Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Ethicist, Part 2

Dear Ethicist: I have a strong suspicion that my landscaper Manuel gave me forged Social Security paperwork. Moreover, I am increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, the "El Paso Strangler" who's responsible for almost 20 border murders this year. They sure do look identical, right down to the telltale parallel neck scars. Should I call the cops, or just turn a blind eye?

Randy Cohen: How dare you. How dare you sir. It must be nice, living in that comfortable house with the landscaped garden, sipping on Chardonnay and listening to the crackle of the fire - while all the time Manual stands out in the cold, performing back-breaking physical labor for slave wages, all so that you can have a manicured driveway. Shame on you. Do you KNOW that the documents were forged? You say he's a criminal - are you a criminal investigator by trade sir? You sicken me. A person risks life and limb to immigrate to this country, seeking nothing more than a honest job and a future for his family, and your only thought is to persecute him. Does his brown skin scare you? It does, doesn't it? Does it fracture the ediface of your sham of a house of cards of a blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah....

You see, one of Randy's common tropes is that we all should aid and abet illegal immigrants, underground railroad style. We should be out there setting up water tanks along their ingress routes. We should deliberately overlook fake paperwork. And of course we need to make everything available in espanol to ease their burden. And "ethically", what's his justification for the willful lawbreaking? Well, his argument is that an unjust law need not be obeyed, and our immigration law is unfair, cruel, and a shambles.

Let's consider. Yes, an unjust law can be righteously broken, but..... don't you have to have an overwhelmingly strong case that the law is unjust? Is it acceptable to simply go with your gut? Can we, as individual citizens simply decide that laws 3, 16 and 41 are unjust and then just casually disregard them? Thinking that our immigration policy is unjust and/or disfunctional does not meet the rightous lawbreaking standard by a huuuuuge mile. Randy has a misguided admiration for the nobility and work-ethic of the lawbreaking alien and he confuses his passion for their plight for some kind of solid conviction that immigration law is unjust.

I want to take a moment and try to wrap my head around the logic of Randy's immigration position.

Okay, so we have these jobs out there in agriculture and construction and meat-packing, etc. which we are told "Americans just won't do." Why won't Americans do them? It feels like the implied answer is that we Americans are fat and lazy, and our Mexican friends are just more industrius by nature. But of course that's not the case. We have a globe-straddling economic empire and they have abject poverty and rooster fights. The reason Americans "won't do" the agricultural field labor is that - given how arduous, backbreaking and unpleasant it is - and given that it pays $2.30 an hour - and given that it's 6 days a week with no benefits, perks, or any legal recourse for complaint - well, you'd have to be pretty damn desperate to take a job like that.

It's not that Americans won't pick lettuce, it's that we seem have a national shortage of starving, indigent, frightened, illiterate, desperate people to enlist into slave labor. And this, according to the logic of Randy and our other enlightened and progressive friends, is a BIG PROBLEM.

When they say "Our economy can't run without migrant labor." what they are really saying is "Our economy can't run without a steady supply of miserable, impoverished human beings risking their own lives to come here and be our indentured servants." This, once again, is the "progressive" perspective.

It's never phrased like that though. It's tarted up in the whole kum-ba-yah, help-the-poor, what-are-you,-a-racist? routine. You really need to consider the logical end result of the Randy Cohen immigration philosophy.

If we put all the illegals on a citizenship path - then guess what? The moment they become Americans they cease being desperate enough to take the inhuman field labor jobs. Now we need *new* illegal immigrants to do that work. Am I the only person on earth to realize this? That the "Jobs Americans Won't Do" argument, and the "Bring them out of the Shadows" argument are completely contradictory? As soon as we bring them out of the shadows and give them access to welfare and unemployment and medicare and social security and all the rest, they won't do the "Jobs Americans Won't Do" anymore - and we'll need to import a new freshman class of miserable, starving slave labor.

"Which is why we need a Guest Worker Program" comes the response. And the mechanism that will keep them from overstaying their permitted guest allotment time is...... what, exactly? It's utter fantasy to expect that the Mexican "guest worker" will say to himself "Well, my job's done here. Time to go back to my family in Oaxaca." Unless the guest workers are working with ankle shackles, chain-gang style, why would a single Mexican elect to obey the law and return home, when all 90 of his cousins are living here illegally, making more, and on a "path to citizenship"?

I have to say this one more time, because it really does blow my mind. The PROGRESSIVE opinion, the LIBERAL and ENLIGHTENED position on immigration is that we need a permanant caste of second class citizens to tend our crops. The enlightened position is that the lifeblood of our economy depends on the failure of Mexico as a state, and the resulting desperation and poverty of it's inhabitants. We need the average Mexican to have a life so miserable and hopeless that escaping his own country and working for us for $2.30 an hour is his best plan.

If I say sensible things like "Seal the Mexican border air tight." then I'll be called a racist. If I say "Citizenship should be contingent on true English fluency, a respect for our laws, an admiration of our way of life, a working knowledge of our history and civics, and some useful skill that we need more of." then I'm a racist. If I say "We should be working toward helping Mexico stand on it's own two feet so that it's people don't dream of sneaking in here." then again, I'm a racist. If I say "Americans should do field labor for real market wages." then I'm naive.

But that's how it should be. Yes the price of produce and textiles will go up. But that in turn spurs innovation - he who can build the automatic bean-picker will make the money. And building the automatic bean-picker is the true goal, because, really, NO ONE should be out there doing the back-breaking bean-picking labor. (with apologies to Mario Batali of course)

Well there. I went and did it and got all political. But man it gets me steamed. These pro-illegal-immigration people are like the homeless advocates who work tirelessly and zealously to achieve their noble goal: that every homeless person can be out there legally - begging, squatting, panhandling, loitering, sleeping on steam vents and in the subway - what a tremendous victory!!! You win, homeless advocates! They do have the right to beg and live in squalor on the street! Go on, do your victory lap, what a tremendous accomplishment!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Ethicist

I have been absent here for a while. Laziness is the real culprit - not a shortage of irritations by any means. It's just - it will always be easier to head out for poker and beer than to sit down and write about how much I can't stand the elderly. (And I do. They're awful.) But I was stirred out of this stupor by Time Magazine's predictable barf-worthy choice for Person of the Year.

2006 was really one of your standard off-years that you get periodically. This is one of those years where you find a philanthropist or a scientist and give him the limelight. Some guy in Japan made a synthetic immune system cell that will be responsible for major cures in 10 or 20 years? Perfect. Give it to him. If you absolutely have to make it political, give it to the Iranian president. Show him on the cover with bones all around like the Hitler cover in the 30s.

But again, it's this bullshit where it's the common man. Thanks, Time. The message? There are no great men. Great individuals are probably frauds. William Buffet gave away so much money this year that the effects will be rippling for centuries. But somehow, he's not going to be getting too many invitations to speak at commencement. And he wasn't in the running for POTY. I guess he's a villain for making the money in the first place.

But I get too queasy thinking about POTY. Let's talk about the Ethicist, the weekly column in the New York Times Magazine. This is Randy Cohen's column, where people write in with their ethical dilemmas and Randy gives his advice.

For a while I was a huge Ethicist fan. More than anything, it was great for dinner table conversation. I have a mental file of great Ethicist questions that are always fun to chew on. I started out agreeing with Randy Cohen nearly all the time. I still think that in some categories, he has a nearly perfect batting average. He's particularly good with "Who should pay the bill?" type questions. And the "Should I interfere?" questions - he's strong there too.

But.... whenever the question being asked has just the slightest whiff of politics to it, Randy the considerate and even-handed guy morphs into his own little Mr. Hyde where logic can be conveniently discarded in the quest to arrive at the solution that legitimizes every little white-guilt fixation he has (and he has them all).

The reason I began disagreeing with Randy more and more was that he started publishing more of these kinds of questions. Nowadays I'm maybe 50/50 with the Ethicist. And that's pretty poor. But what am I supposed to do when he leaps at any opportunity whatsoever to bash corporate America, the rich, the legal system, the military, chain stores, flag wavers, the religious, smokers, etc. Maybe when he's not concentrating he reflexively bashes Israel too and then has to hurriedly tap on the delete key. One problem I'm going to have here as I vent about Randy Cohen is that I really should footnote all these accusations with direct references to the columns themselves. The problem is that the New York Times has been very efficient in locking up all its content under paid subscription. Good luck finding a single old Ethicist column floating around cyberspace. Furthermore it will be a cold day in hell before I shell out a dime for Times content. So the bottom line is I'm going to have to rely on memory here.

Of course, I do have free access to the current column, and it was this column that got me annoyed enough to forgo the poker and beer. Here you can see the nauseating side of the Ethicist on full display. The side where accusations of racism fly fast and free. Share and enjoy:

Last Christmas, I took my grandchildren to “The Nutcracker,” a ballet I love. My enjoyment was severely marred by the appearance of a black snowflake and then, even worse, a black Snow King. The aesthetic incongruity was inconceivable. The entire ballet was spoiled. It is analogous to a one-legged midget playing Tarzan. Does this make me a racist? Name withheld, Sewell, N.J.

