Saturday, December 31, 2005

A New Dawn

Last week I was going to write about how our perceptions about fat people have changed over the past few decades, and about body image in general, but that topic didn't seem fitting for the holiday season. Since the holiday season is a time for holiday traditions, I decided instead to write about how traditions are inherently bad since they have a tendency to keep us stuck in the past instead of moving us toward the future. But I didn't feel that the tone was in keeping with the generally positive, cheery holiday season mood, so instead I decided not to write anything.

This week, it's a different story. But I'm not going to write about fat people or traditions -- maybe I'll do that some other time. This week, I'm going to write about something everyone enjoys: going to the movies.

There are a lot of things to complain about when you go out to see a movie. Just to name a few, there are noisy patrons, sticky floors, people sitting next you who hog the arm rest, arm rests that double as drink containers but aren't meant to be comfortable for arms, movie previews that give away too much of the plot, and movies that should have never been made.

But what I'm going to complain about are the commercials most theaters show before they start showing the previews. I have no complaint about the commercials themselves. I don't like them, but they're an unavoidable evil, so I just ignore them. But one of the theaters I go to doesn't show regular commercials -- instead they have a slide show of advertisements from various local merchants and service providers. I have no problem with these advertisements. What I don't like is the sound track, which is meant to sound like a radio broadcast, complete with fake radio announcer. And what I don't like specifically is that most of the time they play the worst possible music ever. Usually it's a lot of slow, whiny music -- the kind of thing that sometimes gets mistakenly called "soul" for some odd reason. But make no mistake -- this is not soul music. it's the sort of thing that if James Brown were dead, it would have him spinning in his grave. To be accurate, they should call it annoying whiny music, although from a marketing standpoint, I can understand how that might not be such a great idea.

Fortunately, the last time I went to that theater, they weren't playing any "soul" music. But what they played instead was almost as bad. It was a song by Tony Orlando and Dawn. This surprised me, since I didn't even think they were still around. And if you're below a certain age, you might not have even heard of them.

If you're below a certain age, you might also not know that in the late 1970s, Freddie Prinze -- talented comedian, actor, and friend of Tony Orlando -- committed suicide by taking a lot of drugs and then shooting himself. It was tragic, but if there was a silver lining to this very dark cloud, it was that the tragedy prompted Tony Orlando to publicly announce that he would be giving up show business forever.

If you don't remember Tony Orlando and Dawn, let me remind you that in the '70s, they were the trio responsible for such sappy musical atrocities as "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" and "Knock Three Times," as well as the song "Candida" (which, despite its title, was not about a yeast infection). These songs and many others were universally hated, and to this day it remains a mystery as to how millions and millions of copies managed to get sold. (Perhaps it was due to The Bonnie Tyler Effect, which I described in an earlier post.)

Orlando kept to his word about retiring, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, but this left Dawn without a lead singer. Fortunately, noted Russian author and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was able to step in and assume Orlando's place. The band was then renamed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Dawn. They released two albums and went on several world tours, performing for very enthusiastic audiences, especially in South Korea and Japan.

Later, after a slump in the mid-80s, another member of Dawn was added (making Dawn now a trio) and the group changed its name to Alex and The New Dawn. This new lineup failed to establish much of a following, however, and less than a year later, citing both illness and disagreements with Dawn about the direction of the music, Solzhenitsyn left the group. The three women continued without him, releasing an album with little fanfare under the name The New Dawn. They recorded another album two years later, calling themselves simply Dawn (presumably because by this time they were no longer new), but the album was never released, and the group disbanded shortly thereafter. It wasn't until Tony Orlando rejoined the group many years later that they went on to realize the limited success that they currently enjoy.

So despite the setbacks, everything worked out okay -- at least for Tony Orlando and Dawn, although not necessarily for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or movie patrons. I'm still not a fan of Tony Orlando and Dawn, but I have to admit that their music is much better than that slow, whiny stuff I usually hear in movie theaters.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Space, Wasted and Otherwise

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was pleasantly surprised that on all five flights I took during a recent cross-country trip, every passenger who sat directly in front of me kept his seat in the upright position.

That made me happy, so just to be fair, I want to mention a few things that didn't make me so happy.

First of all, one of the best things the airlines ever did was introduce the self-check-in process. Rather than wait in a long line just so an airline employee can look at your ID, punch something into a computer terminal, and then give you your boarding pass, you can now simply walk up to a self-check-in terminal, stick in your credit card, and get your boarding pass. The whole thing takes less than a minute.

Or at least it used to, when the self-check-in process was first introduced. One of the reasons it was so quick was that it was new and most people were uncomfortable with it, so they chose to wait in a long line and let an airline employee do all the work instead. But this year, the line for the self-check-in terminals was as long as the other lines. And to make things worse, people weren't very alert about looking for available terminals. I think the woman a few people in front of me must have been waiting for a terminal to announce "Next customer, please" or something like that, because she stood at the front of the line even though several terminals were available. If I hadn't managed to get her attention and point to one of the empty terminals, she'd probably still be waiting in line today.

I can't blame the airline for that, obviously -- there's no law that says morons can't fly, nor do I think there should be. So it was annoying, but we live in a world full of morons, so I'm sure we're all used to that sort of thing. Here's what annoyed me more: When I went through the self-check-in process, I was given the opportunity to upgrade my seat to one with more legroom. As far as I'm concerned, you can never have too much legroom, and the cost of the upgrade was pretty reasonable, so I decided to pay for it. I ended up with a seat two rows in front of my original seat, and when I got aboard the plane, it was obvious that each seat had exactly the same amount of legroom. When I returned home, I tried to get the airline to refund my money, but they haven't done it yet and I don't think they ever will.

Another thing that annoyed me is that you now apparently have to pay extra for in-flight meals. I don't know how widespread this is, since I have only one flight to base it on. (None of the other flights included meals). On this one particular flight, they announced that breakfast could be ordered for $5. I decided to pass, as did many of the other passengers. Airline food isn't known for being particularly tasty, so I don't know why anyone would voluntarily pay for it. Still, I would have eaten it if it were free, so that was annoying. I can't really fault the airline, however -- it's United Airlines, which has been in bankruptcy for years, so maybe they saw this as a way of recouping a small portion of their losses.

This was a morning flight, by the way, but that didn't stop them for offering beer and wine. It wasn't free -- it never is in the main cabin. I don't have any objection to people drinking alcohol whenever they want to, but what I wonder is, who really needs a beer at nine in the morning? And I wouldn't go as far as saying that the airline is actively encouraging people to drink in the early morning hours, but if there's a message to infer from this, what could it be? I think the message is, "Drink all you want. Sure it's early, but you're on vacation, so live it up a little. Just remember, it's $5 a drink."

Speaking of messages, I don't know if you ever watch HGTV, but they have a lot of shows about people who are remodeling their houses. One of the current trends is to create luxury bathrooms -- bathrooms the size of bedrooms, furnished with huge picture windows and bathtubs with the same water capacity as small swimming pools.

Where I live, and in many other places as well, low-flush toilets are mandatory. And by "mandatory," I mean that they're required for any new construction or remodeling. Whether that's a good law or not, the idea is to reduce needless water consumption. My kitchen faucet even has a built-in regulator that restricts water flow -- again, for the purposes of water conservation. But if we're so concerned about saving water, why do we allow these huge wasteful bathtubs to be used? I'm not saying we should ban them; I'm just saying our laws should be consistent -- otherwise the people who make these laws are sending us a mixed message.

By the way, I don't get the whole "picture window in the bathroom" concept at all, especially since the windows never have curtains or drapes or blinds. Granted, it might be nice to look out a huge window while you're taking a bath or doing whatever else you do in the bathroom, but one of the characteristrics of windows is that they tend to be made out of glass, and one of the characteristics of glass is that if you can look through it, so can someone else on the opposite side of the glass. Maybe I'm just overly bashful, but there are times when I want a little privacy.

Of course, I think the whole idea of luxury bathrooms is misguided and stupid. But the people who want them are always saying they want their bathroom to be more like a spa or a retreat. Why? Who wants to spend all their time in the bathroom, no matter how nice it is? Not me.

This is all part of a larger architectural trend, of course -- the trend toward turning every room into a multi-purpose room. Master bedrooms are no longer just a place to sleep -- they're now "private sanctuaries" (to use another term I got from HGTV). And kitchens are no longer primarily used for cooking -- they're now used for entertaining as well. To be fair, kitchens have changed a lot over the years. They were always used for cooking, but they quickly became a place for informal dining as well. And they used to be closed off -- presumably so you could prepare food without disturbing your guests with all the smoke and noise and whatever else -- but in the last fifty years or so, they've opened up. They've been combined with family rooms for a long time, but the kitchen part of the room was still fairly distinct. And it was devoted exclusively to cooking -- it's only in recent years that kitchens have been designed to be entertainment areas as well.

I'm not complaining, by the way -- I'm merely observing. The way people live in their houses changes over time, so it's only natural that the way houses are designed should change as well. I used to think that all houses should have a formal dining area in addition to an informal one. I used to think that all houses should have a living room as well as a family room (mostly because I don't think televisions belong in the living room). But different people have different needs, and houses shouldn't force them to live one way or another. As a matter of fact, I have a formal dining area that I've never used, and living room that I rarely venture into. It makes the house look nicer, but for the way I live, it's just a lot of unnecessary space.

