Sunday, December 30, 2007

Roller Skates and Fig Leaves

Remember Melanie, that singer back in the '60s and '70s? I never really liked her -- I always thought her songs were childish and annoying, and I didn't really like her voice much either, but I have a good friend who really liked her back in the '70s, and that, as they say, is why they have horse races.

Anyway, there was one Melanie song that I actually did like -- probably because it was so different from all her other songs -- and that song was Lay Down (Candles In The Rain). I never knew what it was called, and I didn't even know that Melanie sang it, but I was visiting some friends of mine last week and don't ask me why, but somehow this song became a topic of conversation, which ultimately led to us downloading and listening to it.

It's a pretty good song, and it made me sort of curious about Melanie, so I looked her up on allmusic.com, which as you probably already know, is one of the best places on the web to find information about your favorite artists, albums, or songs.

Here's an interesting quote from the allmusic.com entry regarding another song by Melanie: 'Her first subsequent single, "Brand New Key" hit number one on the U.S. charts while on its way to becoming a million seller; thanks to its not-so-subtle sexual undertones, the song became a kind of "in" dirty joke in some circles, and was even censored on some radio stations, but it also made Melanie one of the top-selling artists of the year 1971.'

I always thought Brand New Key was childish and annoying, but I never knew it had sexual undertones, not-so-subtle or otherwise. However, maybe sometimes I miss stuff like that, since I tend to take things sort of literally at times, so I decided to look up the lyrics of Brand New Key and see if I could find the sexual undertones.

I'm sorry to say that I couldn't, so I guess they're still too subtle for me. Maybe they'll be more obvious to you. The only lyrics that sounded even vaguely sexual were from the chorus, which is as follows:

Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key
I think that we should get together and try them out you see


I can see how this could be considered sexual, if you understand "brand new pair of roller skates" to be code for "vagina" and "brand new key" to be code for "penis," but I still think it's kind of stretch to call this a "not-so-subtle sexual undertone," especially considering how tame it is in comparison to lyrics from a lot of other songs of that era. But who knows, maybe all those other songs were censored on some radio stations too.

Of course, not all songs with sexual references were censored, at least not on the radio stations that I listened to. For example, consider the following lyrics from Van Morrison's extremely popular Brown-Eyed Girl:

Cast my memory back there, lord,
Sometimes I'm overcome thinking about
Making love in the green grass
Behind the stadium


I must have heard that song a million times in the late '60s, but apparently none of the Top-40 AM radio stations in my broadcast area thought the lyrics "making love in the green grass" were too overtly sexual, because the song was never banned, as far as I know.

There was an alternate version, however, in which the lyrics "making love in the green grass" were substituted with "laughing and running," so maybe there were some radio stations somewhere that wouldn't play the song with the original lyrics.

Interestingly, I hear the alternate, censored version a lot these days. I have digital cable TV at my house, and the service includes a lot of digital music channels. There's an "oldies" channel that I sometimes listen to while working out at home, and that channel plays only the censored version.

I think that's sort of odd. After all, why should a subscription service in the year 2007 be more skittish about the words "making love in the green grass" than an advertiser-supported AM radio station in 1967? It's too simplistic to say we're more prudish today than we were in the '60s, although that may be true in some respects.

The truth is, this sort of thing has been going on throughout the history of humankind. For example, in the '30s, Cole Porter wrote the song I Get a Kick out of You, which was a popular hit of the time, and which today is still considered a classic. But whenever you hear it today, you never hear the verse about cocaine. And centuries before that, people were given the task of taking perfectly good paintings of nudes and covering the genitals and breasts with fig leaves. So as I said, this has been going on for some time now. Maybe one day we'll grow up and stop this sort of idiocy, but I sort of doubt it.

But that isn't really what I wanted to write about. As a matter of fact, I didn't really want to write about anything. But I didn't post anything last week because I was visiting some friends of mine, and I didn't want to go two weeks without posting something, so this is what I ended up with.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Imagination

The first thought that came to me as I was watching the Leiser Brother's film Imagination is that it will never be the in-flight movie on a cross-country plane trip. Nor is it likely to pack the theater at your local multiplex. That's because it isn't so much a movie as it is a personal vision brought to life.

It's not an easy movie to grasp. I had to watch it twice in a row before I felt capable of reviewing it. And I would have watched it a third time, but it was getting late. I don't think I've ever watched a movie twice in one sitting before, which probably means that I liked it, or that I didn't understand it, or possibly both.

I'm not really sure how to review it, so I'll just try to collect my thoughts and write them down in a somewhat coherent manner.

If I said Imagination was a fragmented jumble of sounds and images, and you took that to be some sort of criticism of the film, we'd probably both be wrong. We'd also be right, but we'd mostly be wrong.

Part live action, part Svankmajer-style stop-frame animation, part crayon drawings, part claymation, and part everything else, it seems more like a multimedia work of art than an actual movie. It clearly experiments with the art of film-making, but it does so without becoming an "experimental film."

Watching Imagination reminds you that film is primarily a medium for the eyes, and that the images can do a lot more than simply illustrate a story. The symbolic imagery in Imagination is idiosyncratic and enigmatic, but the film somehow manages to avoid appearing arty and pretentious, except perhaps only briefly. And it doesn't seem particularly surrealistic either, because the bizarre imagery serves a purpose -- it's not there simply to confound or confuse.

Imagination is confusing enough as it is. Unlike most movies, it doesn't tell you a story -- it shows you a story and leaves you to interpret a lot of what you're seeing for yourself. There is a partial narrative -- enough to give you a basic idea of the film's premise and direction -- but nothing is spelled out for you, resulting in a film that is oblique and challenging, and at times almost impenetrable. A lot of people may find it exasperating trying to extract any meaning from its expressionistic non-narrative style of exposition and may criticize it for being deliberately obscure. That's a defensible position, but it's almost like criticizing Finnegan's Wake for being too hard to read.

The movie has its flaws. The weakest moments are during the live-action scenes. The acting is for the most part amateurish and unconvincing, but fortunately, the live action is kept to a minimum.

Imagination is not a conventional movie in any sense, even in its length. The end credits start rolling after a little over an hour, making it too long to be a short and too short to be a feature-length film.

I'm glad that films like this get made, because I like my expectations to be defied from time to time, and I'll keep an eye out for anything else the Leiser Brothers create, but I won't be too surprised if Imagination doesn't become a blockbuster mega-hit. And I won't be too surprised if it doesn't get a very wide distribution either. This movie is probably not for everyone.

But if it does end up playing near you, and if you're drawn to this sort of thing, you should go see it, if only for the experience. Whether you like it or not, you won't easily forget it. I don't know if you'll understand it any more than I did, but if you're worried that you won't, it might help if you forget who you are and imagine instead that you are twin girls -- one almost blind, the other with Asperger's syndrome -- who think with one mind and live in an imaginary world that somehow transcends ordinary reality.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

It Can't Happen Here

Last weekend, while browsing through Google News, I noticed a few reviews for the Sci-Fi channel's three-day mini-series, Tin Man. All four reviews were pretty unfavorable, but for some reason, that didn't keep me from wanting to watch it. I don't actually know why I did want to watch it, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was billed as a "re-imagining" of The Wizard of Oz, or something like that. I think I was mostly just curious to see how they would re-imagine it.

As it turns out, Tin Man wasn't very good or very bad, but I liked it more than the reviews led me to think I would. What I liked best about it is that it stars Zooey Deschanel, who's probably not the best actress in the world, but she's definitely sort of cute, and that counts for a lot when you're watching TV. She's a lot cuter than Judy Garland ever was, but Tin Man still wasn't as good as The Wizard of Oz, and if I had the choice between watching Tin Man one more time and watching The Wizard of Oz twenty more times, I'd definitely pick the latter.

But that's not even what I wanted to talk about. I've mentioned before that I don't watch a lot of commercial TV, and one of the reasons for that is that I don't want to watch a lot of commercials. Actually, watching a lot of different commercials might not be so bad, but watching the same commercials over and over again should probably be considered a form of torture. And watching the six-hour Tin Man mini-series exposed me to a lot of the same commercials over and over again.

They were all pretty bad but only three are still stuck in my mind.

The first one was a KFC commercial in which a couple of buckets of fried chicken, some fattening side orders, a chocolate cake, and a Pepsi "mega-jug" are advertised as everything you need for a family meal. As in most commercials with a "family values" theme, they were selling the idea of a family meal together instead of the stuff that KFC actually sells.

The next commercial was for Kay Jewelers. They actually had a few different commercials, but they all had the same theme, which is that you should spend tons of money on some gold or diamond trinket for the woman you love, ignoring the fact that that expensive little expression of your love wouldn't even exist if it weren't for the exploited and impoverished slave laborers in South Africa and elsewhere.

But the third commercial was the one that annoyed me the most. Visually, it was pretty interesting -- it was actually even sort of fun to watch -- and it didn't have some sappy message like the other two, but I still found it troublesome. It was a commercial for Sirius Radio, and the basic message was that some day you'll be able to get all your news and entertainment from one corporation.

We used to have rules against that sort of thing, but in the past couple of decades we've seen a lot of deregulation of what are technically the public airwaves. And even though there may not be anything wrong with deregulation in general, the problem with deregulation of the mass media is that given enough money, anyone can make sure that theirs is the only voice ever heard, or at least the loudest voice ever heard. We're halfway there already, of course, and if you don't believe me, then you're not listening closely enough.