Randy's response:

This does make you a racist — not in the sense of exercising a virulent antipathy toward African-Americans but of being, like most of us, affected by feelings about race.

Here’s one way to think about your reaction. When you see “Gladiator,” the hero is not portrayed by a citizen of ancient Rome; he does not speak Latin. He is a New Zealander, and nobody complains (except a few carping movie critics who are just jealous of Russell Crowe). When you go to “The Lion King,” the title character is not a lion. Movies, theater, ballet — all are artificial. To experience them is to accept many contrivances. In Shakespeare’s day, men played the women’s roles, and people did not see this as an “aesthetic incongruity” but as a theatrical convention.

What prevented your doing likewise at “The Nutcracker” were your ideas about race. Remember, we’re talking about dancing snowflakes here, yet none of the dancers were crystalline specks of frozen water. The entire event eschewed any pretense of corresponding to the real world. What you call an aesthetic response is invariably more complicated than that, a product of many of our ideas.

Not so long ago, some folks would have reacted similarly to a Jewish singer in a leading role at the opera. But as anti-Semitism waned in America, so did such attitudes. As race-neutral casting becomes commonplace, I think you’ll no longer see it as incongruous; you’ll judge a dancer by her skill, not her race.

How enlightened! How progressive! If you object to a black snowflake on the grounds that snowflakes are supposed to be white, that makes you no different from anti-semites who objected to Jews singing opera! No different! Really, no different at all!

Randy mentioned The Lion King. He'd have no objection to an all-white cast performing the Lion King on Broadway, right? No objection whatsoever. (I mean after all, it's not like a *real lion* is being cast!)

How about Leonardo DiCaprio playing George Washington Carver in "The Peanut Butter Story"?

Randy Cohen: "Well now there you're dealing with a real person and the question of historical accuracy, and blah de blah blah blah."

Me: "Sure. Historical accuracy. So then you share my opinion that Morgan Freeman shouldn't have been cast in Unforgiven, seeing as, historically, he wouldn't have been treated as an equal and besides, there weren't any black, landowning cowboys in 1870's Wyoming."

Randy Cohen: "Well no, in that case it's okay, because b'blah b'blah-blah-blah, blahbuh blah."

Me: "Ahhhhhh, I see. Well then clearly you weren't bothered by that controversy where Angelina Jolie was cast as Mariane Pearl, the half-African, dark skinned wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl? You know how everyone was complaining that it was wrong to cast a white woman in the role? I guess you've made it clear we should judge the actress by the performance, not by the skin color.

Randy Cohen: "Well now hold on. That casting was inappropriate, not to mention insensitive, because blah blah blah blah blah di-blah blah blah blah blah open borders blah blah blah."

You know I had a professor once who snapped at me "Don't you think it's funny that no matter what the union labor dispute is, no matter what the issues are, conservatives always seem to be able to take management's side? They'll weigh the situation, they'll claim to consider all arguments, and yet somehow they always end up siding with management. Isn't that funny?" Well whenever I see Randy weighing in on a difficult racial issue, I always remember that little outburst. Isn't it funny how no matter what the individual circumstances are, Randy always finds a way to side with the non-white-skin-pigmented person? No matter what racial double standard he has to endorse, there's always seems to be a good, sound case for it? Funny, huh?

For example, a white man writes in and asks if it's wrong that he finds Asian girls prettier than all others and prefers to date only them. Is that racist? Yes, it's racist, says Randy, busting out his most aggrieved "How dare you" tone. Randy had the cojones to suggest that there was something illegitimate about this man's utterly personal choice about who to find physically attractive. Can you imagine living in Randy's world, where if you were caught dating a disproportionately high number of Asians you'd be subject to everyone's scorn? I have a followup question for Randy on his column. When I decide who to find attractive, should I be considering the racial demographic mix of just my local area? Or should I make some attempt at outreach?

But this is getting off topic. We were talking about the free and easy double standards. If a black man wrote in and said he found black women uniquely beautiful and preferred to date them exclusively, and does Randy have a problem with that, what would Randy's fiery, principled response sound like? I think it would sound like this.

I think Randy Cohen does in fact have a coherent position on these racial issues. It is this: If you belong to one of the cherished American victim classes, (non-white skin pigment being the most basic proof of membership) you are entitled to certain double standards. That's just how he feels. That's his position. It's a stupid position, and it shows that in all ways that count he's a lightweight, but it is coherent and consistent.

But of course he'll never come out and say that that's his position. Instead we're treated every week to these elaborate logistical cartwheels trying to demonstrate how a new racial double standard is ethically justified. Observe the flop sweat as he labors to show why black hospice patients can have racial nurse preferences but white patients can't. Throw a counterexample at him that uses his own logic but is clearly preposterous (Jews were oppressed - can they request Jewish nurses?) and then watch him discover a special footnote to his already confusing argument that disqualifies your counterexample. (Randy: "Jews don't have that same cultural fear of the white medical establishment." Me: "Ah, that makes perfect... huh?")

(Side note: Randy and I did have that back-and-forth. I'll at least give him props on responding to his reader mail)

How many times have we opened up an Ethicist column to read some bizarro, parallel universe question like: "My husband and I are remodeling our Greenwich country house kitchen. Just the other day, we noticed that the contractor has both an NRA sticker and a Right-to-Life decal on his worktruck. Is it justifiable to spit directly into his face, or should we just fire him quietly?"

Those questions are great for Randy because they set him up to be the voice of moderation. Randy: "As much as I sympathize with your predicament (and who wouldn't want to send a little salivary buckshot back in this guy's direction!) we must remember that in a free society, people are entitled to their opinions, no matter how unsavory." Bravo Randy!

To be continued...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Automatically Getting Your Wisdom Teeth Removed

Guess what? I have all four of my wisdom teeth. Yeah that's right dentists. All there. All healthy. All helping me chew those spicy tuna rolls. What are you going to do about it?

See I know when I go to the dentist and they see those wisdom teeth back there the cash register noises start going off in their heads. They start thinking about that new backyard pool they're going to put it. That new corian kitchen counter. How crestfallen they always are when I tell them no sale.

Dentist: "You know Zap," (spoken in a fatherly, caring medical voice) "You really should get those wisdom teeth out."

Me: "Really?" (pause) "Why?"

Many people don't even make it to the why. They just give in right there and schedule the first of the appointments. Ask ten different dentists why, you get ten different answers. This is common:

Dentist: "Well, later on... they can become quite problematic."

Me: "Oh no.... what kinds of problems?"

Dentist: "Wisdom teeth grow for a long time. And when there's crowding in the mouth and the tooth runs out of jawbone space...."

Me: "Yeah...."

Dentist: "They can become *impacted*"

Me: "Oh God, no. What does that mean?"

Dentist: "It means it'll grow in at a funny angle."

Me: "And..... and what are the consequences of that?"

Dentist: "Um.... well they can become more prone to infection."

Me: "Infection? That's awful!"

Dentist: "Not to mention mild gum pain."

Me: "Oh Jesus. Not mild gum pain!"

Dentist: "And, possibly.... .... .... swelling."


So yeah. This is not a convincing case to have four teeth removed. Let me ask a reasonable question. Where else in the entirety of medicine do we have body parts removed because of the hypothetical possibility that they may one day cause one of a few minor, perfectly treatable problems? If a buddy showed up with an eye patch and said "Yep, I had the eyeball removed. Can't be too careful about pink-eye." wouldn't that just be a wee bit stupid.

Ah, but the eyeball is useful. Not wisdom teeth. Okay, so what about the appendix? The appendix has no use. Do we get our appendix removed in anticipation of appendicitis? No.

The only things I can think of that we get preemptively removed before they cause trouble are moles and other skin blemishes. But a) those are unsightly, and b) the risk is cancer. If you bring cancer into the picture, then yeah, now I'll play ball.

If the wisdom tooth does cause trouble later on, then sure! Remove it! Oh what, they get more difficult to remove as they grow? I don't care. Still the same copay for me. Still the same anaesthetic. It's your problem, dentist.

And why do we play down the actual usefulness of a wisdom tooth? If you lose a tooth in early adulthood, any teeth that are still growing can move into the gap. Then you're going to be happy you had a few spares in the back.

I guess I just can't understand how people can be so acquiescent about forfeiting body parts just because one day they might get infected. "Might want to remove that middle toe... what if it steps on a rusty nail?" No thank you Dr. Hackemoff!

Finally, circumcision. Hmm. I guess logically I have to be against it. Yeah sure, what the hell, I'm against it. Not much I can do about it now though.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Music. Porn. Entering Nightclubs - Things I Refuse to Pay For

Let me focus on the music aspect of this, since I think refusing to pay for porn and clubbing is pretty straightforward.

Is it wrong to steal music? See, my position is, it's an irrelevant question. Technology has brought us to the cusp of the point where the protection of music is utterly unenforceable. If a law cannot be enforced, it simply ceases to be a law. If the government really made some sort of concerted effort to punish music file-sharers, in the style of Singapore littering punishments, then maybe I'd have to revise that opinion. But that's not going to happen.

