Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Vanity Candidates

Our electoral system may not be perfect. It has its good points and bad. But every four years, there is one feature of the presidential election process that never fails to piss me off. It's these candidates with absolutely no chance that just won't go away.

This isn't a partisan issue. Candidates on both sides are guilty. In 2000, you had Bush and McCain fighting it out in the republican primaries. Forbes was a distant third, but he stayed in since he did have a shred of a chance. But then you had Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer and m'man Alan Keyes. These three people had no chance to become president.

That they had no chance was exceedingly obvious to everyone. They couldn't even be called longshots. As they say in poker, they were drawing dead. But night after night, debate after debate, equal time had to be given to that little shit Bauer. Night after night, in order to listen to McCain make some interesting point on an interesting topic, I had to put up with Keyes making the same long winded speech about Thomas Jefferson and how we are "endowed by our creator with inalienable rights". Fuck you, Keyes. Get off the stage.

Keyes won, in a way. He got a TV show on MSNBC. Three people in that primary were trying to become the president. Three other people in the primary were not trying to become president. They were angling for TV shows and increased personal visibility.

Now look at 2004. You had 6 contenders in the democratic primary who it could be argued had a chance. Then you had Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Mosley Braun. I give Braun some credit. She went out first. She wasn't out to just promote herself, she wanted to president. She gave it all she could. She was a long shot to begin with, and when it became clear that it just couldn't happen, she got off the stage.

Then other reasonable candidates, like Joe Lieberman and Gephardt also heard the music and bowed out at the appropriate times.

But Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich? They couldn't care less about the polls and the hopelessness of their position. See, they're weren't in it to be president. They just like being on the stage. They like campaigning. They like making speeches. Sharpton is crafty. His goal was to parlay this publicity and airtime into bigger things down the road. Kucinich is just nuts. I can't really say what he's up to because I'm not sure.

The final debates in the primaries were just Kerry, Dean, Edwards, Clark, Sharpton and Kucinich. That's a full one-third of the debate comprised of vanity candidates with no chance. Am I the only one offended by this?

The job of US president is the most important and consequential job in the world. The choosing of the president is a serious matter, a weighty matter - it shouldn't be the place for carnival grandstanding and shameless self-promotion. I kept waiting for the debate moderaters to ask the vanity cadidates this question: "Since your candidacy by any logical measure has absolutely no chance, why should the voters consider electing a man who isn't capable of recognizing a lost cause?"

Then there are the third party candidates. Occasionally, you get a fluke like Ross Perot in 92 who ran a great campaign and actually had a shot. But most of the time, the third party candidates have no shot. Now, I've got nothing against belonging to a third party. But honestly, the libertarian party isn't going to win a presidential election, so it's a total waste of time to field a candidate.

These third parties, instead of blowing their meager wad on a hopeless presidential campaign, should focus on winning local elections. Win a school board seat here, a council seat there. Then try for mayorships and state legislatures. That way you can build a base and a record of accomplishments, and someday, maybe, you can send someone up to be president.

In 2008, we're going to have a whole new batch of vanity candidates. It's inevitable. Four years from now, the plausible candidates are going to have to share stage space with the self-promoters. Half of the debate will be spent watching the Kuciniches and the Bauers waste our time.

P.S. About the hymnals from yesterday: hymnal is a great word for a game of hangman. The children you play with won't like you, but hey, you'll win!

Monday, June 28, 2004

Episcopalian Hymnals

This complaint is going to sound a little odd coming from me. Seeing as how I'm an Atheist from a Jewish family, my opinions about how certain churches are sanitizing and bastardizing centuries-old hymn verses probably don't carry a lot of weight with anyone. Yet, I am annoyed, so I will press forward.

Also, be warned, this complaint delves just slightly into my politics so if you want to skip it, feel free. I'm trying to make an effort to keep politics out of this journal, on the assumption that politics will simply irritate 50% of the readership. (okay, 3 people)

Here's the story. I went to a Christian elementary school where I was one of six Jews in the class. We sang hymns every day. I didn't mind this, and I still remember a lot of the hymns by heart. (I can even sing all the parts of Good King Wenceslas by myself) Actually, you're probably not going to find too many other atheist/former Jews as familiar with the modern hymnal as myself. If you ask me to sing "The spacious firmament", I'll say "regular? Or in the descant?"

So then I left this school, moved on, and didn't find myself back in another hymn-situation until I joined the men's Glee Club in college and found myself performing the choral movement of Beethoven's 9th in a Boston Episcopal church.

We were seated in the back, waiting to be called up to perform, when I, the rogue Atheist noticed the hymnals in the pew. I grabbed one. I started flipping through it, getting all nostalgic about Rock of Ages and Hark the Herald. But I started noticing little changes everywhere... different words, different phrases. These hymns were different. Specifically, they had been rendered gender-neutral. Whenever God or man was referred to in the masculine, the line had been changed.

Sadly though, while these changes may have been made with a sensitive eye toward political correctness, they weren't made with much of an eye toward keeping the verse flowing smoothly and rhythmically. You can sing "Mankind" with an emphasis on the first syllable. But if you take out "Mankind" and insert "Humankind", preserving the downbeat on the same syllable, you get "Hu-MAN-kind" which, if you ask me is a pretty ugLY and terRIBle way to sing a hymn.

To say nothing of the fact that some of these hymns are hundreds of years old and are a living link to our religious past, and some hippie with an ergonomic pen had the arrogance to think he could go in and make changes at will.