The problem with one corporate voice controlling the music we listen to, which news stories we hear, which opinions we're exposed to, and what movies and TV shows we can see is that it leads the way to a uniformity of thought. And if a particular corporation happened to be supporting a particular candidate for election, we'd only hear good things about that candidate and bad things about all the others.

Benito Mussolini is credited with saying, "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." So even if getting all your news and entertainment from one corporate source might not sound so bad, fascism probably does sound sort of bad.

But the truth is, to the best of anyone's knowledge, Mussolini never actually said that fascism should actually be called corporatism. Search the web for that quote and you'll turn up thousands of hits, but none of them can cite any writing or speech by Mussolini. And the article on Wikipedia even goes as far as to say that the quote directly contradicts things that Mussolini actually did say about fascism. So he probably never said it, but the only reason we know that is because the web doesn't control speech the way TV and radio and newspapers do. That may change if the people opposed to net neutrality get their way, but until that happens, the web is uncensored.

If you have a single source for news and information, you end up with a one-sided electorate. And a one-sided electorate is an ignorant electorate. And an ignorant electorate is an irresponsible electorate. And an irresponsible electorate is probably not able to vote in its best interests, or even to know what its best interest are, so it votes for what the corporation says are the public's best interests, which coincidentally happen to be the same as the corporation's best interests.

And that's the road to fascism, ladies and gentlemen. Or if not fascism, then some other form of dictatorship. And that's the road we're on, nudged gently along by KFC, Kay Jewelers, and Sirius Radio.

Or maybe not. I don't know. I'm not really political, so I don't think about these things a lot. But it does seem like every year, we have fewer choices, and fewer voices, and less freedom in general, unless we're talking about the freedom to buy products of questionable value that we don't even need in the first place.

I can't do anything about that, but at least I can choose not to watch any more commercial TV for a while. Except maybe if it's a show that has Zooey Deschanel in it.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

No Order

A couple of months ago, a guy I know sent me an email in which he asked which is grammatically correct: "Mean People Produce Little Mean People" or "Mean People Produce Mean Little People."

I told him that they're both grammatically correct, since adjective order isn't specified by rules of grammar.

It was still an interesting question, though, so I told him that there are probably some unofficial rules regarding this sort of thing. For example, you would say "little black book" and "big fat guy" instead of "black little book" and "fat big guy."

In the examples above, the size adjective comes first, so maybe that's one of our unofficial rules. And it looks like other adjectives usually precede the size adjective. For example, "stupid little bitch" sounds more correct than "little stupid bitch" and "mean little people" sounds better than "little mean people."

However, in the sentence "Mean people produce little mean people," the adjectives are deliberately reversed to emphasize a point. And that point, of course, is that if you're mean, your kids are probably going to be mean as well, so don't be so mean.

But then it occurred to me that these unofficial rules aren't always consistent. For example, consider the phrases "big fat guy" and "skinny little guy."

Notice that there's no consistent rule regarding the placement of the {fat | skinny} adjective class with respect to the {big | little} adjective class. (And for the sake of discussion, let's ignore the fact it may be an over-simplification of the complex rules of the English language to mechanically assign adjectives to classes.) However -- and this is actually sort of interesting -- if you read those two phrases aloud, you'll probably put the emphasis on "fat" and "skinny," despite the fact that "fat" occurs second in its phrase and "skinny" occurs first in its phrase. So what does that tell us? That there's some sort of hierarchy that's independent of order?

When things get too confusing for me, I appeal to the wisdom of the web to find out what other people think. And I found two British web sites that deal with adjective order. I mailed the links to the guy I know but he wrote back telling me that one of the sites had an example that violated its own rules. Specifically, it said that age adjectives come before shape adjectives, but the example it used -- "beautiful long curved old red Italian steel racing car" -- clearly has the shape adjective preceding the age adjective.

I wrote him back with the remark, "Stupid little British linguist" (which, incidentally, does not violate the rules on that web site, since it puts opinion or judgment ahead of size, and size ahead of nationality).

However, even though the "opinion or judgment before size" rule applies in phrases like "stupid little British linguist," it doesn't apply to phrases like "big ugly motherfucker."

Of course, the web site had an answer to that, which was to say that "big ugly" isn't subject to the rules because it's a "commonplace term." That sounds like back-pedaling to me, and it doesn't address the issue of how an expression that violates English adjective order could become so commonplace to begin with, especially when its "cute little" counterpart doesn't violate the rules.

So, these unofficial rules don't turn out to be very useful. Maybe the adjective-ordering rule should be treated as nothing more than a rule of thumb. An ugly old little pink English thumb.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Up in the Air

Last week, I mentioned that I was flying out to visit my dad and my sister. I got back yesterday, but my arms are still tired. (And that's what is known as ruining a joke.)

The flights were unremarkable, which is how I like them, but I do have a few observations to make.

First of all, I think it's time to stop calling the seats in the main cabin "economy class." Not only is it somewhat demeaning, it isn't even true. There's nothing economical about them, and they seem to get less economical with every passing year. Let's go back to calling it "coach." It doesn't really mean anything in this context, but at least it isn't misleading.

For years and years -- decades, even -- people have enjoyed complaining about in-flight meals. And with good reason. With rare exception, airline food makes all other fast food seem like haute cuisine. The airlines must have finally gotten wise to this, so they haven't served meals on cross-country flights in years. You can still buy them, but I don't know who in their right mind would ever do such a thing.

The check-in process has improved. I remember when you had to wait in a long line just to get your boarding pass. Then maybe ten or so years ago, they introduced self-check-in terminals. These were great at first, because as with all new technologies, people were initially intimidated by them, so there was never a line and you could just walk up to the terminal and print out your boarding pass. Unfortunately, as the years passed, people lost their fear of these things, but they still had trouble using them. I don't know why -- it's a ridiculously simple process -- but I'm not a moron, so I can never hope to understand what made so many people so perplexed about them. The other problem with the self-check-in terminals was that they didn't call out "Next!" when they became available. I remember one time getting stuck a few people behind some guy who was just standing at the head of the line, despite the fact that there were a couple of self-check-in terminals available.

Of course, now they have online check-in, which allows you to print out your boarding pass on your home computer before you even get to the airport. This is great, but they don't print the gate number on the boarding pass, so you have to find that out when you get to the airport. That isn't normally a problem, but one of my flights wasn't listed for some reason, so I had to get in the customer service line and ask the guy where my flight was. The problem turned out to be that United Airlines occupied two terminals at this particular airport, and the terminals didn't list the flights that were leaving from the other terminal. Fortunately, the two terminals were adjacent, so it wasn't that long a walk.

But why are the flights always listed on the monitors by destination rather than by flight number? Does anyone else find this annoying, or am I just more numerically-oriented than most people? There might be half a dozen flights to Washington DC, for example, but each flight has a unique flight number. So if the flights were sorted by flight number rather than by destination, it would be easier to find your flight, and things would probably go a lot faster.

Let's see, what else? Well, three or more ounces of toothpaste is still considered a terrorist threat, of course, and so are feet with shoes on them. Things would go a lot faster if we weren't required to remove our shoes before passing through the security gate and then put them back on on the other side. Unfortunately, ever since that guy tried to board a plane with a shoe-bomb a few years ago, everyone has to go through the shoe-removal ritual. I'm just glad no one ever tried to sneak a bomb aboard a plane in his underwear. If they made us strip down to our underwear before going through the security gates, things would really slow down.

By the way, I talked a lot last week about how I don't like having to communicate with computers using my vocal cords, but I'm well-aware that in the future, man-machine interaction will generally be more intuitive. This means that we'll be doing a lot of talking to computers and they'll be doing a lot of talking to us. I really don't have a problem with this -- what I don't like is being forced to talk to the computer on its terms.

When you interact with your home computer, you're usually telling it what to do. You tell it to delete a file, go to a certain web page, send an email to someone, or display some pornography you just downloaded. So telling a computer something like, "Open the pod bay doors, HAL" is fine, since it preserves the master/servant relationship (as long as the computer doesn't reply with something like, "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"), but when you're talking to an airline reservation system, the computer is basically telling you what to do. It inverts the relationship. I think that's sort of degrading.

And this isn't really related to anything, but while I was visiting my dad, I saw a woman who had a disproportionately large rear end. While describing her to my dad, I realized it was one of the few times in my life I'd ever used the word steatopygian in a conversation. And then, a couple of days later at my sister's house, I happened to mention something about this to her, and she told me I should use the word steatopygian in my blog. I told her I would, even though I wasn't quite sure how I'd work it in.

Of course, as words of this sort go, I happen to think that callipygian is a much prettier word -- not only because of what it means but also because of the way it sounds. It sounds beautiful and lyrical and it has a nice cadence. Unfortunately, you hardly ever get to hear it, because hardly anyone ever says it. But fortunately, you can say it yourself any time you want. As a matter of fact, go ahead and say it a few times right now: Callipygian. Callipygian. Callipygian.

Okay, now back to my flights. As I said, they were pretty uneventful, but different types of planes have different things to annoy you. On my flight back, each seat had its own tiny little LCD screen. I left mine off, and I could barely see the image on the screen of the person sitting next to me. But on the flight to my dad's place, we were literally forced to watch TV, or at least be made aware of its constant presence. They couldn't force us to listen, but there was no way to avoid watching them. Where I was sitting, I could see about eight or ten TV screens suspended from the ceiling. I could look away, but whenever the image changed, the brightness changed, and it was impossible to ignore. Even when you closed your eyes, the change in the brightness level was noticeable and distracting. And of course, if you decided to close your eyes anyway, it only made it that much more difficult to try to read anything.