I know that the opposing argument is "wrong is wrong, and getting away with it doesn't make it right." But there's a limit to that logic. If I patented the formula for coke, or I got a nickel for every coke sold, and then for some strange reason the sky started to regularly rain coke, then that's it. The ballgame is over. And that's what digitized music is. If your "product" is something that can easily be converted into ones and zeros and copied infinitely by anyone, then we are approaching the point where that product simply cannot be protected.

And if everybody wants something, and that something is free and easily accessible, and there's no way to curb the accessibility, and no way to enforce a law prohibiting it, then like I said, the ballgame is over. It's time to move on.

I do have a conscience that tells me that if something is simply "wrong" I shouldn't do it, but stealing music has not, so far, triggered that mechanism in me. I acknowledge that there is a long chain of hardworking people that brought the music from conception all the way to MP3 format, and that I am screwing them out of well-earned profit, but again, I turn to the fact that the sky is raining coke. It is not reasonable to expect that people will voluntarily refrain from listening to free music. Instead, it is the hardworking chain of people who will have to adapt to the new reality.

I anticipate something like the following happening in the near-to-mid future: music recording outfits will all teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, because everyone will be stealing their product. The government will have to intervene. Music making will have to be supported by tax dollars, with the expectation that the end product will be free for everyone.

In a way, this would restore a nice supply and demand balance. Music artists would have to settle for very normal wages (unless they make a fortune by touring, which they could always do) and the public, in the end, would resume paying for the music.

What's the alternative? "Enforcement"? Enforcement costs money. Someone has to pay for enforcement. It's our tax dollars that pay for it. Why not spend the enforcement dollars on subsidizing the musicians? What are the artists going to do? Boycott? They can't - they have no other skills. How would we decide who gets paid? Well, musicians would have to make music on their own coin; then they'd be paid on the basis of downloads or listens. The bigger the piece of the download pie you have, the more the govt. forks out to you. It's all nice and Darwinian.

Again, I don't really see much alternative to this future. You can't enforce a ban on file-sharing, and Kid Rock holding out his begging tin doesn't earn anyone's sympathy. Whether or not sharing files is still somehow "wrong" is going to have to become a question for armchair philosophers, since it's clearly not "wrong enough" to make people care at a sufficient level to actually enforce a ban. Technology has changed the rules of the game. Our old conceptions of how to protect intellectual property are going to have to adjust.

And yes. After music, movies are next.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Misspelling Your Business's or Product's Name for Absolutely No Reason

You know. Like Shop Rite. Or Savon Drugs. Or Surgrip. Or EZ Rent.

What we're overlooking I think, when we fail to get angry at names like these, is the hubris. The arrogance. What you need is to take a moment to consider the decision process that leads to a business changing Glow into Glo. Or Park into Parc.

The decision is a marketing one. It's based on sales and profit. Whichever name suggests itself as being the most profitable will be the one chosen. If Black & Decker was selling a new kind of flashlight, and test marketing suggested that "Faglight - The Flashlight That Makes You Gay" would sell the most units, they'd go with faglight. They really don't care. With that understanding, the next step is to wonder how they arrive at a name like Saf-T-Lite.

Well this is another one of my wacky pet theories. I think... that they think... that by taking a word like Light and making it Lite, that on a subconscious level we the consumer will draw this conclusion: "This is no ordinary Light. This flashlight is so special that the English language itself is unprepared to describe it with any accuracy. No, a new vocabulary is needed. A new lexicon that is up to the task of doing justice to a flashlight of this level of unparalleled awesomeness."

Let me put it another way. When you name your health bar PowR-Bar, the unspoken message to the consumer is this: "Look, we wanted to name it Power Bar. We did. Really. We don't think it's our place to intrude into this thousand year old language and start coining words for the sole purpose of selling snacks. That would be a really poor reason to invent a word. We know it. It was really only with the greatest reluctance that we're calling it PowR. But we had to. The word "power", at the end of the day, was just too puny and inadequate to describe the PowR of the energy boost you get from our product. We don't take this step lightly. It humbles us. Please forgive us, and enjoy a PowR Bar."

What it really is is a hustle. No, not the good kind of hustle, like when you're jaywalking. The shitty kind. "You are dumb. You will be fooled by our phonetic variant into believing we offer a product of a higher quality."

Well I don't like it. It pollutes the language. It hurts my eyes. Words like Lite. Like Cleen. And Froot. And Cheezy. I could go on.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to see a store called "Save Money Buying Drugs Here" or "Fill Your Car's Tank With Gas"? I would shop there. Wouldn't it be nice to see one business, just one, resist the urge to modify the word Quick into something like Qwik or Kwik? "Rowsdower's Quick and Easy Oil Change Shop" Yes, I'd like that.

Not to get bogged down in tangents, but what is Pine-Fresh supposed to mean? That expression is established now. "Wow, that smells pine fresh!" Why is pine inherently fresh? What if you had a moldy, rotting pine log. Would it still be pine fresh? I can accept bakery fresh, or creamery fresh, but that's about it. And what does "Smart & Final" mean? All sales final? It's contradictory. The "smart" means "You'd be smart to shop here." And the "final" means "All sales are final, so if you discover that what you just bought is defective, tough shit." Seems like you're entitled to either the quality boast or the defensive backpedaling, but not both in the same name.

Ah, what's the point. Product names suck. Marketing sucks. Advertising sucks. Everyone involved in marketing is stupid, and they think that you are even stupider. I hate them. Really. I really hate them. I hate these ads that are self-aware - you've seen them - where the ad concept is a bunch of people trying to decide on an ad concept. It's a fascinating but depressing window into the lives of these jerks. It's the commercials where it's a bunch of twentysomething advertising professionals, with the spiky-faux-behead-yet-well-coiffed hair thing, and they're sitting at a conference table throwing pencils at the ceiling, brainstorming a concept for a new Nissan, and it's all so self aware. And they each describe an ad concept and we get a quick cut to what that ad might actually look like, probably involving a bear on a footstool who suddenly goes crazy and sends the camera crew running and screaming, and then it's back to the conference table where there's an awkward silence while the guy who proposed it looks sheepish.

Or those Jack in the Box ads where the ad exec is pitching a marketing concept to Jack for the new ciabatta sandwich, and Jack says "Well why don't you just say it's baked on fresh ciabatta bread and it's delicious?" Or even just the Taco Bell slogan "Think outside the bun." That's a play on Think Outside the Box, which is a cliche from the ad industry, and it's clearly something invented by an ad guy who thought he was being extremely clever.

Marketing is a constant voice in your ear: "You are a moron. You are a moron. You are a moron...." It's all I can do to just keep my sanity.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Potpourri 6

People Who Jaywalk In Front of Me and Don't Hustle

Let me be really specific on this one. I jaywalk - you jaywalk - we all do it. It's fine. All I ask is that if you're going to step into my driving path that you show me just a token amount of hustle. I grew up in New York, where jaywalking is an art form. There, you don't have conscientious drivers who are going to slow down for you - you have cabs. Cabs that can't be bargained, bluffed, or reasoned with. The cabs owned the streets. And if you jaywalked, you'd better know what you were doing. You had to approach the curb, turn your head left, let your eyes adjust focus to the movement of traffic, tip your whole body forward at just the right moment, and then dash across Lexington Avenue. And that's how you did it, and thus was order maintained. You deferred to the traffic. No cab was going to lose its stride on your account.

Here in Vegas the jaywalking culture is all fucked up. First of all, the streets are wider and the traffic is faster. Second of all, everyone - drivers and pedestrians alike - are all just a little drunk. Not a good recipe for orderly jaywalking. Here, the pedestrian attitude seems to be "I'm just going to walk me across this street, and we'll see if anyone has the balls to hit me." And so every day when I'm on the road there'll be at least one individual - tank topped and unwashed - who makes a point of strolling casually into my trajectory. I stare at him with fresh surprise every time - does this guy want to get hit? Is he going to see me and then realize he has to hustle?

But the hustle never happens, and I have to break stride. What we need here are some New York City cabs to put the fear back into the pedestrian heart. We need to set a few examples and restore the culture of hustling.

DVD Hoarding

I admit that I'm no stranger to the desire to "collect". To amass. To stockpile and hoard. But DVDs? Why? Do you know people (and I know several) who have been infected with this urge to own every single DVD in existence? People with DVD collections in the upper hundreds, or even thousands?

And no, they aren't movie buffs, that's the weird thing. Most of their collection sits on the shelf, still in the plastic shrinkwrap. They own movies that they have no interest in ever watching. These DVD hoarders make no internal distinction between cinema classics and complete garbage. And it makes sense that they don't: it's not about movies, it's about movie ownership.

I believe this whole DVD hoarding phenomenon is only two or three steps removed from the whole cat hoarding disease. Like clockwork, about once a month, you'll see a news story about some neighbors who called the cops because of an ammonia smell coming from a downstairs apartment, and the fire department breaks down the door and finds this scene. I think that if DVDs could poop, reproduce and go blind from malnourishment then it would basically be the same thing.