But I haven't even gotten to the part that really made me angry. The priest who was running the show asked us to stand and join him in a singing of "In Christ there is no East or West". Ah. A fine hymn. We open the hymnals and proceed to sing the most butchered, bastardized version of "In Christ" that anyone could ever imagine. I was floored. The number of changes was staggering. Here, for reference, is the original version of the hymn.

In Christ there is no East or West,
in him no South or North,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In him shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find,
his service is the golden cord
close-binding all mankind.

Join hands then, brothers of the faith,
whate'er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
in him meet South and North,
all Christly souls are one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

You'd never really have thought about it until someone brought it to your attention, but this hymn is jam packed with gender specific pronouns and words like brothers and fellowship. Every one of these offending words was changed. Observe how changing "all mankind" to "humankind" creates the improper emphasis. Observe how changing "brothers" to "members" obscures the meaning of the verse. Christianity isn't a gym or a price club. The word "members" emphasizes the institution of Christianity. The word "brothers" emphasizes the community of Christianity, which is the proper emphasis in context.

But most seriously: the whole damn hymn is a message about inclusion! The hymn says We Are All The Same! We are all one in the eyes of Christ! No matter your race, creed, gender, shoe size or whatever, we are all one in our faith! I've never used the expression "seeing the forest for the trees" and I'm not even sure what it means, but can't these people see the forest for the trees?

You don't need to run in with your politically correct agenda and start changing the verse. The verse itself is a powerful statement about tolerance and inclusion, and it's already written far better than anything you can come up with to improve it.

I guess at this point I need to step back and remember that I'm not a Christian, never was a Christian, and frankly I don't care at all about the loving, welcoming arms of Christ. But dammit sometimes I just get so mad!

Sunday, June 27, 2004


Let me jump right to the point on this one. Tailgating on the highway is unsafe, no doubt about it. But you, the one being tailgated:


I do not condone tailgating. In general I can’t condone any kind of highway hostility, and driving in California, you do occasionally see hostility. But the tailgaters, wrong as they are to tailgate, do have a legitimate gripe, and on balance I take their side.

If I was made President for a day, (or King, if I’m really going to shoot for the brass ring) this would be my first decree: “If you are driving in the left lane, and another motorist drives right up on your ass and stays there…. Get the fuck out of the left lane.”

The left lane is a passing lane, not a cruising lane. There are drivers out there, including myself, who want to go a little faster. We’re willing to risk being ticketed. We accept that risk. Do not sit in the left lane and block us.

Here is a common thought that occurs to the party being tailgated. “Hmmm. This guy clearly wants to pass me. But can’t he see that there’s another car in front of me, about 10 carlengths ahead? If I let him pass, he’ll just be stuck behind that guy. Clearly, he needs to accept that 70mph is the fastest he can expect with this level of traffic.”

I offer this response on behalf of all tailgaters: “Let ME worry about that guy.”

Like I said, I do not tailgate. Tailgating is dangerous. Generally, what I do is I pull up to a “tailgating distance” behind the car in front of me for about two seconds. Then I retreat to a normal distance. This lets the guy know that I would like to pass him, but that I’m not some kind of psycho. Some people prefer flashing headlights. That’s a little bossy for my tastes, but I don’t object. And when the shoe is on the other foot, I’m completely cooperative. If I’ve achieved my desired cruising speed of 85 in the left lane, but some enterprising young motorist wants to pass me at 95, I don’t complain. I don’t judge. I don’t dawdle.

I get the fuck out of the left lane and let the guy pass.

And I generally see him approaching before he gets to me, so I can get out the way early and let him pass without breaking his stride. See? Courtesy. Understanding.

We should welcome speeders. We should celebrate them. After all, they’re taking the heat off the rest of us. If some nutjob is speeding in and out of lanes at 100mph, well then I can cruise at 90 without having to worry about the fuzz. That’s great!

Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Speed Limit

Why is it, on just about any road or highway, the posted speed limit is usually about 10-15 mph below the actual flow of traffic? If the speed limit is 55, traffic is moving at 65. If the speed limit is 60, traffic is moving at 70. If an approaching curve has a sign that says “Slow to 40”, you know you can take it at 50. If an exit ramp says 35mph, you know you’ll be fine at 45.

Speed limits are probably the most commonly broken laws in the country. And it’s pretty safe to say, the powers that be don’t really care. Oh, if you go 90 in a 60, they’ll care. But if you go 75 they won’t. My point today is that it’s time to rethink our speed limits. We need speed limits with a modern understanding of road safety and that accurately reflect what truly is and isn’t acceptable for today’s drivers.

Any expert will tell you, (or at least the ones I’ve seen on TV) it’s not speeding that kills people, it’s speed variance. If you’ve got a busy highway and people are randomly driving between 55 and 85, that’s a recipe for trouble. But if everyone was going 80, that’s a much safer road.

My car, a very basic and common Toyota Camry, can cruise comfortably and safely at 80 or 85. It can even cruise comfortably at 90 or 95, given the right road and visibility. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s been almost 30 years since the national “55 mph speed limit” was a popular cause. “55 saves lives” was the slogan. At the time we had a fuel crisis and therefore a good reason to promote a more fuel efficient speed. But in the 21st century several things have changed:

1) Today’s cars are more fuel efficient at higher speeds
2) Today’s cars handle better at higher speeds
3) Today’s roads are built better and are appropriately banked for higher speeds.

