Saturday, December 27, 2008

No Ordinary Cardboard Box

If you've ordered a pizza to go recently, chances are it was presented to you in a simple cardboard box. That is, of course, unless you ordered your pizza from Domino's.

What Domino's gives you may look like a simple cardboard box, but it isn't. And to prove it, let me quote some of the informational messages printed on the Domino's box I got the other day.

The first one must be pretty important, because it's displayed in three places. It reads, "Caution: Steam Exhaust Port." To the untrained eye, it merely looks like a small slit in the back of the box, but without it, the steam from the pizza would presumably build up to unsafe levels, possibly scalding you when you lifted the lid.

The steam exhaust port sounds like a good idea, but I don't really think it's absolutely necessary, particularly because of the advanced technology on each of the side flaps. The message reads, "Thermo-Exhaust Technology - This box has been engineered with thermal exhaust ports for optimal crust consistency."

But the features of the Domino's pizza box don't start and end with exhaust systems. Another message, displayed on each of the side flaps and titled "Corru-Skeletal Technology," states that "This box has been engineered to protect the pizza inside against crushing forces." I'm not sure what sort of crushing forces they're talking about -- usually the only thing you put on top of a pizza box is another pizza box -- but still, I'm glad my pizza was protected against such forces.

However, that message may contradict a warning that appears elsewhere on the box, which consists solely of a picture of a broken glass above the simple message, "Caution: Fragile." To be honest, I'm not sure if they mean that the box is fragile or the pizza is fragile -- but neither one looked like it would shatter to pieces if it fell to the floor.

The warning right beside it is a lot less ambiguous. Underneath a picture of fire, the words "Caution: Hot" are displayed. I'm assuming that this message refers to the pizza and not the box, although I've never had a pizza that was as hot as fire, especially if that pizza came in a box equipped with a steam exhaust port and other examples of thermo-exhaust technology.

On the front tab, there's an instructional message to the pizza consumer. It states, "For heat retaining corrugated cardboard technology to function, close tab." So not only does the cardboard (or maybe I should call it the "corru-skeletal technology") protect the pizza against crushing forces, it also keeps the pizza hot. This is apparently so important a message that Domino's saw fit to reiterate it in a more direct -- if somewhat awkward -- manner: "Close tab between slices to keep pizza hot."

These messages are all pretty ridiculous, of course, but if Domino's realizes it, I don't think they really care, because they know that most people won't ever read the box -- they'll just open it up and grab a slice of pizza. But for better or worse, I have a tendency to read things. If I see words printed somewhere, I'll usually read them. I even decided to read the bottom of the Domino's box, although I'm not sure what exactly compelled me to do that.

But Domino's was one step ahead of me, because on the bottom of the box was the following message: "Why are you reading this? We sure hope the pizza isn't in the box while you're flipping it over."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On the Road

It seems like I've been doing a lot of driving in slow-moving traffic lately, and even though all that traffic made it take longer to get anywhere, it also gave me a lot of time to observe the behavior of other drivers. So that's what I'm going to write about today.

I'm not going to write about all the bad behavior I observed -- that would take me well into next year and it wouldn't serve any useful purpose. So I'm just going to mention one thing that I saw drivers doing repeatedly.

In case you don't know it, here in California a law was passed last July that made it illegal to drive while talking on a cell phone. Or to be more accurate, the law made it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving, unless a "hands-free device" is used.

So a lot of people bought bluetooth headsets -- those little things you stick on your ear that connect wirelessly to your cell phone. Some people only use them when they're driving and they want to make or receive a call, but other people put them on as soon as they get into their cars. And there are still others who wear them all the time, whether they're in the car or not. Those headsets make people look like dorks, so ever since last July, there have been a lot of people walking around in a state of almost permanent dorkiness.

But having people walking around with dorky-looking things coming out of their ears is a reasonable price to pay for fewer traffic accidents caused by inattentive cell phone users, isn't it?

If only things were that simple.

I'm not going to get into all the arguments about how hands-free devices don't reduce the number of cell phone-related traffic accidents, and I'm not going to talk about how your situational awareness decreases whether you're wearing a bluetooth headset or holding the cell phone to your ear. I'm not even going to argue the case that driving while using a cell phone increases your chances of getting into a traffic accident. Like most things, it's probably not so cut and dried. I think there are people who can manage to do both without causing any problems, while there are others who are likely to get into accidents even if they're not talking on the phone, just because they aren't very good drivers, or because they're stupid.

But here's the thing: Whether it's a good law or not, it's still a law. But you'd be surprised -- or maybe you wouldn't -- at how many people routinely and flagrantly break that law. I can't even count the number of people I saw driving while talking on a handheld cell phone.

Part of the problem is that if you get caught, it's only a $20 fine for the first infraction and $50 for subsequent infractions. It's not a lot of money, but you can get a decent bluetooth headset for between $20 and $50, and it's probably less expensive in the long run to buy one, unless you never get caught. And you're not likely to, since the police aren't likely to scour the roads hunting for violators. They're much more likely to look for people who commit big-ticket infractions like going over the speed limit and running red lights.

By the way, don't run red lights. Not only is it dangerous, but the last time I got pulled over for running one, the fine was $351. The officer didn't actually give me a ticket, since I didn't actually run a red light -- I went through while it was still yellow. I think he was confused because the moron in front of me stopped at the green light for some reason before turning right. Anyway, I didn't get the ticket, but the officer told me it was $351, and that was probably about five years ago -- it's probably a lot more now.

As for speeding, you'll have to decide this one for yourself. As with all vehicle code infractions, it's best not to speed if there are any cops around, but if there aren't, just use your own good judgment. The problem, of course, is that if you don't exceed the speed limit, you'll make a lot of drivers really angry, since the speed of traffic tends to be a lot higher than the posted limit.

So there's probably nothing wrong with speeding a little -- providing you don't get caught -- since the posted speed limits are usually a lot lower than they need to be. Of course, having said all that, I have to admit that speeding hasn't been much of an issue for me recently, since I've been driving in a lot of slow-moving traffic lately.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

JB and the Little Hyphen

I don't expect you to be reading this after my announcement last week that I wasn't going to post anything to this blog for a while. So if you're not reading this, I understand completely, but if you are, well, I guess I understand that too.

Anyway, one time back around 1981, "e" (my girlfriend at the time) and I were at the Nuart theater watching a couple of films starring Alec Guinness. One of them was Kind Hearts and Coronets and the other was The Horse's Mouth. They're both good movies, but that's not what I'm going to write about.

I don't remember the movies that well, but I remember that before they started and the theater lights were still on, we noticed John Baldessari sitting a few rows in front of us. If you don't know who John Baldessari is, you can always look it up online, but if you don't want to do that, I'll just tell you now: He's an artist. So I guess it kind of makes sense that he was there, since The Horse's Mouth is a movie about an artist. Or maybe he just liked the films of Alec Guimness.

Seeing him in the audience wasn't any big deal, so I pretty much forgot about it over the years, but earlier this week, a friend of mine and I were checking out the new building at LACMA, and I saw a guy who looked just like John Baldessari. I guess it kind of makes sense that he was there, since he's an artist and LACMA is an art museum, but it's also worth noting that the new LACMA building happened to have some Baldessari works on display.

So I'm pretty sure it was him. He looked a lot older, but so do I. So do you. So does everyone.

By the way, I hope you noticed that I referred to "e" as "my girlfriend at the time," and not as "my then-girlfriend." I never liked the construct obtained by prefixing a noun with the word "then." People do it all the time, but I never liked the way it sounds, and I also believe it's based on a misunderstanding of the underlying linguistic structure.

The convention arose because people used to say things like, "In 1977, Jimmy Carter, who was then president of the United States, declared unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders."

Using existing rules of the English language, this was shortened to, "In 1977, Jimmy Carter, then president of the United States, declared unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders."

And this is where all the trouble began, because the next thing we knew, people were saying things like, "In 1977, Jimmy Carter, then-president of the United States, declared unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders."

Those last two sentences sound exactly alike, but that one little hyphen changed everything, because as soon as "then-president" became a noun-phrase, it became okay to use expressions like "the then-president" or "my then-girlfriend," which both sound awkward and clumsy.