I had a friend at my old job who spent every available dime he had on DVDs. Tuesday, as any collector knows, is DVD day, and he'd be off to Fry's every Tuesday after work to pick up, I don't know, the latest Ashley Judd thriller, An Officer and a Gentleman and the remastered Tron. His TV room was lined, wall to wall, in DVDs stacked 2 deep. He carried around handwritten notes on his latest purchases and his upcoming want-list. His two toddler girls would sit on the floor and eat dry cheerios for lunch while dad watched American Pie or Final Destination.

The thing about hoarding DVDs as opposed to baseball cards or pez dispensers, besides the excessive cost, is that these people are in denial of a few basic facts. One is that nobody is impressed with their collection. Two is that it has no logical endpoint - the availability of new product will forever outpace your ability to acquire it. And three is that DVDs are well on their way to obsolescence. They will soon be fully worthless. Everyone always wondered what new media format would replace the CD. And the question has been answered without everyone fully realizing it. The CD is being replaced by the mp3. The DVD too is about to be replaced. But not by Blu-Ray or anything like that. That's a red herring. No one is going to rebuild a movie collection from scratch just for Blu-Ray. What will eventually replace DVDs will be electronic files. You'll carry an enormous movie collection around on a keychain, just like your music.

The whole idea of a movie collection lining your den wall is about to die. The DVD hoarders need to refocus their compulsion on something more benign. I recommend state quarters.

Bill Gates, An Ugly Man

Maybe this is just mean - in fact it certainly is mean, but it's too bad that Bill Gates, the world's wealthiest citizen and greatest philanthropist, has to be so physically off-putting. He's just a seriously unattractive man.

He's not exactly fat, not exactly pasty or pudgy - there's just something... off about him. His hair always seems to look like some kind of compromise. Like if someone challenged you to craft the best look you could using only aquanet and your own hands. His glasses do not inspire. His smile, while obviously genuine, makes me wants to take an instinctive step backwards. And his face... it's hard to describe. Is it normal to look at a face and think "Wow, you can hardly tell he was in that fire."

Not that I'm any blue ribbon hog myself, but hey, he's the richest man in the world. He should be able to take a little criticism.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Being Ordered to Buckle Up in the Backseat

Now here's a good challenge, since I know that virtually nobody agrees with me on this. Can I convince anyone of my absolute correctness on this issue? Everyone I've turned to for support so far has basically said "Yeeaaaah, it's irritating to get told by the driver to buckle up, but it IS the driver's prerogative. Plus it's the law."

You know what? I reject that prerogative. I deny that authority. What? Cause it's your car? Cause you're driving? How exactly does that give you the right to override my own voluntary safety choices?

And no, it's not the law. In fact, as of right now (July 2006) there are only 9 states where you can get pulled over for having an unbuckled adult in the backseat. (hmm... Oregon, Washington, California, New York... biiiiig surprise)

But hold on. Let's back up. It was 10 years ago now that this happened to me, and I still rank it as one of the most exquisitely annoying moments in my life. Even now, the bile rises easily at the merest thought of it, so obnoxious it was. Five of us in the car. All adults. Headed off to a movie. Me in the backseat.

"Is everyone buckled?" asked our driver.

I wasn't buckled. I generally don't buckle in the backseat. I kept silent.

"Rowsdower, would you buckle your seatbelt please?"

I was caught completely off guard. The entire idea of instructing an adult human being when and when not to wear a seatbelt in the backseat is so utterly foreign to the way I think that I just didn't understand that this woman was being serious. She was telling me I had to wear my seatbelt.

Like I was five years old. Like I was incapable of making my own choices. Like she knew what was best for me. Like when I climbed in her car I was entering some kind of dictatorial bubble where it was anything goes with (and I'm being charitable) her warped, unstable mind.

When I am commanded to do something in a situation where I believe the choice is entirely mine, my will steels itself into complete rigidity, and it becomes my sole desire - no matter what my previous preference was - to do the opposite of whatever it was the other person wanted me to do.

So what did I actually do? After a short and tense argument, I buckled. Literally. I am ashamed. I wish I could go back and stand my ground. I don't even remember what movie it was. Austin Powers? Air Force One? What was I thinking? Was the movie really worth it? Wouldn't it have been better to get out of the car instead, slam the door behind me and breathe the free air? Well, never again will I buckle on command in the backseat.

Is it safer to have your backseat passengers buckled? Not just for their own safety but for everyone in the car? Yes! Sure! I admit it, it's safer! But who gives the tiniest flying fuck!

It's a question of magnitude and scale. Look, 42,636 people died in car accidents in the US in 2005. The US has about 300,000,000 people. Let's assume for argument that the average American takes one ride in a car per day. That's 365 x 300000000 = 109.5 billion annual car rides in this country. This means that on average, your chances of dying on any particular ride is around 0.00000045. And if we further stipulate that the driver is sober, and you are buckled, the chances obviously drop even lower. Now if me in the backseat being unbuckled raises your mortality rate from 0.00000045 to 0.00000049, then honestly, who cares? Isn't there a threshold of extreme safety consciousness that, if you cross it and insist I follow suit, I can justifiably squint into your face and say "Leave me alone you fucking insane nazi!"

I mean, do I have to sit here and list dozens and dozens of other choices that you make in the car that jeopardize the safety of your passengers much more - I mean several orders of magnitude more - than ensuring that everyone in the back is buckled? Like if the driver who told me I had to buckle then went on to have a cellphone chat for the duration of the drive, am I not then completely vindicated? I'm sure that just deciding to drive on a rainy day puts your passengers in 10 times more danger than the remote chance of my unbuckled carcass bouncing around your cabin.

But you know, this isn't really about safety. If all this debate was was a friendly discourse on the merits of buckling then I wouldn't be talking about it. It's about more than that. It's about being insulted. It's about these people who need to take power trips. We know who these people are. They live for the opportunity to tell someone what they HAVE to do. And when I accept a ride in their car, this gives them the tiniest, flimsiest, barest scintilla of an excuse to exercise a little authority. Oh, how they love their authority. They savor the opportunity to enforce the most marginal of rules. To tell you either what you can't do, or what you need to be doing.

You know these individuals. But in case you're not sure, here's the litmus test to judge if you're dealing with one. Just go up to them and express any strong, affirmative sentiment. Say... "I love reading these articles about how good coffee is for you. It seems like every month there's some new study pointing out a new benefit of drinking coffee." A normal person hears that and says "Hmm." or "Yup." or "Like what?" or "Wow, really?" Lots of possible responses. The power tripping, bossy asshole can't respond that way because she doesn't think like that. If I state any kind of conviction, no matter how bland or neutral, and she doesn't share that conviction, then it's as if I've challenged her very existence. The bossy asshole will say "No diuretic is good for you." or "Caffeine is addictive, and it's not healthy to be addicted to anything." or "Actually, my brother drinks a lot of coffee and it makes him hyper and unhappy." etc. etc.

It's not that they actually feel that way about coffee. It's that they derive a special comfort in asserting superiority, and the easiest way to do that is to find fault with anything you say. There was this girl in college who corrected me and said the sun was a planet, not a star, and nothing we could say would make her change her mind. She agreed that the sun was like all the other stars, but that technically, it was still a planet. Her desire to be right was so strong it outweighed anything else, like having an actual encyclopedia opened in front of her, with fingers pointed at the applicable sentence. There was another woman I worked with at my last job who insisted the pronunciation was "Andre A-gozz-i", like the "gos" in gosling. So I asked her: "Then why is it that every sportscaster, announcer, commentator and Andre himself has always pronounced it 'AGa-see' every time, my entire life?" Her response: "................................. It's A-gozz-i." This is the mindset. These are the people who need you to buckle in the backseat. They're asses, all of them, and we should not comply with their "demands". We should not humor their fevered whims, because there will only be more.

We have to always be thwarting these people. Confound them at every turn! Drop soda cans in the regular trash while they're looking! Take all you want, but do not eat all you take! Do not take a pre-shower before the pool! Shop at Walmart conspicuously! Deliberately use words like bum, midget, mulatto - just politically incorrect enough to annoy them, but not bad enough to get called on. And smoke dammit, smoke! Smoke like the wind!

And do not buckle in the backseat! Even if it's your preference to buckle back there - it's more important to show them who's making the call. (And honestly, who IS buckling back there? Isn't it always a little weird to see someone groping around for that middle lap belt? What's their problem?)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

PowerPoint Clip Art

Well, I've gone and done it. Once again, through no fault but my own I've invited a lot of bullshit into my existence. It's these powerpoints. "Sure," I thought, "I'll go to business school. I'll learn 'business' and then I'll make lots of money! I can't lose!" Turns out that a major component of 'business' is making, listening to, and occasionally giving powerpoint presentations.

And I guess I can't complain, this is what I signed up for after all. But it is worth pointing out: nobody likes making powerpoints, actually sitting there at the computer and assembling slides. No one likes presenting powerpoints. And this last one I can guarantee most of all: no one likes listening to them.