Drivers know that traffic can move comfortably and safely at 75. The cops know it. We all know it. So posting the speed limit at 60, for whatever technical reason, makes zero sense. The reckless driver sees that everyone is breaking the speed limit by at least 10mph, and therefore feels justified in breaking it by 20 or 30. Meanwhile, grandpa over in the right lane wants to observe the strict letter of the law, and so he’s going 10mph slower than everyone else. So you end up with speed variance, and an unsafe road.

Here’s the answer, in my opinion. Set up some cameras. Clock the actual average speed on a particular road. Say on the interstate it’s 75. Now add 5mph and Bam! There’s your speed limit. Now enforce the hell out that speed limit. If someone goes 81, you pull them over. Here’s the beauty:

1) Hypothetically, there’s no maximum. If you’re in nowheresville, Nebraska, and traffic can move comfortably at 95, then the speed limit can be 100. It’s all based on what the road can safely accommodate.
2) Currently people break the speed limit all the time, but only get ticketed if they exceed it by an amount that only the cops know and keep secret. Under the Rowsdower plan, the speed limit is actually enforced, and therefore reckless driving can be successfully deterred.
3) On average, traffic will move faster under my plan, since the net effect will be raising a lot of speed limits. Faster traffic nationwide means more efficient commerce nationwide.

Don’t give me a speech about safety. Look at France. Look at Germany. They manage to drive quickly without getting killed. Hell, look at Montana. They have a unique no-speed-limit system and you don’t hear about it being a problem.

Cars and roads are only going to keep getting better-performing and safer. It’s time to rethink the speed limit.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Jackie Chan

Change of plans. I'll tackle Kwanzaa another day. The new Jackie Chan movie "Around the World in 80 Days" just came out, so it's an excellent time to talk about Jackie.

This isn't a rant against Jackie. I love the guy. How could you not? He's funny, he's wholesome, and his theatrical ability as a martial artist is completely unique. Completely unparalleled. When he's in a well-choreographed fight scene, it's like nothing you've ever seen. It's mesmerizing, it's awesome. He's our Buster Keaton.

So why, oh why, do the movies constructed around Jackie have to suck so very, very much? Why can't they demonstrate basic competence? Why can't they even be passable as thrillers, or action-comedies?

I love to watch Jackie do his thing. When he takes on 30 bad dudes with nothing but a ladder and a chair, it's worth every penny of admission. But the penalty for this 5 minutes of brilliance is 115 minutes of laughably bad boilerplate action movie, complete with sub-George-Lucas dialogue, nonsensical plot and terrible characters.

This isn't just one incident. The pattern of terrible Jackie Chan vehicles spans decades. His fervent, die-hard fans (and there are many) will not concede this. To them, anything with Jackie is pure genius. Folks, the truth must be faced. And here it is: The average Steven Seagal bone-cruncher or Jean Claude Van Damme buttock-flexer is a better movie on balance than the average Chan vehicle. Yep. It's true. The reason for this, ironically, is that Seagal and Van Damme aren't nearly as talented as Chan. Seagal can't wow the masses with a fight scene like Chan can; therefore he is forced to offer a movie that is slightly more entertaining in order to compete. Don't believe me? Let's review the evidence.

Project A
Twin Dragons
Rumble in the Bronx
Mr. Nice Guy
Jackie Chan's Who am I?
The Accidental Spy
The Tuxedo
The Medallion
The Vampire Effect

I've only seen about half of these, but I feel confidant giving the raspberry to the whole bunch. I mean, must one actually SEE the Tuxedo before giving it the thumbs down? Rumble in the Bronx and Mr. Nice Guy are two of the worst movies I've ever seen. Again, each one has 5-10 minutes of glorious Chan-choreographed balletic action. But those scenes are buried in a miasma of shit.

Why can't Jackie Chan, the Buster Keaton of our age, be in an actual GOOD movie? Wouldn't that be awesome? It would be a revelation. Sadly, he's pretty much past his physical prime, so the opportunity is fading. I mean, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis are a couple of meatheads, but they've both made some pretty good action movies. Why does Chan, more talented than both combined, have to make such swill?

Ah, you say, what about Rush Hour? What about Shanghai Noon? Don't delude yourselves. These movies are both deeply mediocre. That they rose above incompetence to mediocrity is why they're so cherished among the Chan fans.

Let me approach it one more way. Do you remember the Eddie Murphy - Owen Wilson action-comedy "I Spy" from a few years ago? How about the Chris Tucker - Charlie Sheen buddy comedy "Money Talks"? Of course not. They sucked and you didn't see them. THOSE ARE JACKIE CHAN MOVIES. With the single difference that they do not include a Jackie Chan ass-kicking scene.

Now I'm not knocking his early work. All those 70s movies with names like Fearless Hyena where he flexes on river banks and fights Gods, that's part of a cinematic tradition that's just alien to me. If that's your thing, then God bless. Same goes for all those Police Story movies. Hong Kong action is its own genre. I can't really jump in and criticize it from my western perspective.

All I'm saying is that it would be nice for the Chan worshippers to admit that The Medallion sucked. Because hey! It did!

Monday, June 21, 2004


Yes, Father's Day has come and gone. One of Hallmark's most successful invented holidays. Let's hope they sold a lot of cards.

My relationship with Hallmark goes back to my teens. It was then when they unleashed one of the most terrifying, evil commercials to ever hit the airwaves. It still chills me to think about it.

Maybe you've seen it. A grandmother at home gets a surprise visit from her daughter in law. "Happy birthday mom!" says daughter-in-law. DIL gives Grandma a birthday card. "Oh sweetheart, thank you so much!" replies grandma. "I love you." says DIL.