What I don't like is the trend toward making houses bigger and bigger, and the deliberate wasting of space (as exemplified by luxury bathrooms). Fortunately, there's a small but growing counter-trend. As a matter of fact, I read an article recently about an architect named Doug Rucker who's more interested in designing beautiful efficient living spaces than in creating oversized wasteful "McMansions." He's the kind of architect I would hire if I were building a house, because he also believes that architecture should reflect its time and place. In other words, he doesn't like the idea of building pseudo-Colonial mansions or pseudo-Mediterranean villas. Everywhere I look, all the new houses are bad imitations of these outdated styles and others, so it's nice to know there are a few architects with progressive ideas as well.

I remember reading something Buckminster Fuller once said about how houses are built. It was decades ago, so I don't really remember it, and I couldn't even tell you where I read it, but it was something to the effect that most houses are built inefficiently compared to ships and airplanes, in which great attention is paid to the economical use of materials and space. His point is a good one, and it would make the world a better place if the people who design houses took his words to heart. On the other hand, the people who design airplanes probably shouldn't be so economical with space, at least as far as legroom is concerned.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Bonnie Tyler Effect

In a previous post, in which I questioned the contributions of two over-rated and talent-free artists, I also made the following remark: "You don't listen to Stockhausen's Momente or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and sit there scratching your head, trying to decide whether or not you like it -- you either like it or you don't, and you know immediately."

Although undeniably true, that statement shouldn't be misinterpreted to mean that your first impression of any musical composition will be your only impression. The music industry is well-aware of this, and they know that one of the easiest ways they can get us to like a particular song is to play it so often that we can't get it out of our heads. This is what gave rise to the payola scandals of decades past, as well as the payola scandals of today.

This goes against the old adage that "familiarity breeds contempt," of course, but I think that adage was in reference to people, not to music. And an event from my own personal experience validates what the music industry has always known: The more we hear a song, the more likely we are to want to go out and buy a copy of it. It doesn't even matter what the song is. I call this the Bonnie Tyler Effect.

In the early '80s, a gym I used to work out at always kept the radio on. They didn't play it so loud that you couldn't hear yourself grunt and sweat -- it was just background music, but one of the popular songs of the time was Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart.

If you've never heard of that song, don't worry about it. All you need to know is that I really hated it. It was sappy, it was over-produced, and it was just plain annoying. Every day when I went to the gym, I hoped that during the hour or so that I spent there, the radio station would find enough other songs to play, but it never quite worked out that way. They always found the time to play Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So I heard that song practically every day, and after a month or so, I actually started to like it. The chorus was sort of catchy -- so catchy, as a matter of fact, that it made me overlook how bad the rest of the song was. I even went out and bought the single. [Historical note: In the days before CDs, you could buy a 45 rpm vinyl record, with one song on each side. These were referred to as "singles" although they probably should have been referred to as "doubles."]

Anyway, just to emphasize what an unusual purchase this was for me, I have to mention that my musical tastes have always run pretty far from the mainstream -- so far, in fact, that a lot of my friends didn't even regard the stuff I listened to as music and they wouldn't allow me to play it in their presence. As a matter of fact, some of my records even I wouldn't listen to.

But the Bonnie Tyler single was a different story. It was as mainstream as anything can possibly be, but somehow it got its hooks into me. I won't say I played it a lot, but I'm sure I got my money's worth.

Of course, time marched on, and eventually they stopped playing the song on the radio, and I stopped playing it at home. And decades later, even though I hadn't heard it in over twenty years, I still remembered it as a pretty decent little song. But in the late '90s, when peer-to-peer file sharing was first becoming popular, I downloaded a copy, for reasons that I can't even explain to myself. And the first time I listened to it, I remembered why I used to hate it so much.

So that's the subtle power of repeated exposure: It can make you like things that you'd normally hate. I still have the single, by the way, but I don't listen to it anymore. Maybe it'll be a collector's item one day.

I still have my gym membership as well, even though I haven't gone there in years. (You don't need to know why, but it isn't for the reasons most people stop going to gyms.) So I still get mail from them, and in their latest letter, they mentioned the millions of dollars they've invested in new equipment, remodeling, and "new audio-visual entertainment."

Well, it's nice to know where my membership dues are going, but the part about "new audio-visual entertainment" worries me a little. I know from friends of mine that just about every gym on the planet has a few televisions that are always left on while the gym is open. I didn't really mind the radio twenty-five years ago -- as I said, it was mostly background music -- but I have to admit that the thought of being forced to watch some idiotic sitcom or some idiotic newscast while I'm working out is a little bit scary. Somehow, it seems like strengthening your body while weakening your mind can't be very good for you. And as a blatantly sexist aside, there were always a lot of women who worked out at my gym, and some of them were pretty hot. I'd much rather look at women like that than at some television show. It doesn't even matter what show it is.

And here's another interesting little aside. I'm a charter member of my gym, and one of the promises they made to the charter members was that they would never increase our membership dues. But this is a promise they've only been able to keep by changing the membership terms. My dues haven't gone up, but a few years ago they added a "towel fee," which does seem to increase each year. That was pretty sneaky, but it's nowhere near as bad as what they're doing this year. This year they're eliminating core services so they can sell them back to us for an additional fee. My membership used to entitle me to visit any of their dozen or so locations, but now I can work out only at the club I joined at, unless I want to upgrade my membership and more than double my yearly dues.

I think that's a pretty underhanded way of doing things, but it really doesn't matter to me, since I never go there anyway. As a matter of fact, every year, I tell myself that I'm not going to renew my membership. But then some perky young woman from the membership department calls me up and tells me in her bubbly voice what a great deal I have, and that if I let my membership lapse, it will cost me a lot more than what I'm currently paying if I ever want to join again. So I always renew, and I always tell myself that maybe I should start going to the gym again, and I always find more important things to do instead.

But this year may be different. A friend of mine recently gave me one of those all-in-one home gyms. He'd had it for over a decade, but for the last few years it was disassembled and sitting in his garage, taking up space and forcing him to park his car on the driveway. He told me it wasn't top-of-the-line equipment, but I didn't mind, especially since it was free. I've started using it, and it gives you a pretty good workout. I don't think it lets me do everything I used to do at the gym, but I don't even remember everything I used to do at the gym, so I can't really complain. And even though I have a stereo and a television in the same room as the home gym, I usually leave them turned off when I'm working out. That's because sometimes I prefer silence, by the way -- not because I'm worried about falling victim to the Bonnie Tyler Effect again. Besides, I heard that it's like Chicken Pox or Scarlet Fever -- you get it once, and then you're pretty much immune to it for the rest of your life.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Moving Streetlights

If you're a loyal and dedicated reader of this blog, you know that I recently built a new garage in front of my house. Now that I have a new garage, I also have a wider driveway. Unfortunately, I can't widen the street approach to the driveway, because there's a streetlight in the way. That's only a temporary setback, since streetlights can easily be moved. As a matter of fact, before I even began this project, I asked the city if it was possible to get a streetlight moved. They told me it was, but they stressed that I'd be responsible for any costs.

As it turns out, the process for getting a streetlight moved is fairly straightforward. I had to get the approval of my neighbors, the city had to fill out a one-page form and send it to the utility company, and the utility company had to come out and do the work.

Considering how simple this process is, you might be surprised to learn that more than four months have passed since I first contacted the city, but the streetlight still hasn't moved. In case you're wondering how this could be, I've briefly outlined the sequence of events below.

I asked the city how to get a streetlight moved.

The city told me I needed to contact the utility company.

I asked the utility company how to get a streetlight moved.

The utility company told me to contact the city.

I told the utility company that the city said to contact them.

The utility company told me that the city needs to fill out a Streetlight Authorization form.

I asked the utility company to fax the form to the city.

The utility company complied.

A week or so later, I called the city to see if they'd filled in the form and faxed it back to the utility company. The woman assigned to my case wasn't there so I left her a message.

That night when I returned home from work, I saw that she'd left me a message informing me that they never received the fax, and asking me to get a new blank Streetlight Authorization form from the utility company.


(By the way, it would have been just as easy for her to call the utility company directly, since I'd given her the number. If you're wondering why she asked me to call the utility company instead of just calling the utility company herself, you're in good company. I wonder about that myself.)

The next day, I asked the utility company to fax the form to the city again. I also asked them to mail me a copy so I could deliver it to them in person, in case the city didn't receive the second fax.

I called the city to verify that they received the fax, and the woman assigned to my case confirmed that they did. She also told me that I needed to get a signed statement from my nearby neighbors attesting that they have no objections to the moving of the streetlight.

About a week later, I delivered the signed statements to the city in person, but the woman assigned to my case was on vacation.

A week or so after she returned, I asked her what the status was.

She told me she still didn't have the signed statements from my neighbors.

I told her that I dropped them off a couple of weeks earlier.

She searched around for a while and finally confirmed that they've been sitting in her in-basket for the past week.

A few days later, she called to tell me that she filled out the Streetlight Authorization form and faxed it to the utility company.

A couple of weeks later, I called the utility company to find out the status.

The utility company told me that they haven't received the completed Streetlight Authorization form yet.

I asked the city to fax it again, and to call me as soon as they've faxed it, so I could call the utility company and confirm that they received it.