I mean, what are we listening to? Sales? A revenue report? A forecast? Some kind of motivational thing? Who gives a SHIT? There's only a handful of people who really need to look at that revenue data: just send them the numbers privately and spare me. To the extent I need to know any of it, put it in a shared folder that I can double-click. That's it. I mean jeez, I check the stock price, what more do you want?

Is it about fostering community and teamwork? A powerpoint can't do it! It's counterproductive! There's only one way to foster cross-departmental teamwork and morale, and it's called hot catered food. If I'm standing in a group, holding a black plastic plate piled high with ziti, then, and only then, will morale be built.

So you have these powerpoints, which are black holes of boredom - these sleep inducing yammerfests where the only excitement is wondering how the next bullet point will arrive: will it fly in from the left or will it be a diagonal wipe? Maybe a dissolve? You're sitting there, mind quickly numbing, and then you get the insult. The slap in the face. It's these idiotic clip-art people who exist in some sublime state of business-world bliss. I've sat through so many powerpoints now, in school and on the job that I've become fairly familiar with the whole stable of Microsoft PowerPoint clip art people.

The clip art people annoy me in two, unrelated ways. First, it's their boundless good humor and can-do attitude. And second, it's because they don't have any hands or feet. Here's an example:

One of my most deep seated fears has always been becoming an amputee. Losing my hands or feet is something I have nightmares about. So how do you think it makes me feel to watch these slides with these faceless yet happy can-do go-getters in the background who don't seem to mind that their limbs all terminate in these little wispy stubs? It freaks me the hell out, that's how.

There's also a second class of powerpoint business guy, who's not as bad. He's the big, buff silhouette guy with a small head. He works hard, he thinks big, and clearly he takes care of himself in his personal time.

Although what do you think of this one:

The small headed buff guy is on the go. He's moving. He's busy. But he also has one freakishly large hand and apparantly is enjoying a game of earthketball. There are so many questions here. Historically, how has evolution treated species with a 15-to-1 hand to head size ratio? If he's going to do that to the earth, shouldn't he set down his briefcase? Why the treasure map style dotted line and arrow at the bottom?

Was this clip-art picture born out of real need? Did someone write to Microsoft and demand some new clip that perfectly fit the mood and subject of the presentation? And this is what they got?

Because don't kid yourselves. Some of the clip art gets pretty damn wacky. Come with me and enter the twilight zone of the clip art people.

Yes, don't be afraid. Fly away with me into the bizarro world where hands and feet are unwelcome distractions, where ties that dangle way below the beltline are welcome, where you will be able to interact with enormous dollar bills - big, flexible dollar bills with high tensile strength. Come with meeeeeeeee...

We have arrived. This is what we think of feet here. Big. Clunky. Useless. Aren't you better off without them?

We have few laws here, but when they are disobeyed, punishment is severe. (psst, don't tell him he can slip the shackle off his stump!)

Le Petite Prahnce?

This powerpoint guy keeps having the same dream. What could it mean?

This may look unusual, but powerpoint guys have almost unlimited asshole-elasticity. Nothing to be alarmed at.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

160 Annoyances

141. People who write on money.

142. Special washing instructions.

143. Lazy screenwriting where the wisdom of your wise-man character is established by having him answer questions with questions.

144. Not finding all the pins in a new dress shirt.

145. People who make the "How Ironic that Lou Gehrig had Lou Gehrig's Disease" joke.

146. The light nausea you get in highway traffic in a drive-on-the-left country.

147. Using the "1. Mildly creative phrase, 2. Colon, 3. Real Subject" format when titling your research paper.

148. That moment when you pause, swallow, and realize you're getting a cold.

149. Breaking down boxes.

150. Could the Diet Dr. Pepper ads, just once, complete the remainder of their implied sentence? "Diet Dr. Pepper. Tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper.... than an other, typical diet cola would to its own regular counterpart."

151. Guys at the gym who use the adductor machine.

152. Magazine poker ads where some guy in a suit jacket and three-day stubble is holding a royal flush.

153. Trying to ward off the cops with an "I Love Troopers" bumper sticker.

154. Businesses that use multiple AA's to jockey for position in the yellow pages.

155. Sleeping with your pets.

156. The moment, when circling the parking lot looking for a space, when you realize that if you had just taken one of the pain-in-the-ass parking spots that were available when you entered the lot, that you'd already be inside by now.

157. People who have their first name legally changed.

158. Movie ads that boast that a movie is the "Winner!" of a nomination.

159. Wouldn't it be nice to see a woman's back that didn't have a tattoo on it?

160. On all those "tales from the highway-patrol" TV shows and COPS, the suspect is always caught. Always. The guy making a break for it on foot. The speeding car that plows through the median to the opposite lanes. They're all caught. Every time. Am I the only one rooting for the perps to occasionally get away and leave the cops looking like idiots? It's not like the fleeing suspect doesn't occasionally escape, right? Why won't they show it? Are they afraid of us losing respect for the police, or people learning how to game the cops? They don't have to worry about any of that - just show it. Seriously, if some fleeing car ever pulled some real life Blues Brothers moves and left 30 cop cars in a funny pileup, while he rides away scot-free into the sunset, then I have got to see that.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I Need Better Birthday Presents

I had a birthday recently, and the usual roundup of extended family extended the usual feelers to see what they could get me for a gift.

So I get asked: what do I want for my birthday? And what can I really say? If I say "this DVD" or "a nice polo shirt" then sure, I can get it. But then you know what happens? I just end up with a pile of *stuff* that I don't need, that's just going to take up room, that I have to write thank you notes for... what's the point?

Where are all the awesome gifts? When I was nine years old, every gift was awesome. Every new toy or game was a shot of ceratonin right to the cortical stem. Unwrapping a present was a feverish act of pure gluttony and pleasure. What happened? Is there something wrong with me? Nowadays, present opening has lost all the fun. What could you go buy at Eddie Bauer or the Discovery Store that's possibly going to interest me? Nothing! I open a gift now, and it's something like the biography of John Adam's wife, and I'm thinking "Is this what this person thinks that I like? Is this the sort of thing I *should* like? Does this mean I have to read it?" And I'm not blaming my family or mocking their good intentions, I just want to go back to those good old days. That's all.

So in that spirit, I decided to make a real birthday list of things that maybe, just maybe I could really get excited about. To get that nine year old excitement back. Sure, none of these are easy, but if you really want to go the extra mile, here are ten things I want:

1. My own rock anthem.

2. I'd like all power lines to be moved underground. Wouldn't that look better?

3. The Holy Grail

4. A pair of glasses that would provide English subtitles for foreign language conversation. Might also be useful for the deaf.

5. That hover thingy that the Baron floats around in in Dune.

6. I'd like for someone to play me to the desk.

7. To drive an ambulance, at high speeds, sirens blaring, through street traffic.

8. A familiar.

9. More cowbell.

10. A coffee table book that would simply list, page after page, all the different ways that spam has phrased the question: "Would you like a bigger dick?" I think it's a pretty big testament to the English language that after so many years, spammers can still come up with entirely new ways to ask me this question, after so many hundreds of thousands of permutations. I think a big, leatherbound book would really work. Or possibly a ten volume reference set that you could keep up in a shelf, lawyer style.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tired, Unimaginative College Dorm Posters

Year after year, decade after decade, college students nail those same old posters up on the dorm room walls. Posters that are tired. Posters that are safe. Posters that are utterly played out. It's sad too, because it's supposed to be a time of creativity and experimentation. A time for expression of the self.

I'm not saying I wasn't guilty of it myself. But now, with a few year's hindsight - let me point out some of the worst offenders, and some of the most common rookie mistakes in dorm poster selection. And here's the disclaimer up front. Not all of these posters are bad (though some are). Some are genius. But it doesn't matter. If HBO showed Lawrence of Arabia every night at 8, eventually you'd want it taken out of the rotation. Some of these posters have been in rotation for 30 years.

Now, that's possibly the greatest college dorm poster of all time. You get no argument from me. But what you also get from me is a lowered opinion of your taste when I see it on your wall. It's just too tired. It's played. This poster needs to be put to pasture, retired like Babe Ruth's jersey.

Here you've got Scarface and The Shining. Nicholson and Pacino. You could have also thrown in the Pulp Fiction one with Travolta's and Sam Jackson's guns drawn, or the De Niro Taxi Driver one where he's holding two guns and looks insane. I think our nation's young men have long gravitated towards these as sort of a collective way of asserting manhood. Either that, or it's some kind of boast about character by way of movie-appreciation. "The owner of this poster is into The Shining" says the poster, "Pretty sophisticated, wouldn't you say? Perhaps you'd like to have sex with him?"

Again, not saying the posters suck. They're just tired and overused. Send them to the poster hall of fame and let's be done with them.

Next up are all those posters that had sports cars AND girls in bikinis. These were so popular and I just never understood the idea. With the Shining-style movie posters there was that double message: 1) I'm badass, and 2) I'm sophicated, please sleep with me. With the cars/babes posters, I guess you kind of have number 1, but you can't even pretend to have number 2. I'm left with only one conclusion: that for these dudes, cars and sex are kind of all rolled up into one icky, low-watt desire. I remember in Europe, the few times I visited, the Europeans love to advertise grocery items using naked models. Like a naked woman pouring orange juice, or eating ice cream. And there's something just a little nausea inducing about that. Two pleasures, great individually, but that just don't go together.