And by the way, just to make this clear, I'm not blaming any of this on Jimmy Carter, either directly or indirectly. I'm just using him as an example. I could have just as easily said, "In 1972, Richard Nixon, then president of the United States, visited the People's Republic of China." And just to further clarify, I'm not blaming any of this on Nixon either, or for that matter, any other public figure. If anything, I blame the millions of people who through continual usage of this linguistic abomination allowed it to perpetuate.

Anyway, the other thing I liked about the LACMA exhibit is that on the first floor of the new building, there were two installations by Richard Serra: "Band" and "Sequence." There were only about two other people on that floor, so we could see those pieces the way they're intended to be seen, without a bunch of people milling in and out and destroying the quiet serenity those sculptures engender.

The new building, by the way, is called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, named after benefactors Eli and Edythe Broad. I think they use the abbreviation "BCAM," which you probably either already knew or could have easily guessed. The only reason I'm even bringing it up is so I don't have to keep referring to it as "the new building." But I'm pretty much done talking about it anyway. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty much through with this week's blog entry. And whether or not I write anything next week is still anyone's guess, which is to say that your guess is as good as mine.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Little Extra Time Each Weekend

As it turns out, there was a slight inaccuracy in my previous post. Toward the end of that post, I mentioned that I didn't think I had ever let two weekends go by without posting something to this blog. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had the vague suspicion that I had done precisely that, but I didn't bother to confirm that suspicion since it was much easier to simply deny it.

But after checking the dates, I now see that after I posted something on June 14th of this year, I didn't post again until July 5th, which means that I didn't post anything on the weekends of June 21st and June 28th.

You might have noticed that I didn't post anything last week either. And for that matter, I wasn't really planning on posting anything this week, but I decided to anyway. It wasn't because of the "butterfly effect" -- it was because I wanted to let you know that I probably won't be posting as regularly to this blog as I've done in the past.

So if you don't see any updates to this blog in the next few weeks -- or maybe even the next few months -- don't be alarmed. It doesn't mean that I got too sick to write, or that I died, or that anything as drastic as that befell me. All it means is that I didn't post something for a while.

It probably won't ruin your life to have to go from week to week without my witty and scintillating prose to sustain you, but even if it does, I'm sure you'll be able to endure it and ultimately emerge a stronger person in both body and mind.

As for me, I can usually find something to do that's enjoyable and rewardling and likely to keep me out of trouble, so I'm not too worried about what I'll do with the extra time each weekend. But if I can't think of anything, you'll probably be hearing from me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Flapping of Tiny Wings

The title of the week's post is a reference to what is commonly known as "The Butterfly Effect."

I'm not referring to the movie The Butterfly Effect, nor am I referring to the movie A Sound of Thunder, which was based on Ray Bradbury's short story of the same name. Both the movies and the short story were centered on the idea that going back in time and making a seemingly insignificant change could result in drastic changes in the present. The movie The Butterfly Effect, despite its title, doesn't feature any actual butterflies, although it was obviously inspired by the Bradbury story, which does feature an actual butterfly.

I always used to think the whole butterfly effect thing was named after the Bradbury story, but according to Wikipedia, both the idea and the name were conceived of long before Ray Bradbury was even born. And, as it turns out, the real butterfly effect doesn't have anything to do with time travel -- it has to do with small changes in a system ultimately causing significantly greater -- and often unpredictable -- changes.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that I didn't post anything last weekend, and I don't really have anything to talk about this weekend either. But the last time I didn't post anything for two weekends in a row, there were significant consequences. You'd think that if an insignificant little blog like mine weren't updated regularly, it wouldn't cause any major changes in world events, but the last time I let this happen, a young man in Kuala Lumpur got in a fight with his older brother, an elderly woman living in Tokyo accidentally dropped and broke a vase, and a bicyclist in Salem, Oregon rode his bike through a red light and was given a ticket.

Those are just a few of the minor mishaps that occurred. There were also a fair number of accidental deaths, traffic accidents, and robberies.

Of course, not every change was bad. I'm happy to report that healthy babies were born, students did well on tests, and dogs throughout the world enjoyed playing the game of "fetch" with their owners.

It's hard to determine if the good outweighed the bad, but that isn't really the point. The point is that having the power to alter the course of world events -- even if unwittingly -- is a lot of responsibility to place on one person. And that is why it's so important for me to post something today. And having posted this, I must now attend to other matters that demand my attention.

But before I go, I must apologize to the man in Kuala Lumpur and the woman in Tokyo if my failure to post anything twice in a row caused you any inconvenience. I have mixed feelings about apologizing to the bicyclist, however. In all my years of bicycling, I've never once run a red light. I've never even failed to stop at a stop sign, and I can't imagine anything that would compel me to -- not even the butterfly effect. So I'm not apologizing to the bicyclist.

As a matter of fact, I'm rescinding my apologies to the guy in Kuala Lumpur and the woman in Tokyo as well, because now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I never let two weekends go by without posting anything.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

I Voted Again

I guess you've probably heard that we elected a new president recently.

I was one of the many people who voted, and when I turned in my ballot, they tried to give me one of those "I Voted" stickers. You may recall from an earlier post that I have a real problem with those "I Voted" stickers, the problem being that they're a waste of paper and they're not recyclable.

So when the guy tried to give me a sticker, I told him I didn't want it. Perhaps to get me to reconsider my decision, he told me that it was good for a free drink at Starbuck's. I told him the sticker wasn't recyclable and one or two people chuckled briefly. Then I left.

By the way, I am well-aware, as a friend of mine pointed out, that whether I accepted the sticker or not, the environmental damage had been done. The sticker was still going to be thrown out -- if not by me then by some other voter or some Starbuck's employee or some election worker who was in charge of getting rid of all the left-over stickers. So my refusal to accept the sticker was entirely symbolic. I understand that.

But I have a hard time accepting the fact that places like Starbuck's are essentially bribing people to vote. To me, it's the same sort of thing as parents paying their children when they get good grades. Parents, if you don't understand why you shouldn't pay your kids when they get good grades, I'm not going to explain it to you -- you are already lost. But kids, there's still some hope for you, so I'll give it a shot: Bribery is bad. Good grades don't have a cash value. The value of a good education is that you learn things, not that your mom or dad will pay you for doing well. Besides, if you're capable of getting good grades, you shouldn't need any additional motivation, such as the lure of a few dollars.

But getting back to Starbuck's and the election, I hope our democracy hasn't been reduced to a system in which we encourage people to vote by offering them free coffee drinks.

And I don't mean to pick unduly on Starbuck's. It turns out that across our great country, according to an article I read, various businesses were offering free merchandise to people who voted. For example, Krispy Kreme was offering star-shaped doughnuts with red, white and blue sprinkles to voters. And at least two adult stores in New York City were offering free sex toys to anyone who voted. There were a lot more stores according to the article, but those are the only ones I can remember. And I have no doubt that for our next major election, the number of places offering free gifts to voters will be even greater. Furthermore, maybe decades from now, children will probably sit on their parents' laps and listen to stories about the olden days when people voted because they felt it was their civic duty, and not because it was a good way to get free doughnuts or dildoes or whatever.

But here's the thing. The guy at my polling place turned out to be wrong. You didn't need the sticker to get the free drink at Starbuck's. According to the article, all you had to do was tell them you voted -- they didn't ask for proof. So, on election day, you could have gone to every Starbuck's in your community -- there are probably over twenty in mine -- and gotten a free drink in each one. Then you could have hit all the Krispy Kreme stores and gotten your fill of star-shaped doughnuts. And, yeah, if you happened to be in New York City at the time, you could have dropped in at those two sex stores. But even if you weren't, chances are there were a lot of other places that were giving away free stuff to people who said they voted.

The key thing, of course, is that you didn't actually have to vote -- all you had to do was say you voted, since they didn't ask for the sticker as proof. So, as I maintained from the outset, the stickers are absolutely unnecessary, as well as being a needless waste of paper and drain on our natural resources.