All the flights were full, except for the flight back. I could have moved across the aisle and had two seats all to myself, but I didn't really need two seats. The only thing I cared about was that the seat in front of me was empty, so I didn't have to worry about the person in front of me tilting his seat back. As you know, such people should be shot. Since I didn't have this to worry about, my mind was free to roam anywhere I allowed it to.

One of the things that popped into my mind is that in all the flying I've done, I've never once seen anyone use an air-sickness bag. But if you dig around in that pouch in back of the seat in front of you, you're sure to find one. I'm not complaining about this, but I am sort of curious about how many people get so nauseous on a flight that they end up throwing up into a paper bag. Maybe flights are a lot smoother than they were when the air-sickness bag was invented, or maybe we've evolved so quickly that the gene for air-sickness is no longer present in our DNA. In any event, I've never seen anyone use an air-sickness bag, not even back when they still served meals on airplanes.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Friendly Machines

I guess I don't like machines to act like people.

I'm flying out today to visit my dad for a few days, then I'm taking a flight to visit my sister and her family for the rest of the week. Then I'm flying back home.

I'm not too wild about flying. It's not that I'm afraid the plane will crash and everyone on board will tumble to their deaths -- it's more that I don't like being crammed into a seat and having to worry that the person in front of me will try to tilt his seat back, thus robbing me of a big chunk of the small amount of space that has been allotted to me.

I mentioned once before that the ATMs at my old bank used to display a message at the end of each transaction stating "It was a pleasure serving you." The ATMs at my new bank don't say things like that, but they do enforce a sort of friendly informality when you deal with them. Any yes/no question the ATM asks me, such as "Would you like to see your current balance?" I have to answer by pressing one of two buttons. One of the buttons is labeled "Sure" and the other is labeled "No, thanks." That's not the way I want to talk to my machines. I want to keep the transactions on a more professional level. I want to be able to tell the ATM "Yes" or "No."

Maybe I'm making too big a deal of this, but understand that this is just the thin end of the wedge. Human civilization won't progress as long as we persist in the childish fantasy that our machines are capable of caring about us or being friendly with us.

Anyway, I tried booking my flight online, but I couldn't get all of the flights I wanted. That was probably my fault, since I sort of waited until the last minute to book the flight, if by "the last minute" you mean "a month and a half."

A month and a half seems like plenty of time, but it isn't. A few years ago, it used to be more than enough time, but in today's fast-paced world, it just isn't enough. So the only flight I could get from my dad's place to my sister's was at 6:00 a.m., which would have been inconvenient for everyone. There were other flights available, but in order to book one of them I would have had to pay an extra $100 or so.

That didn't seem right to me, so I decided to call the airline and speak to a representative. I didn't expect to speak to a representative right away, of course -- I expected to first have to navigate my way through a maze of automated menus by punching a series of buttons on my telephone.

I don't mind automated menus one bit, by the way. I did at first, but they've been around for so long that by now they're just a part of life. As a matter of fact, I'm sometimes surprised when I call some company and a person answers.

The thing is, to navigate through the airline's menu system, I couldn't simply hit the appropriate buttons on my telephone -- I actually had to speak to the computer, which was annoying. Making us talk to computers is a way of forcing us to participate in the delusion that computers are human in some ways, and I resent having to participate in a delusion I don't even believe in.

Every time the computer wanted to acknowledge my response, it told me, "Okay, I got it." I found that sort of annoying, since the computer doesn't really "get" anything. Why does it have to be so casual and idiomatic with me?

It wouldn't have been so bad, except that sometimes the computer had difficulty understanding something I said. It didn't matter how clearly I enunciated it -- the computer always responded with "Sorry, I didn't get that. Please repeat it."

Well, so much for the Turing Test, right? But the computer's inability to understand a simple phrase, even after I repeated it several times, reminded me of one time about ten or twelve years ago when I was waiting to be treated by a chiropractor and I happened to overhear something the receptionist said. She had just gotten off the phone with a patient and was telling someone else, "That lady was a real bitch, so I made her spell out everything -- her name, her street, everything."

Anyway, after the computer finally gave up on me, it allowed me to talk to a human being. This particular human being was a woman in India, and I had almost as much trouble understanding her as the computer had had understanding me. But we worked through all that and she was able to book me on a later flight. I had to pay an extra $100 or so, but next time I'll know better and book my flight a few months in advance.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Equisetum Hyemale

I didn't post anything last week, and this week I'd like to make up for it by posting something twice as interesting as one of my usual posts, but unfortunately, I don't have anything that interesting to tell you.

I didn't write anything last week because I've been too busy proof-reading a collection of short stories I wrote in the '80s and '90s. I finished earlier this week, and I submitted the manuscript to iUniverse just a few days ago. I'm going to have to proof the manuscript again when they send me the galleys, and even though these are stories that you can read over and over again without ever getting tired of, I'm actually starting to get a little tired of reading them. But that's only because I'm reading them word by word, looking for typos. That can sort of drain you after a while. But reading them for purely for enjoyment is a completely different activity which not only will not drain you, it will actually elevate your mood.

If you've ever looked at my web site, you'll know that I was originally planning on publishing this collection of stories in two volumes, but I decided I'd rather publish one big volume than two little ones. I think the book will have around 70 stories or so. That sounds like a lot, but they're all pretty short (which is why they're called short stories). I put what I consider my best stories in the collection, but I also decided to include some of the not-so-great ones. Maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to do, but I did it to give the book a sort of balance. I mean, if you read 70 absolutely great stories in a row, you might be overwhelmed to the point of madness, but if every now and then you read a few that aren't so great, it might prevent you from experiencing any sort of unwanted delirium.

And with that, I end the shameless self-promotion portion of this post. Unfortunately, I haven't got much else to say this week. If I sat here long enough, I could probably think of something, but the truth is, I've got other things to do today. For example, I have to plant some horsetail reed. I bought some last weekend but I didn't have time to plant it. So that's one of the things I'm planning on doing today.

If you don't know what horsetail reed is, don't feel bad, since you've probably seen it without knowing what it's called. I've seen a lot of it over the past few months without knowing what it was called. It looks like thin green bamboo stalks, except it isn't bamboo. I don't even know if it's related to bamboo. I don't know why it's called horsetail reed either, since it doesn't look like a horse's tail. I'm not crazy about horses, and I never really have been, but I've seen enough of them to know that their tails don't look like thin green stalks of bamboo. So whatever else you can say about horsetail reed, you can't say it's particularly aptly named.

It's not exactly unique in that respect, of course. You're probably familiar with the plant commonly known as the cattail, which doesn't particularly look like a cat's tail. If you use your imagination, however, I suppose you might see some kind of similarity between cattail and a cat's tail. Especially if your vision isn't that great. But no matter how bad your vision, or how great your imagination, you would never confuse horsetail reed with a horse's tail.

But I am planting some nonetheless. The tag says it should be planted in areas that get full sun, but I'm going to plant it where it will only get partial sun. That ought to be enough, the way I figure it, but the horsetail reed might figure otherwise, so I hope it doesn't die on me after a few months. It seems like pretty resilient stuff, though, so I'm not too worried, but time will tell, as it always does.

I think I'll be okay, since I don't necessarily believe everything I read, especially when it's directly contradicted by something else I read. On one web site, for example, it says that horsetail reed will turn yellow in full sun and that it does best in half-day sun. So that's what I choose to believe, because it's more in line with what I want to believe.

This same web site, by the way, mentions that horsetail reed was eaten by dinosaurs, and that it contains ingredients that are used in cholesterol-lowering drugs. It gives a few other interesting facts as well -- for example, that horsetail reed has been used throughout human history for scrubbing kitchen utensils. That's sort of interesting, but I'm not sure I believe it, since I'm not sure I believe that kitchens and kitchen utensils have been with us since the dawn of human history. If I can speculate, however, I think it's pretty safe to say that whatever killed the dinosaurs, it probably wasn't clogged arteries due to high cholesterol levels.

And that brings us to the end of this week's post. I hope you found it interesting. But if you didn't, let me know, and maybe I'll make up for it next week by writing something that's three times as good as one of my usual posts.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Taking Back the Dog

I'm sure you heard about the little controversy surrounding the dog that Ellen DeGeneres adopted and then gave away to a family when it turned out the dog didn't get along too well with her cats. After skimming through a few articles about it, I decided that even though DeGeneres violated the terms of the signed contract, the pet adoption agency overreacted in demanding that the dog be returned to them. Although they were within their rights to do so, they could have handled things a little differently.

This little incident has gotten a lot of media coverage, and in every article I saw, it was always mentioned in passing that the owners of the pet adoption agency have received death threats for insisting on taking back the dog.

Look, I like dogs just as much as anyone else, and I already said that the adoption agency overreacted, but I don't feel strongly enough about it to want to threaten anybody's life. Try as I might, I just can't imagine wanting someone to die over this. But since the articles mentioned death threats -- that is, more than just one death threat -- it makes me think there are probably a lot of nut-cases running around loose in this country.

Okay, maybe they're not running around, and maybe they're not loose -- maybe they're sitting home in front of their TVs and fuming about this grave injustice -- but the issue of concern for me is that since these death threats were always mentioned only in passing, whoever wrote the articles apparently didn't think they were that big a deal.

