 19th anniversary as Pope, a sort of reverse American Pie.

Later on, he puts up a poll: "Do you wish me to discuss prophecy?" Although I voted 'yes' twice, most of his parishoners don't seem so favorable, although I'm not sure why the Pope would take his cues from an online poll. He's the Pope! If he wants to talk about prophecy, I don't think we have any business stopping him. (And given that his blog has entries for August 11th and 12th, he may be dabbling in prophecy himself.) By constrast, voting 'no' seems a little bit like voting for Evel Knievel not to jump over the Snake River Gorge: It's what he's there for. As Pope Michael says, "if you don't want prophesy, what do you want to hear about?"

Speaking for males aged 18-25 everywhere, I want to hear about fun, sun, sand, surf, chastity and wild hijinks. You're only an 18-year Pope once, and the summer won't last forever.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Euphemism Of The Day

A drunk-driving crash will henceforth be known as "taking a wrong turn down Johnnie Walker Road."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

T-Shirt Idea

"Please don't pet me" -- and then a silhouette of a sitting dog --
"I'm working."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Department of Records

Like all good Americans, I spent my day thinking about Barack Obama's birth certificate. For those of you who would like to play along at home, the rules of the game are as follows: Some say that Obama's birth certificate from Hawaii, officially known as a "Certification of Live Birth," is a fake, because they just know that Obama was born outside the country. Hence, he is not a "natural-born citizen," and is ineligible to serve as President. This is especially vexatious to Republicans who, like Macbeth, fear no natural-born man. The apparent discovery that Obama was from his mother's womb untimely ripped in Kenya understandably fills them with political dread.

Members of the US House of Representatives and several state legislatures nevertheless are taking action, and demanding laws requiring future presidential candidates to submit their real birth certificates (no fakes allowed) before their names can be put on the ballot. A lot of people are taking offense at this idea, although it strikes me as perfectly harmless. Indeed, the fact that such a law isn't already on the books is a little surprising.

We always hear that bureaucracy is the glue that holds the government together. Every form at the DMV has a little box for your middle initial, it's impossible to replace your Social Security Card without a birth certificate, and don't even think about trying to use your handgun license as a form of primary ID. And if we weren't required to sign on the dotted line, swearing that the above information is true, what would become of the public sector?

And yet at the highest level, they seem to go without paperwork altogether. When I heard about the bill under consideration to compel Obama to submit his birth certificate for cursory analysis by the Missouri state legislature in 2012, I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking, "Man -- Presidents have it easy."

I'm supposed to believe that at no point during his historic campaign did Obama have to paperclip a photocopy of his birth certificate to a ballot access application. He didn't have to bring a piece of mail addressed to him in Chicago to verify his current address. And if he has any felony convictions in his past, I'm sure he didn't have to admit it to a sheet of paper.

I can't help but wonder whether the upper tiers of government all share this disdain for the paperwork that nourishes them. When the House and Senate pass a bill, do they have to ink up the "PASSED" stamp to make it official? Or do they just expect the American people to take their word for it? When the president signs legislation, does he really need to sign it at all? Does he need to sign white, pink and canary copies, and initial each page? If his signature doesn't match the ones on his canceled checks, are we, the American People, allowed to call him and note that, "there's been some unusual activity in your branch of government, and would you verify that you approved these recent bills?"

A wise man once said that when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal. I can only assume that the same spirit that animated Richard Nixon informs elected officials' approach to paperwork. If Congress says they've passed a bill, or if Obama and his family say he was born in America, what pencil-pusher is going to call such important people on such petty details?

Now we know. That's why I think it's helpful to look at the "birthers," as they are known, as the political wing of the bureaucracy. This obsession with proper documents and formalities has manifested before, in the "tax protestors" who deny that the Sixteenth Amendment was ever ratified. We are told, for instance that "a number of states returned uncertified, unsigned, and/or unsealed copies [of the amendment], and did not rectify their negligence even after being reminded and warned by [Secretary of State] Knox."

"With carelessness like that," I can hear the birthers fume, "you'd be lucky to get a fishing license."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wikipedia Sentence For Today

"Nearly an entire generation of Newfoundland's future leaders were killed."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Same As It Ever Was

Anthropologists would know better than I, but along with flint knives and huts made out of those gigantic leaves, every primitive society seems to have a creation myth. Whether they live in the jungles of New Guinea, or the Holy Land, everyone has a story about how it was formerly the case that "the darkness was upon the surface of the deep," but then something happened, and now things are pretty normal. The framework of these stories is broad, accommodating a lot of different myths. Surely a perusal of Wikipedia is at hand! And as usual, that online Spiritus Mundi has plenty of images to trouble our sight:
...nothing but water and darkness, ruled by the giant Mbombo... brought with him a chicken, a shell full of sand, and a palm kernel...two loons which dove to the bottom of primeval waters to retrieve a piece of the bottom...formed from an egg that was broken...After that, other animals emerged in different sequences: Bear, Deer, Snake, Frog, Otter...Whatever was thought of by Tepeu and Gucamatz came into being...
This is all very amusing, and if you somehow haven't encountered these peculiar stories before, please take a moment to roll your eyes. Heaven knows I've taken plenty in my life with regard to this topic, but now I have a question. Why don't any societies, primitive or advanced, have a null creation myth? Why doesn't anybody seem to believe, "it was always pretty much like this," with unbroken time stretching infinitely into the past?

In looking, the nearest thing I could find was the Jain belief that the universe was not created, but rather "passes through an endless series of cycles." Unless their concept of "cycles" is very petty (we have a day cycle, then a night cycle!), and I don't think it is, then this isn't the static universe we're looking for.

The null creation myth has a lot to recommend it to the hunter-gatherer mind. Most obviously, from the point of view of a typical tribe, things have (to a fair degree of approximation) "always been like this." Ancestors have always been dying, babies have always been being born, hunters and gatherers have always been hunting and gathering. Traditions (or so I am told by the anthropologists) develop, of such old vintage that nobody in the tribe can remember how they began.

I can hardly say that a given tribesman's life is exactly like his father's or grandfather's, but the differences -- a larger or smaller territory, different food sources, new songs or dances -- can seldom be called momentous. Indeed, it's hard to see what could change in a stone-age lifestyle to make it a reasonable inference (so reasonable an inference that almost every society in the world has leaped to it) that the world must have begun.

I understand that this is probably a "religion thing," which of course I do not understand. Possibly the idea that "nothing much happened ever" is too quotidian to have a lot of sacred appeal. But I should note that the belief in an eternal universe is not inconsistent with most of the elements of religion, including all the ones that people seem to find important. After all, even those cultures that postulate a created universe often say that an eternal god created it, and what goes better with an eternal creator than an eternal creation? Miracles, prayers, spirits, priests, sacraments and liturgy, all can fit completely unchanged into a non-creationist framework.