I'm old enough to remember when they didn't hand out stickers to people who voted, so I'm optimistic that we'll come to our senses one day and abandon that childish practice. On the other hand, I think even back when I was in school, some parents were paying their kids to get good grades. It probably wasn't nearly as widespread as it is today, but it's been going on for so long and it's probably so ingrained in our culture that it's too late to do anything about it now. On the other hand, we're supposedly entering an era of change, so maybe that behavior will someday change as well.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Refrigerators vs. Dogs

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when we wanted to indicate that something wasn't yet completed, we would say it was "in progress."

Remember that quaint expression? I never hear it anymore. What I hear now is that it's "in process," which doesn't actually mean anything. I assume that this bizarre linguistic anomaly comes from some moron combining the expressions "being processed" and "in progress" and if that were the worst of it, I would do nothing more than grit my teeth and silently complain every time I heard the phrase. But that isn't the worst of it, because now we have a newer (and even more incorrect) term. So today I feel compelled to speak out.

I bought a new refrigerator a while ago. Because it's an Energy Star-compliant refrigerator, I'm entitled to a rebate from my electricity supplier. In the past, in order to get a rebate, you had to fill out a form, mail it somewhere, and wait for months and months to receive your check. But now, thanks to the convenience of the internet, you can just fill out and submit an online form, and then wait months and months to receive your check.

So I filled out and submitted the form, and I'm now awaiting the check. The good news is, I can check out the status of my rebate claim online anytime I want. The last time I checked, the status of my claim was listed as "in processing," which doesn't even seem grammatical, unless you assume "in processing" is short for "in the state known as 'processing'." Maybe that's what they mean, and maybe I'm being too picky, but I think everybody would be happier all around if we just went back to using "in progress."

By the way, I'm actually sort of surprised we're still using the word "rebate." I thought it was gone for good when all the car manufacturers stopped using the term in their television ads and started using "cash back" instead.

Now, onto the subject of my new refrigerator. You may recall that I initially complained that the bins for storing fresh fruits and vegetables are smaller than the bins on my old refrigerator. Well, I'm happy to say that although that's true, it's also false. It turns out that two of the bins are slightly deeper than those of my old refrigerator, so I can actually store more fresh broccoli (to use a real-life example) in the lower bins of the new refrigerator. So something that I didn't like at first, I quickly grew to appreciate.

"Fine," you may be saying, "but what does this have to do with dogs?"

I have a couple of friends, one of whom I hadn't seen in a long time, and one of whom I had. They're not a lot alike, but they're probably not that different either. For example, they're both human Earthling females, they each know me, they both happen to have names with the initials "AK," and they each have a dog. I saw one of them on Thursday and the other on Friday, and they each told me the same thing, which is that although they couldn't imagine life without their dogs, when they first got them, it took a while before they stopped wanting to get rid of them. The first AK had her dog for about a month and a half before she wanted to keep it. For the second AK, it only took ten days.

So that's it, basically. I didn't like my new refrigerator at first (until I actually put some fresh vegetables in it), and the two AKs didn't like their dogs at first. But now everybody's happy. And if you think it's sort of misguided to compare a refrigerator to a dog on that basis, you're probably right. But there are some even more misguided dog vs. refrigerator comparisons, such as any of the following:

- Dogs and refrigerators sometimes make strange noises.
- A lot of dogs like to run around, whereas most refrigerators just stand in one place for their entire life.
- It is not practical to store a lot of (fresh or frozen) food inside your dog.
- Depending on the breed, a dog and a refrigerator may have approximately the same life span.

Those are just a few comparisons I thought of off the top of my head. You can probably think of a few more yourself. But if I were you, I probably wouldn't bother.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Two Classics

Remember a little while ago when I mentioned that I wouldn't buy the Salo DVD unless I developed a burning need to spend my money on something I didn't really want? That's still true, but I was almost tempted a couple of times to buy it recently.

It turns out that whenever you buy things from Amazon, they make personalized recommendations for you. Based on your previous purchases from them, they present you with a list of things you might also enjoy buying from them. On the list of DVDs, Salo was right up there at the top.

That was kind of interesting, but there are a couple of things worth mentioning. The first is that their method of determining what customers might enjoy is pretty unsophisticated. A long time ago I bought the Criterion Collection edition of Down by Law, and that was apparently enough for Amazon to recommend that I buy any DVD released by the Criterion Collection, including the notorious Salo.

The second thing worth noting is that they made over 500 DVD recommendations for me based on my previous purchases. I'm not sure what the actual number was -- they only show 15 items per page and I was getting tired of hitting the 'Next' button. But I have a suspicion that if I hadn't stopped hitting it, Amazon would have eventually recommended every DVD in its inventory.

So the temptation of buying something because Amazon personally recommended it to me didn't last very long.

But just out of curiosity, I decided to see if anyone was selling the DVD on eBay. As it turns out, a few people were, but the listing that caught my attention was for a used copy that was watched only once -- the seller claims he could barely stand to watch it. The initial bid was one cent, and after a fews days of bidding, the bid was about three or four dollars. That seemed like a pretty reasonable price -- if you ignore the fact that watching the movie is possibly one of the most unpleasant cinematic experiences you are likely to have, and by that reasoning, any price is too high a price to pay.

As it happens, I did ignore that fact, and I went back to eBay the day before the bidding ended and checked the price again. By that time, the price was already up to $24. I didn't find out what it eventually sold for, but I imagine it probably ended up pretty close to the retail price for a new version.

So that temptation to buy Salo on DVD didn't last very long either.

So where am I going with all this? Nowhere, really, but while we're on the subject of movies, I want to say something about the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which I do happen to own a DVD copy of). I've always liked this movie despite its obvious flaw. And I'm not talking about that tacked-on happy ending -- I'm talking about the fact that in the beginning of the movie, the pods would take the form of human beings and physically replace them while they slept, but toward the end of the movie, Dana Wynter's character briefly fell asleep and when she awoke, she was no longer human. She hadn't been physically replaced by a pod that looked like her -- her originally human body remained intact but her mind had been replaced by a pod mind.

So that's a flaw, but it can be easily overlooked because the movie is so much fun to watch. The only question in my mind is why in the ensuing decades, people have found the need to make three remakes, none of which is even remotely as good as the first one.

The first remake was that 1978 mess starring Donald Sutherland. A lot of critics seemed to like this one, but I just found it annoying. When I saw it in the theater, I remember wishing I was watching the original instead.

And then came Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers. You'd probably think it was a decent horror movie if you'd never seen the original version, but I didn't think much of it. To its credit, it's the best of the three remakes, but that isn't saying much.

And then, most recently, came The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman. I didn't expect much from this movie based on the previews, so I waited until it went to cable. To be honest, I don't even remember this movie. I know I saw it, but it didn't make a lasting imprint.

And even though past results are no guarantee of future performance, if anyone ever releases another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I don't think it will be very good. And no one's ever going to do this, but if someone ever made a new version of Salo, I don't know what I'd expect that to be like. It would probably be better and worse at the same time, which is to say it might be easier to watch, but at the cost of sacrificing its visceral impact. If that doesn't make any sense to you, don't worry about it -- like I said, nobody's going to remake Salo anyway.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Environmentally-Conscious Garbage

The hard-copy mail I get can be pretty easily divided into two categories: bills and junk mail. Since I've been paying all my bills electronically for a while, the bank that holds my mortgage decided not to include a return envelope every time it sends me a bill. That was fine with me -- it saved me the trouble of tossing the envelope into the recycling bin, even though I thought it was a bit presumptuous of them. But then a little while later, they informed me that the were going to send all future bills to me via email. This wasn't something I could opt in or out of -- I had no choice but to get my statements electronically.

Again, it was a bit presumptuous of them, but I can understand why they did it. And I expect that as time marches on, more and more of my bills will be sent to me electronically. This will mean, of course, that eventually the only hard-copy mail I'll receive will be junk mail.

There are all sorts of junk mail, but the kind I'm going to talk about today is the kind where some organization sends a request for my financial support. And since I'm a socially- and environmentally-conscious guy, most of the requests I get come from socially- and environmentally-conscious organizations.

Sometimes I donate money, but most of the time I just toss the requests into the recycling bin.

So you see the irony, right? Some environmentally-conscious organization wants me to donate some money, so they send me a letter and a return envelope and a form to send back with my check, and all these things are made of paper. And in order to make that paper, someone either had to chop down some trees or recycle some other paper products. In either case, a lot of energy was expended to send out hundreds of thousands of requests, most of which probably ended up in various recycling bins -- or even worse, in trash cans -- throughout the nation.