Forget the SAT as a predictor of academic performance. Look at students who have posters of exotic, import cars with bikini clad women. There's your predictor of future success.

Again, the alchohol themed posters have that same, sad commentary. "I am a man. No really, I am. You see, I drink beer! Many different beers! And shots! A guy trying to fake it might only drink one or two. Not me! Lots and lots of alchohol!" These posters need to be retired immediately.

The highbrow, artsy poster guy at least gets points for effort - but why is it always Salvador Dali? Do you think Dali would be depressed if he knew how easily accessible his art apparantly is to 19 year old boys with no imagination? That's gotta be a punch in the gut. Imagine devoting your whole life to serious artistic expression, and in the end you get a massive teen following.

So what posters do I actually endorse? Well that's tricky. A good dorm poster needs to express something unique about yourself. I can't make anyone a recommendation. It's gotta come from within. So what would I choose if I was magically transported back to college? I think I have just the one.

Cause what the hell. I wasn't getting any anyway.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

More Questions

I don't want to stray too far from annoyances here, but I do like airing out these longstanding questions I have about life. Like how come in old movies, casinos have these blocky, rectangular chips? Is that how it really was? And if so, why?

I was watching Nova the other night. I love that show. Nova is like an old man you sit next to on a park bench. At first, you're like "Aw man, why is this old guy talking to me? Is he lonely?" But then, despite yourself, you start getting drawn in to his story. You never, before that moment, had even the slightest, smallest curiosity about the history of gasoline, you could never have even imagined giving a shit about it. But maybe it's his soothing voice, maybe it's the way the old man puts it all into context, maybe it's the clear, lucid presentation of his supporting evidence, but by the end you're on the edge of your seat - tugging on his collar - saying "So what happened to Rudolph Diesel??? Tell me!"

That's Nova for you. So I start watching it, and it's about a cave that some Syrian Jews used to hide in during the Roman persecution of Jews around 150AD. And how modern excavation of the cave has uncovered pagan bronze artifacts that may have been used in the famous "Second Temple". And of course, half an hour later, I'm hanging on every word. And it got me to thinking about a question I've had about the Romans for a long time.

The Romans ruled the entire civilized world, right? For what, around 600 years? Undisputed? The United States has been around for about 230 years, and only been a superpower for the last 60. Compared to the dominance of Rome we have a long way to go. And every Roman in the empire believed in the Roman pagan religion. Athena, Apollo and the rest. There were Jews and Christians on the fringes, but think of how many people worshipped the Roman Gods. Millions. For how many centuries? And now, who worships the Roman Gods? No one.

Which means, bear with me, that somewhere, sometime, there was "The Last Guy". I am so fascinated by the last guy. The last guy who worshipped the Roman Gods. Who was this guy? Was he frustrated and depressed all the time? Did he walk around saying "C'mon guys! Zeus! ZEUS! You know what I'm talking about!"

"Doug, your dad was into Zeus, right? Oh, he died? Well c'mon, you want to help me with this burnt offering? Aw, c'mon! Someone! It's for Zeus!"

So if Nova wanted to help me out, they could try to get some history on that guy for a future program. Which brings me to the next question, which concerns Roman numerals and the Superbowl.

Basically, I'm concerned about the superbowl's continued use of roman numerals. I mean, for a long time it's basically been an excuse to throw a lot of X's and V's around the word "Superbowl", and let's face it, X's and V's are big, macho, cool, manly letters. Who wouldn't want to be able to put XXIV after their name, or maybe XXXVI? It just makes you seem cool. But now, you've got X and V - which are cool, the "I" is pretty much neutral, and then you've got C, D, and L - which, I'm sorry, are just pretty gay. And the problem (highlighted this past year) is that we're about to enter an L-rich era of superbowls, and then ultimately, in the distant future, a lot of C's and L's. And I just don't think there's been a lot of foresight about what to do when we enter this 'gay age', which will last hundreds of years. I mean, "Superbowl CLI"? That's not cool at all. It's time to start the conversation.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Pop Quiz #2

Here are some questions no one has ever been able to answer to my satisfaction. Someone help me settle these issues once and for all. And who knows? Maybe there'll be a prize in it for you.

1. Is there a good method, when driving at night, to determine if the pair of headlights behind you is a cop?

2. Toilet paper. Underhand or overhand?

3. Why is Colonel pronounced kernel?

4. Why do vitamins and tylenol and other pill-type things "expire"? It's still the same pill, right? Does something bad happen if you take it?

5. Why does the second half of my tank of gas deplete much faster than the first half?

6. I don't understand "suspension" as a school disciplinary method. A kid does something egregiously wrong, and as punishment he gets to... not go to school. And since he's out for three days, or the week, he falls further behind on studies that I'm guessing he wasn't on top of in the first place. I can see that maybe the point is to inconvenience the parents, but I'm guessing, again, they weren't all that involved to start with and they aren't going to change now. Why not just put the kid in the hole for a few days, like in prison?

7. In the song "I Love L.A." does Randy Newman really think he's making a compelling case for L.A?

8. Why doesn't a glass of coffee taste good?

9. Remember how the Sarlacc monster from Return of the Jedi would "slowly digest you over a thousand years"? and how this would be a "new definition of pain and suffering"? You'd be dead after, at most, a day or two in this thing's stomach, so isn't it really an empty threat?

10. One of the most common Vietnamese last names is pronounced "Win". Yet in English, it's spelled "Nguyen". That just doesn't make any sense.

11. Why do criminals get sentenced to 150 years in prison, or "Two consecutive life sentences" or things like that? Isn't that really stupid?

12. What happened to the "cents" symbol? You know, the c with the line through it?

13. Why is there that tire tread pattern on sticks of gum?

14. Why am I so grossed out by the words "Apple Butter" and "Body Butter"?

15. Technically, when you fart, do you gain weight?

16. How do you cast "The Ugly Girl" in your movie? So many comedies have the main character open the door to find his date is hideously ugly, or fat, or repulsive in some way - and that's the joke. Ha ha, she's ugly! How do you audition for a role knowing that your entire purpose in the film is for your face to just be exhibited so people can laugh at its ugliness? How do you advertise for that role, and then who shows up?

17. Is there any piece for piano that actually uses those bottom keys?

18. Do beggars sometimes accidentally beg other beggars? Then what happens? Does it get awkward?

19. How do they get the rubber bands on the lobster?

20. You know that scene in action movies where the good guy has his gun aimed at the bad guy, but the bad guy has a knife to the girl's throat - and the bad guy says something like "Drop it!" and the good guy slowly lowers his weapon and says something like "Okay... let's talk..." and then the bad guy drops his guard slightly and says "Aha! You fool! Now I'm going to kill both of you!" and then the good guy says "I don't think so." and does something clever and kills the bad guy? You know that scene, right? My question is, when the good guy has the bad guy at gunpoint and the bad guy is holding the knife at the girl's throat, why doesn't the good guy just shoot him in the face?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Franklin Covey

Let's begin today with another gem from a Starbucks cup. This nugget of wisdom comes from Vik Muniz, Brazilian photographer:

In an age when pictures have become more eloquent than words, schools are still programmed to reduce the child's immersive interaction with the visual world to the practical poverty of the alphabet. Visual literacy should become a pedagogical priority in order to prepare our children to function within the increasingly visual complexity of our environment.

Ohhhhh man. What's the hell is wrong with these Brazilians? First they give us Blanca from Street Fighter and his unnatural ability to electrically charge his entire body, and now we get Vik Muniz and his bald idiocy. Though I really want to deconstruct every single phrase of his cup quote, I think we've beaten that horse enough. I'll only point out that Vik chose to make his argument using (gasp) words! Shouldn't he have expressed his thought through a photo of a Sao Paulo slum, or something? You know, what with the practical poverty of the alphabet and all?

Okay. So, Franklin Covey sells "Time Management". ... And maybe, maybe I could just end this post right there. Everything I'm going to tell you in the next eight pages of text is pretty much all there in the first sentence.

My friends from my old job will know what I'm talking about - and yes, this still steams me and gets me agitated to this day - but one day at work I was told to attend this surprise all-day workshop being held by Franklin Covey, mandatory for all staff, to learn about time management and better productivity.

The four hour presentation that followed can only be described as useless, boring, frustrating, awkward, and whatever the adjective for bullshit is. Seriously, with the hindsight I now have (having gone through two years of MBA schooling where I have sat through enough management theory and productivity theory to almost be able to speak that zombie language myself) I can tell you with certainty that the Franklin Covey shtick is as pure as bullshit gets. It really is bullshit. If you can truly come away from a Franklin Covey workshop on time management with a bold new outlook on getting your life in order, then a) your life is in bad shape, and b) you are an easily dazzled fool.

Do you think maybe that in an age with Blackberrys and mobile officing and wireless networks and mobile conferences, etc. that the entire business concept of Franklin Covey - based around the idea of a bulky day-planner system of time management, complete with multi-colored pens to assign different levels of task importance - well, that it's about as current and relevant as a wood paneled station wagon?