Maybe I'm living in some kind of delusional world where people are generally rational and sensible about things that don't even affect them, but to me, threatening to kill someone over a relatively minor incident seems a little over the top.

Of course, I'm not the kind of guy who makes death threats, so maybe I'm not qualified to comment on this. But I just don't get that angry. Or at least, I haven't yet. And I don't expect to in the future. But if I did, I think I'd probably just go out and kill the person who was making me angry. I don't think I'd waste my time making threats.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Za

This probably isn't going to be a very interesting post. I had a few ideas floating around in my mind, but I wasn't too excited about any of them, so I decided to pick the least interesting one to write about today.

When the movie "Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny" came out last year, I had no interest in seeing it. As an actor, Jack Black is good at what he does, but what he does gets pretty tiresome pretty quickly. Besides that, the reviews weren't exactly great either -- the general consensus seemed to be that with its juvenile humor and bare-minimum plot, the movie would only appeal to die-hard Tenacious D fans.

I'm not a die-hard Tenacious D fan. I really liked the first two 15-minute "Tenacious D" episodes they had on HBO in the late '90s, and whenever Jack Black appeared on "Mr. Show with Bob and David," it was clear that he had a lot of talent. So a year or two after the first two "Tenacious D" episodes, I was eager to see the four new episodes, but they were a big disappointment. And nothing they've done since then is much better. So as far as I'm concerned, those first two episodes are probably their best work.

Anyway, one good thing about all the bad movie reviews is that when I finally got around to seeing it on cable, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It even had a few laugh-out-loud moments, although I don't remember what they were. As a matter of fact, I don't remember a lot about the movie, but one thing that stands out in my mind is that one of the characters referred to a pizza as a "za."

There's nothing earth-shaking about that, of course -- hardly enough for me to recommend that you rush out and buy the DVD. It's not even the first movie in which I've heard "pizza" shortened to "za." I don't remember what the other movie was, but that's not important. What's important is that twenty years ago, I invented that word myself.

I pronounced it zuh instead of zah, and it was in a private conversation with someone I'm no longer in touch with, so I have no way of proving that I invented it. You'll just have to take my word for it, but if you doubt me, it doesn't matter, since it's really not all that important. But just so you'll know, sometime back in 1987 or so, a friend of mine and I were planning on getting something to eat and then seeing a movie. I don't remember most of our pre-dinner conversation that day, but part of it went something like this:

Him: What do you feel like getting?
Me: I don't know. How about a zuh?
Him: What's that?
Me: A pizza.

He thought it was pretty funny, and we did end up getting a pizza. I remember that, although I don't remember what movie we saw. But that's not the point. The point is that I invented the word, so I notice every time someone else uses it, even though I've never since used the word myself.

One of the Wikipedia definitions for "za" is "A U.S. colloquial term for pizza," so the word obviously enjoys some popularity. At this point, it's still uncommon, but maybe one day in the future it will spread into the mainstream and Italian restaurants will have a "Za" section on their menus.

I can't say I mind that other people are using a word I invented without giving me credit for it -- that's just the way language is. Original or clever phrases aren't copyrightable, so you can't register them as intellectual property. And even if you could, it wouldn't be a very good idea, since it would effectively prevent people from using those phrases, making them short-lived and quickly forgotten.

So I have no complaints. Besides, it's quite possible that someone else independently thought of the term. You know what they say about how great minds think alike, so maybe there's another great mind somewhere out there. And beyond that, the word "za" isn't really all that interesting -- it's hardly something to be proud of.

But what about the guy who first uttered the phrase "Fuck you" or "Bite me" or any of the other popular expressions of our time? Those expressions probably get uttered millions of times every day. How do you think he feels every time someone uses the phrase he invented without giving him the proper credit? Is he proud of his phrase nonetheless? Does he wish he could get some recognition for it? Or is it enough for him that his phrase became so widespread, so deeply ingrained in our popular culture?

The thing is, we'll probably never know who invented these phrases. Maybe the person who coined the phrase "Fuck you" died long ago in obscurity. We'll never know. But even if he's still alive, he will eventually die, and when he does, any acknowledgment of his creation will die with him. Whatever other accomplishments may be listed in his obituary, "originator of the phrase 'Fuck you'" will probably not be one of them.

It's an interesting thing to ponder. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe it's only interesting to me. But if it isn't all that interesting to you, keep in mind that I warned you about today's post in advance.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

"Don't Tase Me, Bro!"

It seems like ever since that unfortunate incident at the September 17th speech given by John Kerry, "Don't tase me, bro!" has become a popular culture catch-phrase. I did a Google search on the phrase and got almost a half a million hits. And they weren't links to the news story either. You can watch various different remixes on YouTube, or you can buy the "Don't tase me, bro!" T-shirt of your choice from one of the many online T-shirt vendors.

I can't say I'm surprised that the plea uttered in earnest by some poor soul just moments before he was subjected to unnecessary pain at the hands of an undisciplined police force somehow became the slogan du jour -- or that less than a month later, it's already on its way to being passé -- but that's not the first thing I thought of when I saw how popular the phrase had become.

The first thing I thought of is that "tase" isn't even be a word. Or if it is, it shouldn't be.

I don't mean to pick on the guy who said it, since he was obviously under a lot of stress -- being physically restrained by the police and then forced to endure severe electric shocks tends to have that effect on people. And he was relatively young, so maybe he didn't know any better -- maybe he just generalized what he knew about the English language and decided that a taser is something that tases.

But a taser isn't something that tases. According to Wikipedia, the word "taser" is actually an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle" -- Tom Swift being the fictional character of countless teenage adventure books. Okay, so it's not a very good acronym -- it actually sounds like someone came up with the word first, maybe to rhyme with "laser," and then tried to invent an acronym for it -- but that's sort of beside the point.

The point, of course, is that the use of "tase" as a verb obviously comes from back-formation. There's nothing wrong with back-formation in and of itself -- a lot of words are created that way -- but they don't usually sound as awkward and clumsy as "tase." So I'm not saying that people shouldn't use the word -- I'm just saying that if they do, they'll sound uneducated and stupid.

The taser has apparently been around since 1969, but the laser is even older -- it was invented in the '50s, but the research for it started a long time before that.

The word "laser" is an acronym as well, as I'm sure you already knew. It stands for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation." So just as a taser isn't something that tases, a laser isn't something that lases. Lasers have been around longer than many people have, so I thought we all understood this simple fact, but apparently I was wrong. I've seen the use of the verb "to lase" recently and it doesn't make me happy. As a matter of fact, it makes me think people are getting stupider every day.

Two or three weeks ago, I read an article about how when President Bush gives a speech, some of the cue cards that are prepared for him have certain words spelled out phonetically. It's not as bad as it sounds -- the phonetic spelling is generally reserved for names of foreign dignitaries, whose names anyone might have difficulty pronouncing (although I can't help thinking that if someone had phonetically spelled out the word "nuclear" for him when he was a kid, maybe he wouldn't have so much trouble with the word today).

With Bush's popularity at an all-time low, I probably wouldn't make too many enemies by saying bad things about him, but that isn't my purpose here today -- especially if what I read in the article is true. According to one of his spokespeople, many United States presidents have apparently relied on phonetic spelling to prevent from mispronouncing certain foreign words and names.

Okay. While you're sitting there imagining various recent U.S. presidents reading phonetic cue cards as though they were in the first grade, I'll tell you about another article I saw. I didn't read it -- I only saw the headline -- so maybe I shouldn't judge this so harshly, but apparently it's extremely important for anyone considering running for president to appear not on news shows or in live debates, but on talk shows such as the one hosted by Tyra Banks. On the front page of my newspaper last Saturday, there was a picture of presidential hopeful Barack Obama on the set of the Tyra Banks show.

Tyra Banks, as we all know, is a former supermodel. So it makes perfect sense that any serious presidential candidate would have to appear on her show, or on a show just like it. Where else can the serious issues facing our country -- and for that matter, our planet -- be intelligently and thoughtfully discussed?

Since I don't watch that much mainstream TV, I never knew that appearing on talk shows such as the one hosted by Tyra Banks was so important, although I do happen to know that Fred Thompson formally announced his candidacy on Jay Leno's show. This seems sort of weird to me, but maybe it's because I'm so ignorant when it comes to politics. If I had appeared on television with Tyra Banks when I was running for president, I might not have had to withdraw from the race so early in my campaign.

I'll know better next time, if I choose to run again. But even if I don't run again, it still might be fun appearing on the Tyra Banks show. I don't know what I'd talk to her about -- maybe I'd get all tongue-tied gazing into her supermodel eyes -- but I'll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. Which I probably never will.

Or maybe by the 2012 election, we'll have come to our senses and we'll realize that presidential elections are more than just popularity contests. Maybe we'll require more from our candidates by then.

I'm kidding, of course. Things will only get worse. I can't say how bad they'll get, but I know they'll get worse.

Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about the "dumbing down" of the human race. She said she didn't think all of humanity was getting dumber, although she agreed that it seemed to be true for some segments of the population. If she's right, we can probably add two new segments: American presidential candidates and the American voting public.

But as much as I'd like to, I'm not going to add the segment of the population that thinks "tase" and "lase" are verbs. My guess is that in 10 or 20 years, we'll all be talking that way.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Push of a Button

They're trying something new at my little neighborhood movie theater. I think of it as my little neighborhood movie theater because it's in my neighborhood, but it's neither little nor mine -- it's a thirteen-screen member of the vast entertainment empire known as the Regal Entertainment Group.