A few hours later, the city called me to let me know that they faxed the form to the utility company.

I called the utility company, and the planning assistant verified that she received the fax.

A couple of weeks later, I called the utility company to find out the status.

The planner told me that he didn't have the completed Streetlight Authorization form.

I told him that the city faxed it twice already, and I asked him to check with the assistant planner.

He checked with her, and called me back a few hours later to verify that the form was in his possession.

I asked him when they could begin the work.

He told me that a work order needed to be created first.

I asked him how long it would take to create a work order.

He told me it would take approximately two weeks.

Approximately two weeks later, I called the planner to see if the work order had been created.

The woman who answered the phone told me that the planner had been transferred to a different department, and offered to connect me with the new planner.

I took her up on her offer, and left a message with the new planner, explaining that I needed a streetlight moved and asking if he knew whether or not the work order had been created yet.

He called me back the following day and asked me how he could help me.

I repeated what I told him in my earlier message.

He told me that he had no record of my file, and asked me to fax him the completed Streetlight Authorization form again.


(At this point, more than four months after I initiated the process, I wasn't happy to find that we were essentially back to Square One.)

I called the city and told them that they needed to fax the completed Streetlight Authorization form to the utility company again.

The woman assigned to my case told me that she couldn't find my file, which meant that they no longer had the completed Streetlight Authorization form and were therefore unable to fax it to the utility company.

I scanned the blank form that the utility company had sent me earlier and emailed it to the woman assigned to my case. In my message, I asked her to fill out the form and fax it to the utility company.

She emailed me back about an hour later, asking me to fill out the form and send it back to her, so she could fax it to the utility company.

Since I had no idea how to fill out the form, I called the planner at the utility company, who told me which fields needed to be filled in.

After I filled out the form, I faxed it to the woman assigned to my case. Then I called to tell her that it needed to be signed by an authorized city official before it could be faxed to the utility company.

She told me that the authorized city official was on jury duty and wouldn't be back for another week or so.

I asked her to fax me a copy of the completed form after she faxed it to the utility company.

Miraculously, she found an authorized city official who wasn't on jury duty, and got that person to sign the form. She faxed a copy to the utility company and faxed another copy to me.


So that's where things currently stand. I've probably omitted a few phone calls, since this account is from memory and I don't remember all the details. But that's probably for the best, since it'll help keep this post to a reasonable length.

At this point, it's difficult to tell who is more inefficient: the city or the utility company. So far, I'm leaning toward the utility company. But, unlike his predecessor, the new planner actually seems to know what he's doing, so that could tilt things in favor of the utility company. Still, it's a close race, and we won't know for sure until after the streetlight gets moved. And when that will be is anybody's guess.

I realize that this post might not be as fascinating as many of my other posts. Normally I don't post anything here unless I think it will be of value to the world at large. This post is an exception -- I wrote it mostly to relieve my frustration. And it seems to have done the trick, since at this point, my frustration is for the most part relieved. However, the streetlight hasn't been moved yet, and I still have no idea when it will be, so there's plenty of opportunity for more frustration in the future.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Parallel Universes

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wasn't looking forward to my trip across the country, due to the likely prospect of having to sit behind someone who insists on tilting the seat all the way back. Well, I just got back home and I'm happy to report that during all four of my flights in the past week, not one person in front of me had the seat tilted back.

I made a prediction about this the week before, and I was as wrong as wrong can be. I'm happy to admit it, but I'm also a little confused. On all four flights combined, I think I saw maybe three or four people who didn't keep their seat backs in the locked upright position, which seems particularly strange when you consider that one flight was late at night and the other was early in the morning -- two times during which people are inclined (no pun intended) to want to get some sleep.

I have no explanation for this. As you read this, you may be searching for an explanation as well. Perhaps you're thinking that each time the plane took off, it entered a parallel universe -- a better universe in which people leave their seat backs upright. Well, I appreciate your enthusiasm for the bizarre and unlikely, but you're probably wrong. There has to be a more reasonable explanation.

I don't have any evidence either way, of course -- all I have is the belief that if we had entered a parallel universe, I would have found out about it somehow. That sort of thing usually doesn't happen without a lot of people noticing it.

The other thing worth noting was that each of the four flights took off on time and landed on time. I have no explanation for that either, but it seems pretty unusual as well. One possible explanation is that I entered the parallel universe sometime before the first flight departed and left it sometime after the last flight landed. Or perhaps I haven't yet returned to the "normal" universe, and maybe I'll be stuck in the parallel one forever.

I'm not even sure what it means to be in a parallel universe, or if the concept of parallelism is even defined for universes. I understand the notion of parallel lines, and even parallel planes, but can four-dimensional objects be parallel? I don't know. If I were a mathematician I'm sure I'd know all about such things, but I'm not, so I can only speculate. Of course, the larger question is, given that the universe is by definition all-inclusive, can there even be more than one universe?

I'll let the philosophers and physicists grapple with that one, if they care to. For now, I'm happy just knowing that when you get on a plane, it can depart on time, and it can arrive on time, and you can spend the entire flight without having to sit behind some inconsiderate moron who insists on tilting the seat all the way back.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Nation of Babies

I'm not an especially tall man -- I'm about 6'1", which is about average for people my height. I realize that might seem tall to some people, but I'm sure it seems short to others. So I figure I'm about average. My rule of thumb is, if we're both standing and I have to look up to see your face, you're tall, and if I have to look down to see your face, you're short.

You're probably thinking "So what?" or "Who cares?" and if you are, I agree with you completely. I rarely think about height, and the only reason I'm thinking about it now is that I have to get on an airplane later today and fly across the country -- the country in this case being the United States.

If you don't see the connection between height and trans-continental flights, you're probably fairly short, because if you've got any height on you at all, you probably never have enough leg room when you're sitting in an airplane seat.

What makes it even worse is the people who insist on tilting their seat all the way back. And they always seem to end up sitting right in front of me. Rather than dance around the issue, I'll just come out and say it: I hate people who tilt their seat all the way back.

I do my best to avoid them, but it's practically impossible. I usually try to book my flights for the morning or early afternoon, when I figure people won't be tired, so they won't feel like resting and therefore won't be tempted to tilt their seats back. But I've discovered that it makes absolutely no difference what time it is -- as soon as some people board an airplane, they start to get drowsy and feel the need to take a nap.

I don't mind if they take a nap -- it seems like a waste of time to me, but I don't want to be judgmental -- I just wish they'd learn to nap with the seat in its locked upright position. If you can't sleep sitting up, you're probably not that tired in the first place, and if you're not that tired, you shouldn't be wasting your time trying to sleep. You should read a book instead. Or if you don't feel like reading, you might try watching the in-flight movie. There are plenty of things to do -- you can probably think of some yourself.

But I think there are plenty of people who can't, and that's the problem. People with active minds can usually find something to do, even when they're confined to a seat on an airplane and have very few options. The people who spend all their time watching TV or engaging in other mindless activities don't know how to keep themselves amused on an airplane, so they just try to sleep through the whole experience. That's my theory, at least.

Unfortunately, my flight leaves around 11:30 p.m., which I predict means that most people on the plane will be tired, and therefore most seats on the plane will be tilted back. The odds of one of those seats being directly in front of me are astronomically high. And to make matters worse, I wasn't able to get an aisle seat, so I'll be boxed in.

As you can probably guess, I'm not looking forward to this flight.

I may even try sleeping myself, not because I expect to be tired, but because it may be the only option available to me. Sometimes when the person in front of me has the seat tilted back, there's barely enough room to hold a book, unless I want to hold it just a few inches in front of my face. But I have a hard enough time falling asleep in strange beds, so the chances of me sleeping during this flight or any other are pretty low.

The flight attendants encourage us to sleep, of course -- not for our comfort, I suspect, but for theirs. They'd rather have a plane full of sleeping people than a plane full of wide-awake people who can bother them. I don't blame them -- their job is probably difficult enough without a bunch of passengers asking them for one thing or another. So they make sure everyone has a blanket and a pillow. And at some point during the flight, usually after the meal has been served and the movie has ended, they turn off the main cabin lights.

It feels like they're treating us like babies when they give us blankets and pillows and turn off the lights. I don't like being treated like a baby. I probably liked it when I was a baby, but I don't like it anymore. I outgrew it. But a lot of people haven't. As a matter of fact, we're a nation of babies, for the most part, and not just because we take our little naps on airplanes, but in just about every aspect of our lives. We're weak, we're soft, and we cry when we don't get what we want. We're selfish, we're self-centered, and we're self-absorbed. We like to blame things on others because we don't like to accept personal responsibility. We like our government to censor our movies and television and newspapers to make them more palatable to us. We accept most things without question, because we like our information to be spoon-fed to us.

Of course, we're still a pretty young nation, so one day we'll outgrow our babyhood. And when we do, the world will be a better place. There will be no more crying and whining and temper tantrums. We will no longer make a huge mess of our world, or start big fights over little things. And air travel will be much more comfortable as well, especially for tall people.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Breaking the Rules

When I first started this blog, one of my rules was that I wouldn't post any messages complaining about the countless mistakes people make when they talk. First of all, it makes you seem pedantic; second, people hate it when you correct them, and third, to do it right, you'd have to devote an entire blog to it. It would be a full-time job, and it wouldn't even pay anything. Besides, it would be a losing battle, since most people are very defensive of their own behavior, even when they know it's wrong. As a matter of fact, they're usually more defensive when they're wrong -- when they're right, they just ignore you.