Then, as DIL goes into the next room to see if the azaleas need watering, grandma makes sure she's out of sight and then discreetly looks at the back of the card to determine if it is a "Hallmark" brand card.

This commercial makes a very simple point, and makes it succinctly. All sentiment is pretense. All love is false. The delicate, gossamer bond between two human beings who care for each other is actually pure contrivance. As it turns out, the only measure of one's worth is actually how much money one spends on greeting cards.

It was after seeing this commercial that Hallmark became mine enemy.

Hallmark is a bloodthirsty, soulless enterprise. They have made their name and earned their fortune by convincing you that you need to buy a card. That if you don't buy a card, you are an asshole. That the only way you can demonstrate a satisfactory amount of affection is by making a gift of a card. Of course, they don't state it quite like that. You have to wait until they accidentally tip their hand, as they did in the grandma commercial. That was a rare glimpse.

You don't hear too much about "Sweetest Day", which was a failed Hallmark holiday intended to compete with Valentine's Day. Actually, you can still find it on some calendars. It's in October. But the irony is that Hallmark was essentially trying to compete with itself. Valentines Day is, for all intents, a Hallmark invented holiday.

Sure, it was originally a religious observance where inclined Catholics could send their sweethearts poems and flowers. But now, Valentine's Day is a fully secular ritual, and observance is compulsory. If you choose not to get something for your wife or girlfriend, then you sir are an asshole. Thanks Hallmark!

When people periodically complain that Hallmark should not be inventing holidays out of thin air, Hallmark comes back with the ready response that they never "invented" anything. They'll be happy to point out that it was one Agnes Maybell, who in 1916 first started honoring grandparents in her home town of Duluth, and that Hallmark is proud, proud I tell you, to keep Agnes' dream alive that all grandparents should be honored and celebrated.

Fuck you, Hallmark!

Tomorrow, I'll branch out beyond just the Hallmark holidays and let you know which other holidays I think are total BS. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

20 Annoyances

It's time to do a little housecleaning. Of the many things that annoy me, some pretty much speak for themselves and don't merit a full column. So here are twenty from my big list.

1) Peel and Eat Shrimp

2) Wave machines in swimming pools

3) Drinks that are 90% ice

4) Bathrooms with mirrors where you have to look at yourself on the toilet

5) Greedo firing first

6) Places that serve buffalo wings and don't provide a pre-moistened towelette

7) Brittle

8) Canadian quarters

9) The statement: "The majority of cases go unreported"

10) The fact that no TV show character has ever given birth via a Caesarian Section

11) Communal dormitory soap

12) Women who try to hide their sneezes

13) Anytime Whoopi Goldberg and Wil Wheaton have a heart to heart talk on Star Trek

14) The every-other-year Olympics schedule

15) The word "Smashmouth"

16) Being told to look up a word you don't know how to spell

17) Tank-topped parents who take children to see movies that are wildly inappropriate for them

18) People who carry keychains with dozens of keys

19) People who called Independence Day "ID4"

20) Price is Right bidders who go one dollar higher than the previous bid

Although if the subsequent bidder goes yet another dollar higher than the asshole, that's just sweet, sweet justice isn't it?

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

More on the Trendy Names

Well, Courtney Cox Arquette just named her baby girl Coco. This may not qualify up there with Rumor and Scout, and certainly it's no Moonunit, but my oh my is it stupid. The ability that celebrities have to give their kids the most retarded names ever conceived is just stunning.

Occasionally, you find an exception. David Letterman just named his baby Harry, and should be applauded.

But we all know that celebrities give kids dumb names. Let's talk about dumb ordinary people naming their babies after celebrities and the fictional characters they play.

Let's start with Aaliyah. This is a stupid name. For most of the 90s, (according to the social security website www.ssa.gov) Aaliyah hovered in the 200s in terms of the most popular girls names. It was slightly more popular than Tori, Priscilla and Kassandra; slightly less popular than Tessa, Sandra and Kylee. For most of the 90s, about a thousand girls a year were being named Aaliyah. Then of course in 2001, the single-named celebrity Aaliyah died in a plane crash.

By the time the figures were in for 2002 baby names, the damage had been done. Aaliyah shot up the ranks to no.63, beating out mainstays like 64-Sierra, 73-Autumn, and 78-Jada. 4,754 girls were named Aaliyah in 2002.

What this means, is that in 2002, (if you take into account that about 1,000 girls would have been named Aaliyah anyway) about 3 and a half thousand girls were named after Aaliyah the singer.

But hey, at least Aaliyah the celebrity was a real person. How about babies named after fictional characters?

Throughout the late 90s and into the 2000s, Emma has been a popular name, averaging about 11,000 girls per year. Then, in October 2002, Rachel from Friends gave birth and named her baby Emma. In 2003, 22,543 girls were named Emma. Emma, in fact, was the number #2 for girls nationwide that year, with only Emily beating it.

So in one year, the number of Emma's grew by 100%. In a single year. Anyone who doesn't think that Friends had anything to do with that raise your hand. 11,000 girls were named after a sitcom last year.

And last, let's turn to "Trinity". Now at least Aailyah is a real person, and at least Emma is a real name. Trinity is just... well, a word. Like "Shirt". Or "Thirsty". In 1993, only 217 sets of parents were stupid enough to name girls "Trinity". At no.951, it wasn't as popular as no.944-Kalie or no.949-Kailee, but it easily beat no.958-Kailyn and no.982-Kalene.