Before it became a member of Regal Entertainment Group, they did something that I always found annoying. During the movie, one of the employees would walk down the aisle with what is basically a flashlight with a red filter on it, obviously looking for something but I was never sure what. It was distracting and pointless, but I learned to get used to it.

They've continued that practice in the years since it was acquired by Regal, but just recently they announced a new program, which is available to Regal Crown Club members. And in case you're interested, to become a Regal Crown Club member, all you need to do is fill out an application. As a card-carrying Regal Crown Club member, each time you visit a Regal theater, you will earn points which can be redeemed for things such as free movie tickets.

Anyway, the new program is called the Regal Guest Response System, and rather than describe it to you, I'll just quote from the little flier I got: Members carry a paging device into their auditorium and if there is a disturbance or reason to alert management, help is only a push of the button away.

Okay, I hate disturbances in the auditorium as much as anyone else -- possibly even more so -- and I have to admit that quietly pushing a button to summon a theater employee is a lot less confrontational than dealing with rude audience members yourself, but I'm still not entirely comfortable with this idea. Maybe it's because it seems like the kind of thing that could only be thought up by someone with a totalitarian police-state mentality: Observe your neighbors and report any suspicious activities to the authorities.

But that's not why I'm not signing up. I'm not signing up because I'm afraid I'll abuse the system. I prefer absolute total silence from my fellow movie-goers, so I'd probably end up using it all the time. As a matter of fact, if instead of a paging device they provided me with a taser, a stun gun, or any other means of delivering electric shocks, I'd probably use that as well. I might use it even if it only looked like you were going to start talking.

Well, that's probably an exaggeration, but I really don't like it when people talk in movie theaters. If I don't hear a line of dialogue, that's about the same thing to me as not reading every sentence of a novel. The way I figure it, someone went to the trouble of writing it, so we should make the effort to read it. Or listen to it.

But people who talk in theaters aren't the only problem. People who make too much noise when they eat are just as bad. By the way, here's an idea: If you want to stuff your mouth full of crap, why don't you do it before the movie begins? That way you can silently watch the movie while your digestive system does its best to extract something nutritive from that huge tub of popcorn you just shoveled down your throat.

And when I say "you," I don't mean you, of course -- I mean the unsophisticated and ill-bred masses who don't read this blog.

So I'm not going to take part in the Regal Guest Response System, but I'm sure a lot of people will. And it will be interesting to see what sorts of things cause them to push the button. Of course, every time someone pushes the button, a theater employee will enter the auditorium, probably armed with one of those flashlights with a red filter. And that will be just as annoying as whatever the original disturbance was.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Time Flies Like an Arrow

Back when I was in college, probably in the first Linguistics class I ever took, the old saying "Time flies like an arrow" was used as an example of syntactic ambiguity, since the sentence can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Of course, long before Chomsky developed his theories about transformational grammars (in which the distinction is made between deep structure and surface structure), Groucho Marx was already aware of the syntactic ambiguity that can arise from only looking at the surface structure, and it led him to make his immortal statement, "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

I'll return to the topic of fruit flies in a moment, but first I want to talk about other household pests.

First, let's direct our attention toward the ant. The ant is tireless and industrious and humble, but it can also be a pain in the butt. As you may recall, before I had my retaining wall built, I had an intermittent problem with ants. Because my house was built into a hill, and because that hill was heavily populated with ants and bugs and other tiny creatures, whenever the rain came and soaked the hill, or whenever the temperature rose too high for the ants to bear, they took refuge in my house by crawling through a bathroom window.

I assumed that after I excavated the hill, the ants would find a new place to live, and the next time it got too hot or too wet for them, they'd find some other place to go, since they would no longer be anywhere near my bathroom window. It made perfect sense to me, and perhaps it makes perfect sense to you as well, but it didn't make any sense at all to the ants, because a week or two ago, during the apex of a heat wave, I noticed some ants in my bathroom near the window. I went outside, armed with a can of ant spray and expecting to find a line of ants crawling up the wall. I was fully prepared to murder every last one of them, and the only thing that stopped me was that once I got outside, I couldn't find any ants. I have no explanation for this, which means it can only be magic.

The ants left on their own accord, but a little while later I had a new problem on the other side of the house: A tiny swarm of fruit flies had invaded my kitchen. And this prompts me to ask, what's the deal with fruit flies anyway? I imagine their name comes from their attraction to fruit, and they certainly do seem attracted to it, but I've never actually seen them eating any fruit, or for that matter, even touching any fruit. A lot of them just hover around the fruit until they get tired, and then they rest on my counter top.

So that should make it pretty easy to get rid of them, you might think. If they like fruit so much, all you have to do is hide most of the fruit in your refrigerator or somwehere else they have no access to, and then walk outside your house with an overripe banana or orange. They will follow you outdoors, you can leave the piece of fruit for them, and then you can walk back inside your house.

It sounds simple, but I didn't even try it, because most of the airborne fruit flies in my kitchen weren't hovering around any fruit. They were just hovering wherever they pleased, as though they were completely indifferent to fruit of any sort. So I knew that attempting to lure them away like the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin once did with rats would be an exercise in futility.

So I decided to kill them instead, by spraying them with a can of Lysol household disinfectant. I didn't know I even had a can -- I don't remember ever buying it, so it's probably ten or twenty years old, but it does the trick. Of course, it smells awful, so I had to turn on a fan and open a window and leave the kitchen until the smell had dissipated, but when I returned, most of the fruit flies were dead. Every now and then I'd find a few who were still among the living, but a quick shot of Lysol soon dispatched them to the world of their fallen comrades.

So now you're probably wondering how I can be so callous about taking dozens of lives without feeling the slightest bit of guilt. And I'm not just talking about the fruit flies. I unreservedly admit that I've also killed my share of ants and rats and mice. But the truth is, I do feel bad about it. I'd much rather not have to kill fruit flies and ants and rodents, but it seems to be the only way to get rid of them.

So as you might guess, I don't consider myself a strong advocate of animal rights. And I never really was, not even during my decade or so of near-veganism. The truth is, animals don't really have any rights. I'm not saying it's okay to engage them in dogfights or cockfights, or to test cosmetics and medicines on them, or to beat them or starve them to death, because all those things are pretty reprehensible. But you have to draw the line somewhere. I have a feeling even the most vociferous animal rights advocate would call an exterminator if he found out his house was being eaten by termites.

But the real issue for me is, why should we grant the animals rights that they don't even grant each other? If you don't want to eat fish, for example, because you think it's cruel, that's perfectly okay. But the fish don't seem to have any problem with it since they eat fish all the time. All over the world, animals kill each other for food. So even though I still don't eat meat, I never thought there was anything morally wrong about it.

And yet I still feel sort of bad about killing the fruit flies. I don't like to kill living things -- I'd much rather see them thrive and grow, but if they want to stay healthy, they should learn to stay off of my property, because I know I will kill again.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Better Late Than Never

You've probably heard the expression "Better late than never" a million times. I just checked Google and I got about 1,710,000 hits for that phrase. In contrast, I only got about 19,600 hits for "Better never than late," so clearly "Better late than never" is the more popular phrase, and presumably the more popular sentiment as well.

In general, I suppose it's better to be late with something than to never do it at all. For example, a while ago, I bought something at Amazon. I wasn't happy with it so I wanted to return it. Normally Amazon is pretty good about returns, but they have a policy that says if the packaging has been destroyed, you can't return it for a full refund.

I'm normally very careful about preserving the packaging, but in this case, the product came in what's commonly known as a "blister pack," which means that it was essentially sandwiched in between two pieces of clear plastic that have been fused together. As I'm sure you're aware, there's no way to get your hands on the product without destroying this sort of packaging to some extent.

So I called Amazon, explained the situation to them, and asked them how much they would refund. After looking at my files, the man I spoke with told me that because I'm such a valuable customer, they would refund the entire amount, and that he would mail me a return label that was coded in such a way that when they received the package, they'd know to refund the full amount.

The only problem was, the label never arrived. I was told that it might take a week to arrive, and I was waiting patiently, but after ten days I decided to call Amazon again. This time, the person I talked to looked into my file and saw no indication that a label had ever been mailed. He apologized and told me he'd create a return label immediately and he'd email me a link to it as soon as he was done.

Half an hour later, when I hadn't received his email, I called Amazon again. The guy I spoke to this time said he'd send me the link at once. And he was true to his word, because I received the email at once. I clicked on the link, opened up the PDF file it pointed to, printed it out, slapped it on the package, and dropped it off to be shipped.

A couple of weeks later, I got an email from Amazon informing me that they received the package I'd sent them, and that I should expect to receive my refund as soon as they were through processing my request.

A month later, when I still hadn't received the refund, I decided to give Amazon a call. The woman I spoke to looked up my case and told me that someone had decided that the refund amount I was entitled to was zero, as in zero dollars and zero cents. That, she explained, is why I hadn't received my refund yet. Fortunately, by looking a little deeper into the case, she also saw that I'd been promised a full refund, so she issued a full refund on the spot.

That whole experience was sort of frustrating, but I was happy with the resolution, so it falls into the "Better late than never" category.