I certainly don't expect every jerkwater religion to embrace my null creation myth. To see it universally ignored, however, in favor of the theory that the universe began is a little galling. To the pre-modern mind, I think I have a good theory. I'm almost prepared to believe it myself.

Ironically, astronomy and modern physics teach us that the tribesmen were right all along: Things really haven't always been like this. The universe is expanding from a pinpoint, and at one time, darkness was upon the surface of the deep. Still no word about Mbombo, though.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Names Have Not Been Changed To Protect The Innocent

The New York Times profiles the bullied children of tomorrow:
Alex Nicola... likes to watch TV without his pants on.
Next week, an exposé on sissies who still like to sleep with their dollies.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

At Least It's Green

The first four ingredients listed on the "Liquid Nature" brand hand soap in our bathroom:
  • Sodium polyoxyethylene lauryl ether sulfate
  • Coconut oil dialkanolamide
  • Dodecyl dimethyl betaine
  • Hydroxy ethylidene diphosphonic acid

Friday, June 26, 2009

Talking Points

Now that the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill, sponsored by Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts has passed the House of Representatives, the real fight will be in the Senate. There's always a danger the debate might become too intellectual, with facts and arguments flying left and right. With that in mind, I offer my conservative friends a sure-fire rejoinder:
"Waxman-Markey? More like Marxman-Wacky!"

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Wikipedia Sentence For Today

"[A] dance about freedom may better represent freedom than actual discourse."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Disestablishmentarianism

They happen so reliably that most of the time, we don't even notice them. In every sitcom, and most other TV programs, practically every scene is preceded by an establishing shot: A brief, five second image of the location in which the scene takes place, preceding the scene itself.

In film, or if the events take place in an unfamiliar location, that might be excusable. How are we going to know that our hero is in Paris if we don't see a shot of the Eiffel Tower? We're only human. But in most TV sitcoms, the action only ever takes place in half a dozen locations, all of them rigged up in a studio. If we can't recognize Jerry Seinfeld's apartment immediately, there's nothing NBC can do. Stock footage of an ordinary apartment building seems unlikely to help.

Of course, the aggregate time lost to establishing shots in the course of a 22-minute television show is small, almost certainly less than half a minute. Still, that's enough time to air a brief commercial or tell another joke. Are we supposed to believe that a static, repetitious, inane establishing shot is the best possible use of the public airwaves?

The only obvious justification is that an episode aired without establishing shots might have a "bald" quality, disorienting not because the omitted scenes are really helpful, but because, like eyebrows, we only notice them when they're gone. People are easily conditioned to accept the aesthetic necessity of something that, considered more fully, has no merit at all. The networks can feel free to indulge the prejudices of the TV-watching public when nothing is at stake, but valuable ad time is being lost to these establishing shots. And if there was ever a reason for iconoclasm -- or anything else -- on network TV, it's money.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

No Cards

As I noted with the advent of Twitter, the number of ways for people to keep in touch with friends, relatives, and acquaintances, and those of every gradation of esteem and regard in between, has mushroomed over the past few years. How to tell when twittering, e-mail, or walkie-talkie-phone-call is most appropriate is the challenge of our age, like knowing which corners of a calling card to fold over was in the nineteenth century.

Naturally, politicians are still getting it wrong, but we wouldn't respect them if they didn't. As representatives of a class that fails half the time at their most important job, running for office, politicians are uniquely suited to let us know, by trial and error, what works and what doesn't. If Twitter isn't bad enough to sink the Republican party of 2009, in other words, how bad can it be?

A much deeper level of mystery adheres to the new CDC e-cards, which allow you to nag somebody about their health by e-mail, while adopting that level of creepy familiarity and official neutrality that can only be summed up in the phrase government e-cards. If you wonder when it's appropriate to use Twitter, then you might well wonder whether it's ever appropriate to send someone wishes for a seizure-free day.

I was turned on to the Center for Disease Control's venture into greeting cards by libertarians, who were enraged that the government would fund a project like this. "Your tax dollars at work," was a common sentiment, although as Kaylen noted, "it can't be that many of them." And while I generally like the government to be useful, I can't deny that the CDC has a pretty stressful job.

Between naming and renaming the swine flu, and the "enhanced interrogation" of the smallpox viruses they have in custody, I'm not going to begrudge CDC employees the opportunity to blow off steam by making a "congratulations on your new fish" e-card, detailing the ways to keep your new pet fish healthy. But even that attempt at levity provides no relief from the death and disease the CDC deals with every day. Browsing over to their section on fish health confirms what those of us with aquariums have known all along: There is no way to keep fish healthy. They drop dead in the blink of an eye, and the best you can do is save yourself from the salmonella they carry. Stressful, indeed.

Update: Coincidentally, the Centers for Disease Control got a new chief today, Thomas R. Friedan. It's just too bad we don't know his e-mail address. If there was ever a good time to offer our congratulations with a government e-card, this would be it. After all, we wouldn't like the head of the CDC to come down with
frostbite or syphilis; not when there's so much work to be done, and so many more e-cards to make.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mob Rules

When it comes to waiting in lines, I'm a gracious person. I follow the rules, and wait my turn like a good boy. (And for what?) Of course, it's easy to be decent when the rules are so simple. Get in the back of the line, and shuffle forward with the person in front of you. Or when walking on the sidewalk, keep right, but pass on the left. At least, those are the rules out in the sticks. In New York City, where the sidewalks are congested and the subways packed, I find it more and more difficult to walk with crowds and keep my virtue.

For instance, when the subway doors open, and a crowd of people head for the surface, they meet a bottleneck at the staircases. As only two or three people can walk abreast on the stairs, everyone else, approaching from every direction, tries to work their way to the front of the human knot that immediately forms.

What's the appropriate etiquette here? Are we supposed to pretend that the crowd in front of the stairs is like a tightly compacted bunch of lines, stand in our "line", and wait for it to advance? Are you allowed to skip between lines? When they're so poorly defined, can you avoid it? However you look at it, there are invariably more lines than can fit on the stairs, so this is an imperfect solution at best.

If you don't think of the situation in terms of queues, it gets even worse. Are you allowed to proceed forward by any means necessary? You're not allowed to elbow people out of your way, I'm sure, but can you step briskly in front of someone, startling them? Can you always account for what will startle people? Can you brush someone's coattails, or are you requested to avoid all physical contact whatsoever? Do you have to yield to old ladies? You don't have to yield to old ladies in a queue; that's why I like queues.

Or on a crowded sidewalk, can you walk between people taking photos of one another? Can you walk between people preparing to shake one another's hand at arm's length? If you can, how much leeway do you need to leave? If you can't, that's almost six feet of sidewalk cordoned off by clueless pedestrians.