But that's not the bad part. The bad part is that many of these environmentally-conscious organizations seem to think that I want a plastic bumper sticker or window sticker advertising their organization. I don't, and apparently a lot of other people don't either, because I don't think I've seen more than maybe a dozen cars whose windows or bumpers are adorned with these stickers. And since the stickers are not recyclable, they have to go into the trash, where they are then carted off to various landfills, where they will sit for thousands of years while they silently decompose. Sometimes they don't send stickers, though. Sometimes they just send pages of self-stick address labels which I also have no need for, so they end up in the landfill as well. It seems to me that these environmentally-conscious organizations should be a bit more environmentally-conscious.

So they should get rid of all the throwaway plastic stickers, obviously. But it's a little harder to fault them for sending the requests that end up in the recycling bin. They could use email, and that would be a lot more environmentally-conscious, but it's so ridiculously easy to hit the Delete button that if they relied on email alone, they'd probably go broke. They could always use the telephone, but they'd probably make even less money that way. Whenever some organization calls me to request a donation, I just tell them I'm not interested and hang up. It doesn't even matter who they are or how strongly I believe in their cause -- if they call me on the phone, I'll hang up on them. It's a matter of principle.

And because of that principle, tons of envelopes and requests for donations are needlessly sent through the mail, tossed into the recycling bin, and recycled into new paper, some of which is used to make new envelopes and stationary on which requests for donations can be printed. It's an endless cycle, and you can probably blame it at least partially on people like me who don't like people calling them up and asking for money.

You can't blame the bumper stickers and window stickers and self-stick address labels on me, though. I don't have anything to do with that.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Keeping Cold Things Cold

Everybody seems to agree that the economy is pretty bad shape these days, but they don't all agree why. The Democrats love to blame the the current Republican administration for its concerted efforts to deregulate everything, whether it should be regulated or not. And the Republicans love to blame Bill Clinton.

I don't know anything about economics, but I think the economy started to slide downhill as soon as we shifted away from a production-based economy toward a consumer-based economy. I remember thinking years ago that the economy doesn't have a chance as long as it's based on people spending their money rather than saving it.

But maybe I was just projecting my own beliefs onto the general population. I assumed that just because I don't like to waste my money on things I don't really need, everyone else doesn't like it either. I was apparently wrong about that, since shopping has become a hobby for so many people. As a matter of fact, simply pretending to shop (also known as window shopping) even qualifies as a hobby for many people.

One of the reason I don't like to shop is that it's a waste of my time. No matter what I'm doing, it's usually more interesting than acquiring more material possessions. I don't need to buy new clothes every few months and I don't need to get rid of my old car and buy a new one. I don't even need to get rid of my hopelessly outdated CRT-based televisions and replace them with LCD flat screen models. One of my TVs is 12 years old and the other one is 24 years old, but for better or worse, they both work fine, so I can't think of any reason to get rid of them. The only possible reason would be that newer TVs would enhance my television viewing experience, but I already know that they won't. Whenever you buy something new, it's interesting for about a week -- a month if you're lucky -- and then it just becomes something else you own.

However, after having said all that, I feel it's only fair to let you know that I just bought a new refrigerator today. As you may recall, my old refrigerator started acting erratically a couple of months ago. It still kept the food cold, but the freezer no longer froze anything and the ice maker stopped working.

I ignored the problem for a while, hoping it would go away. (I know how silly that sounds, but it's the same strategy our government has been using with the economy until very recently.) The problem, of course, did not go away, so a few days ago I called up an appliance repair place to see if they could fix it. The guy came out to my house, took apart the refrigerator, and informed me that it was leaking Freon. He also told me that to fix it would almost cost what a new refrigerator would cost. So I bought a new refrigerator, and it's supposed to be delivered sometime within the next week.

When I was talking with the salesman, he asked me how long I had my old refrigerator. I told him I'd had it for 19 years. He seemed pretty impressed, so I told him I'd heard that newer refrigerators aren't built to last that long, and he confirmed that this is true. I asked him how long a refrigerator made today would last and he told me about eight to ten years. When I asked him why, he said something about how they're now built with smaller, more energy-efficient compressors, which wear out more quickly. And then he said that at the rate refrigerator technology is changing, most people wouldn't want the same refrigerator for 20 years, just like they wouldn't want the same car for 20 years.

That sounded sort of ridiculous to me, but maybe it isn't. Maybe what I require from a refrigerator is much less than what others require. I just need it to keep frozen things frozen and to keep cold things cold. Refrigerators have been doing that for longer than I've been alive.

And as it turns out, there isn't much difference between my old refrigerator and the one I just bought. The biggest difference is that the old one is 19 years old and that it's leaking Freon. Other than that, they look about the same, they're about the same size, they have the same features, and they have the same capacity.

Actually, there's another difference, but I don't consider it a change for the better. My old refrigerator has three bins that you can put fresh vegetables in. The new one also has three bins, but two of them are pretty small. (All the other refrigerators I looked at had only two bins, and they were also pretty small.) But all the new refrigerators have door-mounted shelves that are wide enough to hold one-gallon containers. I don't buy anything in one-gallon containers, so that's sort of a waste of space, especially since the more space the door-mounted shelves take up, the less space is available for the rest of the refrigerator.

But refrigerators, like everything else, just reflect the trends in our lives, and I guess one of the current trends is not to eat a lot of fresh vegetables. The other trend is apparently to buy gallon jugs of milk and soft drinks. So today's refrigerators are not meant for people like me, but I'm sure I'll find a way to adapt. It may not be easy at first, but I've adapted to a lot of other things, so I think I'll probably be able to adapt to the new refrigerator. And if I can't, in eight or ten years when I need to buy a new one, maybe the pendulum will be swinging in the other direction and people will be eating fresh foods again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Too Easy, Libya

Not too long ago, it seems like the major problems facing us were the never-ending war in Iraq and the imminent global environmental collapse. Those problems are still with is, and they're just as important as ever, but they've taken a back seat to the latest problem, which is the impending worldwide economic disaster.

Last week, the big news was the $85 billion bail-out of AIG. That seemed like a big deal at the time, but this week $85 billion seems like nothing, compared to the proposed $700 billion we're being asked to fork over so our government can buy more worthless mortgage-based securities from Wall St. investment firms at a price many times greater than what they're actually worth.

But enough of all that. Things are bad and they're going to get worse, but if we live long enough, we might see them get better again. So on that optimistic note, let's move on to today's topic.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine pointed out that the flag of the United States is not an easy one to draw, particularly for children, because of all the stars. His presumption was that at some point in their academic careers, all elementary school children in this country are given the assignment of drawing the United States flag.

To be honest, my elementary school education took place so long ago that I barely remember anything about it. Specifically, I don't remember ever having been asked to draw the flag of the United States as part of any classroom assignment. I do have the vague sense that I've drawn a few United States flags in my childhood, however, and I can verify that drawing those stars is what makes the task so difficult. It's not that drawing a star is particularly difficult, although creating a white star on a blue background requires that the background be drawn everywhere except where a star should be. This is not an easy task, particularly for a child. For anyone, regardless of age, it is a tedious chore. The proper arrangement of the 50 stars in alternating rows of five and six stars is also rather complicated, but most children don't concern themselves with this level of accuracy.

So drawing the United States flag is far from easy, but on the other hand, it's much easier to draw than many other flags. Consider, for example, the flags of Afghanistan, Albania, and American Samoa. Or for that matter, Belize, Bhutan, and Cambodia. I'm not going to go through the whole list, but flags with a coat of arms, like Moldova and Guatemala, or flags that contain writing, such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, seem especially difficult to draw, and by comparison make drawing the United States flag seem like child's play.

I think there are quite a few flags that would present a challenge to the average elementary school child, but they aren't so difficult that they would cause the child to give up in exasperation. I'm referring to the flags of countries like South Korea, Macedonia, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Suriname.

There are also a lot of flags that I think wouldn't be challenging enough for the typical school child. Any of the Scandinavian flags would probably fall into this category, with the possible exception of Norway, as would all of the flags that simply consist of two or three color fields, such as Gabon, Germany, Hungary, Colombia, Indonesia, and France.