But not everything does. For example, have you ever been driving behind somebody who refuses to use his turn signal until he begins making the turn? I see this so often, but it will never make sense to me. If you're in the left-turn lane, I assume you're going to a left turn, but since you didn't signal when you changed into the left-turn lane, and since your signal was off all during the time you were in the left-turn lane waiting for the light to turn green, why bother to turn it on at the moment you begin to make the left turn? It defies all logic and reason. So this falls into the "Better never than late" category.

I have another example, but it isn't very good, so I'll skip it and go on to the example after that. As you may know if you've ever looked at my web site, I've written and published a few books. I self-published them because when I had an agent, she wasn't able to interest any publishers in the manuscripts, and when she retired I wasn't able to find a new agent. That's all ancient history -- I think the last time I contacted an agent was around 2002 -- so imagine my surprise when I got a rejection later from an agent just a few weeks ago. To her credit, she did apologize for not responding sooner, but I really wondered why she bothered to respond at all. Five years had gone by, so it's not like I was anxiously waiting to hear from her. As a matter of fact, I didn't even remember that I'd ever even contacted her. It also occurred to me that maybe if she stopped trying to answer all her five-year-old letters, she might have some time to answer her more recent letters. So this is another "Better never than late" example.

By the way, if you're interested, I'm currently putting together a collection of short stories. It should be published sometime before the year is over. The stories were all written in the '80s and '90s, and even though I think my writing has matured a lot since then, some of these stories are pretty good. As a matter of fact, they're very good. Not every story in the collection is that great -- some of them are merely amusing -- but it's still going to be an interesting collection of short fiction, so I'd buy a copy if I were you. But I'm not you, of course, so you'll probably have to buy a copy for yourself.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

You Say 'Tomato'

Ever since personalized license plates were introduced sometime in the late '70s, millions of people have struggled to express their thoughts in seven letters and numbers. This may seem like a challenge, but sometimes it can be done very easily. For example, I used to drive a 1978 blue Honda Accord, and I thought about getting a license plate that said BLUE CAR. I never did, for reasons I won't go into here other than to say that I'm not egocentric enough to want a personalized license plate (although it could be argued that a license plate that says BLUE CAR isn't so much "personalized" as it is "automobilized," but given the extent to which some people become emotionally attached to their cars, perhaps the two terms are almost synonymous in some cases).

I'll never get a personalized license plate, but every year a lot of people do, and since they can't always convey their messages in seven alphanumeric characters, they are often forced into using abbreviations and phonetic spelling.

I have no problem with this, but I think that people who resort to phonetic spelling should at least understand the rules of English phonology and spelling. I'm referring in particular to the incorrect use of the letter Y to represent the "long i" sound in the middle of a word.

As far as I'm aware, the letter Y behaves pretty much like the letter I, and for that matter, like all vowels in the Roman Alphabet. Between two consonants, it has the "short" sound, unless there's a vowel after the second consonant. There are exceptions, of course -- sometimes the vowel has the "short" sound even when there's a vowel following the second consonant, but I can't think of any words in which a vowel between two consonants has a "long" sound unless there's another vowel following the second consonant. (There may be examples of such words, and you're welcome to let me know of any you can think of, but words of this sort are still the exception, not the rule.)

So, for example, if your license plate reads PRTY TYM, you should be aware that most people with half a brain or more would pronounce this as "party tim" and not "party time," just as they would pronounce the words "pseudonym" and "rhythm" with the "short i" sound.

But this is a very prevalent mistake, which leads me to believe that many people with personalized license plates have less than half a brain. I think I've seen this misuse of the letter Y every year since the personalized license plate was first introduced.

We probably wouldn't have problems like this if English were spelled more phonetically. In a post I made a few months ago about Sarah Silverman's mispronunciation of the word "pubes," somebody left me a comment in which he linked to his web site on which he proposes that we adopt a system of phonetic spelling system for English.

I hate to hear people mispronounce the word "pubes" as much as anyone else, and I'm sure you cringe just as much as I do when you see the letter Y used to represent the "long i" sound on personalized license plates, but I have to say I'm not all that hot on the idea of changing our spelling system.

Maybe it would be a lot simpler if everything were spelled the way it's pronounced, but it would also give rise to several problems. The biggest question is, whose pronunciation do we use? For example, the world "either" has two very common pronunciations (EE-ther and EYE-ther), so how should that word be spelled?

A common phonetic system assumes a common pronunciation, but we haven't got anything like that. For example, a Southerner with a drawl might elongate the word "well" into a two-syllable "wail," and someone from Boston might pronounce "Harvard" as "Hawvud." These people might take issue with what a lot of other people would consider a phonetic spelling.

A phonetic spelling system gets even more complicated when you consider how much British and American pronunciations differ. And as you probably already know, most of the people who speak English don't even live in what we think of as English-speaking countries (such as the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and Australia.) The population of India is close to a billion, and most Indian kids learn to speak English in school. People also speak English throughout Africa and the Caribbean, and if every country adapted a phonetic spelling system that reflected the way they spoke, not only would we have a hard time understanding them when they speak, we'd also have a hard time understanding them when they write.

Of course, no one's suggesting that we use separate phonetic systems in different countries. The idea is that we employ one uniform system of spelling for everyone. But that would only benefit the people whose pronunciation is reflected in the spelling system, and ignoring for a moment that those people are in the minority, the benefit of a phonetic system to those people is questionable since they already know how to talk.

So I'm not sold on the need for phonetically-spelled English. That doesn't mean I think the idea of phonetic spelling is pointless, though. For example, Japanese has two phonetic systems -- hiragana and katakana -- which are quite useful despite the various differences in Japanese pronunciation you're likely to encounter as you travel from one part of Japan to another.

But in the simplified spelling, something is also lost. Maybe this is only important to scholars of diachronic linguistics and people like me, but if we changed the spelling of "phonetic" to "fanetik," for example, we'd lose the information that the word is derived from Greek (or actually from Phoenician, probably).

So I have to ask the question I always ask whenever someone proposes something like this: What problem are we trying to solve? Are we trying to get everyone to speak English in exactly the same way? If so, we're doomed to failure. You're never going to get an Australian to say "There's a rumor you're selling your house" instead of "They's a reema yuh sailin yuh hice."

Or maybe we're trying to make it easier for non-native speakers to learn English. That's a very noble gesture, but I don't think it will work, since most people learn how to speak English by listening to others -- not by reading it in books.

Or maybe we just want to let people know what's considered proper English pronunciation, regardless of how they choose to pronounce things. Well, I'm just as prescriptive and authoritarian as the next guy where language is concerned, but as I mentioned earlier, proper English pronunciation is not universally agreed upon. For example, I think I speak normally and people in England have British accents, but most people in England would probably disagree.

So I can't think of any benefit to using a phonetic spelling system for English, other than perhaps to make it easier for people with personalized license plates to convey their messages to the world without perverting the rules of English spelling and pronunciation.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Paper It's Printed On

Remember a little while ago when I wryly observed that the people who deliver my newspaper every morning have a difficult time landing the paper on the driveway?

Well, things have gotten worse. It seems like just about every morning, I have to look around for a while before I find the paper. I don't mind that so much, since the daily challenge helps keep my mind alert. But on Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, I went out to get the paper and I couldn't find it in any of the usual hiding places. Mystified but undaunted, I continued my search and eventually located it in the street, by the curb, soaking wet in its plastic bag, and securely fixed under the tire of a big truck that was parked in front of my house while the truck's owner attended a yard sale across the street and down a few houses.

An hour or so later, when I went outside to check again, the truck was gone and I was able to retrieve what had essentially become a bag of papier-mâché pulp, but long before that happened I decided to change my subscription to Sundays only. (As you will recall, doing the crossword puzzle is part of my Sunday ritual. As a matter of fact, it is the only part of my Sunday ritual. After that, anything goes.)

So I went to the newspaper's web site and clicked my way to the subscription and billing section. What I found was that it was very easy to "upgrade" (their term) my subscription -- from weekends only to daily delivery, for example -- but it was impossible to "downgrade" it. For that, I would need to call the subscriptions department on the phone.

I didn't think I should have to do that, but it was just a minor inconvenience. And it was nothing like the annoying experience I once had with The New Yorker's web site for managing subscriptions. A few years ago, I renewed my subscription to The New Yorker online. I chose the two-year subscription, because the per-issue cost was less than it was for the one-year subscription. I entered my credit card number and chose the option for automatic renewal. In my naïveté, I assumed that after two years, my subscription would be automatically renewed for another two years at whatever the two-year rate was at that time. But it wasn't. After two years, I was automatically renewed for one year, at a rate that was almost as expensive as the newsstand price.

Fortunately, they notified me via email a few weeks in advance, so I had time to go back to their web site and change my preferences. Unfortunately, there was no way to change the setting for automatic renewal. And there was no way to cancel my subscription and resubscribe at the lower two-year rate. So I had to call up the subscription department and have them do that for me. Everything worked out fine, but I really don't like the idea of being able to set an option online and not being able to change it later.

Anyway, I called up the newspaper and navigated through their phone menu. I finally got to speak to someone, and when I told her I wanted to change my subscription to Sundays only, she immediately tried to get me to reconsider by offering me a lower rate for a daily subscription. I told her it wouldn't do much good if the paper was unreadable half the time, so she switched me over to someone else.

When I told her I wanted to change my subscription to Sundays only, she told me that she could do that, but Sunday-only delivery costs the same as weekend-only delivery, and that with a weekend-only subscription I'd actually be getting a paper from Thursday through Sunday.