In any event, today I'm going to break my own rule.

But before I begin, I have to say that nobody speaks perfect English. I once read an interview with Noam Chomsky -- who's generally regarded as the father of modern Linguistics -- and even he made a tiny grammatical mistake. I accidentally make little mistakes sometimes as well. And other times, I make them deliberately, like whenever I begin a sentence with "and" or "but" or "or." You're not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction, but I do it all the time, because I consider it more a matter of style than a rule of grammar. I don't mind the occasional split infinitive either. After all, this is English we're talking about, not Latin.

Okay, with all that out of the way, I'll highlight a few of the more annoying mistakes that people commonly make, starting with the one that prompted me to write this little essay in the first place.

A lot of people seem to think that -ette is a feminizing suffix. This is a very common mistake. But is a cigarette a female cigar? Is a kitchenette a female kitchen? Is a sermonette a female sermon? The answer in all three cases is no. The suffix that generally turns male into female is -ess, as in tigress, lioness, actress, governess, princess, duchess, temptress, enchantress, seductress, sorceress, and goddess. There are other feminizing suffixes as well, like -enne (comedienne) and -trix (aviatrix, dominatrix). But -ette is not one of them.

It's pretty obvious from the examples above that -ette is a diminutive suffix -- it's a way of denoting a smaller version of something. Since women are generally smaller than men -- and have pretty much been regarded as inferior to men throughout human history -- it's a pretty easy mistake to make. So people who make this mistake aren't necessarily stupid or anything -- they're just wrong.

Here's another one. Everybody knows that the word me is an object and not a subject. That's why we don't say things like "Me and Bill robbed a liquor store last night." However, there's a tendency for some people to over-correct and replace me with I when me is the correct word, as in the sentence, "If anyone saw us beating up that liquor store clerk, it could mean big trouble for you and I." There's a similar mistake that's probably just as common, which is to use the word myself instead of me, as in the sentence, "After you get a statement from that liquor store clerk, give a copy to either Sgt. Mendez or myself."

When I was in college, one of my linguistics professors referred to this sort of thing as "hyper-urbanization" (in the sense of trying to sound urbane -- not in the sense of over-developing a city). I've never heard anyone else use the term that way, but I like it, so I'll pass it on to you.

Considering all the mistakes people make, this next one is hardly worth mentioning -- especially since technically it isn't even a mistake -- but I'll mention it anyway because it sounds stupid. Have you ever heard anyone introduce a thought they once had by saying "I remember thinking to myself..." or "I thought to myself..."? You probably have, since just about everyone says it. But guess what? Unless you have the telepathic ability to implant thoughts into the minds of others, you can't think to anyone but yourself. So saying you thought to yourself is redundant. Just say "I thought..." or "I remember thinking..." Most people will understand what you mean.

Here's a mistake that's so common that I think the rules of grammar will eventually be changed to accommodate it. But for now, it's still wrong, so don't say "I'm going to lay down" when you mean "I'm going to lie down." Lay is the past tense of lie (as in the sentence, "As soon as I lay down, my head started spinning and I felt like throwing up.") but it's also a verb in its own right. It's a transitive verb, however, so it always takes an object, as in "Lay your cards on the table" or "Lay the weapon down or I'll shoot." Confusing the whole matter, of course, is the other meaning of lie, the past tense of which is lied, as in "She lied to me once too often, so I poisoned her food."

All the trouble people have with lay and lie is perfectly understandable, given the ambiguity with the verb To Lie. For example, when someone says, "The air outside was filled with toxic fumes, and people were lying in the street everywhere you looked," it's possible to intrepret this to mean that people in the street were not telling the truth, perhaps due to one of the side-effects of the poisonous gas. So when people say, "I was laying in bed," maybe it's to make it clear that they were in a recumbent position, and not engaged in telling something other than the truth. Of course, the two aren't mutually exclusive -- it's possible to tell lies while situated horizontally, but in the limited space I've given myself here, I can't give that topic the full discussion it deserves.

Just to make something clear, I'm really not trying to change the way people talk -- how stupid they want to sound is entirely up to them, which reminds me of something my 7th grade English teacher told us one time. One of our vocabulary words was "patina." I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember her exact words, but she gave us some good advice, which I am now passing on to you for free: "If you want to sound ignorant and uneducated, say puh-TEE-nuh instead of PAT-n-uh."

To wrap things up, I'll just list a few other assaults against the language that I find particularly annoying, without going into a detailed explanation:

  • Where it's at: This was a hip counter-cultural thing to say in the '60s, but it's just as grammatically incorrect today as it was forty years ago. And now it sounds dated as well.

  • Aren't I?: No explanation should be needed here. If you know how to conjugate the verb To Be, you already know why this is wrong.

  • Rather: It's a great word, but it isn't a verb, so saying something like "I'd rather that you don't tell anyone" is just plain wrong.

  • As best as I can: Say either "as well as I can" or "the best that I can."

  • In process: Something can be "in progress" or it can be "being processed," but "in process" just doesn't make any sense.

  • As far as [whatever]: Say either "as for [whatever]" or "as far as [whatever] is concerned."

  • Whom: I'm convinced that this word will eventually disappear from the language -- and that might not even be such a terrible thing -- but it's still in the dictionary for now, so use it.


There. I'm done. I've barely scratched the surface, but I feel better anyway, even though I understand that nothing I wrote here today will actually do any good. Like I said, it's a losing battle. And I have to admit, with all the problems in today's world -- ranging from the poisons in our air to the impending plague of rats -- there are arguably much better things to concern ourselves with. On the other hand, no matter how bad things get, I'd like to think we'll always be able to find time to criticize the way other people talk.

Anyway, to end on a happy note, I want to mention a mistake that used to be very common, but which I hardly ever hear today. Twenty or thirty years ago, it seemed like half the population of the United States pronounced the word sherbet as sherbert -- that's even one of the alternate pronunciations in one of my old dictionaries. It used to really annoy me when otherwise intelligent and articulate people pronounced the word that way, but fortunately, that particular mispronunciation seems to have fallen from popularity. Either that or I'm just not talking to as many people about sherbet these days.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Rats and Vegetables

Today I'd like to talk about rats and vegetables.

First of all, if you've been following the news about my little mouse problem, I've decided that I don't have problem with mice at all. I have a problem with rats. Big huge rats. They aren't the gigantic radioactive mutant rats of 1950s-era science fiction movies, but they're too big to fit in a mouse trap, as I have come to learn. Furthermore, they seem fairly intelligent as well. For example, they know how to eat the peanut butter from a trap without actually getting caught in the trap when it snaps.

So I decided to buy some glue traps, which are made with what is very likely the stickiest substance on Planet Earth. Rodents are supposed to be attracted to them for some reason, but I don't know what the attraction could possibly be. A friend of mine bought some glue traps years ago, and they were scented with a peanut butter flavor. The ones I bought don't smell like anything, but maybe they're baited with a scent that only rodents can smell. In any case, just to be safe, I decided to put a little dab of peanut butter in the middle of each one.

I thought that would do the trick, but the rats thought otherwise. To my great disappointment, somehow a rat managed to eat the peanut butter without actually getting stuck in the trap. And I couldn't tell for sure, but I thought I saw the faint impression of rat paws on the surface of the glue. Discouraged but not undaunted, I added more peanut butter and moved the traps to a different location.

A couple of days later, I noticed that one of the traps had been moved to the other end of the kitchen, presumably by a rat. When I examined the trap, I saw that a rat body had made a deep indentation in the surface of the glue. And by the looks of things, it was pretty obvious that there'd been a struggle. The rat must have gotten caught in the glue but it somehow managed to free itself and escape.

So my experience with the glue traps so far is that they're a lot less effective than advertised, and it looks like I wasted my money. Fortunately, the rats seem to be content to confine themselves to my kitchen -- I haven't seen any evidence of them in any of the other rooms. So it's not as big a problem as it could be. I don't have to worry about them jumping into my bed when I'm asleep and nibbling on my toes, for example.

Nonetheless, I'm eager to rid myself of them, so I put some fancy rodent electrocution device on my kitchen floor, and a huge spring-loaded rat trap on the counter. They've been sitting there patiently, calmly biding their time, waiting silently for their prey.

The traps were out for about a week, and I saw no evidence of any rat in all that time. I have no idea why. A friend of mine says she thinks the rat must have decided, "I'm not going back to that house again. Every time I go there, the guy tries to kill me." Maybe that's it. Or maybe the rat was eaten by one of the neighborhood cats I often see in my backyard. Or maybe the rat simply found a house it likes better. In any case, it looked like I was free of rodents at last, which was a relief, although I did sort of want to see how well the electrocution device worked.

I was all set to declare the my battle with the rodents over and to proclaim myself the victor -- as a matter of fact, just yesterday I told a few people that I thought the rats were gone for good -- but today, just a couple of hours ago, I checked the traps and saw that even though the spring-loaded trap was still set, the peanut butter had been eaten completely off. I assume that was done by a rat, so I guess the battle isn't over yet. I may get to see how well the electrocution device works after all.