I doubt there are any hard-and-fast rules for crowded passageways. The situation is so fluid and manifold that it would be useless to codify anyhow. But in the absence of rules, all I'm left with is an equation plotting my pace against the number of dirty looks I'm prepared to receive. People who walk defensively; yield to all; and are last in and last out of every situation surely win the hearts of those human obstacles who cluster in the middle of the sidewalk, stroll five abreast, or just stand and gawk. Thinking of the bitter sweet of days that were, it was no trouble to be so considerate. But now? I'm adrift on the sidewalks and staircases of the big city.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Instead Of Chewing Gum, Chew Bacon

As part of the fact-finding mission that is my life, I've been watching a lot of TV lately. In between the ads for cable TV and the ads against cable TV, they're now running ads for www.kidney.org, a foundation for kidney health and research.

I was impressed by their logo, and never one to ignore a promising lead, I visited kidney.org. After totally acing the Kidney IQ test and satisfying myself that I don't have chronic kidney disease, I stumbled on their top-secret tip for people with CKD, a subject near and dear to my heart: How to eat more.

Now honestly, their tips boil down to, "just eat more, dummy." And they're even less helpful than that, given that I don't have CKD, and thus I don't need to worry about phosphorus or potassium or protein intake. Still, it's refreshing to read, even in a tentative and inapplicable form, tips like:
  • Eat candies such as gum drops, hard candy and lollipops at the end of a meal or as a snack.
  • Instead of milk, use half and half, cream, or non-dairy creamer.
  • Add sour cream to omelettes, noodles, rice and vegetables.
  • Instead of plain water, drink beverages that have calories from sugar.
Aye, aye!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Just Flip 'Em!®

Man was given dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that feedeth upon the mud at the bottom of the ocean. But with the advent of the internet, certain creatures have stopped asking what they can do for us, and begun to ask what we can do for them.

A case in point is www.horseshoecrab.org, a website started by the Ecological Research & Development Group, a generic-sounding foundation whose sole mission, as it happens, is horseshoe crab boosterism. You probably think of horseshoe crabs, when you think of them at all, as somewhere between starfish and hermit crabs, living flotsam that washed up from the Cretaceous Era and will probably go back out with the evolutionary tide.

But no! Horseshoe crabs, we learn, are a linchpin of the marine ecosystem. (What isn't?) The ERDG is worried because seagulls depend on horseshoe crabs for a large part of their diet, perhaps unaware that seagulls will survive, if they have to, on cigarette butts and pebbles that considerate children throw at them.

What can we do, concerned citizens ask, to ensure an adequate supply of seagulls screaming at us and stealing our french fries? Well it so happens that horseshoe crabs sometimes get flipped over on their backs, waving their nasty legs and genitals piteously, and becoming easy prey for, um, seagulls. Fully 10% of horseshoe crabs die in this way, a fact that is presented to us straight, without any implication that this is something horseshoe crabs should be ashamed of.

What to do about these shameless sea monsters? Just flip em!® There's a song and everything. Now, I'm not saying that there's any reason not to turn horseshoe crabs over, if you find them foundered on the beach. Heck, turn them over and over, or put them on your sleeping friend's belly. But a foundation? A foundation with sponsors and a mission statement and a "staffing philosophy" that reads:

ERDG has developed an international network of professionals with whom it consults on a wide variety of issues. As each project evolves, ERDG assembles a multi-disciplinary team of individuals whose skill levels and training backgrounds are best suited to solving the current problem. This case-by-case approach assures that the best possible talent is utilized to accomplish a project’s goals. Because each team is assembled on an as-needed basis, the majority of ERDG's financial resources are directed to the project at hand and not expended on maintaining a large full-time staff.
For horseshoe crabs?

Turning a gigantic helpless sea tick right-side up is presented as our duty, fully in keeping with the dignity that we posess as the pinnacle of evolution and stewards of God's creation. As I say, flip a horseshoe crab over if you feel like it. I just have a simple question: Who is to be the master?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Great Moments in Banter

Somebody accidentally hit a light switch, prompting Obama to ask:
''Who turned off the lights, guys?''

-- sample of the humor Obama is said to have dispensed at the Summit of the Americas.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

STAY PUFT

Knuckle tattoo:

On the knuckles of the left hand, MARX. On the right
, RAND.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Prestidigitation

A question for all you stage magicians out there:

Suppose you truly had the magic power of clairvoyance, and were able to know the order of a pack of playing cards without looking. What would be a good trick to devise such that any reasonable person, layman or expert illusionist, would be forced to conclude that you weren't a charlatan?

To put it another way, magic tricks usually turn on hurdles that the magician sets up for himself, to make his eventual ability to pick the right card all the more amazing ("I'll pick the card... blindfolded!" or "I'll use a brand-new, factory-sealed, unaltered pack of cards") although of course, they turn out to be no real impediment to a skilled magician. Is there a simple obstacle, or set of obstacles, that it is genuinely impossible to overcome without supernatural powers?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Possible Items In A Magazine for Autistic People

  • Letters to the copy editor
  • 'Popular Jokes, Explained'
  • 'Banging Your Head Against the Wall: Do's and Don'ts.'
  • 'We Rank the Greatest Numbers of All Time!'
  • 'Take the Turing Self-Quiz'
  • 'Other People: Why Bother?'
  • Soothing, white overstimulation page
  • 'The Hottest Celebrities with a Prime Number of Letters in Their Names!'
  • 'Obsession Corner'
  • 'Answers to Frequently-Asked Small Talk'
  • Blackjack column

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Was An NPC for Capitalism

While it's gratifying to see an Associated Press story about politics use the word livid, and the ominous phrase "talking tougher by the hour," I actually have a lot of sympathy with the AIG executives. Remember when you used to play roleplaying games on the computer, and a bug in the code allowed you to sell the same item to a shopkeeper over and over again, pocketing 100 gold each time and effectively giving you an infinite money supply for the rest of the game?

I don't know about you, but I piled up the gold as fast as I could, even switching to my left hand when my right hand got sore clicking through the dialog boxes. I didn't care if I robbed the whole fantasy world blind; I was just happy to beat the system. I know exactly how these investment bankers must feel.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Adamantine Chains And Penal Fire

Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food and other textbooks of dietary virtue, is the oracle a confused nation looks to when it wants to know what to have for dinner. His Olympian pronouncements, instructing us to "Eat food," but "Not too much," are much dissected. I can't say whether Pollan intends those gnomic rules of thumb to be taken seriously, or if they are merely written to please the masses. If I had to guess, I'd say that Pollan's actual rules include appearing thin by wearing a shirt many sizes too large.