Then of course, we got The Matrix. Let's look at what happened.

In 2000, the year after the Matrix, Trinity jumped to name no.74, only two spots below the juggernaut no.72-Kaylee. 4,215 girls were named Trinity that year. Discounting the normal 200 or so Trinities we usually get, that's about 4,000 human beings named after a fictional character from a sci-fi movie.

People, we need to do a little better when naming the next generation. Look, I like the Matrix as much as the next person. But in 30 years, no one is going to remember the Matrix. Think about it. 30 years ago, the biggest action special effects movie (winning the Oscar for special effects by the way) was "Earthquake". How many of you have seen that? That's your Matrix in 30 years.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

The $6 Beer

Airports. Stadiums. County Fairs. Theme Parks. Movie Theaters.

Welcome to the land of the $4 medium coke and the $6 beer. And by beer I mean draft Coors Light or something similar. Six bucks.

Like Starbucks calling coffees "grande" and movie theaters showing endless ads before the movie, the blame for this gigantic travesty falls on one indivudal: you. Well, all of us. We permit this. If we refused to stand for it, it would go away. If nobody bought a $6 ballgame beer, there wouldn't be anymore $6 ballgame beers.

The six dollar ballgame beer, more than anything else, is the reason I don't go to more ballgames. It's not just the beer - I'm not some kind of hopeless drunk - it's all the concessions. Look at it this way. I live in San Diego. To go to a Padres game, I'm paying $25 for the seat, $7 for parking, $4 for one hotdog, and $12 for two draft beers. That's nearly $50 to go to a game. And that's just one person. God help you if you're taking the wife and kids.

What's the result? Going to a baseball game is now a luxury. It's something I do once, maybe twice a year. Ideally, I could see myself going to a ballgame once every week or so. If the total cost of a game was $25 instead of $50, I might make it a point to get out to the stadium more. And you know what happens when you see more games? You become more invested in the team, you start following the season more closely... suddenly before you know it - you're a fan. And once a team hooks you, you're hooked.

But no, to make ends meet, they have to charge $6 for a beer. Well congratulations. The one time per year I decide to go to the game, you get to rape my wallet all evening. But you don't get a regular customer. And you don't get a fan. Stadiums are where new fans are minted. It's where the non-initiated discover what the game is all about. Why discourage game attendance with Sea-World style prices? If the stadiums would offer a little more incentive to get out to the game, they'd have more fans, and they'd sell more beer.

As far as the airports go, and the theme parks and movie theaters - they'll all tell you a sad story about how times are tough and the $6 beer is the only thing saving them from bankrupcy. Bullshit. These places have you trapped. They know you need a beer. They're holding all the cards. And they'll keep raising prices as long as we keep paying them.

Take airports. If it's true that the only way to keep our airports and airlines running efficiently is to add a premium to the airport beer, then frankly I think it should be ticket prices that are bumped up a few bucks. Why punish the thirsty traveler? People already associate airports with hassles and frustration and annoyance. Why add to this impression with gouging at the bar counter? Just because they can I guess.

Here's what I'm pledging. I'm going to draw up a few quick guidelines. I'm going to write down the maximum I want to pay for a beer or a soda or a hotdog or pretzel, or ice cream cone, or whatever. And then you know what? I'm just not ever going to pay more than that dollar amount. I refuse to be held hostage by the carnie with the keg.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Old People

Well, this one isn't going to win me any friends, but it needs to be said. I've had it with old people.

Growing up, there was one old person I really did admire. Not a grandparent actually. Not a teacher or a neighbor. It was Obi-Wan Kenobi. Patient. Wise. Understanding. Could still kick a little ass if he needed to. This was my kind of old person. And as a child, I gave every old person the respect I would have given Obi-Wan.

Then I grew up, and two things happened. 1) I worked in a casino for a year where I dealt with old people non-stop. And 2) I got a chance to interact with them in other adult situations: in our banks and post offices, at our supermarkets and stadiums, and on our nation's highways. And now I have a whole new perspective.

Old people are mean sons of bitches. They are at turns angry, petty, selfish, bitter, negative, demanding, infantile, slow-moving, spittle-projecting and whiny. They lack any basic competence in a variety of areas and ask some of the stupidest questions I've ever heard.

I'm sorry to be impugning an entire generation here, but I've just had too many negative experiences with the elderly. Now of course I understand that the body becomes weaker and the mind not as sharp, so I'll make all kind of allowances for that. But the general decline of the body and mind doesn't account for the need to ask a waitress 5 questions about the preparation of the food. It doesn't explain the habit of butting in to the private conversations of strangers, it doesn't excuse making loud and frequent complaints to whoever is nearest about every petty little thing.

I love Vegas, but old people infest every corner of it. And wherever you are, they'll let you know it's too cold, that the shuttle bus drivers are nicer at the Rio, that there was a cigarette burn on the rug in their room...

They'll bitch if the keno girl doesn't come around, then they'll ask to see a supervisor to complaing about the termperature. Sometimes there'll be a hygene issue of some sort that I have to ignore....

To seek refuge I have to go to the Hard Rock Hotel. It's the only place in Vegas that is free from old people. The secret is the lobby. As you walk into the Hard Rock, music that is blasting at an obscene volume assaults your eardrums from every direction. The only way to enter is to walk through this corridor of terrifyingly loud music. This works like a can of pine-scented OFF, repelling the old people like so many mosquitos.