Well, I like the idea of a four-day weekend just as much as anyone else, but something about this whole arrangement seemed sort of weird to me. The woman on the phone was used to dealing with customers like me, however, so she decided to give me a daily subscription at half the cost of what I was currently paying, and which was only a few pennies more than the weekend-only subscription.

So I suppose things ended up working out okay. I'm paying half of what I used to pay, and I'm still getting a newspaper every morning. Of course, I still have to play my little detective game every morning in order to find the paper, but as I said, it keeps the mind alert. And yes, sometimes the paper is sort of damp from being watered by the sprinklers, but as I pointed out before, I never read it every day anyway.

Of course, there's still the negative environmental impact of all those newspapers I'm getting and all those plastic bags they come in. I recycle them, but I'm aware that recycling isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

And then there's the incontrovertible fact that I don't really even need the Sunday paper, since I can do the same crossword puzzle online at their web site.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

No Comment

It seems like only a year ago, I was celebrating my one year blogging anniversary. And now, in the blink of an eye, another year has gone by. All I can say is, time sure flies when you're writing an informative and entertaining blog, filled with fun facts, wry observations, and amusing anecdotes.

But an old friend of mine noted recently that I don't allow comments on my blog. She asked me, "What's the point of a blog without comments?" In my case, it's so I can deliver my weekly message to the people, but according to her, the blog phenomenon is all about posting and linking to other blogs.

I don't necessarily agree, but she isn't the only person to wonder about my no-comment rule. A much newer friend of mine asked me about it when I first started the blog. My reply to her was that if she wanted to post something, she should probably start her own blog.

By the way, after reading last week's post about taping things with my VCR, this newer friend of mine emailed me saying "I can't believe you still have tapes!" If I allowed comments on my blog, perhaps she might have expressed that thought in a comment instead. Maybe that's a good thing, or maybe it isn't -- I don't know. I'm probably just being old-fashioned, but I think it adds a nice personal touch to send a message like that in a private email.

And yes, in case you're wondering, I realize that it's hopelessly analog of me to still have tapes. I have no excuse for this, just as I have no excuse for not having a huge flat-screen TV. But if I did have an excuse, it would probably be that I don't care about those things that much.

Anyway, I was sort of kidding about the "get your own blog" comment, but the truth is, I never expected anyone to read this blog, let alone take the time to post a response, so I decided there'd be no harm in prohibiting people from leaving comments. I never saw my blog as a vehicle for social networking -- I saw it strictly as a way for me to express my ideas, opinions, and other miscellaneous thoughts. And two years after my original post, it's still the best way to find out what's on my mind without actually having to talk to me.

However, in celebration of this two-year anniversary, I've decided to try a little experiment and I'm now allowing comments. I still don't expect many people to read this blog or post a response, though. Keep in mind, I've been invisible for most of my life, so I've never really expected anyone to take notice of the things I do. But on the odd chance that someone reading something I've written feels compelled to reply, I will now welcome comments.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Crash on Tape

Remember a long time ago when I told you I saw the overrated Academy Award-winning movie Crash? I may have mentioned that I saw it on cable and not in the theater. That's sort of true, but it isn't the absolute truth, since what actually happened is it was on cable, but instead of watching it, I taped it so I could watch it later, at a time more convenient for me.

That should be of no interest to you, of course, and the only reason I brought it up is that a few weeks ago, a friend of mine who hadn't seen the movie asked me if I still had it on tape. I told her I wasn't sure -- I was pretty sure I'd recorded over it -- but that I'd look through the tapes to see if I still had it.

A few days later, I did just that. Crash wasn't on any of them, which means that I reused the tape to record something else, possibly something more interesting or less annoying or both. I don't actually know what I recorded, but that isn't the point. The point is that while looking for Crash, I found a lot of interesting movies that I hadn't seen in a long time.

Before I tell you what those movies are, I should explain something. When VCRs first became popular, a lot of people started building video libraries by recording things on TV. I never did that. I just recorded things if I wanted to watch them at a more convenient time. So I'd tape something, I'd watch it, and then I'd put the tape back with all the other tapes which I would eventually use to record something else. But since I have a lot of tapes, it might take a year or more before I get around to recording over something. So at any given time, I always have a lot of interesting things on tape but I never know what they are, since I never label the tapes. As a result, I have sort of a de facto video library, but it's constantly changing and I never know what it contains.

Anyway, here are some of the movies I discovered I'd taped while I was looking for Crash:

This is Spinal Tap: Everyone acknowledges that this is a great movie, but to be honest, I've probably seen it often enough that I don't have to ever see it again. So the next time I need to record something, I won't feel too bad about recording over it.

The Apostle and Rabbit-Proof Fence: I've lumped these two movies together because they're both very good, but I don't think I'll ever watch them again. I've seen The Apostle a few times already -- once in the theater and a couple of times on TV.

Clerks and Chasing Amy: The next time someone tells you that Kevin Smith is a film director without any real talent, mention these two movies.

Night on Earth: This movie may have the rare distinction of being the only Jim Jarmusch movie that isn't available on DVD. But it's going to be released next month. I don't know why it took so long. I saw it in the theater when it first came out, and on cable a few times after that. It's not a perfect move, but I'll never get tired of it.

The Secret of Roan Inish: This is a great movie by a great director. I don't think I'll buy the DVD, but I'm going to make sure I don't record over this movie for a while.

Your Friends and Neighbors: Remember a long time ago when Neil LaBute still made good movies? If you don't, you should watch this one.

Last Night: This is a great film by Don McKellar. He's directed a few films, but you're probably more familiar with him as an actor. He's been in a number of movies directed by Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. Last Night is one of the few end-of-the-world movies worth watching. (Another one is Miracle Mile.)

My Dinner with Andre and Short Cuts: I saw both of these movies in the theater when they were released, and I've seen Short Cuts a few times on cable, but I hadn't seen My Dinner with Andre again until a few months ago. I liked it when it first came out, but when it was on cable, I was worried that I might think it was too self-indulgent. It wasn't. I should probably watch it again.

Seconds, State and Main, and Waking Life: I've lumped these movies together not only because they're great movies that I can watch over and over again, but because I eventually bought the DVD versions. So I can record over these tapes with no compunctions.

The Dark Backward: I saw this movie in the theater, but I may have been one of the few people who did. I saw it on cable a few times and I still don't understand why this movie isn't considered some sort of masterpiece.

And that's the end of the list. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I still had Series 7: The Contenders on tape, but either I recorded over it or I never recorded it in the first place. In either case, it's worth watching a couple of times, so the next time it's on cable, you should check it out.

As for my friend who wanted to see Crash, I never got around to telling her I no longer had it on tape, but I don't think she cared that much. It didn't seem like she was that interested in seeing it in the first place. It's not that great a movie.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

"How are things in Glocca Morra?"

The first time somebody asked me "How are things in Glocca Morra?" I was just a kid and I didn't know what he was talking about. I'd never heard of Glocca Morra, and the only two words I knew that sounded even remotely similar were Guatemala and Guacamole.

Nobody ever asked me again how things are in Glocca Morra, but somehow I learned that "How are things in Glocca Morra?" was the principal song in the musical Finian's Rainbow. I'd never seen Finian's Rainbow, and as a little kid I somehow got it confused with Finnegan's Wake, but I must have heard someone singing the song one time because in the back of my mind I always had a vague sense of part of the melody.

The movie version of Finian's Rainbow was on cable last week, so I decided to watch it. I'm not a big fan of musicals -- I like Singin' in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and The Music Man, but that's probably about it. West Side Story seems sort of heavy-handed and dated to me (although some of the songs are pretty good), and My Fair Lady is okay, but I can pretty much take it or leave it.

But I decided to watch Finian's Rainbow. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and he's a pretty good director, so I figured it would be a halfway-decent movie. It was okay, and I watched all two hours of it, but I can't say I particularly liked it. It wasn't really my kind of movie -- or even my kind of musical -- but I think the main reason I didn't really like it is because I don't like leprechauns.

I don't want to sound like I'm prejudiced or anything, but I've never liked leprechauns and I probably never will. I'm not sure when it started, but it was probably the first time I saw a commercial for the cereal "Lucky Charms." I don't know if they still make that cereal anymore, so you might not know what I'm talking about, but the commercials always had some obnoxious little leprechaun who would jokingly assert that children were "always after me Lucky Charms."

Of course, as a young boy, I identified more with the children than the leprechaun, so my reaction was always something along the lines of "Give those kids their fuckin' cereal, god damn it!"

And in case you're wondering, I don't always automatically side with cereal commercial kids or anything like that. For example, I never knew why those two kids wouldn't share their Trix with that rabbit, but it didn't seem right. Were they so stingy that they couldn't give one lousy bowl of Trix to the rabbit? Those commercials just made kids look selfish and greedy, in my opinion, and I believe they taught little children the wrong lessons. Who says Trix are for kids? Rabbits might enjoy them just as much, or maybe even more so. I don't know about you, but I never really liked sugary cereals. I didn't like Trix, I didn't like Lucky Charms, and I didn't like Sugar Frosted Flakes. It's not that I didn't like sweet things, because I did -- I just didn't like the way the cereal made the milk all sugary.

But getting back to the subject at hand, maybe it's unfair of me, but I hold leprechauns responsible for a lot of trouble in the world. They're responsible for decades and decades of violence and unrest in Northern Ireland, of course, but I believe they've also had a hand -- either directly or indirectly -- in salmonella poisoning, forest fires, reality TV shows, dogs that bark too much, and the current HD DVD vs. Blu-ray war. They're just mischievous little bastards -- that's all there is to it.