In a moment of democratic zeal, Mr. Pollan seems to have invited the masses to contribute their own aphorisms. What vaguely worded, self-serving rules do you pretend to follow when deciding what to eat? The responses, predictably, fall into two camps. A few individuals who know that tall poppies get their heads cut off, wisely quote the party line. "Eat your colors," they nod. Since Michael Pollan is clearly looking for agreement rather than honestly new ideas (Nobody asks a crowd for new ideas. Come on.), this exercise starts to feel pleasantly catechistic.

On the other hand, much more of the commenting body considers itself holier even than Michael Pollan, proudly describing their unwillingness to eat cooked vegetables or milk, in a challenge to the epicurean Pollan. Perhaps they figure that Pollan is naturally appreciative of fussy people, and hope to impress him that way, or maybe they just get worked up about their opinions and feel the need to off-gas. No matter. By now it should be clear that any pretense to being holier than Michael Pollan is a wicked illusion, for it is he who created food virtue. Lucifer in his pride rebelled against God, and likewise the vegans who scold Pollan would rather reign in Hell.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Wikipedia Sentence For Today

"By the mid-1930s the Roaring Twenties were long over."

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What Comes To Mind?

Here's a Web ad I saw today:

Bleach and ammonia?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Attention Must Be Paid

In the old, old days of Sigmund Freud, it was clear what children wanted: Sexual gratification. Shortly afterward, it ceased to be nice to talk about children that way, and ever since, child psychology has been at sea. The closest thing we have found to a unifying theory of child behavior since has been the concept of attention. Children, the theory runs, want attention, will do anything for attention, and if they can't get benevolent attention, will settle for being smacked and yelled at. The quality or character of attention they receive is unimportant, compared to the intrinsic good of being noticed. Children being complex automata, they desire lots of different things. You can't explain all of a child's behavior as attention-seeking, the theory tells us, but you can explain an awful lot of it.

This theory may be right, for all I know, not being an expert in children, or even liking them. But can we please consider how utterly cracked it sounds? The child is the father of the man, but who among us can say we crave attention? Most adults hate public speaking, and what is public speaking if not the receipt of a huge amount of aggregate attention? Shy people hate getting attention, and the most gregarious people would prefer to be left alone at least sometimes. And does anyone, other than those hypothesized children, prefer to be yelled at rather than peacefully ignored? Can you even imagine such a person?

We're always advised to rear children like animal trainers train animals, those other sentient yet stupid creatures. Children benefit from rote memorization, like animals.
Children respond to praise, like animals. But give a dog negative attention, yell at it and beat it, and it won't be anxious to repeat the experience.

Children, this theory needs us to believe, are different from both animals and adults, and even the worst dross is good enough for them. Even if children don't get what they like, they like what they get, and they always come back for more. If the attention theory of child-rearing is correct, I have no qualms in saying that children are horrible little aliens.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

DBC 1/7

Edward de Bono, previously best known for inviting us to wear toothbrushes in our shirt pockets, has developed his own special code. Like all of Mr. de Bono's ideas, it doesn't seem to be in response to any obvious defect in the English language. Indeed, this week's message expresses disappointment that, rather than coming up with craaazy new ideas, people only ever "solve problems." The de Bono Code (DBC) certainly has no such shortcomings. On first examination, it's hard to see whether any problem could be solved by talking in code.

The DBC
bears some resemblance to the international maritime code. Much like means "I wish to communicate with you," "DBC 5/10" means "Thank you very much for your comments. They are much appreciated. Thanks for taking the trouble to communicate with me." Similarly banal phrases make up most of the rest of the de Bono Code banks, divided into such thrilling categories as "negotiation", "response", "attention directing", and "meetings".

While I'm sure any meeting would be livened up by judicious recourse to the Edward de Bono Official Code Book, the DBC truly shines in section 14, codes for ending relationships. Whichever way you want to leave your lover, there's a code for it. From
"This relationship has run its course. It was never meant to be a long-running event. It was great, but now it's over"
to
"The plain truth is that I have met someone else. It is best you hear this directly from me,"
painful situations can be streamlined with the de Bono Code. If breaking up with your girlfriend requires too much talking and feelings and crying, or if you're just strapped for time, text (or tweet!) "DBC 14/9". If she knows her DBC, she'll get the message.

By contrast, the section on moods, No. 10, is disappointing. Mr. de Bono notes:
"Very few people find it easy to indicate their mood to others. The most people manage is 'I am tired' or 'I am under pressure'. To this might be added: 'I got to bed late last night' (meaning 'I have a hangover')."
It's definitely illuminating to know that when Edward de Bono goes to bed late, he goes to bed drunk, but the ensuing mood codes, focused on feelings of happiness, anxiety and sadness, provide no way to express in DBC that you are hungover. It seems like being hungover is one circumstance in which it would be helpful to describe your mood in an 8-character shorthand, but the DBC does not provide us with the tools to do it. On the other hand, Mr. de Bono is always soliciting ideas from his reading audience. Let's help him out!
  • 10/25: "I drank 2 bottles of wine last night and 8 shots of Jaegermeister. My vision is fading in and out, and I have a splitting headache. I'm going to lie in my office with the lights off."
  • 10/26: "I have been up for 5 days straight on a crystal meth binge. I am full of energy and confidence, but increasingly worried whether there are bugs crawling on me"
  • 10/27: "I am sleepwalking under the influence of Ambien. I have limited awarness of my surroundings, and poor motor control. Please don't let me operate heavy machinery."
  • 10/28: "I am high on PCP, and inexplicably enraged. You are nothing to me, and as a god-like creature, I can destroy you with a flick of my wrist. Beware!"
If these code words defuse even one awkward situation, Edward de Bono can consider his system a success. What it would look like as a failure, I'm not sure.

Digitalis

"Digital," as you will know by heart if you watch TV commercials, "is better." I suppose it's a matter of taste. As the reluctant owner of a digital/analog signal converter, I'm torn. The converter itself is actually quite charming, a pleasant addition to the robot family that lives on top of the TV set. About the size of a paperback book, it has one LED and one button (I don't know what the button does.) and it draws 7 watts, a cute amount of power for any appliance. And while I no longer get PBS, I do get an NBC affiliate that seems to play nothing but women's winter sports.

The signal, however, is disappointing. As the DTV public service announcements have only recently started mentioning, you need an antenna array the size of McMurdo Station's
in order to get decent reception. Without it, (and we only have rabbit ears made of a coat hanger and a bra underwire) you get static, and not wholesome analog static, either. Digital static, like a scratched DVD, has all the sinister qualities of a malfunctioning robot. With stuttering; melting, pixellated faces; and large blocks of dead, signal-less screen, it doesn't generate faith in the digital revolution. It generates a vague fear of Skynet.