And finally, there is the flag of Libya, which consists of nothing but a solid green rectangle. The only challenge facing the child who is asked to draw the Libyan flag is to ensure that the entire flag can be drawn without running out of green crayons. There's no frustrating arrangement of stars or coat of arms to draw. There aren't even any lines to draw. Most children wouldn't even waste their time, because the Libyan flag presents absolutely no technical or artistic challenges. It's just too easy.

Anyway, remember a little while ago when I told you I had an idea for this blog but I didn't think it was interesting enough to actually write about? Well, this was it, and I apologize for not warning you in advance. I realize you probably would have been better off reading another of my recent posts, such as this one or this one. Or maybe you would have enjoyed one of my older posts, such as this one. Today's post isn't nearly as interesting, but I never promised that everything I write is going to be a work of literary genius.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Too Big to Fail

In a generous $85 billion gesture of corporate socialism, our federal government has decided to bail out AIG, the failing insurance industry giant. The government, which was already in pretty deep financial trouble, will finance the transaction by passing the cost on to the U.S. taxpayers, essentially forcing us to buy billions of dollars worth of bad debt.

The stated reason for the bail-out is that AIG is too big to fail. Apparently, if AIG were to collapse, it would have devastating worldwide consequences. Maybe it would -- I can't say, since I don't really know anything about finance or economics -- but I do have a question, and that question is, how can one corporation get that big? Or more to the point, should a corporation be allowed to get that big?

Advocates of unregulated free trade will enthusiastically say yes, but I have my doubts. You could take half of Western Europe, blow it off the face of the Earth, and it probably wouldn't have the same disastrous worldwide economic consequences that failing to bail out AIG would have. And I'm not convinced that a single corporation should have more of a global economic impact than half a continent.

But the truth is, if you got rid of Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and Belgium, the rest of the world probably wouldn't suffer much financially. As a matter of fact, you could throw in all of Scandinavia and it still probably wouldn't matter that much from an economic standpoint.

But before you get the wrong idea, I'm not advocating that we blow up any part of Europe or Scandinavia. Even though the financial consequences might be minimal, those countries are rich in culture and history, and the loss of all that would be something that no amount of money could ever compensate for.

But the real issue here is not the financial clout of AIG or Europe or Scandinavia. The real issue is that I wish I were too big to fail. If the government were willing to bail me out anytime I made a series of stupid mistakes, I'd be a very wealthy man. And I wouldn't need $85 billion either. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even need $85 million. I'd be very happy with $8.5 million, but the truth is, I'd be quite content with $850 thousand. And even though I don't want to sell myself short, if you talked me down to $85 thousand, I'd still feel very fortunate.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Another Word for Bitch

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I don't discuss politics. That's because politics have become so polarized that there are probably few subjects more divisive. And I am a uniter, not a divider, so politics are pretty much off limits. So even though last week I mentioned John McCain's comment about the outcome of a hurricane being "in the hands of God," I wasn't attacking McCain or whatever religious beliefs he may profess, I was merely examining a phrase he happened to use.

By the way, a guy I know took issue with the term "act of nature" as a substitute for "act of God." He felt that it implied an anthropomorphization of nature (such as "Mother Earth," for example) by suggesting that nature is somehow capable of conscious and deliberate action. His point is well taken, so perhaps a better term would be a "natural occurrence" or a "natural event" or something to that effect.

Anyway, this week, I'd like to look at a phrase used by McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin. As we all know, this self-described hockey mom told her audience that the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom is lipstick. This is apparently an old joke, but I'd never heard it before, possibly because I don't spend much time with pit bulls or hockey moms.

Sarah Palin was applauded for her now-famous observation, but if I ever called a woman as a pit bull with lipstick, I'm pretty sure she'd take it as an insult. And if she didn't, she should, because it's not a very nice thing to say. It's just another way of calling her a bitch.

The phrase isn't at all complimentary to women, but it's not particularly kind to pit bulls either. Pit bulls already have a pretty bad reputation -- the way people talk about them, you'd think they were hounds from hell. Granted, they were bred to be fighting dogs, but if they're properly trained, they can be suitable pets. As a matter of fact, according to a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the pit bull rated average or below average for hostility towards strangers.

To complicate matters further, there's really no such breed as a pit bull. The term "pit bull" is apparently just a catch-all designation for several types of dog that look somewhat alike and were originally bred for fighting. And I don't want to get into the whole Dog Whisperer thing, but when any dog, regardless of breed, is aggressive, it's usually because of its owners. So rather than further malign the pit bull, we should be maligning the pit bull owners for not knowing how to take care of their dogs.

So let's summarize what we learned today. We learned that if I call a some woman a pit bull with lipstick, she'll probably be insulted. We also learned that pit bulls shouldn't be spoken of disparagingly, because they're just dogs, and you shouldn't criticize a dog for being a dog. And finally, we learned that it's fine to criticize a human for being a bad dog owner, because humans are supposed to be smart enough to know better, even though a lot of them obviously are not.

And just to make one final comment, I don't know about you, but however distasteful I find the phrase "a pit bull with lipstick," I find the image of a pit bull wearing lipstick to be even more distasteful. I usually don't even like it when women wear lipstick, especially if it's really bright red or something. Some colors look nice on a woman's lips, but they'd look awful on a dog's lips. As a matter of fact, I'm not even sure that dogs have lips, so you'd probably have to apply the lipstick to the fur around the dog's mouth, which would look terrible and would be degrading to the dog.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Acts of God

People still talk about "dialing a phone number" even though telephones haven't had dials for decades. This is an example of how our language doesn't always keep pace with our changing world.

I guess it's sort of the same thing when John McCain recently said about Hurricane Gustav that its outcome was "in the hands of God." I don't care how religious you are, you probably realize that hurricanes aren't really acts of God. As a matter of fact, even Baptist minister and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee objects to the term. Way back in 1997, he refused to sign some legislation pertaining to natural disasters until the phrase "acts of God" was removed. He didn't think destructive and deadly forces should be considered acts of God.

As it turns out, calling a hurricane or a flood an act of God is about as inaccurate as you can get. Unlike our primitive ancestors, most people today probably realize that any amount of rain -- from the slightest drizzle to the most violent storm -- is a well-understood meteorological condition and not the doing of some rain god. Even the most pious and devout people would have to agree. There's no controversy over this. No one is saying, for example, that there isn't enough scientific evidence to support the theory that changes in the weather aren't part of God's plan.

But we still use the term "Act of God." And it's not just a casual term -- it actually has a legal definition. It means an event outside of human control, although, oddly, it doesn't imply that the event was actually caused by God. So maybe we should just stop using the term altogether and replace it with "Act of Nature."

And while were at it, we should stop talking about dialing a phone number as well.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

One-Hit Wonders

If Pier Paolo Pasolini made one good movie during his lifetime, it would have to be Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. I'm not saying it's actually a good movie -- I'm just saying it's the closest thing to a good movie he ever made. Of course, that's a pretty indefensible position for me to take, considering I've only seen one or two of his other movies. But I think most people will agree that Salo is probably his most famous, as well as his most infamous, movie.

In case you never saw it, here's the story in a nutshell: Around the end of World War II, a group of Italian Fascists assemble a group of children and young adults and take them to a remote villa, where they torture them, humiliate them, sexually abuse them, and eventually kill them.

The reason I'm thinking about this is that I happened to notice a small ad in the latest New Yorker announcing that Salo is being released to DVD by The Criterion Collection. That surprised me, since I wouldn't have thought there was much of a market for this particular movie. I'm not planning on buying it, unless it turns out I have an extra $30 or so that I desperately need to spend on something I don't really want, but when I saw the ad, it reminded me of my experiences when I saw the movie.

The first time I saw it sometime in the early '80s, I was overwhelmed. The violence wasn't particularly explicit for the most part, but the overarching cruelty in the film made me feel dirty when I left the theater. I couldn't stop thinking about it for days.

Since the move was shown very rarely and only at revival theaters, the second time I saw it was probably a few years later. I was prepared for it this time, so I was able to look past the violence and cruelty and see the underlying poetic structure. Don't ask me what I mean by that, because I won't be able to tell you. All I can say is that when I saw the movie the second time, I remember thinking there was an underlying poetic structure.