Real management theory is about the balancing act of using incentives, positive reinforcement and mental stimulation to get the maximum productivity out of your workforce. It's about fostering a culture of teamwork, camaraderie and loyalty in the workplace and getting everyone invested.

Bullshit management theory is about buzzwords, catchphrases, quotes from great men, acronyms that spell out positive messages, and, frankly, the idea that a four hour workshop on time management can do a single, goddamn thing. Bullshit management theory is the idea that you can put up a poster that offers Buddha-lite advice like this:

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning, a lion wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up, you better start running.

...and think that it's going to make anyone file or collate or data-sort or word-process just a little bit better. Ironic, don't you think, that we were pulled away with no warning from actual pressing tasks to hear a four hour lecture on time management? It's like the old joke about the nurse who wakes up the patient to tell him it's time for his nap. Bullshit management theory is about thinking you can hire some doofus with a powerpoint show to come in and talk to your staff, and suddenly everyone's going to give you more productivity.

Let me tell you something about the message I got from Franklin Covey in the workshop. Franklin Covey would have you believe that you need to plan out every minute of every day with gestapo efficiency - backing up their philosophy with non sequitur bromides like "Put the big rocks in first!" - all the while treating you like you must have the mental capacity, patience, and attention span of a screech monkey. It's one thing to be pulled out of work to hear a seminar with lousy advice, it's another thing to get lectured to like a schoolchild, and it's yet something else to find out that in the end it was all just a four hour sales pitch for a spiral binder.

Look, here's the real truth. You want more productivity out of the team? Block the internet. I know it would be cruel, and you'd hear no end of it - but there it is. If someone has the choice of a) doing some tedious task, and b) going to espn.com, (and they're not being supervised) they will go to espn. If the choice is between the tedious task and staring at the ceiling tiles, they'll do the tedious task. There's your four hour seminar, and it was free.

And if you want even more efficiency, get some of them four colored pens! You know, the pens where you push down on a particular side to get a different color? One pen - that does the work of four! Think of the desktop space you could save; space that was previously taken by so many, many pens! One pen! One beautiful, glorious pen! Yes!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

These Stupid Starbucks Cup Quotes

Back to my stormy, love-hate, Moonlightingish relationship with Starbucks. Just when I thought everything was fine and we had learned to live with each other's faults, they hit me with these cup quotes that are just driving me stark raving insane.

Some aren't all that aggravating, and some are really just bland, but here's what happened to me. My local Starbucks that I swing by on the way to work every day must have gotten a jumbo-surplus shipment of cups featuring quote #74, because every day it's that same quote on my cup - taunting me, provoking me, haunting me. Shall I share it? It's the stupidest paragraph of text I've ever read.

"In a time when even our soil and air might not know the truth, the only solace we can take in decision-making about our inner peace is through honest, organic and sustainable farming. I guarantee that if you know the name of the person who picks your carrots and peas, you will feel better and so will your grandchildren." -Mario Bateli - Chef, author and host of Molto Mario and Mario Eats Italy on the Food Network.

Now for most of us, that statement is prima facie stupid, de facto stupid, and possibly other latin phrases stupid, and a line-by-line analysis of the stupidity is not necessary. But this is Petty Annoyances, and careful probing of why something is bullshit is what we're all about here.

Now look, I understand what Mario, in his senility, is getting at here. He's saying "Organic farming, people. Support it - you'll feel good." Putting aside the actual merits of the organic farming argument, and putting aside the notion that a political cause is worth supporting if it merely makes you "feel better" on a gut level, Mario and others like him need to understand that if you make your case with this tiedye-wearing, tambourine-waving bullshit approach about what the "soil knows" that you've instantly alienated me. You've made me far more emotionally invested in seeing you humiliated, upset, abused, depressed and utterly defeated than in the merits of what you were actually proposing.

If you say to me: "Join me in spreading the word about forest-fire prevention; because every time a forest burns, a sylph of the woodland sheds a silent tear." you've actually made me want to go out and set a forest fire. The satisfaction I would get from seeing your face as all the forests of the world lie in smoldering ashes around your feet would be worth all the carnage and destruction.

Mario would have us believe that the only solace we can take in decision making about our inner peace is through honest, organic and sustainable farming. To which the obvious rebuttal, clearly, is "huh?". Or possibly "Que pasa?" What the fuck does that even mean, Mario?

It means - bear with me - that we desire inner peace. But we are sometimes forced into decision-making as to how to achieve this inner peace. The decision making process, as implied by Mario's sentence, is an arduous one - one from which we would seek solace. Now, we're no longer talking about inner peace, we're talking about how to seek solace from the despair that accompanies the decision-making process that governs inner-peace acquisition. And to get this solace, there is only route - to farm honestly, organically and sustainably. Mario describes it as "the only solace". So, according to Mario, after a long day of frustrating decision making with regard to your inner peace, the only way you're going to get any relief from your personal turmoil is by finding the man who picked your carrots, and shaking his hand. Or possibly by engaging in some farming yourself - that distinction wasn't clear. Remember, this is in a time when our air, and even our soil might not know the truth. And if a cloudy vapor of nitrogen and oxygen doesn't know what's going on, what hope do we have?

Mario Batali, you are an imbecile and a fool. You know nothing, and your mystic, authentic-Italian, garden-Yoda routine impresses no one. If we're going to get the soil and the air caught up on current events, we should explain to them how an ass like yourself was permitted to opine on thousands of cups, with the full blessing of the Starbucks Corporation.

So, okay then. Organic farming. What's the story? Should we support it? Now of course you know that I'm already biased against it thanks to Mario - but is there actually a good case for knowing the guy who picks your peas? If you found out that your grandfather was on a first name basis with his pea-picker, how would you feel? Better? Consoled? Does Mario's guarantee hold up?

I caught an episode of Penn & Teller's "Bullshit" on this very subject a while back, where if I recall, they took the position that the best way to feed the global population of the future would be through synthetically enhanced produce, livestock pumped full of hormones to maximize grain yield, and efficient, industrialized mega-farms where the "person" picking my carrots would probably be a sterilized robotic claw. I remember thinking that they had good points (and this is all pre-Mario and his inner-peace plea). Maybe I can find a link to what they were talking about...

Yeah, they were talking about Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, his advocacy of high-yield, bio-engineered wheat, and how low-yield organic farming can't meet the nutritional needs of the world's population and how it actually contributes to global deforestation. I particularly like this quote: "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

Read the whole thing here: Norman Borlaug

There are other Starbucks cup quotes that are plenty annoying. There was one I can't quite remember about "Traditional Peoples" and another one about Teddy Roosevelt that had me going. Feel free to read them on your own and be infuriated. What do you think Starbucks is really doing here? What's the motive? Do you think maybe they're worried, from a PR standpoint, about getting a Walmart-y or a Microsoft-y reputation and so they're cantering hard in the opposite direction, trying to make with the tree hugging and the kum-ba-yah to nip any values-criticism in the bud? I mean it does seem like a lot of these quotes have an environmentalism focus; sort of what you'd expect to see if you figure that the most likely attack on Starbucks is that they exploit farmers.

Is that what's going on, Starbucks? You want to own up?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Thank You Notes

Have you ever actually been disappointed to get a present because of the obligation it creates to write some bullshit letter? You stare at it - it's probably a shirt... or a fullscreen DVD of The Aviator - and you immediately resent it. You look at it with frustration and a resigned annoyance. Because there you were, enjoying your day, not a care in the world, and now you've got shit to do. Now you've got to pull out your nice stationery and go through this formal little dance and curtsey.

Well I hate it. I hate writing thank you notes. If society permitted some kind of opt-out, like maybe you send me a present and I give you a $5 paypal deposit, I would definitely take it. It's not that I'm some ungrateful sumbitch. I do appreciate the present. But it's just the case, and I really need to stress this, that if your generosity results in the creation of a tedious chore for me then you haven't done me any favors. In the case of your standard gift - like a shirt - it's a net loss. I'd rather have no shirt and no chore.

Here's what I can offer, and I think this is reasonable. The next time I see you... the next time we talk on the phone... the next time we're emailing or I see you at work or I bump into you on the street, I'll give you some warm and sincere thanks. That's a promise. Isn't that a good system? It passes the golden rule test - I'd be perfectly happy if people did it for my gifts. In fact, with any gift I'd send, I'd include a little card that said "TM/SM" - thank me when you see me.

I just think the standard thank-you-note system is the relic of a much different era. A time with no computers or phones, or cars. Where the handwritten letter was the standard form of communication and you might not see the other person for months. Probably also an era when a gift was a real pain in the ass to give. You want to give someone some socks? Have a seat at the loom here and make a pair. I can see, if I had to shear my own sheep to get the raw materials to physically construct your sweater, I might appreciate a note.

But if some aunt swings by Barnes and Noble on the way home to pick up six $10 gift cards to give to the peripheral family members for Christmas, do I really need to sit down and compose a letter? Can't I just mention my appreciation the next time I see her?