For now, at least, there's still analog broadcasts, delivered in delicious sinusoidal waves. But "on June 12th," as our DTV catechism has it, the bandwidths used to carry analog transmissions will be gone... and like contrary clockwork, hipsters will have found a new way to be hip. "Analog television just had a warmer feel," they might say. "DTV is so crisp, so cold and soulless."

Recreating analog broadcasts might present a problem, but where there's a will to ironically relive the past, there's a way. Look for cool kids to set up pirate radio transmitters entirely within their homes, converting digital television back into a low-wattage VHF signal for their personal enjoyment. Just rig up a (re)-broadcast antenna in your kitchen, tap your household appliances to provide that familiar, comforting interference, and all that's left is to settle in with some snowy, flickering reruns of Green Acres and drink your ironic drinks as you reflect that the FCC has it all wrong: It doesn't get any better than analog.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Twit

The word has come down from internet central: Twitter is it. Now, I'm not exactly sure what Twitter is. I gather it involves mobile phones, and text messaging, and I know that politicians use it as a novel way to make the same old political blunders, and to tell us what they had for breakfast and whether they went to the gym, which you might consider a "blunder" of an entirely different nature.

"Tweets", as they are called, are limited to 140 characters, a length that encourages either unusually florid sentences, or unusually spare modern poetry. For reference, that's about as long as the average sentence by Samuel Johnson, two thirds as long as "Buffalo Bill's/ Defunct", and even a little shorter than "This Is Just To Say", by William Carlos Williams. I guess you could tweet the whole poem without spaces, but it might fall short of the vision of the original.


Its appeal to clownish old men and suppositious modern poets aside, Twitter seems to be just the newest way that technology has invented for me to be a bad friend. With cell phones, The Facebook, online photo galleries, YouTube videos, cell phones that operate as walkie-talkies (I also don't understand that one) and text messages defining what it is to be a friend, and now Twitter, I am left stranded deeper and deeper in the cold. I'm shut out of the community of hip young people -- and the politicians who represent them -- all of whom know what one another had for breakfast.

As this twittering, tweeting vanguard of friendship passes me by on the road of ever-accelerating computer-aided amiability, I can almost see the coming technological singularity, a hypothesized date at which artificial intelligence will be able to befriend itself, with superhuman
interest in breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea, and needless to say, billions of characters per tweet.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Ugly Holds Its Own

Look at models long enough and you realize they're all so pretty. Why this should be though is a mystery. Models for cosmetics, sure. They're selling a face. But this probably being Fashion Week, I'm left to wonder why everyday high-fashion clothes-horse models have such pleasant features. Sometimes they veer a little too far towards "angry alien", but by and large their complexions are clear and their features are symmetrical. The lank bony frame is probably a must, but faces are a canvas of infinite variety.

There's room here for the designer who's prepared to admit that during Fashion Week, there's no bad publicity. Most fashion designers, they tell me, purposely make hideous garments to run interference for the more serious offerings. Oddly, the models themselves are never called on for heavy duty in this playbook of the ugly/not ugly. Why not hire models with severe acne, models with one eye, models with oozing cold sores, balding models and hirsute models? Models with stitches and models with scars. I'm prepared to hear people say that a fashion show isn't a freak show, but I'm not prepared to believe it.

I Shall Wear The Bottoms Of My Trousers Rolled

It's Fashion Week (I think), and that can only mean that once again, I have no idea how the real economy works. Again and again, they explain to me how twiggy ladies walking down the runway, wearing clothing that can charitably be described as hilariously ugly, can actually influence what real people wear. Almost nobody, I learn, wears the clothing actually on the runway. But, they tell me patiently, the themes and patterns and ideas that are invoked during Fashion Week (I'm not sure exactly what that is) can trickle down to our own prole casings. Just like last year's crop of post-modernist poems is a good harbinger of what to expect on this year's Hallmark cards.

For instance, I saw a designer whose entire output seemed to consist of big boxy David Byrne suits. We all know that nobody is going to wear those -- on account of they are hilariously ugly -- so what could he have meant? Maybe he just screwed up, or maybe the joke is on me and that's what's really in store. But I think this fashion designer is taking a leaf from the great poets. Boxy suits as boxy suits is a little obvious, he might say. Perhaps the boxy suits are a metphor for some boxy pattern, perhaps check or houndstooth,
or maybe they symbolize some headier, more profound fashion trend that we can only guess at. It's a ritualistic industry, and I'm not the one to deconstruct it. Just remember that despite the outwardly superficial gloss, as Fashion Week draws to a close -- or is it only beginning? -- there are unfathomable layers of meaning under those clothes.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wikipedia Sentence for Today

"Louis XIV is popularly known as the Sun King (French: le Roi Soleil) because he was the source of light for his people and for Europe's nobles and rulers."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Apophenia Watch

As Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress prepare to pass a massive stimulus bill, the word "massive" is on everybody's lips. Apart from fostering lewd puns involving the words "massive" and "stimulus", I can't see why this adjective should have monopolized our descriptions of a spending bill like that. What a boring word to be in vogue. It just means "big", you guys.

"My Child Is A Crack Baby At..."

A little while ago, I saw a bumper sticker reading "Spoons are for stirring coffee." They are indeed, but it's only because of the other anti-drug stickers on the car that I knew that the driver was staking out an anti-heroin position. As uncontroversial as it was, it got me thinking that there's room in the market for pro-heroin bumper stickers.

Two that came to mind were, "Junkies do it between the toes," and "I (silhouette of a syringe) NY." Ashley suggested "Spoons aren't just for stirring coffee anymore." Of course, junkies don't typically have much disposable income, so this may have to remain one of those good ideas that never leaves the ground. Story of my life, friends.

Bro!

We certainly don't know much about musical theater around here, but we know that like Hair or Porgy and Bess, writing a musical about a subculture is a terrific way to bring attention to their unique values, attitudes, and folkways. Or better yet, to mock them! With that in mind, it's time somebody wrote a musical about bros, the young people who populate our reality TV shows and who vomit off the railings of our apartment complexes, yet remain invisible to the art world. I refuse to believe that "Animal House" is a sufficient treatment of such a broad subject. Surely bro culture has made meaningful progress since the Carter Administration.

I'm not sympathetic to what is basically a very dumb youth movement, but bros are people like the rest of us. We may not like to admit it, but don't we all like beer? Although their baseball caps and polo shirts may seem off-putting, all of us can appreciate the unique narrative conflict their lifestyle implies. What is drinking yourself into a stupor, after all, but Man versus Self? When a bro seduces a bro-ette, it hardly needs a very skilled playwright to bring out the hostility. Whichever way you look, you can hardly deny that bros have problems, and problems means stories.