The third time I saw it was probably in the late '80s. I shouldn't even count this because I watched the movie on what was possibly the worst film to VHS transfer of all time. Not only were the video and audio quality below all reasonable standards, there were actually gaps in the tape where they changed the film reels. So it was hardly the ideal viewing situation, but this time I was able to look past the violence and cruelty, and I was able to look past the underlying poetic structure as well. As a matter of fact, all I was able to see was that the movie was pointless and stupid.

I may be judging Salo too harshly, of course. I'm sure there are deeper meanings to the film that I probably missed, and maybe if I'd seen a better copy of it the last time I wouldn't have ended up with such a low opinion of it. So I should probably buy the DVD, just so I can give the movie a fourth chance. Maybe if one day I bump my head and can't think straight or something, I'll break down and get a copy. But it's not exactly a top priority item on my list of things to do.

While we're on the subject of people who may have made only one good movie, I have to mention Alejandro Jodorowsky. If Jodorowsky made one good movie during his career, it would have to be El Topo. Unlike Pasolini, Jodorowsky is still alive, so there's a chance that he might make a better film someday, but I'm not holding my breath. I've seen a lot of Jodorowsky's films, and they're all heavy-handed, pretentious, and overwrought with mysticism and religious symbolism.

That's true of El Topo as well -- as a matter of fact, it may be more true of El Topo than with other Jodorowsky films, but at least El Topo is engaging and fun to watch. I don't even know how many times I've seen it. It used to get shown in theaters every now and then, and whenever it did, some friends and I would invariably drive out to see it. It wasn't available on Region-1 DVD for a long time, apparently due to some legal battles and personal feuds, but when it was finally available, I picked up a copy. Unfortunately, it's only available as a boxed set, so you're forced to buy a few not-so-great Jodorowsky films, as well as some soundtrack CDs that aren't worth listening to, but that's the way things go.

One of the interesting things about El Topo is that back in the days of double features, it often got shown with Greaser's Palace, probably because they're both religious allegories of one sort or another. Greaser's Palace, by the way, may be the only good movie that Robert Downey ever made. And I'm not talking about the actor Robert Downey, Jr. -- I'm talking about his father, the director Robert Downey (who these days, to avoid any confusion resulting from his son's successful career, goes by the name Robert Downey, Sr.). Greaser's Palace wasn't his most famous movie -- that distinction would probably have to go to Putney Swope, which in my opinion wasn't nearly as good. As a matter of fact, of all the Robert Downey films I've ever seen, Greaser's Palace is the only one I've seen more than once. I have the DVD as well. It's a classic. I almost feel like I should be watching it instead of writing this post.

So that's about it. I don't know how to end this post, so I'll just jump abruptly to another topic. As I mentioned, a while ago, I injured my back recently. I went to see my orthopedist a couple of times and when I went to settle the bill, I noticed that printed on the bottom of the credit card receipt was the message, "Thank you! Come again!"

I don't know about you, but I think this is the wrong message to be giving your patients. It's sort of like saying, "Stay sick! Don't get better!" Maybe I'm the only person who reads the messages on credit card receipts, but I much prefer the message on the receipts I get from the physical therapy place I've been going to. It's just a simple unambiguous "Thank you!" to which my only response is always "You're welcome!"

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Refrigerators and Superstitions

Last Saturday, my refrigerator stopped working. It didn't stop working completely -- it just stopped working as hard as it used to. It was still keeping food cold, but the freezer wasn't cold enough to keep things from partially thawing, and the ice maker stopped making ice. I couldn't figure out what was wrong, but the refrigerator is about 18 or 19 years old, so I decided it's probably just going through a teenage rebellion phase.

I gave it a day to see if it would start working again, but it didn't. So on Sunday, I looked up the names of a few authorized service centers. I figured a repairman might be able to take a look at the refrigerator and see what was wrong with it. I also looked at a few refrigerators online, just in case I had to buy a new one.

I was too busy during the week to call any of the authorized service centers, and I was too lazy to go refrigerator shopping, but an interesting thing happened. When I got home Tuesday night, I checked the freezer and there was a batch of freshly made ice in it. So I figured the refrigerator must have been aware that I was thinking about having it fixed or replaced, and it decided to start working a little harder.

Do I really believe that refrigerators are self-aware? Do I really think refrigerators can intuit human intent? No. Of course not, because I tend to be rational about most things.

Rational people tend not to be superstitious, and if you ask a lot of people if they're superstitious, I bet most of them will say they aren't. That's a good thing, but we live in a world so full of superstitions that sometimes we don't even recognize them.

A long time ago -- maybe about thirty years ago -- I briefly went out with a woman who lived in unit 12A of her apartment building. One day, I realized that the apartments were numbered 12, 12A, and 14, which meant that she was actually in unit 13. She sort of freaked out a little when I told her that. She didn't pack a suitcase and move out that night or anything like that, but she was genuinely upset about living in what by any other name was actually unit 13 of her building.

But that's nothing. Office buildings today are routinely built without a 13th floor. There's no floor 12A either -- the 13th floor is simply gone. It just goes from the 12th floor the 14th floor. So our superstitions are built right into our architecture, and the funny thing is, I bet most people wouldn't have any problem working on the 13th floor of a building. Of course, I've made the mistake before of thinking everyone is as rational and level-headed as I am, so maybe I'm wrong. But I do think it's kind of strange that even though our technology has advanced to the point that we can build super-skyscrapers that soar hundreds of stories into the sky, not one of those buildings is likely to have a 13th floor.

The problem is that even as we get smarter about some things, like how to build tall buildings, we remain just as stupid as our ancient ancestors were about other things, like superstitions and irrational fears. I guess that means that intelligence and stupidity are located in two different parts of the brain. I like to think that for most of us, the stupidity portion of our brains has atrophied while the intelligence portion has developed, but it seems like there are a lot of people for whom that isn't particularly true. People believe things without even knowing why they believe them, and that's not likely to change in the near future, no matter how quickly our skyscraper technology develops.

But back to more immediate concerns, I'm hoping that our refrigerator technology has grown in the last 18 or 19 years, because I think it's just a matter of time before I'll need a new refrigerator. The current one does its job well enough at the moment -- I don't really need ice, and if I turn the knob to its maximum setting, things in the freezer stay more or less frozen. But I'm mot in denial about this -- I know that some day soon the refrigerator will probably die on me and I'll have to get a new one.

Unfortunately, according to a friend of mine, they don't make refrigerators like they used to, and if I were to buy a new one today, it probably wouldn't last for 18 or 19 years. So for now, I'm just avoiding the issue. That's because the procrastination portion of my brain is pretty well-developed, maybe almost as much as the intelligence portion.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Nothing up my sleeve..."

I'm not going to write about what I said I might write about last week. I was planning on it, but something else popped into my mind, so I'm going to write about that instead. Maybe next week I'll get around to writing about that other thing.

On August 18, 2007 -- almost a year ago to the day -- I enabled comments on this blog. I didn't expect to get many, and -- not surprisingly -- I didn't. That's not particularly interesting, but here's something that might be. On July 15, 2006 -- more than a year before I enabled comments -- I wrote a post that has received more comments to date than all other posts combined. And the most recent comment was made just last month. That may not be so interesting to you, but I'm not going to explain why it's sort of interesting to me. Instead, I'll just continue with this post and assume that if you aren't interested, you'll look for something else to read instead.

In the July 15 post, I mentioned that magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel are often accused of being the devil, because they're able to perform magic tricks that confound and amaze the people who witness those tricks. I didn't think I was saying anything controversial, but apparently I was wrong.

About half the comments took the position that even though Criss Angel might not be the devil, performing magic tricks is exactly the sort of thing the devil would do to lure hearts and souls to his evil ways. Although that might make sense to some people, it also implies that anyone who performs magic tricks can be suspected of being in league with the devil.