Anyway, as I mentioned last week, I don't watch a lot of mainstream TV. But I have seen a few episodes of Jeopardy! recently. I'm not a regular viewer, but I was home, and it was on, so I watched it. And if you ever watch it, have you noticed that whenever they have a special celebrity episode (in which all three contestants are celebrities), they always make the questions a lot easier? Why do you suppose they do that? Is it because they think celebrities don't know as much as everyone else?

Maybe celebrities don't know very much, but I don't think that's the reason. It's probably because the celebrities don't keep any of the money they win -- it all goes to charities of their choosing -- so the celebrities have no real incentive to spend months and months cramming their heads full of obscure facts the way that the non-celebrity contestants do.

And by the way, I realize I'm using the term "celebrity" a lot -- in the previous paragraph I used it four times -- and I don't think it's the right term, but I really don't know what else to call them. So I'm using the term rather loosely -- when I think of celebrities, I think of movie stars and people like that, but when the producers of Jeopardy! think of celebrities, they apparently think of former athletes and TV actors I've never heard of. It seems to me that if you're a celebrity, you have to be famous, but maybe you don't. Maybe I'm still using the old definition of the word.

Anyway, I don't mind that the questions are a lot easier for celebrities, but the sad thing is that they still manage to get so many questions wrong. I'm not exactly a font of infinite knowledge myself, and if I were a contestant, I would almost certainly finish in last place, but some of the celebrity questions were worded in such a way that even if you didn't know the answer, you could easily guess it. At least I could. And yet the celebrities very often got those questions wrong.

If it were me up there, I'd be embarrassed about missing such easy questions, but the celebrities didn't seem to mind a bit. Of course, these are professional athletes and actors, so their reputations aren't exactly harmed by showing how stupid they are on national TV. And no, I don't think all actors and athletes are stupid, but since they don't have to routinely challenge their intelligence the way people in other professions do, it's only natural that they might not be as sharp as a lot of other people.

And returning back to the subject of television commercials, what's the deal with celebrity endorsements? Why would anyone buy a product just because some football player or retired television actor was paid to tell us what a great product it is? I will never understand this, and neither will anyone else, but some things don't really need to be understood -- they just need to work. And celebrity endorsements apparently work, or else the advertisers wouldn't be giving Tiger Woods millions of dollars to tell us what a wonderful automobile the Buick is, for example. Maybe if Tiger Woods actually knew something about cars in general or Buicks in particular, I'd listen. Or if he wanted to recommend a particular set of golf clubs, I can understand why people might pay attention to that.

I remember many years ago, I was talking to some woman who worked in advertising or marketing or some such field. I asked her why Pepsi would continue to pay Michael Jackson tons of money to endorse its product even after he went on record as saying he never drank the stuff. She told me it didn't matter. They were paying him all that money just so he'd dance in the commercial. The assumption was that people would enjoy watching Michael Jackson dance, and that would keep them from switching the channel to a less interesting commercial.

I guess things are sort of tough for advertisers these days. Back when I was a kid, there weren't many channels to choose from, and since most TVs didn't have a remote control, if you wanted to switch to another channel or turn down the sound during a commercial, you'd have to get up and walk to the TV. It was easier to just sit there and wait for it to be over. So the advertisers have to work a lot harder these days to get you to watch their commercials.

Okay, now I'm beginning to tread on some of the ground I trod upon last week, and since I don't want to run the risk of repeating myself, I'll end this week's post right here. I'll just sum things up by saying that anyone who would buy a car because Tiger Woods said to is probably in need of psychiatric help. But sometimes I think I may be in the minority, since celebrity worship seems to be at an all-time high, which is a pretty sad commentary on the state of the world today.

And how did the world get this way? You can ask yourself that question if you want, but you already know my answer.

Fuckin' leprechauns.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"That's Entertainment!"

If you have a blog that you post to every week or so, you might worry that every now and then you won't have anything to write about. Earlier this week, it didn't look like I'd have anything to write about but then I turned on the TV and watched it for a while.

I don't watch a lot of what you might call "mainstream" TV -- I mostly watch movies on the "premium" cable stations (and in this case, "premium" is a synonym for "not free"). Those stations also have enough specials and series to keep me busy, so I don't spend a lot of time watching the normal channels. But I do end up watching some "basic" cable stations from time to time (and in this case, "basic" is synonymous with "full of commercials").

I was watching some show the other day. I don't remember what it was, but I do remember some of the commercials. That would make me the ideal television viewer from the standpoint of the advertisers, I suppose, except for the fact that I don't go out and buy any of the things I see advertised on TV.

I guess it's no secret that the networks make their money from advertising, and that as television developed from its infancy to where it is today, somewhere along the line its promise shifted from using the public airwaves to provide the public with news and entertainment, and instead focused on providing the public with a reason to spend hours at a time sitting in front of a television screen in a semi-comatose state that would make people more receptive to watching commercials.

The idea was to make the shows just entertaining enough to keep people from switching the channel, so that when the commercials came on people would sit there passively and absorb whatever advertising messages the sponsors wanted to broadcast.

I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know, and what I'm about to tell you, you probably already know as well, which is that commercials generally avoid giving you any actual information about the products -- instead they simply want to entertain you or otherwise make you feel good in the hope that you'll associate that good feeling with their products.

For example, not so long ago, it seemed like every commercial was promoting "family values" in one way or another, regardless of the actual product being advertised. But that got old really quick (although you'll still see examples of it from time to time), so advertisers have been experimenting with various other "feel-good" themes. For example, I saw a commercial for Tylenol recently that said nothing about the product itself -- all it did was show one close-up after another of people who are presented as Tylenol employees saying things like "I love making Tylenol." The commercial ended with a message like, "What makes Tylenol special is the people who make it."

The obvious question here is "Do the people who created that commercial actually think we're stupid enough to choose a product based on such a vapid, idiotic message?" And the obvious answer is "yes." Sometime when I was in high school or college, I read Vance Packard's book, "The Hidden Persuaders." It was written in the '50s but it's probably just as relevant today as it was back then, if not more so. I didn't read it until sometime in the '70s, and I hardly remember a thing about it, but one thing I do remember reading is that the people who create television commercials deliberately make them sort of stupid. The idea is that when people see a stupid commercial, they don't take it seriously, so they let down their guard a little, which makes them more receptive to it. That might seem a little far-fetched, but it's a pretty good explanation as to why there are so many stupid commercials.

Of course, stupidity isn't the only weapon in the arsenal of television commercial producers. Another thing they do is try to make the commercials as entertaining as the shows. For example, consider the case of the Geico cavemen commercials. They started out advertising the fact that getting insurance from Geico is so simple that a caveman could do it, but it didn't take long for the commercials to stop being about insurance and turn into little humorous vignettes about cavemen instead. And in some bizarre ironic turnaround, a sitcom based on the Geico cavemen has recently been developed. I don't know how many episodes were created or if it's on the air yet, but turning a series of television commercials into a television series blurs the line between advertising and entertainment in a way that such lines probably shouldn't be blurred.

Coincidentally, another insurance company -- Mercury Insurance -- also has a series of commercials that don't really tell you anything interesting. They all convey the simple message that despite the fact that their rates are so low, they are not from the planet Mercury. Okay. That's good to know, I guess, but this is a stereotype I wasn't aware of. I understand the stereotype of prehistoric cavemen not being sophisticated enough to easily obtain the right insurance for their various needs, but is there a stereotype about Mercurians consistently offering lower prices than inhabitants of other planets? I've never heard it before. And if it turned out that Mercury Insurance was indeed founded by Mercurians, would that be a reason not to buy insurance from them? For some people, perhaps it would. In any event, the premise behind the Mercury Insurance ads gets old pretty quickly, so I don't think we'll have to worry about a sitcom being developed.

Interestingly, while commercials are turning into entertainment, a growing number of television shows are nothing more than market research disguised as entertainment. I'm talking, of course, about the so-called "Reality TV" shows in which contestants compete for careers as pop singers, TV show hosts, and I don't know what else. I've never actually watched one of these shows, and I'm sure I never will, but I understand that for some (if not all) of them, the television viewers are given the opportunity to vote for their favorite contestant, and whoever gets the most votes is the winner. So it isn't necessarily the most talented singer who wins, it's the singer with the broadest public appeal. In other words, it's the singer who, if given a recording contract, will sell the most records. Even though I'm sort of disgusted at this cynical abuse and manipulation of the television-watching public, I have to admit that it's a pretty clever idea.

I have to wonder, though, how we allowed this to happen. Sometime in the '70s, there was the saying "Corporate Rock Sucks." You used to see it printed on bumper stickers a lot. The idea was that bands that focused on commercial success rather than musical creativity or innovation were not worth listening to. It was a popular sentiment at the time, but somewhere along the line the message was lost, until a decade or two later when you started seeing bumper stickers with the message "Corporate Rock Still Sucks." That message faded away over the years as well, but the simple truth is that corporate rock has always sucked and will always suck. And corporate pop -- the kind of bland crowd-pleasing worn-out pap you'll hear on shows like "American Idol" and its numerous counterparts in other nations -- sucks even harder.

So that's my little essay for this week, inspired by nothing more than a Tylenol commercial, a Geico commercial, and a Mercury commercial. I'm going to have to stop watching so much mainstream TV.