The possible settings are as numberless and varied as the bros themselves: An apartment littered with pizza boxes and decorated with flattened beer cases, the quad of a state university, or the bleachers of a football game. And from the opening of Act 2, which finds two bros scribbling on their passed-out friend with Sharpies (Song: What a fag!) to
the climactic party that ends with the cops being called, there would be plenty of engaging scenes. Playing off the homosexual subtext of bro culture might seem cheap, but I think it could provide some of the piece's most tender moments (Song: You're my bro, slurred boisterously in Act 1, then meaningfully reprised in the final act, or maybe Don't leave me, bro!)

The chances of a musical success might be hindered by the fact that bro music is universally considered terrible. A talented composer might be able to fashion something that sounded bro-ish yet listenable, but he would be unable to capture its main feature: An incredible loudness that obliterates any possibility of conversation. The theater might not seem like a good venue for a musical tradition that prides itself on thumping bass, forgettable lyrics and little discernable melody, but the existence of atonal opera suggests that the boundaries of musical theater are set far wider than it may seem. And not to knock musicals in general, but the modern theatergoer is simply in no position to complain if Bro the Musical turns out to be unlistenable. Compared to what, we might ask.

I'd write the book myself, but, as I'm sure you've noticed, my talent for narrative fiction is limited. So I'm going to relinquish the idea to the budding playwrights out there. All you need is actors who can vomit on cue and a way to make the whole theater smell like Axe, and you'll have a license to print money.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Someday We'll Live In A World Without Love

While we're on the subject of the opera, I think the amount and prevalence of love in operas is shameful. I don't mean to say that love itself is unappealing, or that musical productions should be interrupted for car chases and gunfights (although I'm not not saying that). I don't mean to take a seven year-old's attitude towards love. I think it's just fine for two people to love each other. But almost every opera that I can think of bases its plot around love. Love frustrated, love triumphant, love love love. I'm sure this appeals to some people (board of directors, I'm looking at you), but for various reasons it strikes me that love and operas don't mix.

Operas provide us with two or three hours, a fraction of which is used to establish each character, and an even smaller fraction of which may be used to establish interpersonal relationships. All the falling-in-love, all the sweet nothings and all the loving must happen in real time. There can be no montage in the opera world. With these time constraints, the figures in an opera can scarcely be more than types. Reasons of plot or character may require one cipher to love another, but it's hardly enough to build a whole theme on. Even if the characters are well-drawn, and characters seldom are, it can hardly be anything novel. If you've seen two people in love, you've seen them all.

Perhaps I hold a minority perspective. The general public can't seem to get enough loving, whether on stage or screen. Notwithstanding that it's good to be in love, what is there to say? If two people are in love, they really really like each other, and that's all there is to it. The public's apparent desire to see an endless series of fundamentally similar love scenes play to predictable and familiar conclusions suggests a more lurid form of entertainment. I, for one, don't want to watch sublimated pornography.

Without really inspired wordplay, it's difficult to infuse new interest in the tired idea of love. Operas, however, are seldom known for their lyrics. (Quick! Name a librettist). While most librettos are merely a series of by-the numbers emotion songs (e.g. The Queen of the Night's famous aria: "I am very angry" ), a creative approach would do well to ditch love altogether. Countless books, plays, poems and screenplays have been written in which love is completely absent. Although the move away from romatic plots has been greater in modern times, several of Shakespeare's plays, including some of his most popular, have scarcely any love. Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Timon of Athens, not to mention Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe and etc. manage to concern themselves with plots less trite than questions of who thinks who is sexy.

So I ask you, why are operas stuck in this romantic ditch? I assume some of it relates to the need to find meaningful roles for women, and in the past, women were known primarily for their lovin'. (Although King Lear, which is chockablock with women, has never been made into an opera). Perhaps it is merely a sad fact of history that women's liberation happened after classical music died a natural death. As for modern operas, Nixon in China abandons the concept of love, but it throws out the baby with the bathwater, being too modern and minimal to have much of a plot at all.

Maybe it doesn't matter. John Adams can do what he wants, but opera is as dead as Caesar, and everybody knows it. It doesn't really matter what anybody does now; that canon isn't getting any bigger. People may think they know why the grand opera died out, but if you ask me, twas beauty killed the beast.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Plague of WASPs

From the Metropolitan Opera's Board of Directors:

Glen W. Bowersock
Van Cliburn
O. Delton Harrison, Jr.
Hartley R. Rogers
Miss Leontyne Price
Winthrop Rutherfurd, Jr.
Mrs. Bryant Reeve Dunn
Harrison LeFrak
Langdon van Norden, Jr.
Evelyn M. M. Popp

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Animals Are More Heroic Than Others

As an enduring legacy of the animal rights movement, every American knows in his heart that hero pets are real, and they live, mild-mannered, among us. We all dream that our own pets might turn out to be heroes, but what sort of heroes they might be depends on the pet. Don't expect your ferret to drag you from a burning building. With this speciesist caveat in mind, let's run down the list of heroic pets.

Parakeet
The very first result on Google is about a parakeet that died of CO poisoning, and thereby saved us all. Seemingly more Christ-like than heroic, on further consideration this puts all the canaries in the coal mines on a pedestal with 9/11 firemen. Doesn't that appeal to you?
Rat
Though you might not think it, hero rats are out there. As Herorat.org informs us, some hero rats can detect landmines. Others can detect tuberculosis. As the owner of two rats, I'd like to think that I have one of each. You never know what tomorrow holds.
Turtle
When I began this search, I had forgotten that there was an entire TV/movie franchise based on hero turtles. I don't think there are actually any hero turtles, bodacious as that might be.
Goldfish
A Google search for "Hero Goldfish" turns up no obviously relevant results. On the other hand, "Villain Goldfish" leads us to this ominous blurb (6th from the top).
Parrot
According to news reports, these animals express their heroism primarily by making a goddamn racket whenever the slightest thing sets them off.
Dog, Cat
Dogs predicting seizures, and cats dialing 911 are a thing of the past. All the buzz on the internet now is about dogs saving dogs and cats saving cats. Perhaps dogs and cats have grown too heroic to redeem a fallen mankind. Let them save themselves, if they can.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Invent Later

The great thing about America is that anybody can have a website. I have a website, and you probably have a website, and now the Patent Office, in association with the shadowy Ad Council, has a website too.

InventNow.org is a bizarre attempt to drum up business in the patent office by appealing to our nation's worst inventors: Children. When I first saw the web ad for InventNow, I thought perhaps it was designed to hector computer scientists and mechanical engineers, a testy reminder from the American government that we pay you to invent. Invent now!