And even if I do write the thank you letter, there are annoying rules to follow. You can't say "Thank You" anywhere in the first sentence. Have you ever stared at a blank sheet of stationery, wondering what the hell you were going to put in that first sentence? I've been there man. "Dear Pat, Wow. Can you believe it's January already?" "Dear Mrs. Stevens, How are you? Today I found out that a potato is not, in fact, a vegetable." And so on. I think the point of the no "Thank You" in the opening remark rule is so that the letter doesn't appear to be some unwanted, mercenary task - even though that's exactly what it is. The letter has to at least pretend to be genuine, voluntary correspondence. Because, you know, every day around 4:00 I sit down and write letters.

A secondary problem with a full thank you letter is that this may not be a person I want to stimulate a real conversation with. Let's say you're really not that close to great uncle Fred and in fact you think he's a little creepy and weird. But, alarmingly, he sends you a shirt for Christmas. What do you do? Let's face it, you're screwed any which way. Don't send him a note, you're a jerk. Do send him a note, hello creepy great uncle Fred. It's lose lose.

When I was 13 I had a Bar Mitzvah and got over 100 presents. Oh, pooooor me, right? Well, first of all, you've never seen so many atlases in your whole life. I mean, I got a shitload of atlases. I can't figure out why. Maybe I came across as someone who desperately needed an atlas. Maybe I said things like "I can't wait till I'm old enough to drive to Germany." But whatever the reason, I got around 7 or 8 of them. Couldn't tell you where any of them are now though. But secondly, my parents sat me down and wouldn't let me get up until I had written at least the first 50 thank you notes, making sure I didn't make them all too similar (in case the relatives compared notes). Just try to imagine a 13 year old kid trying to come up with a seventh unique way to thank someone for a book of maps. It was pure hell.

So you think I'm just some ungrateful little snot? Fine! Spare me your little Dilbert calendar! Ooooooooohhhh, what else are you going to deprive me of? A shoe polish kit? A comical tie? An ice cream scoop with a sound effect on the handle? I'm soooooo scared!!! What will I do without these precious gifts?

I will thank you the next time I see you or talk to you, and if that's not good enough, then you're a mentally warped, insecure, preening little fussbudget.

Good day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mmmm... Potpourri.

Sharing My Food

This is a really touchy subject for me. I mean, sharing food is fine - and there are different ways to share food. In general, a family style meal like you'd get at a Chinese restuarant or a Buca di Beppo is okay. The problems only occur when, through the magic of sharing, I'm simply not allowed to eat the food I want to eat. There was a recent situation at a sushi dinner that illustrates it exactly. "Hey," says my friend, "Let's go out for sushi!". Great idea. The thought of two spicy tuna rolls dipped generously in soy sauce and wasabi sounded perfect. I'm on board. So a whole bunch of us go to my absolute favorite sushi restuarant: Sumo. Now, it's important for the story if you remember: I just want my two spicy tuna rolls.

But you see, we're all sharing. One of us becomes the sushi order-slip MC and starts writing down all our sushi requests. When it comes to me, I say "Put me down for two spicy tuna rolls." This is where the trouble begins.

MC: "No no, we already have a spicy tuna roll."

Me: "Yes, but I'd like to eat two spicy tuna rolls."

MC: "So you want to put another spicy tuna roll on there? Are you sure?"

Me: "Well actually, if you already have one, you'll have to add two more, because I want two spicy tuna rolls."

MC: "But the first one was for sharing. You can already have the first one."

Me: "Well, no... Look, I want two spicy tuna rolls. Order as many as you have to so that when the food comes, I get to eat two spicy tuna rolls."

MC: "You know we're ordering family style. I think two spicy tuna rolls is more than enough for the whole table."

Me: "No. I want two spicy tuna rolls. For me. I want two dedicated spicy tuna rolls for my own personal use."

MC: "So what, you're just going to eat your own private meal in the corner while the rest of us share?"

Me: "I don't mind sharing. I just want to be able to eat a quantity of spicy tuna roll equal to two. Let's just order three of them."

MC: "Why don't we order two, and then if you're still hungry, we'll order another round."

Me: "Why are you trying to stop me from eating two spicy tuna rolls? Why are you so motivated to block me from eating this food? I don't give a shit about your caterpillar roll, or your unagi, or your salmon roe. I just want two goddamn spicy tuna rolls, that I can eat myself. Put me down for two separate rolls or so help me I will dunk your head in a boiling pot of edamame."

Well no, I didn't say the last part. But you see where I'm coming from right? "Sharing" is fine if at the end of the day, I ate the food that I wanted to eat. But if sharing means I have to cut back on my spicy tuna roll so that we can round out the order with a Philadelphia roll that no one's going to eat anyway, well fuck that. What ended up happening is that we did order three spicy tuna rolls, but then I ended up in the confusing position of having to numerically keep track of how many I was eating, because everyone else was taking from the same plate. It was like "That was my tenth piece... no no, eleventh!"

The Politically Correct Bastardization of My Beloved Zebra Puzzle

There's this incredible, fiendishly challenging puzzle known as the Zebra Puzzle or the Einstein Puzzle. (Einstein supposedly authored it, but it wasn't published until the 60's) I first encountered it about ten years ago in college. It starts out fairly simply, but requires increasingly nuanced deductive and logical abilities to solve. There are few puzzles that have been more satisfying to crack than this one. I'll just cut and paste the puzzle here, in case anyone wants to try it.

  • There are five houses in a row. Each is a different color and is inhabited by men of different nationalities - with different pets, drinks and cigarettes.
  • The Englishman lives in the red house.
  • The Spaniard owns the dog.
  • Coffee is drunk in the green house.
  • The Ukrainian drinks tea.
  • The green house is immediately to the right of the ivory house.
  • The Old Gold smoker owns snails.
  • Kools are smoked in the yellow house.
  • Milk is drunk in the middle house.
  • The Norwegian lives in the first house.
  • The man who smokes Chesterfields lives in the house next to the man with the fox.
  • Kools are smoked in the house next to the house where the horse is kept.
  • The Lucky Strike smoker drinks orange juice.
  • The Japanese smokes Parliaments.
  • The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
  • Now who drinks water? And who owns the zebra?

    The puzzle is often used as a educational tool, and this of course is where the hippies step in and make me furious. You see, kids can't be permitted to see this. No no no. People smoking cigarettes? Houses inhabited by men? People drinking coffee? A Japanese man being called A Japanese? Where are the positive messages about women in the workplace? Where's the affirmative imagery of senior citizens maintaining active lifestyles? Where are the necessary lessons about the handicapped meeting all of life's challenges? Does the puzzle at least offer a cautionary reminder about our historical treatment of Native Americans? Sadly, the zebra puzzle lacks any of these things. But all that has changed, thanks to our nation's educators. Now the zebra puzzle can teach us all something about cross-cultural understanding and recognizing the hidden potential in every human heart. Let's look at a few of the new versions, shall we?

    (Becuase in case you didn't know, a woman really can become an engineer.)


    (The orange juice drinker hang-glides? Get outta town!)


    (The "Japanese person" "grows gardenias.")

    You pussies. The "Japanese person" doesn't grow gardenias. He smokes Parliaments. He will always smoke Parliaments. You know who says so? ALBERT EINSTEIN says so. Not Andrew Dice Clay. Einstein. You don't just take Einstein's zebra puzzle and substitute flowers and career women wherever you want. The Japanese smokes Parliaments!

    (And just as a side note: Frenchman = fine, Englishman = fine, Chinaman = offensive. Someone want to explain that to me?)

    These Widescreen TVs

    I mentioned this over a year ago in one of the annoyance lists, but since then the problem has just gotten worse and worse. It's out of control now. People buy these widesreen TVs. They're really big and expensive. Unless they're watching one of those very few channels that broadcasts in widescreen (those HDTV channels) they're getting a normal, square TV, 4:3 ratio picture on their screen.

    So what the widescreen TV does is either blow up the image and crop it on the top and bottom, or it stretches the image horizontally to fit the whole screen. a newer method I've seen recently is even uglier: the middle slice of the screen shows a non-distorted picture, and the edges of the screen do a superstretch to compensate. It creates a fishbowl effect where if the camera moves around, the stuff in the middle of the TV pans at a normal speed - while the image on the edges whips around really fast. It looks like absolute butt.

    Here's the message that the opulent, luxury, forward-looking TV crowd needs to hear: If you truly claim to care about resolution and fidelity and clarity and crispness, and S video and all of that bullshit, then you do realize that the crappy distortions you put up with as your TV performs sleight of hand to take a square broadcast and fill the whole screen - you do realize that the distortions completely, utterly, entirely outweigh any benefits you get from improved picture quality?

    You do know that right?

    It's like getting the crispest, clearest television image on earth, but having to view it through a fun house mirror. The one alternative you have (with some brands) is to choose to view the broadcast in 4:3 as it was intended, with vertical black bars on the side of your TV. But as it's been pointed out to me - if you do that for an extended period of time, the black bars will burn the screen. So you're really pretty much just screwed.