If it doesn't work, I've still got a few options left. I saw some ultrasonic rat repellent devices at the hardware store, for example, and I may experiment with those. They may do the trick, but I have to admit that I don't have very high hopes. All the anti-rodent technology I've used so far has been ineffective, so maybe I'm approaching this whole problem the wrong way. Maybe in order to catch the rat, I must first learn to think like a rat, but I don't even know if that's possible.

I'm not sure what caused this rat problem in the first place, although I suspect it might have something to do with the new garage that I had built in front of my house. Maybe the rats used to live in the plants and weeds where the garage now stands, and when the plants were torn up the rats had to find a new home. Or maybe it has nothing to do with the garage -- maybe a plague of rats will soon be visited upon us all, and this is only the beginning.

Anyway, if you're one of the few people who actually reads this blog, you're probably as tired of hearing about rodents as I am of writing about them. So let's move on to my next topic.

Now that summer's long gone, the weather is a little cooler and fruit and vegetables don't ripen as quickly. That's not a problem if you're patient -- or if you enjoy eating fruit before it's ripe -- but for everyone else, I'll pass along the following.

If you've read one of my earlier posts on avocados, you know how much I like them. I was at the grocery store a while ago, and there was a little pamphlet by the avocado pile. It didn't contain much information -- just the standard stuff about how an avocado isn't ripe until the skin is black, and the hint about making avocados ripen quicker by putting them in a paper bag. I never actually tried that myself, but people say it works and I will take their word for it.

By the way, there are probably still a few people who think the avocado is a vegetable. That's probably because, although technically a fruit, the avocado is functionally a vegetable -- not only because it can be used where other vegetables are used, but also because for its entire life, it remains in a persistent vegetative state. It shows no brainwave activity and it has a limited sense of its immediate surroundings. The same thing applies to the tomato, of course, but you probably already knew that.

When I was a kid, we used to buy vegetables and fruits at the supermarket and fool them into thinking they were ripe when they really weren't. By manipulating climatic conditions or controlling the amount of light they receive, it's really easy to trick them. Sometimes, by picking the stem off of an apple or pear or avocado, you can make them believe that they've just fallen off the tree, which causes them to ripen quickly.

Of course, most people today have abandoned those outdated methods in favor of more predictable techniques using chemicals or hypnosis.

I remember hypnotizing a cantaloupe one time when I was in college. It made the cantaloupe ripen more quickly, but I don't think it tasted very good.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

This Time It's Personal

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I was having a problem with mice in my house, which I thought I would solve by setting some traps. I'm happy to report that within a week of setting those traps, two mice fell victim to them. The first was a full-sized mouse, who even in death still managed to look cute somehow. Maybe that means its death came quickly and it didn't have to suffer. And a few days later, another trap took the life of an even cuter mouse -- a little baby this time, perhaps the orphaned child of the trap's first victim.

Before I go any further, I have to say that I don't enjoy killing things. I get no pleasure from the death of other living creatures, and if there were another way of getting the mice out of my house, I would eagerly try it. If I could have explained to the mice that I consider it an invasion of my personal space when they enter my house without permission, I would have. But as you probably already know, mice (and all other rodents, for that matter) are notorious for not listening to reason. Hence, the mouse traps.

After the two initial deaths, there were no others. Still, just to be safe, I left the traps baited and set, but more than a month has gone by since the last mouse was killed, so I assumed that my mouse problem was over.

Until now.

I haven't caught any more mice -- I haven't even seen any more mice -- but I have seen evidence that they're still in my house. And if you don't know what sort of evidence I'm talking about, let's just say that anything that's capable of eating and digesting food is capable of leaving evidence behind.

And for some reason, my little mouse likes to leave its evidence on one of the kitchen counters, which strikes me as sort of odd. There's no food up there -- it's basically an island (well, actually a peninsula) with nothing to offer a mouse. That's the first thing. The second thing is, I'm assuming that the mouse spends most of its time on the floor, which means it would have to go out of its way to get to the counter top. I don't know about you, but if I were a mouse and I felt the need to relieve myself, I wouldn't scurry up to the kitchen counter first. That wouldn't make any sense. So, I've reached the only possible conclusion: The mouse is trying to taunt me.

The first time it happened, I moved one of the traps to the counter top, right next to where I found the evidence. But the next time, the mouse simply went to the other end of the counter.

That was a disappointment. I really thought I'd catch him the next time he was up there. But the mouse completely ignored the trap. Could it be that he wasn't hungry? Or could he have lost his taste for peanut butter? That didn't seem likely. Perhaps the problem was that the peanut butter was old and stale. It was a month old, after all, so maybe it had turned rancid. I couldn't smell anything, but I don't have a rodent's acute sense of smell.

In any event, I loaded up the traps with fresh peanut butter (crunchy style, this time) and put two of them on the counter -- one at either end. I hoped that would do the trick, even though I knew better than to be too optimistic. And as it turned out, my skepticism was justified: To date, I have yet to catch another mouse.

It doesn't seem likely that a mouse would scamper up to the counter top, deposit its evidence, and then go back down to the floor, without once venturing near the traps. But that's exactly what happened. Several times. I don't understand it. Would a mouse pass up a free meal of delicious crunchy organic peanut butter without a good reason? I know I wouldn't, but I'm not a mouse. And like I said before, mice aren't known for being reasonable.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ugliness - Part 2

In last week's post on ugliness and conformity, I mentioned that the 2005 Mustang is an example of first-rate automobile design. It's a great car in a lot of ways -- as a matter of fact, the only thing I don't like about it is a particular group of of people who drive them. For lack of a better term, I will refer to these people as "assholes." I'm not saying everyone who drives a new Mustang is an asshole. I'm not even saying that most people who drive them are assholes. All I'm saying is, there are more than a few assholes behind the wheel of these wonderful cars, and I seem to routinely encounter my share of them. As a matter of fact, just this week I was nearly rear-ended by one such person as he attempted to weave in and out of traffic. (I say "attempted" because he wasn't very successful. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic and we were going about as slow as you can while still moving. So he didn't get far.)

This sort of behavior isn't at all surprising, of course. When you build a car for speed, you're going to get a lot of people buying them because they want to drive fast, even when traffic conditions make it absolutely impossible.

But enough of all that. In the same post, I also complained a lot about the pervasive ugliness around us. As a side note, I mentioned that no car looks good painted bright yellow, but a friend of mine pointed out that yellow Lamborghinis look pretty good. To verify this, I found a picture of one on the web and I have to say that it does look pretty good. So I stand corrected, even though the car in the picture had more of a golden yellow than a taxi-cab yellow. Still, I will admit that it's possible for a yellow car to look good, but I also think that any car that looks good in yellow will probably look even better in some other color.

Anyway, getting back to the original topic of ugliness, just to show that I don't have any particular bias, let me make it clear that I'm not against ugliness per se. If it could coexist with beauty, the world would remain in balance and I wouldn't have such a problem with it. But ugliness is crowding beauty out to such an extent that sometimes I think the scale might stay tipped forever. Furture generations might not even know what beauty is. They'll know the word, but they won't know what it stands for, because it will have been redefined so that it also includes a lot of what today we would consider ugly.

I don't want to dwell too much more on this whole ugliness thing, but have you looked at computer cases lately? I have, because I'm thinking of putting together a new computer. You can still buy a simple unobtrusive case, but they're definitely in the minority. And compact "bookshelf" stereos are even worse. I think the designers of those things must go out of their way to make them so ugly because nobody could make anything that ugly by accident. Most bookshelf stereos have big bright LEDs, chrome-plated decorative fins, and useless baffles that point in every direction. They remind me of the space ships and armored robots from 1950s science fiction movies.

Fortunately, there are still a few companies whose aesthetic leans more toward simple understated beauty, so when I was looking for a compact stereo a while ago, I eventually found something that sounded good and looked good as well. I'm very happy with it, but if you want one, you're out of luck, because that model has since been discontinued. There are still a lot of ugly ones available, though.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hummers

I'm referring to the automobile, by the way, not the oral sex technique in which the vibration of the vocal cords helps increase the stimulation of the genitals. As you probably remember, "Hummer" was originally just a nickname. The real name was High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV for short. "HMMWV" is pretty much unpronounceable, but "Humvee" is about as close as you can get, so that's what people called them. And "Hummer" is what people called them when they didn't feel like calling them humvees.

As I'm sure you already know, HMMWVs were originally made for the military as a replacement vehicle for the outdated jeep, but the company that manufactured them saw a business opportunity and began making a street-legal version for civilians.

You don't see too many of those original street-legal Hummers on the road any more. And you can say what you want about how environmentally irresponsible it was to drive them -- they got something like 1 mile per gallon -- but you had to love them for their ugliness and their ungainliness. They were too wide for a lot of streets and parking lots, and seeing one on the road may have sometimes reminded you of an awkward teenage boy after a growth spurt who wasn't yet accustomed to his new size. Those cars were really just expensive novelty items -- as impractical as they were ugly -- but that was part of their clunky charm.

Compare that to the latter-day Hummer, the H2. Other than its name and a its general boxy ugliness, it has absolutely nothing to do with its nominal predecessor. The term "Hummer" -- once an affectionate nickname for a military vehicle -- is now nothing more than a trademark owned by General Motors. It's just a marketing gimmick, but apparently a very successful one, since a lot of people seem to be buying these things. The H2 is smaller and not as wide, but even though it's not as cumbersome as the original, it's a whole lot uglier. And painting them taxi-cab yellow just makes them look worse. Whose bad idea was that? (By the way, if you're thinking of getting a new car or repainting your current one, here's a helpful hint: No car looks good in a coat of bright yellow paint.)