But no, the government has decided to focus its energies on children, with come-ons like, "have you been thinking about the next big thing in skateboards?" Sure, every self-respecting child has been thinking about the next big thing in skateboards, but to what end? Few children have drill presses or lathes in their workshops, few children know how to draft blueprints, and I feel comfortable saying that there will never be a "next big thing" in skateboards. They work fine already.

I think the website knows in its heart that children can't invent. Suggestions range from not-really-inventions ("Invent" a new sport! "Invent" a way to tell that spring is coming!) to the hilariously difficult ("A car that doesn't use gas." Hey GM: Invent now!). There's not much middle ground.

Bearing that in mind, and the likelihood that any child who does InventNow will be swallowed alive by patent attorneys, perhaps it would be safer for the wee ones to focus on the "trademark" side of the US Patent and Trademark Office. Have you been thinking about the next big thing in catch phrases?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Fall Lineup

If you follow Fox's hit TV show House, and I know you do, then you could recite the premise in your sleep: Hugh Laurie's character is a drug addict and a sarcastic bully, but also an impossibly good doctor, so it's cool. This is an okay concept for a TV show, but if I were a television producer, we'd see a version of House in which House is not only a huge jerk, but also desperately incompetent.

As formulaic as the original show is, I think it would respond well to this tweak in its underlying plot. Indeed, I can see it now. House cows the other doctors into accepting his ignorant diagnoses. House manipulates patients into unnecessary surgery. House performs countless small cruelties in service of his pet theories -- but they never amount to anything more than cruelty. And when the patients ultimately don't get better, an unrepentant House throws the blame on someone else. House makes smug wisecracks throughout, but here they just sound pathetic and hollow.

Eventually the viewers would begin to wonder why the hospital didn't just fire House, but thematically the answer is clear: They're all afraid of him. This could be made explicit (House has some power of blackmail, or perhaps they don't know what a junkie like him might do) or just be a timid unwillingness to contradict such a self-assured person.

This could play as a black comedy, and a lot of the humor would be derived by contrast with the "real" House, but I think a tragedy would be more powerful. Sure, it would be hard to write a serial tragedy, and viewers might rebel at the enormous injustice. But I think we've all seen enough genius doctors, enough medical miracles, and enough, well, justice on TV to last us into the next century.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It Came To Me In A Dream

States with panhandles that stick out clockwise:
  • Idaho
  • Utah
  • Texas (2x)
  • Mississippi
  • Maryland
  • West Virginia (2x)
  • Connecticut
States with panhandles that stick out counter-clockwise:
  • Nebraska
  • Florida
  • Oklahoma
  • Maryland
  • Alaska
  • Alabama

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Personality Test Q. #1

If you were a politician named "Weiner", would you rather have your name pronounced "Wiener" or "Whiner"?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Obama's VP Pick

All the world is waiting with bated breath, but think about it. It can only be the Pope. At its founding as a nation, America threw its lot in with the Freemasons, in opposition to the temporal power of a distant pontiff. This made sense at the time.

But with Masonic policies leading us to ruin, and a new, vibrant papacy in America's Heartland, it would be foolish to ignore the Pope. Obama is savvy. He knows what happened to Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Mark my words, January won't find Obama kneeling in the snow outside Delia, KS, praying for the anathema on his administration to be lifted. Safer to bring His Holiness into your cabinet.

"What You Can Find At The Bottom Of A Bottle"

Today, the New York Times conducts an intrepid expedition into the world of poor people, following every subway line to its end, out in the sticks. Such a nakedly elitist article would not be possible in any other city, but luckily this is New York, and poor people all read the Post, so they're fair game. They're so poor, the reporter discovers in the second paragraph, that they use generic Windex. The rest of the article, unsurprisingly, is in the same vein.

Future articles I hope to see from the New York Times:

  • Does Anybody Actually Live In Yonkers?
  • New Haven: End of MetroNorth -- End of the World
  • New Jersey: No Thanks
  • The View From My Office Window
  • None Of My Friends Come From The Deep South
  • The Bronx is Scary

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cool in My Code

One of the things they don't tell you about New York before you go to live there is that it has its own TV station, NYCTV. Not only is NYCTV broadcast exclusively in New York, New York is its sole subject matter. Programs include
  • NYC Paradetown USA
  • Blueprint NYC
  • Backdrop NYC
  • Eat Out NY
  • The Bridge (about hip-hop, but as Wikipedia defensively explains, "hip hop began in New York City")
A lot of these programs have no parallel in the "straight" world. There's no Non-NYC Paradetown USA. Parades in Lincoln, NE and Marquette, MI remain uncommented-on. People in the rest of the country are just as curious about the world around them as New Yorkers, but lack Cool in Your Code, which methodically examines the ZIP codes of New York, to tell us what is cool and what is not.

Really, the programming of NYCTV resembles nothing so much as the Travel Channel. But instead of taking us to Europe to discuss the local pastimes and delicacies, NYCTV leaves us right here. It may not be as glamorous as watching a program about foreign lands, but with NYCTV, you are living the travelogue. Yes, life is one long staycation in New York City.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Fantasy -- On *NBC*

At the Olympic finals, the next gymnast is announced. Cut to the gymnast, looking at the parallel bars, then down at his feet, pacing nervously. He has stage fright, and can't go on. We see his coach and his family pleading with him, getting increasingly frustrated. We can't hear any of it, but at last he bursts into tears and runs out of the stadium. Bob Costas: "He needed at least a fifteen-point-five, but it just didn't happen."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"Winningest"

Just another adjective that nobody will ever use to describe me.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wikipedia for Veep

The political story of the day is that John McCain was caught plagiarizing Wikipedia in his latest speech, a primer on Georgia. When it became the duty of presidential candidates to offer fun facts about foreign countries I don't know, but McCain notes, in a similar style to Wikipedia, that Georgia was the very first Christian nation, and that Georgia regained its independence in 1991. For this, McCain is being pilloried with all the mirth liberals can muster. (None.)

But I think he's on to something. If there's one thing Wikipedia's founders and proponents stress, it's that it's good enough. Sure, there's sometimes vandalism or mistakes, but Wikipedia usually knows the score. Can John McCain say that? Can Barack Obama, for that matter? Wikipedia offers competence, gravity and mass appeal. If McCain is going to rely so heavily on it, he should do the honorable thing and make Wikipedia his running mate.

Not Ice, But "Ice"

In the second paragraph of the New York Times' recent piece on ice, the author admits that the premise of his article is "kooky or risible" to almost everyone in the country. Normally that would be grounds for not publishing an article about gourmet ice. But this is the Times, and the people have to know.