Not surprisingly, because I have been given the gift of intelligent rational thought, I disagree completely. No matter who you are -- devil, attorney, or salesman -- I happen to think there are much better ways to win people over to your side. If all it took were a few magic tricks, every politician in this country would be studying the art of prestidigitation. But have you ever seen John McCain doing any magic? How about Barack Obama? Has he been performing any magic tricks recently? I haven't been following the campaigns, but from what I've heard, they mostly just give a lot of speeches. I don't believe anything either of them says, by the way, but it's not because I think they're liars -- it's because they're making campaign promises, and campaign promises are meant to be broken.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who takes everything they say with a grain of salt -- or actually, with an entire salt mine -- so they're probably just wasting a lot of time and money flying all over the country and telling us the lies they think we want to hear. On the other hand, if performing magic tricks could win them votes, believe me, they'd fire all their speech writers in an instant and spend all their free time in magic stores.

But let's turn our attention back to Criss Angel and David Blaine. They certainly aren't the first people to perform magic tricks -- and the tricks they perform aren't all that different from tricks performed by many other magicians -- but as far as I know, they're the only two magicians who have ever been accused of being the devil in disguise. To my knowledge, no one ever called Harry Houdini the devil, for example. No one ever called Doug Henning the devil either. No one calls Lance Burton the devil, and no one calls Penn and Teller the devil. No one has ever called Siegfried and Roy the devil, nor has anyone ever called David Copperfield, The Amazing Jonathan, or Princess Tenko the devil.

But that's not all. It turns out there are a lot of Christian magicians plying their trade. These people are not merely magicians who happen to be Christian, or Christians who happen to be magicians -- they are magicians who perform tricks to illustrate the teachings of the Bible. So it's probably very obvious to most of us that you can be a magician without having any demonic intent.

So what is it about David Blaine and Criss Angel? I've got a theory, and I could be wrong, but if you think I am, maybe you can come up with a better one. David Blaine is half Puerto Rican and as a result, his skin is darker than that of many people born in this country, and that kind of thing still makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Criss Angel's skin is as white as snow, but he has long stringy hair and dresses in a sort of Goth/Death metal style. So I think people believe they're the devil simply because of the way they look. If Criss Angel cut his hair, wore something other than his usual black leather clothing, and lost about 10 pounds of metal chains and bracelets, people might even think he was cute, just like they did with Doug Henning. There's not much David Blaine can do about his skin color -- he could bleach it like Michael Jackson did -- but that's kind of a big step to take just to test my theory, and I don't recommend it. But much more to the point, the theory doesn't need to be proven -- it makes a lot of sense, so we can just assume it's probably true.

Besides, nobody seems to think David Blaine is the devil anymore -- now they just think of him as an attention-grabbing self-promoter. And as for Criss Angel, I don't know if his show is even on anymore. I sort of lost interest in him after watching his show for for a season or two, but if he were the devil, he'd probably have some kind of power that would prevent people from getting bored with him so easily. And even if his show is still on the air, it's probably still on A&E. You'd think the devil would at least be able to cut a deal with one of the major networks.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lorem Ipsum

I've had an idea floating around in my head for a few weeks now, but I haven't been able to muster up enough enthusiasm to actually write about it. Maybe that means I don't think it's such an interesting idea, or maybe it means I have better things to do. Or maybe it means both, or maybe it means neither. In any case, I'm not going to write about it this week. Maybe I'll write about it next week. Or maybe next week I'll write about something more interesting instead. But since I'm not going to write about anything this week, I'll leave you with the following place-holder text instead.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Dorks, Nerds, and Geeks

In the furtherance of my mission to write about things that most people couldn't care less about, today I'd like to talk about dorks, nerds, and geeks -- or more specifically, the words "dork," "nerd," and "geek."

At one point all three of these words were more or less synonymous, but with the passage of time, they have acquired subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle -- distinctions.

Originally, "dork" was a slang term for "penis," in much the same way that "dick," "prick," "weenie," "cock," et al still are today. I believe I first heard the word "dork" used this way in the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal, and if my memory serves me correctly, I believe this was the last time I heard the word "dork" used this way as well.

For some reason, "dork" never caught on as a slang term for "penis" -- probably because there were hundreds of competing words that were already in frequent use. (Note that the fate of the word "dork" is not unique in this respect. The word "wang" enjoyed a certain amount of popularity at one time but is now rarely, if ever, used.)

Nonetheless, "dork" somehow made the jump from literal slang term for "penis" to figurative slang term for "penis," so calling someone a dork is now somewhat akin to calling him a dick or a prick or a weenie.

(As a tangential remark, I think it's interesting to note that even though "dork," "dick," "prick," and "weenie" are basically synonymous in their literal definitions, they are not interchangeable when used in describing a person. Calling someone a weenie has a completely different connotation than calling someone a prick, for example. And, inexplicably, calling someone a cock has no meaning whatsoever.)

So that's enough about the word "dork." Perhaps more interesting are the words "geek" and "nerd."

"Geek" is a fairly old word, by which I mean it was in use long before I was born, although its current definition may be relatively new. "Nerd," on the other hand, is a fairly recent addition to the English language. I think it was first used sometime in the '70s. As a matter of fact, I remember seeing a poster back then of a stereotypical nerd in which all the elements of nerd attire (such as off-brand running shoes, pocket protector, food-stained shirt, and broken horn-rimmed glasses repaired with tape) were identified and labeled. It wasn't a particularly funny poster but what I remember about it is that rather than spelling the word N-E-R-D as we do today, it was spelled N-U-R-D, indicating that the word was so new back then that a standard spelling for it hadn't even been agreed upon yet.

For the longest time, "nerd" and "geek" were synonymous, and it was considered an insult to be called either of them. But then, sometime in the early '00s, "geek" became somewhat less pejorative. People started referring to themselves as geeks to indicate a certain level of expertise or interest in a particular field. It wasn't uncommon to hear people identify themselves as computer geeks or art geeks or movie geeks, for example. I even knew a stockbroker at the time who referred to some of the people in his offices as geeks, the implication being that they studied the market very closely and examined the financial details of certain companies in much greater detail than a lot of other stockbrokers. At the same time, "nerd" was still considered an insult and no one would even think of applying that label to himself.

However, all that has apparently changed recently. I have heard from two independent sources that "nerd" has lost most, if not all, of its negative connotations and today "geek" is considered the more pejorative term. I doubt if there's any sociolinguistic explanation for this shift -- it can probably be attributed to nothing more complicated than the fickle habits of the English-speaking public. Nonetheless, I think it's sort of fascinating.

But then, it's exactly the sort of thing I would be fascinated by, because I'm what you might call a word geek. Or maybe now you'd call me a word nerd, just to keep up with current definitions. I, however, would never call myself a word nerd because I don't like the way it sounds. The rhyme is unfortunate because it makes the term a little too cute, and what's needed here is not a term with cuteness but a term with dignity and respectability. It's no big deal, though, because, as I said before, I'm not going to call myself a word nerd. And in case you're wondering, I'm not going to call myself a word geek either.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Snooze

My alarm clock has a nine-minute snooze button. I'd like it a lot more if it had a 10-minute button, not so much because I want the extra minute, but because nobody wants to have to do arithmetic in the morning. If I had a 10-minute snooze button and I set the alarm for 8:00 a.m., I'd know that the next time I hit it, it will be 8:10, then 8:20, then 8:30, and so on until I finally decide to get out of bed around 10:00 or so. But with a nine-minute snooze button, I have to do some early-morning calculations. The first one isn't so hard. 8:09. Okay. But then the next one will be 8:18, then 8:27, then 8:36., and to me these just seem like strange times to be getting out of bed. The math isn't difficult, but it's not as easy as just adding 10. And to make matters even worse, the hour after that is completely different -- the alarm goes off at 9:03, then 9:12, then 9:21, and then 9:30.

I wouldn't mind having an alarm clock with a 12-minute snooze button. A little bit of arithmetic is involved, but no matter how many times you hit the button, you'll know that it's always going to be on the hour, or 12 minutes past the hour, or 24 minutes, or 36, or 48, regardless of the hour. So you can keep hitting the button hour after hour and you'll always have a pretty good sense of what time it is.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that I happened to see an ad for an alarm clock with a four-minute snooze button. Yes, you read that right. Four minutes. A whopping 240 seconds. What's the point of that? Why would anyone want an alarm clock that's going to annoy them every four minutes? It's insane. You might as well get up when the alarm rings the first time, just so you won't have to hear it every four minutes. Or you could do what I'd probably do: just turn the alarm off and get out of bed when you feel like it.