The H2 has given way to the scaled-down H3, which will undoubtedly give way to the H4, the H5, and successive generations. And each new model will be less like the original and more like a lot of other SUVs. What made the original HMMWV stand apart from other SUVs will gradually be designed out, so what was once an ugly but singularly unique vehicle will eventually be just another ugly SUV, barely recognizable from all the others.

This is a growing trend by the way, this trend toward ugliness and conformity, and it extends far beyond the design of a particular automobile. The world is getting uglier, and individual cities -- and even countries -- are slowly losing whatever it is that once made them unique. You can find the same fast food restaurants and chain stores in Tokyo as you can in Los Angeles, and as soon as you're inside one, it's easy to forget what country you're in. I'm sure this is a great comfort to a lot of people -- it makes international travel much easier, but it also makes it a lot less interesting.

And residential architecture has lost just about all of its regional character -- new housing developments look pretty much the same all across the country, and they all look pretty dreadful. I could devote an entire post to the sorry state of architecture today, and how architects are ignoring their duty to look toward the future and instead are simply borrowing ideas from the past. It's 2005. Why are we still copying architectural styles of the 18th and 19th centuries? And I don't know about you, but I live neither in Spain nor on the Mediterranean sea, so I don't know why all the new houses I see have a Spanish Mediterranean style. I could write a whole book on this. (As a matter of fact, I'm planning on doing just that. It's going to be a work of fiction, but it'll also be a critique of current architectural trends and the pathological mindset that fosters them. I know how boring that sounds, but it'll be a lot more interesting than I'm making it sound. For more information, check out this link.)

Okay, let's talk about cars again for a second. Once upon a time, it was possible to tell a Mercedes from a Toyota and a Toyota from a Chevrolet. You still can, but it's a lot harder, especially if you're looking at the back of the car. Automobile designers used to strive for a distinctive look -- a signature design element -- but those days are for the most part gone, and now it looks like they're all trying to copy each other.

It wouldn't be so bad if they stole each other's good ideas, but they don't seem to know a good idea from a bad one. How else are we to explain the preponderance of triangular taillights? It seems like just about every car made in the last few years has them, whether it's a Honda, a Jaguar, a Volkswagen, or any other car you can think of. To simply state that these taillights are ugly is to understate their visual impact, because they're also incredibly bizarre-looking. To me, they look like illuminated cat ears.

And while I'm on the subject of taillights, remember about 15 years ago, when they first introduced that center taillight that you can see through the rear window of most cars? They were ugly when they were first introduced, and they're still ugly today. On a few cars, they've been integrated into the design of the car, but on most cars, they look like tacked-on afterthoughts. But no one will ever try to make them look better, because nobody really cares. I think they're ugly, and I don't even care. Want to know why? It's because I'm so used to them that I barely even notice them.

I suppose that's a good thing, but it's also a bad thing. Since we're so adaptable, it makes it easier for our species to survive, but it also makes it easier for the world to get incrementally uglier and uglier. And I'm not just talking about cars or houses. I'm talking about everything.

For example, a few years ago they put up an animated electronic billboard which was visible from the freeway. It was really annoying at first, but after driving past it every day, I got used to it. Now I hardly notice it, but more recently they put up another one, on the other side of the freeway. It's easily four times as big as the first one, and it's probably about ten times as bright. It flashes on and off, cycling through the various advertisements, but it's so bright that on nights when it's a little foggy, it looks like the entire sky is blinking on and off. I haven't gotten used to this particular sign yet, and a part of me never wants to -- no one should have to tolerate this kind of visual pollution -- but I know it's just a matter of time before that sign blends in with everything else that helps make the world an uglier place. Of course, by then they'll put up an even bigger sign.

I know I've been complaining a lot in this post -- I guess that's sort of unavoidable when your subject is ugliness and conformity -- but believe it or not, I actually have some good things to say about automotive design. But since this post is too long already, I'll make it brief: The 2005 Mustang is the most beautiful car anyone has designed in a long time. After changing the body style over and over since the Mustang was first developed, Ford finally got it right. And I haven't done any comparison shopping, but I bet you could buy one for about what it would cost you to get a Hummer. So why would anyone buy a Hummer instead of a Mustang? I have no idea. If you're thinking, "But Bob, Hummers can go all over the place -- up a mountain, through a stream, wherever they want to go -- and Mustangs have to stay on the street," then I will respond by saying, yes, you're right, but as we all know, most people who drive SUVs never take them off the road. You know it, and I know it, and even the people who drive SUVs know it. So if you're thinking of getting a Hummer, just buy the Mustang instead. You'll be helping to make the world a more beautiful place. Don't buy a bright yellow one, though. That shouldn't even be one of the color choices.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The C-Word

I'm usually pretty easy-going, but there's one thing that never fails to make me angry: people who talk in movie theaters.

A few years ago, I was watching some movie with a friend of mine. I don't remember what it was called, but it starred Hugh Grant as some sort of self-centered cad, so that might narrow it down a little. It wasn't much of a movie, so it's not like I felt I needed to hear every word of dialog, but there were these two girls sitting directly behind us, and one of them just wouldn't stop talking.

Every time Hugh Grant said something callous or did something that showed how arrogant he was, she'd tell her friend, "Oh my God! Did you see that? I can't believe it!" or "Oh my God! I can't believe he said that!" or "Oh my God! What a loser!"

This went on non-stop for about an hour before I decided to ask her to stop talking. I don't know why I let her prattle on for so long in the first place -- maybe I hoped she would eventually stop talking on her own. But she didn't, so I had to turn around and whisper to her to be quiet.

She didn't stop talking, though. As a matter of fact, she was indignant that I even asked her to. She told me she'd talk if she wanted, and if I didn't like it, I could get up and sit somewhere else. I thought about it. I thought about getting up and sitting right next to her, so I could politely nudge her each time she opened her mouth.

But I didn't. Instead, I just told her once again to stop talking. Then she said to me, "You stop talking, old man." I could see what was going to happen: Every time I said something to her, she would say something back to me. Not only would she not stop talking, but by engaging me in conversation, she was forcing me to keep talking as well, which was something I didn't want to do.

It looked a losing situation for me, so I tried a different approach: I called her a name. I don't often sink to that level, but she'd already set the precedent by calling me an old man. The name I called her was a lot more accurate than the one she called me, but it was also a lot less polite. I won't repeat the word here, but I'll give you a hint: It begins with "c" and ends with "unt," and it is neither "count" nor "catamount." And in case you need another clue, it also rhymes with "runt." It's not a word I use very often, but I was angry, and I had no other recourse. So I whispered to her, "Just be quiet, you stupid [runt]!"

That stopped her for about half a second, but then she told her friend, "Oh my God! Did you hear that? I can't believe he said that! Oh my God! I can't believe it! Did you hear him say that?" And then she continued to talk throughout the rest of the movie.

So the moral of this story is, if you expect other people to be courteous and considerate, you're going to be disappointed. The other moral is, unless you want to be called a stupid [runt], don't talk during the movie, even if it's just some idiotic Hugh Grant movie. It's inconsiderate and it's rude and there's really no excuse for it.

But a lot of people seem to think this sort of behavior is perfectly acceptable. One time I was at another move, and as soon as it began, some guy right in front of us started hooting. Yes, hooting, as if he were some sort of owl. I don't remember which movie it was, but it wasn't the kind of movie during which people would be expected to hoot. So I called him a fuckhead. Once again, this is not the level of behavior I would normally stoop to, but we all have limits beyond which we don't like to be pushed. And I didn't say it to his face -- since I was sitting behind him -- I said it to the back of his head. But he heard me and he was quiet for the rest of the movie.

Maybe I overreact sometimes, and perhaps my expectation of complete and absolute silence from the audience is a bit unwarranted, but I never said I was perfect. At least I know how to exercise restraint, though -- not only do I not talk during movies, but most of the time, I don't even bother telling other people to be quiet. For example, a few weeks ago, I saw the movie "The Aristocrats" and this guy in back of me just couldn't stop laughing. At first, I was thinking of turning around and giving him one of those disapproving "You're being too noisy" looks, but I decided to let it pass. It was a comedy after all, and some people can't help laughing out loud when they hear something funny. I don't laugh out loud a lot -- not at movies, at least. It makes it too hard to hear the dialog. I think the last time I laughed out loud in a movie theater was sometime in the early '90s. The movie was Peter Greenaway's "The Falls." A lot of people didn't even think it was funny, but I thought it was hilarious.

I don't like it when people make a lot of noise when they eat in movie theaters either, or when they use the back of the seat in front of them as a foot rest, but I won't bore you with all that.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Losing Words

You may remember that a few posts back, in a discussion about art fraud and the definition of art, I pondered the idea that we may be losing words from our vocabularly as quickly as we're adding new ones, or possibly even more quickly. My observation was that even though new words are constantly being created and the language is growing, most dictionaries tend to stay about the same size, suggesting that as new words are added to the language, old words are dropped.