Someday, I too might be old. And I pledge right now: I will decide what I need before I get to the front of the line. I will take what is written on the menu to be the last word on the matter. I will bring a sweater. I won't rattle on forever about what used to be here. If I am driving slowly on a single lane road and notice that there is nothing in front of me but open road and twenty other cars bumper to bumper behind me, I will calmly pull over, say sorry to each passing car, and then shoot myself.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Hotel Beds

To prove a point about the cleanliness of your average hotel room, I need to relate a little story.

A year or so ago, I was staying in a downtown Vegas hotel during one of my frequent binges of gambling and buffet consumption. Never mind which hotel. Well let's just say it begins with Horse and ends with Shoe. And on the first night, I woke up suddenly in a panic.

I had shit the bed.

Or at least, that's what I assumed. The funk of feces was present and powerful. Reaching into my boxers, I was thankfully able to clear myself as a suspect. But feces there was, and it seemed to be somewhere in the bed. I scrambled out of bed, turned on the lights, and threw the sheets and blankets off.

No shit anywhere. But the funk was, if anything, even stronger now, and I knew there was a fecal intruder somewhere in the vicintity. I spent twenty feverish minutes turning the room upsidedown, looking for the evidence. I opened all drawers, upturned every chair, (well, just the one chair) and looked under and behind everything. I even looked between the mattresses. No luck.

So finally, I had to admit defeat. I even had to concede that I didn't smell it so much anymore. So, angry at having not solved the mystery, I climbed back into bed and turned out the light.

And there was the funk again, stronger than ever.

This time, I was hit with a flash of insight. I slowly turned on the light, reached not for the sheets or blankets, but the *bedspread* and gave it a hearty whiff.

OH MY GOD!! It was the bedspread. So, using tongs I keep in my suitcase for just such a purpose, (okay not really) I deposited the fouled linen outside in the hall.

When I finally returned home, I did some internet research. And what I found shocked me. Hotels routinely do NOT clean their bedspreads. Sheets are washed daily, blankets sometimes, but that big comfortable bedspread - hardly ever. Usually only at a guest's request. Now this policy is halfway understandable. After all, it would waste a lot of water to wash a bedspread for each new guest, and hotels have a right to assume that the customers won't use the bedspread for toilet paper. Still though, my advice when staying at a hotel is to call ahead and request a laundered bedspread. Particularly in a place like Vegas or New Orleans, where people aren't just in town on business.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Today, a brief word on a children's product called "Digimon".

Whenever any entertainment product is an instant success, you can always count on a flood of instant imitators. Survivor spawned The Mole, Who Wants to be a Millionaire The Weakest Link, Transformers the Gobot, the list is nearly endelss.

So when the bizarre phenomenom called "Pokemon" became wildly successful, producing movies, video games, a cartoon show, a card game, assorted toys, etc. you knew that a dozen poke-imitators were not far behind.

Now, normally, when a fad produces carbon copy imitators hoping for a quick cash-in, I don't get riled up about it. If one mediocre prime-time game show is a hit, and it rapidly leads to 5 other mediocre prime time game shows, I don't let it bother me.

But when the inexplicable Pokemon fad spawned a copy called "Digimon", something inside me just snapped. To refresh our memory, let's recall what Pokemon is all about: Children, who roam free in a magical land where there isn't much adult supervision, collect and train magical monsters, store them in magical balls, and eventually release them to participate in a sort of magical cock fight against the monsters of other kids.

Fine. At least it's original. Then along comes Digimon, which, barring a few irrelevant details, is exactly the same thing. The only real difference between the two is that Pokemon is original, Digimon is not.

Now I happen to think that we, the consumers of entertainment, have made a kind of devil's bargain with those who provide the entertainment. We agree to deliberately suspend our disbelief. We know that movies and TV shows exist for one reason: to make money. But we agree to ignore this. The latest special effects blockbuster in theaters is nothing but a piece of corporate product, and its single purpose for existence is to liberate dollars from your wallet. But we ignore this. And we have to. Unless we ignore it, we would never enjoy any of it.

When something like Digimon comes along, the problem is that the devil isn't keeping his side of the bargain. The raw, drooling greed behind the product has not been adequately disguised. Give me something, anything so that I can say with sincerety that the makers of Digimon are out to entertain us and just wanted to bring some creativity and happiness to the lives of children.

But I can't. Digimon doesn't try to stake out its own creative territory, it simply tries to BE pokemon. Everything about it, including the name, is an attempt to confuse you into thinking that it IS pokemon. Not a deriviative of pokemon, not a cousin of pokemon, but Pokemon itself.

If you worked for a shoe factory, or a lamp-shade maker, then you would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that your product satisfied a specific need. It may not be glamourous job, but damn it, people need shoes and lamp shades. But imagine going to work for the Digimon people. How could you go to work every day, knowing that the only reason your product existed was to fool its customers into thinking they were actually buying a *different* product?

The insult of Digimon is therefore double. Those who created it are counting on the low intelligence of the consumer in order for it to be a success. Digimon can only work if we are stupid. But they are also making clear what they think about your intelligence with the baldfaced nature of their con. Nothing is disguised, no attempt to distinguish the product has been made.

It's a bit like a friend who lies to your face and gives you an utterly implauasible story as an excuse. You're mad because he's lying to you, but you're also a little insulted that he expected you to believe his ridiculous story.