The article is primarily a forum for meditation on the nature of ice. The zen-like president of the Ice Council offers these insights to the receptive reporter:
  • "Ice is a food"
  • "Ice is water's sister product"
  • "Not all ice is the same"
I think that pins it down pretty well. On a scarier note, the article profiles some of the people who Care about ice. "Carolyn Polk," it says, "did not start out as an 'ice snob'". On one level, I'm tempted to say, well, who does? But as I come to think of it, I realize that ice snobbery could happen to anybody. I laugh now, but in a few years, will I be so sanguine about the air bubbles in my ice cubes? Do you have to be predisposed to get upset about a colorless, tasteless, odorless "food", or could this obsession truly claim anyone?

Ms. Polk, we learn, was introduced to ice snobbery by her friends, comforting evidence that such a kooky and risible preoccupation can't just develop spontaneously. Still, she offers this moving coda, which speaks to anybody who thought the Style section could never happen to them:
“I never really thought ice mattered that much to me. At first, all I wanted to do was make my guests happy. But once you go there, you go there, I guess."

Friday, August 08, 2008

Will Kiss For Money

Not to be crass or anything, but I think you could really make a lot of money with a kissing booth. According to tradition, kissing booths are only found in carnivals, but I suspect they never existed at all, and are just a cultural reaction to Lil' Abner. If they did exist, you might expect to find them in Branson, Missouri.

Nevertheless, I think if you swallowed your pride and set up a genuine kissing booth in Washington Square Park, charging two or three dollars a kiss, you'd make money hand over fist. With a wry modern gloss, in a city of hip but lonely young people, a kissing booth would fill a real need. Prostitutes aren't cool. A kissing booth would allow you to both take part in Americana and touch someone, while remaining ironic and detached. And of course, it's all legal.

But there are perverts out there, and America is losing its innocence. You'd better have a pimp.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Concrete Quest

Lost technology, the relics of a decayed civilization, is a trope as old as fantasy writing itself. But history doesn't supply much to back up our fascination with it. The Romans had an empire, sure, and that empire collapsed. But other than self-esteem, what was really lost?

Wikipedia makes a dab at listing Roman discoveries -- "While not strictly invented by the Romans, the double-ended dildo was popularized by Caligula" -- but most of the stuff on the list was never lost, and everything else is pathetic. The Romans may have invented the street map, but does that really push the boundaries of science outward? On the other hand, nobody can say that the abacus has been lost. And a 1st-level mage would turn up his nose at a quest to recover the secret of the grist mill.

The glaring exception is concrete, which the Romans stopped making in the 5th century, and was rediscovered at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution by John Smeaton. Concrete also underlies other Roman triumphs like the coffered dome and the road (Boy, being innovative was easy in those days. You only had to invent a road.) It's hard to believe the Romans could let such a fundamental concept just slip away from them, but rather than orcs or Balrogs, it was carelessness that buried the formula of cement.

Mr. Smeaton had no idea that he was the prototypical RPG'er, the model for countless novels and D&D scenarios. He probably sashayed into his laboratory and rediscovered cement, little dreaming that in another age, such an important secret would be guarded by a powerful wizard and a squad of Concrete Golems.

Friday, July 18, 2008

That Is All

Practical Joke Idea:

Water balloons filled with thin sugar syrup.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I Don't Think I Understand Economics

Is it me, or is this paragraph peculiar?

Fears that an economic slowdown in the United States could spread to other parts of the world and lead to lower energy consumption pushed oil prices down sharply for the second day on Wednesday. The drop in price contributed to a jump on Wall Street with the major markets all rising more than 2.5 percent.

In other words,
Fears that an economic slowdown in the United States could spread to other parts of the world... contributed to a jump on Wall Street...
Is that how it works?

Update: Scooped!

Monday, July 14, 2008

¡Neologism Alert!

Launching a nuclear strike will now be known as (giving someone a) plutonium overcoat.

Under the Spotlight: Washing Machines

Why do so many people own washing machines, and dryers? Sure, they're a sign that you've made it in this world, a status-symbol somewhere between houseplants and pearl-handled revolvers, but are they justified on economic grounds? Clothes-washing technology has come a very long way, but it's still a fussy business. Every 40-odd minutes you need to empty the washer, empty the dryer, fill the washer and fill the dryer. If you wash your clothes at home, and have a fairly large wardrobe, this can take all day. Ever tried to parcel a day's activities into discrete half-hour chunks? You're going to watch a lot of TV.

The main alternative is to go to the laundromat, which is cumbersome if you have to carry your whole collection around. Nevertheless, it has the under-appreciated advantage that because there are dozens of washers and dryers, you can wash all your clothes at once, in less than two hours. It costs money, but the cost is only significant to the poor. Someone rich enough to afford a washing machine could easily shoulder laundromat fees, and find the savings in time that much more valuable.

Indeed, I don't know why anyone would consider a washing machine a wise investment. The first rule of manufacturing is to keep your machines busy as much as possible, because you want the maximum return on your capital. A household washing machine is only in operation a tiny fraction of the time. How much more efficient to "rent" a laundromat for the few hours per month when you need its industrial capacity.

There are so many household industries that we don't literally invite into our households. What about car repair, aluminum recycling, butchery, or publishing? We all read books, but why own a printing press?

P.S. This doesn't really fit in with my other arguments, but washing machines will make your house smell like soap forever and ever.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wedding Presents Are Liquid Assets

With all the news coverage focusing on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, I got to thinking: Wouldn't it be cute if they got married?

E-dict



The Pope has a website. Now, to be fair, he's not the "real" pope. He's not even a medieval-style antipope, backed by the Holy Roman Emperor in a naked power grab. He's just one man, out there on the streets, who had a dream. Now I don't know whether the Pope in Rome is web-savvy -- I doubt it -- but I do know that Pope Michael I, David Bawden, was elected with a quorum of six, and that he has a website, and that makes him Pope in my book.

Pope Michael came to this momentous decision when he realized that the Catholic Church, and all of its so-called Holy Fathers, were tainted with Modernism. Among the charges: Pope John Paul II gave Mass to half-naked Papuans. Clearly something had to change, and an antipope was born.

Concerns about Modernism aside, I'm delighted that we finally have a pontiff who understands Web 2.0. While John McCain still can't read his e-mail, Pope Michael is pioneering bold new tithing techniques. And in his segment, "Questions for The Pope," we are invited to e-mail Pope Michael "any honest questions." Please don't abuse this invitation, guys. I don't want to be known as someone who directed a lot of spurious e-mail to the Pope.

Because this is 2008, the centerpiece of this ecclesiastical website is a blog: The Pope Speaks. I was initially pleased to learn that he calls his posts "popsts", but I think that might just be a typo. No true Pope would be that fanciful. The actual blog, I'm sorry to say, is that Catholic argot which is as hard and pointless to wade through as any encyclical or chirograph. He may be a child of the Information Age but in a lot of ways, the new Pope is the same as the old Pope.