If you've ever thought about this, you may be interested in the information presented below, taken from a paper that appeared in the Spring, 1991 issue of the Journal of Diachronic Linguistics (vol. XXI, no. 2):

Since measurement began, about 100 years ago, words have been disappearing from the English language at a rate of between 1% and 1.5% every 20 years.

For the overwhelming majority of words, once they disappear from the English language, they soon reappear in some other language. (This may help explain why so many languages contain "foreign" words.)

Among other words, some get temporarily misplaced and are lost for decades. Many others, however, are accidentally thrown out with household garbage and usually end up in county landfills, contributing to our growing waste-disposal problem.

Some words are victims of violent crime, but many more are victims of accidental deaths. In over 60% of the violent crimes, the victims know their assailants. Most of the accidental deaths occur within 5 miles of the home.

Among words suffering accidental death, the most common is death resulting from automobile accidents (both as driver and pedestrian). Also fairly common is death from accidental electrocution. The least common is death resulting from boating accidents.

The most common forms of violent crime are stabbing, strangulation, and defenestration (being thrown out of a window). Shooting is involved in relatively few cases.

The least frequent (but still statistically significant) causes of word disappearance are suicide, complications resulting from surgery, and change of identity due to participation in the Federal Witness Relocation Program.

[This information is from the article, "Bygone Words: The Destiny of Obsolescence," published by E. A. Howard, Ph. D., and R. Donoghue, Ph. D., both of Cornell University. The Journal of Diachronic Linguistics is an academic journal, published quarterly by the Historical Linguistics Association. You probably can't subscribe unless you're a linguistics professor, but you should be able to find copies in most university libraries.]

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Asians

I remember when people from the Orient were called Orientals. And then, sometime in the late '80s, we started calling them Asians. I thought it was a great idea: even though it's much broader in scope than the word it replaced and is therefore a lot more vague, "Asian" is a much shorter word, it's easier to spell, and it doesn't take as long to pronounce. But those weren't the reasons for the change. According to a newspaper article I read back around 1990 or so, Asians didn't want to be referred to with the same term we use for rugs, interior decoration, and food. The thinking was something like, "If you're going to call them Oriental rugs and Oriental foods, then we don't want to be called Orientals -- we want to be called Asians instead." Once again, this made perfect sense to me, and I started using that term when referring to my Asian friends, although a couple of them were slow to follow the trend and they continued to call themselves Orientals for a while.

The term eventually caught on, though, and everyone was happy, but look what's happened in the ensuing years: Everyone started acting like "Oriental" is a dirty word. No one uses it anymore. They've stopped shy of calling it "the O-word," but there's no such thing as an Oriental rug anymore -- now it's an Asian rug instead. And people are redecorating their houses to give them an Asian motif as well, even though that term is so vague that it's practically meaningless. In addition, the huge variety of Oriental foods are now collectively referred to as Asian Cuisine. I've even been in restaurants where the Chinese Chicken Salad has been replaced with an Asian Chicken Salad. (I bet you could search far and wide throughout the vast continent of Asia -- from the arid expanse of the Gobi desert through the sweltering jungles of Cambodia to the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong -- and not find a single Asian Chicken Salad, except maybe in a restaurant that caters to foreign tourists.)

As sort of a happy footnote, I have to mention that I actually did see a newspaper ad for Oriental rugs very recently, and I consider that a step in the right direction. But while I'm on the subject of "Asian decor," you've probably noticed that if you decorate a room in a simple minimalist style -- especially if you use natural materials like wood and stone -- a lot of people will say something stupid like it's "Zen-inspired" or they'll say "the room is very Zen." Listen, I don't know anything about Zen Buddhism, and the more I learn about it the more I realize how little I know, but one thing I do know is that it has very little to do with interior decoration. It's fine to call something "minimalist," and you can even make up a new word and call it "Japanesy" if you want, but if you call it a "Zen room" you'll just sound like a moron. So don't do it, unless the room is actually used for Zen meditation. Or unless you're a moron, which I don't think you are.

Remember when we stopped using the Wade-Giles system of transliteration and began using the Pinyin system instead? That's when everyone stopped calling it "Peking" and started calling it "Beijing." That was decades ago, so how come we still call it "Peking Duck"? Shouldn't we be calling it "Beijing Duck"? And Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, so are we ever going to start calling Siamese cats Thai cats? I think we should, since "Thai cat" has a nice ring to it. There's at least one precedent for this animal renaming sort of thing, by the way: The formal designation of the breed of dog once known as the Jack Russell Terrier was officially changed to the Parson Russell Terrier on April 1, 2003, at the request of the Jack Russell Terrier Association of America (which subsequently renamed itself the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America). On the other hand, I don't think we should start calling Burmese cats Myanmar cats, since it's so unwieldy, but there's probably no danger of that happening anytime soon. And we don't really have to change the name of Siamese cats to Thai cats, either. As long as we don't start collectively referring to Siamese cats and Burmese cats as Asian cats, I'll be happy.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Principles, Pragmatism, and Peanut Butter

It seems like every year, I have trouble with ants. The trouble is that they want to be inside my house and I want them to be outside. It's not a year-round problem -- it only happens during the summer and winter. I read somewhere that ants are very sensitive, and they don't like to be outdoors when it's too hot or when it's raining outside.

I never knew ants were such pussies, but I haven't really had much of an ant problem this year, so it's not something I've been thinking about a lot. I had a few ants come into one of the bathrooms, but they didn't stay long. So I don't have much of an ant problem this year. I do have a little mouse problem, though.

Every now and then, I see a little mouse in my kitchen. Or maybe it's a few mice -- I can't tell, since they all look the same to me. I don't know how they got inside, or what they're even doing there. They don't seem to be looking for food. (I keep some fresh fruit on one of the countertops, but they don't seem to be interested in it.) But I don't really care why they're there -- I just want them out.

A while ago, I was having a discussion with a few people about how sometimes my personal beliefs clash with what I think is the best thing for society. As a case in point, I mentioned guns. I realize they can be dangerous if you don't know how to use them, but in principle, just because something is dangerous, that doesn't mean you should restrict people from owning them. After all, we live in a free country, and if we're responsible adults, it seems silly to have our government tell us that guns are too dangerous for us. However, I happen to think that if we made it any easier to buy guns, we'd see the rate of accidental (and not-so-accidental) gun-related injuries and deaths increase. Does that make me "anti-gun"? No, not really. I don't have a problem with guns. I have a problem with people. For the most part, we aren't responsible adults, and we're too stupid to handle things like guns.

Guns are like drugs in a way. They can be beneficial if you know how to use them, or they can be dangerous if you don't. I'm talking about illegal drugs, by the way, although the same thing could probably be said about pharmaceuticals. People are always talking about how marijuana should be legalized, and they often mention that marijuana isn't as dangerous to the human body as alcohol, and yet alcohol is legal and marijuana isn't. That may all be true, but I think it misses the point.

So let's talk about heroin, another illegal drug. The stuff is almost as physically addictive as nicotine, it's generally regarded as a dangerous narcotic, and even the most ardent supporters of marijuana legalization aren't in favor of making it legal. But why shouldn't it be? Just because it's addictive? Just because it's possibly harmful to your health? So is an automobile if you drive it full-speed into a concrete wall. To reiterate the point I made when I was talking about guns, just because something is dangerous or bad for you, that's no reason to make it illegal.

In principle, at least. I don't know what would happen if we made heroin legal, but I'm not sure I want to find out. Would a lot of people who aren't currently using the drug start using it? I doubt it. Chances are, the drug manufacturing companies would start putting heroin in some of their anxiety-reducing drugs, and then rush to patent them. After that, they'd invent a lot of new diseases that only their new heroin-laced drugs could treat. The drugs probably wouldn't be available without a prescription, and all the existing heroin producers and suppliers would end up selling to big pharmaceutical companies, making it even more difficult for heroin addicts to obtain the drug on the street.

So once again, even though in principle we don't want our government to treat us like children and tell us what we can and can not do, sometimes it's not such a bad idea in practice. Like it or not, sometimes we shouldn't be able to do what we want to do, and sometimes we have to do what we don't want to do.

Which brings me back to the mice. I don't want to kill them, but I feel that I must. In previous years, I faced this same issue with the ants, by the way. I didn't want to kill them, but they violated an implicit social contract, which states that I live on the inside, they live on the outside, and that if they cross the boundary and invade my house, I have the right to kill them.

It can be argued that neither the mice nor the ants are aware of this implicit contract, and that even if the contract were more explicit, they still wouldn't have the cognitive facilities or the legal expertise to understand it. But that's beside the real point, which is that I don't want to kill the mice, but I'm going to do it anyway.

I went to a hardware store to buy some mouse traps, but I noticed that they were also selling mouse poison. I thought for a while about which to buy, and finally settled on the traps. I think this decision will make things easier for me as well as for the mice. For me, the question was, am I willing to let the mice eat some poison, scurry back to their secret hiding places and die, making it impossible for me to find and retrieve their rotting corpses? Or would I rather let them die in traps, where I can easily dispose of their final remains? For the mice, the question was, do I want them to suffer a long slow painful death by poisoning, or would I rather kill them quickly with a quick snap of the neck?

So I bought the mouse traps. But they need to be baited with some sort of attractant, and despite what you've probably seen in cartoons, swiss cheese is not the recommended bait. It turns out that peanut butter is a better bait.