So I guess all I'm saying is this: The next time someone tries to pitch you a worthless product in an attempt to get into your wallet, try to hold the shuckster to a higher standard. Let him know he needs to make more of an effort to disguise his obvious contempt for your intelligence. Then maybe you'll buy it.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Starbucks, Part 2

The other really irritating thing about the Starbucks experience is having to say Tall, Grande, and the invented Venti to order anything.

This, of course, is a thoroughly beaten dead horse. We've all complained about the stupid size-names, we've all bitched and moaned, we've all made jokes. End of story? Not quite.

What is so worrying here is how quickly we as a nation admitted defeat. At first we stuck to our guns, refusing to say "grande", laughing at "venti", etc. But those friendly Starbucks people kept gently correcting us, kept smiling, kept insisting on the stupid names and kept rewarding us with nice big cups of delicious coffee. And quite quickly, we folded. We gave up. Now we say Grande and nothing could be more normal.

And what has been the result? People walk into other, non-Starbucks cafes and ask for Grandes. Some other coffee shops actually have adopted the word Grande for everyone's convenience. But worst of all, other food-service businesses have been inspired at how easy it is to force stupid names on us and are rolling out their own crazy names.

I walked into a Cold Stone ice cream parlour the other day, and saw a sign declaring new names for the cup sizes. Instead of small, medium and large, it was now "Like it!", "Love it!" and "Gotta Have it!"

I need to pause for a moment to calm down.

Cold Stone could never have done this without the Starbucks example. As I ordered my medium ice cream, I said "medium". But I was on the edge of rage. If the guy had corrected me with a "You mean you want a Love it!", I would have totally lost it.

Here's the point. This marketing strategy where crazy names are substituted for normal ones only can work if the customer chooses to participate. If we can summon the courage and strength to say "medium", then there is nothing Starbucks can do to stop us. We can take this fight up again if we want.

"But why does it matter?" you ask. Well, I don't normally throw around words like "Orwellian", but isn't there something sinister and Orwellian about the size "Tall"? It means the opposite of what it means. What if the GAP changed its XL size to a new size called "Slim"? Would we care? Would we roll over and take it?

Every time you say "I want a Tall mocha." the people behind the scenes who have gambled that you are an idiot have been proven right. They'll just do it again somewhere else. You got that Jayden?

Monday, June 07, 2004

Starbucks, Part 1

Confession: On balance, I'm a starbucks fan. Super convenient, good coffee, they don't throw tons of advertising in your face, and the baked goods are all right. I'm not crazy about how they've made $1.50 for a cup the national acceptable norm, but the good generally outweighs the bad. But man do they infuriate me in a few, minor respects.

Here's the big problem. The lids. They suck. The starbucks coffee lid must be declared a complete failure.

The "sippy" lid has only one thing going for it. If you are planning a long stay in the Starbucks, staring blankly at your open nursing textbook for hours, the sippy lid will indeed keep the coffee warmer for longer as you take the occasional sip.

But if you need the lid for some other crazy purpose, like say, containing the coffee, you are shit out of luck aren't you? How many of us have gone through the delicate balancing act of trying to carry one or many sippy-lidded beverages without spilling anything? How many of us have winced every time the car hits a bump and we glance over to see if our front seats are covered in wet coffee?

Now consider the beauty of the standard gas-n-gulp coffee lid. Fits snugly around the cup, keeps the beverage warm, and has been proven not to spill its contents during any earthquake up to magnitude 8. It's the lid endorsed by the Scouts of America, and the only one stocked on the space shuttle. It is, to put it succinctly, a better lid.

And Starbucks does not carry this lid. It's the sippy lid or fuck you. Keep in mind, most good lids have the peel-back option, so you can turn your gas-n-gulp lid into a sippy lid at the merest whim. Starbucks does not understand this. They could sit me down, I suppose, and give me a powerpoint presentation complete with pie charts, showing their customers prefer the sippy lid overwhelmingly versus the "better" variety of lid, and I still wouldn't be convinced. Why not stock both?

But here, ladies and gentlemen, is the coo d'grah. Starbucks, on their drink counters, offer SCOTCH TAPE DISPENSERS to the customers. Christ on a bicycle. They know that their lids can't keep coffee in the cup, so they offer scotch tape so that enterprising customers, faced with a bumpy car ride, can attempt some home-repair on their weak ass lid.

But even this insulting gesture doesn't even solve the problem. Those of you who have attempted to scotch tape a starbucks lid know what I mean. There is the main sippy hole, which usually gets taped up. Then there is a secondary "blow hole" at the top of the lid, quite tiny. And then there is a sneaky third hole, down in the "reservoir basin" portion of the lid, which cannot be taped at all.

Furthermore, as many of you also know, the Starbucks sippy lid for no reason whatsoever, occasionally dribbles coffee down the side. This, to my knowledge, has no cure.

Even if Operation Lid-Tape is a complete success, and you arrive at your destination with no spills, you get to enjoy a cup of coffee that tastes faintly of adhesive glue. Congratulations.

Tomorrow, part 2 of the Starbucks complaint. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

More Trendy Names

My earlier comments about how certain trendy names were infuriating provoked much conversation, so I think I need to expand on my comments.

Using the government's social security website: www.ssa.gov, I was able to sort through the most popular baby names, by gender, year and decade. In 2003, these boy names were in the top 100:

15. Tyler
19. Dylan
34. Caleb
44. Connor
56. Mason
70. Cole
79. Cody
75. Jayden
83. Jaden
85. Hayden

If you chart the dreaded Tyler, it seems to be on the decline. Throughout the 90s it hovered in the top 10. The hellish "Dakota" has also thankfully fallen out of the top 100, though like Jaden, it's also common for a girl's name. (there's a warning sign for you)

Does anyone here know anyone named Mason? Hayden? Jayden? Well prepare to, my friends. That doctor prescribing your hearing aid in 40 years is going to be one of those. Now let's check the girls.