I eat peanut butter from time to time, but not the kind that most people buy. Most peanut butter contains added salt and sugar. I buy organic peanut butter, made from nothing but organic peanuts. And since I'm not going to buy a special jar of regular peanut butter just for the mice, they're going to get the organic peanut butter as well. It costs more, and it might seem extravagant to waste such a high-quality product on a mouse -- especially a mouse who is about to die of a broken neck -- but I'm willing to spend the extra money, and if mice really like peanut butter that much, maybe they'll appreciate the difference.

Not that I think they will, of course, and not that I even care if they do. I just don't want to be stuck with a jar of the salted and sugared peanut butter after the mice are gone. I wouldn't know what to do with it. I'm sure not going to eat it. I suppose I could feed it to the ants the next time they show up. I know they'll eat it, since they seem to eat just about everything -- but since it probably won't kill them, I'll just spray them with ammonia instead.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

9/11

Today is September 11, which means that yesterday was my birthday. I won't tell you how old I am, but I am now as old as three seventeen-year-olds.

Three seventeen-year-old girls, with firm young breasts and skin as smooth as satin. The first one is cute and bubbly. Her eyes are bright and her lips are inviting. Her cheerful personality could light up the darkness. The second one is quiet and enigmatic. She has jet black hair, eyes the color of midnight, and a mysterious smile on her thin dark lips. The third one is prettier than any woman needs to be. The way her jeans and t-shirt hug the graceful curves of her slender body makes boys start thinking like men, and men start thinking like dogs.

As they walk down the street, you're hypnotized by the gentle sway of their narrow hips and the shifting of their breasts underneath their shirts. As they walk past you, you can smell the fragrance of their hair and their bodies, and for just a moment, all your other thoughts recede to distant corners of your mind.

Okay, that's enough. Before you get it into your head that I'm some sort of dirty old man, I should tell you that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in seventeen-year-old girls. They have to be at least eighteen.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Unlawful Entry

I'm having a garage built in front of my house. A few days ago, I was talking to the subcontractor and I told him that one of his helpers was over the previous Sunday to break up the concrete of the old driveway. He'd brought along this gas-powered saw with a 14-inch blade, and the thing cuts through concrete like a knife cuts through water, but within half an hour, the police came over and told me that city regulations prohibit any construction work (or in this case, destruction work) from being done on a Sunday. That was fine with me -- I didn't really want to listen to the noise all day anyway -- and the officer didn't write a citation, so everything worked out fine.

As I was telling the subcontractor about this, it reminded him of his own recent experience with the police. He's been living on a boat while he's working down here, and he told me that over the weekend some guy broke into the boat at 4:00 a.m. It woke him up, and he was still sort of groggy, but his first instinct was to yell, "What the fuck are you doing here?" or something to that effect. It was obviously a rhetorical question -- I don't think he was expecting an answer -- but it must have scared the guy, because he ran off the boat. The police came and found him hiding on another boat, and that reminded me of an experience I had almost 15 years ago.

It was sometime in 1991, and I'd been staying at a friend's house for a couple of months because my house was being remodeled and it had no hot water heater or bathrooms anymore, making it pretty much uninhabitable. The whole job was supposed to take about two months altogether, but it was already going on five, and it looked like there was at least another month to go before it would be finished.

Even though I didn't live there at the time, I stopped by every night after work to pick up my mail, and to see what work, if any, had been done. So, one night, I got there at about 8:30, and a couple of things looked sort of weird. First of all, there are two rooms that the workers had no reason to go into, so I always left the doors to those rooms closed to keep out the all the dust. But as I was walking down the hall, I noticed one of those doors was opened. When I looked into the room, I saw a couple of drawers were open, and there was a pair of old, torn-up, unfamiliar socks on the floor. I didn't think too much of it -- I just figured I'd ask the contractor about it the next day.

So I left the room and closed the door, and I walked back down the hall. Then I noticed that the other door that I always left closed was also open, but I still didn't think much of it. So I entered the room and turned on the light, and as I walked into the room, out of the corner of my eye, I saw some guy hiding behind the door.

That freaked me out. I asked myself all the possible questions: Who is this guy? Is he one of the workers? If so, why is he here so late? Why is he in this room? And why is he hiding behind the door? If he's not one of the workers, do I know him? Is he a friend of mine? Is he planning to jump out and surprise me? I asked myself all those questions and probably a few others within the space of maybe a half a second, and I still couldn't come up with an answer, but I knew something wasn't right so I was getting scared. I was really tense and I couldn't talk no matter how hard I tried. It took everything I had, but I finally managed to force a few words out of my throat. I asked him, "Who are you?"

He didn't answer at first -- he just stared at me -- which freaked me out even more, but then I realized he was just as scared as I was. Eventually he said he was out of work and he didn't have a place to stay and he was looking for a place to spend the night, so he broke into my house because it looked vacant. While he was saying this, I was gradually regaining my composure, so I started looking around and I noticed that a bunch of my stuff was scattered all over the floor, and he had filled a briefcase of mine with things like calculators, a portable stereo, unpaid bills, and a roll of stamps. So I said, "Well, it looks like you were going to steal some stuff, too, weren't you?" At that point I was sort of indignant and my voice had an accusatory tone, so he sheepishly admitted that he was going to take some stuff, but mainly he was looking for a place to sleep.

So I told him, "Well, you can't stay here," but even as I was saying it, the irony of the situation struck me. I mean, here I was with a vacant house, and here was a guy who needed to sleep somewhere, but I couldn't let him sleep there. It felt like some things in the universe just didn't fit. But I was really curious about how he broke in, so we went outside and he showed me the window he crawled in through. (I thought I'd locked all the windows, but apparently I'd left one open a crack.) He was really apologetic at that point, and he told he had to take down the screen to get in through the window, and he asked me if I wanted him to put it back on. I told him, no, I'd do it the next day. So we walked back inside the house and I closed the window and made sure it was locked.

Then he asked me if I could give him some water, since he was thirsty, so we went into the kitchen. I decided to let him have some apple juice that was lying around in the refrigerator. My refrigerator, by the way, was almost completely empty, since I hadn't been living there, and the only food I had was some garlic and a few lemons left over from when I had the flu and was trying to get rid of a cough. So I told him, "I'd offer you some food, but all I've got are these lemons," but he said that's okay, so I gave him one. Before I knew it, he'd peeled the lemon and bitten into it like it was an orange, and in a few seconds he completely devoured it, so I figured he must have been hungry and I gave him five bucks for some food.

Then I decided to drive him to the nearest freeway on-ramp, so he could hitchhike back to where he came from. So we looked at a map to figure out the best place to go.

When I told people about this whole event a few days later, they said things like, "Bob, how come you were so nice to this guy? You didn't have to be that generous!" I agree, so let me explain. First of all, I guess I'm just nice and generous by nature, but what's also true is that I wanted to get the guy as far from my house as possible. I knew he'd have a tough time thumbing a ride in my neighborhood, and I just wanted to make sure he didn't end up back in my house again after I left.

So, as I drove him to the freeway, he said his name was Bill, and I told him mine was Bob. I asked him how long he'd been without a job or a place to live, and he just said "a while," so that turned out to be a conversational dead-end. Then, about a minute or two later, he asked me if I saw the Super Bowl -- this whole thing took place the week after the Super Bowl -- and I said that I hadn't. Neither had he, so that conversation was sort of stillborn as well. It felt like a failed attempt at male bonding or something. I mean, any two guys should always be able to talk about sports, according to male mythology, but we couldn't. We were quiet for a while and then something dawned on me, so I asked him, "Did you take a pair of my socks?" and he said he did, so I just told him "That's cool" or something like that. We were silent the rest of the way.

After I dropped him off and got back home, I was cleaning up all the stuff that he'd thrown on the floor, and I realized that I couldn't find my spare house keys and car keys. I looked for them everywhere, but after about fifteen minutes, I still couldn't find them so I figured he must have taken them.

I drove back to the on-ramp, which was about a twenty minute drive, but I figured with any luck he'd still be there. And as it turned out, he was. So I asked him if he took the keys and maybe forgot about them, but he said no, he didn't have them. So I drove back home and looked for them again.

It was getting sort of late at night by this time, so the woman whose house I was staying at called me up and asked me if anything was wrong. I told her the whole story and she came over and helped me look for the keys. After about five minutes, we still couldn't find them, so she was convinced that the guy still had them. She kept telling me, "Bob, he's going to come back and break into your house again and take everything valuable." She tried to convince me that we should go back to the on-ramp and get the keys from him, but I told her that he said he didn't have them and that I didn't want to drive back there again. I'd already driven there twice and I was almost out of gas, so she told me, "Okay, I'll drive. And if he's there, you should search his pockets." So we drove back there, and on the way I was thinking, am I going to have to search this guy? Why would he lie about the keys? What's he going to do with them now?

Anyway, we got back to the on-ramp but he wasn't there, so we went back to my house, and she told me me, "Bob, you should change the locks on your house so he can't get back in." I figured there was probably very little chance of that, but I decided to have the locks changed anyway.

I didn't change the locks on my car, though, because I thought it would be too expensive, and I figured that even if the guy did come back, he wasn't too likely to find my car in front of my house, since I was staying somewhere else until the remodeling was done, which at the rate things were going, seemed like it would be approximately never.