3. Madison
16. Kayla
26. Hailey
34. Haley
37. Destiny
50. Kylie
54. Kaylee
57. Trinity
72. Riley
91. Aaliyah

I'm not going to mount some kind of impassioned defense on why I think these names blow. You either agree with me or you don't. And I left out plenty by the way. These were just the worst.

One interesting thing about this list is the number of spelling variations on simple names. Names 300-500 aren't just obscure names like Otto and Percy, they're common names with ridiculous spelling changes: Kody, Elliot, oh my God - Zackery, Jonathon, Jaydon...

This is madness. Did these people think they were giving the baby the normal version of the name, or did they deliberately change the spelling? I'm guessing: THEY ARE STUPID.

"These are our kids, Kaylee and little Jayden." Do you think you could ever be friends with a person who made that statement? Oh, I'm sure you could be civil and friendly and pass a nice afternoon together; but are you really ever going to be *friends* with these people? They named their kid Jayden for Gods sakes. This is the point I'm trying to make.

So let me chart out a few guidelines for name selection. This isn't an exhaustive list of considerations, only the few that are most commonly overlooked.

1. You aren't naming the baby or the child. You're naming the adult. Choose a name that won't look embarassing on a business card. Complete this sentence: "That was a strong presentation, _____. I think you'll be a top candidate for that research grant." Kody doesn't go in there.

Adult males, who among you would want to be named Timothy, Timmy or Tim? Answer: NO ONE. This is an example of name that works fine for a little boy in overalls running around with a pail and shovel, but is very difficult to work with for an adult. "This is my boss, Timmy."

2. Make sure it pairs well with the last name.

3. Give some thought to the obvious playground taunts. Hugh is a nice name in other respects, but fails this simple test.

4. If the kid wants to be president someday, don't give him or her a name that is an instant disqualification.

5. No names that are likely to require constant spelling and pronunciation corrections from people hearing it the first time.

6. No naming people after yourself.

And finally, as stated before, don't invent names.

That's a good start I think. Now get ready to meet amazing amounts of Kaitlyns and Kaylas amd Catelins and Katelynns for the rest of your sad lives.

Saturday, June 05, 2004


TV is just such a good source of minor irritation that it would be foolish to stop now. Let's talk about widescreen.

The Sopranos is filmed and broadcast in widescreen.

Ladies and gentlemen - the Sopranos is a fine show, but you are being fucked with. There is no reason to film a TV show in widescreen and air it that way. Your TV has its own aspect ratio and all your other shows dutifully conform to it. The Sopranos on the other hand, (as well as the occasional episode of other shows, like the West Wing) deliberately chooses to fill only 85% of that space.

Now let's be clear: if a *movie* with a *theatrical run* is filmed in the widescreen aspect ratio, then by all means preserve that format for the DVD or TV broadcast. Nothing is worse than having a great movie butchered by pan and scan editing.

But we're talking about TV shows that never had a theatrical run. Shows that were made explicitly for your TV screen. Why make these shows in a format that your medium wasn't meant to support? You might hear a couple of BS reasons.

First reason: it's done as a service to those forward-looking individuals who have bought widescreen-TVs.

Bullshit. There's no way a show with a national audience would decide to pander to the truly miniscule number of people who own these TVs at the expense of everyone else. It doesn't make sense.

Second reason: The widescreen aspect ratio is more pleasing visually, as it better approximates the natural human field of vision, which is more rectangular than square.

Bullshit! Though it may indeed be true that a widescreen format, in some non quantifiable sense, is more visually pleasing, that doesn't mean that there's any excuse for putting black bars on the top and the bottom of the TV screen. Take your beautifully composed rectangular shot, and then instead of those black bars, just put in some more carpeting and ceiling tiles to fill the space. Give me more sky, give me more rug. Show Tony's feet or the chandelier. Keep 100% of the current widescreen sopranos, you don't have to change anything, just add 15% extra Sopranos that I never knew I was missing.

So enough of the bullshit reasons for widescreen-Sopranos. Are you ready to hear the real reason why the Sopranos is filmed in widescreen? Here's the secret: The decision to air a TV show in widescreen is an attempt to fool you, on a subconscious level, into thinking you are watching a superior piece of entertainment.

When you see something in widescreen on TV, your brain makes a few quick judgments that happen so fast you don't even think about them. In about 3/4 of a second, your brain has thought the following: "Wow, it sure is nice of this network to be airing this movie/show in its original widescreen format. It's always cool when something airs in widescreen, because it shows the networks recognize the vale of the film and they're giving their audience a little bit of credit. Clearly, this movie/show isn't your average TV trash, it's something a little more important."

Now you've thought all this before you even realize what you're watching. So then you sit down and watch the Sopranos. And you think it's great.

Like I said, I think the Sopranos is a great show. But now I have to second guess myself. How much of my respect for the Sopranos was influenced by the widescreen presentation? I've been trained to identify widescreen with a superior work of cinematic art. If a shitty prime time drama was aired in widescreen, would I like it more? Sadly, I think I would. I think we've all been duped.

P.S. In addition to the annoying "It's about" phenomenom in commercials, you can also add sentences that start with "Because" and do not seem to be in response to any question.