The thing is, I have a feeling that a four-minute snooze button is exactly what some people want. It seems like the world is getting increasingly fast-paced and competitive, and no one has a minute to lose. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years, someone makes an alarm clock with a two-minute snooze button. And a few years after that, the snooze button might disappear completely, to be replaced by an alarm clock that pinches you and pushes you and taunts you until you get out of bed.

Or more likely, the alarm clock as we know it may become obsolete. Instead we'll have some sort of subcutaneous implant that will jolt us with tiny bursts of electricity when it's time to get up. It can be implanted when we're babies, at the same time they implant the miniature cell phones, media players, ID tags, and medical and financial record storage areas under our skin. I know, it sounds like science fiction, but at some point it'll just be science. And it probably won't happen that far in the future. So sleep while you can, and use that snooze button as much as you can while you've still got one.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Acronyms and the End of the World

Everybody thinks they know what an acronym is, but nobody agrees on what it is. For example, a lot of people might think that LHC is an acronym for Large Hadron Collider, but others will claim that since LHC isn't pronounceable as a word, it isn't really an acronym -- it's just an abbreviation made by taking the first letter from each word. Compare this to NASA -- short for National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- which can be pronounced as a word and is therefore a better candidate for acronymy. On the other hand, I know a guy who claims that NASA isn't really an acronym either, since NASA isn't an actual word, unlike, for example, CAT, which is an acronym for Computer-Aided Tomography but is also the word to describe those furry little animals that sleep and eat and meow and purr.

I'm not so strict in my own usage of the term. I think LHC is a perfectly good acronym, for example -- even though it doesn't meet every criterion of the strictest definition of the term -- if only because there's really no better word to describe it. There are words such as "initialism," but to me they seem awkward and clunky. On the other hand, I've always been a little uneasy about acronyms made from other acronyms, such as APLA, which stands for AIDS Project Los Angeles, and AIM, which is short for AOL Instant Messenger.

But it doesn't really matter, since that's not what I wanted to write about anyway. What I wanted to write about are the acronyms that supposedly don't stand for anything. I'm talking about acronyms like KFC, SAT, and AARP. They once stood for something, but the official word today is that they're just letters.

KFC, as I'm sure you probably know, originally stood for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but at some point when people started becoming health-conscious and thought of eating fried foods as some sort of unspeakable act, the corporate executives attempted to make KFC stand for Kitchen Fresh Chicken. That never caught on, so nowadays KFC doesn't stand for anything. They still sell tons of fried chicken every day, however.

The story behind SAT isn't so clear. When I was a kid, SAT stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but apparently, for some mysterious reason, the people who own the test changed it to Scholastic Assessment Test. I don't know why -- one seems as good as the other to me. But the point is now moot, since SAT no longer stands for anything. It's just three letters.

As for AARP, this used to stand for American Association of Retired Persons. But that posed a problem, because you don't actually have to be a retired person to be a member -- you just have to be at least 50 years old. As a matter of fact, if you retired at age 49, I don't even know if they'd let you join. So it makes sense that AARP shouldn't stand for anything that has to do with retired people, but the people at AARP took it one step further and made AARP stand for nothing.

And this brings us to the words "shit" and "fuck." Ever since I was in elementary school, I've heard that "fuck" is an acronym for "Fornication Under Consent of the King," "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," and various other unlikely expressions. I was young and naïve back then, but I was never stupid enough to believe the word "fuck" was an acronym. But apparently a lot of people are that stupid, and possibly even stupider. According to the documentary Fuck, which I saw a few months ago, something like 70% of the American people think "fuck" is an acronym.

A long time ago, H. L. Mencken told us "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," so it's hardly Earth-shattering news that people are stupid, but it is sort of depressing. And to make matters worse, a few months ago, there was a commercial I occasionally heard on the radio. I don't remember what it was advertising, but they somehow worked in some false etymology for the word "shit," claiming it was an acronym for "Ship High In Transit" -- which was supposedly what they used to write on crates of cow manure to ensure the crates were kept far from the engines to prevent the fumes from igniting and blowing up the ships. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I bet there are millions of people who actually believe it.

I suppose we can be thankful that we're not as stupid as these people, but we can't afford to be smug about it, because these stupid people breed. And they vote. And they already outnumber us. It makes me doubtful about the future of humanity.

Which brings us back to the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. A lot of people are against it, because there's a chance that as soon as you turn it on, it will suck the whole Earth into a huge black hole. It's theoretically possible but extremely unlikely -- if a black hole were created by the LHC, it would probably be so unstable that it would be destroyed before it had a chance to do any damage -- but if it did create a black hole strong enough to swallow the Earth, I don't think it would be all that terrible. It would happen so quickly that we wouldn't even know what hit us. It would be a quick and painless extermination, rather than a slow lingering one in which, for example, each day the Earth becomes less capable of supporting animal and plant life. We'd all be living our lives, ignorantly believing in all sorts of stupid things, such as the origin of the words "fuck" and "shit," and then a moment later, we'd all be gone. And all our stupidity and ignorance would be gone with us. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Disappointments and Happy Endings

Last week, I may have implied that I spent the July 4th holiday on the moon. So just to clear up any possible misunderstandings, I didn't actually go to the moon. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever been to the moon. The truth is, I mostly spent that whole week and the week that followed within the confines of my house, except for a brief excursion to the emergency room.

I didn't have an actual medical emergency -- I wasn't suffocating or bleeding to death, for example -- but I was barely able to move due to all the excruciating pain I was suffering from.

Here's the short to medium-length version of what happened: Sometime in the early '90s, I herniated a few discs in my lower back, causing the vertebrae to pinch various nerves, including the sciatic nerve. It didn't happen all at once -- it happened over the course of a few years, during which I spent a fair amount of time in and out of physical therapy. I'm mostly pain-free these days, except that every now and then (such as during the recent July 4th holiday, for example), my back will give out on me, sometimes without any warning. Usually it gets better on its own, but this time it only got worse. I tried making an appointment with my orthopedist, but he was booked solid until the end of July, so I got in the car and drove to the emergency room.

Driving wasn't a problem for me, but getting in and out of the car was a challenge. Nonetheless, I made it to the emergency room, and waited for over two hours to see a doctor. He looked pretty young -- I figure he probably wasn't even in high school when I first injured my back -- but although he wasn't an orthopedist, he seemed to know what he was talking about. Before he left, he wrote me a couple of prescriptions -- one for Ibuprofen, which is an anti-inflammatory, and one for Vicodin, which is a pain killer.

Vicodin is also a narcotic, and it's one of those drugs that rich and famous people are always getting addicted to. For the life of me, I don't know why -- it seemed like all it did to me was make me drowsy, without killing any actual pain. So I don't really see the appeal, but maybe I would have liked it more if I were rich and famous.

Anyway, that's not really what I wanted to write about. If you're ever confined to your house and in too much pain to do any actual thinking, you'll probably end up watching a lot of TV. Or at least, that's what I did. Actually, I didn't watch that much -- just enough to remind me why I don't normally watch a lot of TV. I did end up seeing a few movies on cable, though, and a few more movies on my computer.

I'm not going to mention them all because I don't remember them all. I'm just going to mention one for starters and see where that leads me. The movie is Happy Endings. I downloaded this movie, and sometimes when I download a movie, I'll burn it to a DVD so I can watch in on my TV, and other times I'll just watch it on my computer. If it's a long movie (such as the director's cut of Bis ans Ende der Welt, for example), I'll usually burn it to a DVD (or in the case of Bis ans Ende der Welt, two DVDs). My reasoning is that it's more comfortable to watch a movie on my couch looking at a TV screen than on a chair looking at a computer monitor, but in this case, the comfort issue wasn't that important, since you're never all that comfortable when you've got severe back pain.

But anyway, back to Happy Endings, which I watched on my computer even though it was well over two hours long. After a few minutes it started to remind me of the movie The Opposite of Sex, and not just because Lisa Kudrow played the same sort of frustrated pathetic woman in both movies, or that both movies wove several stories into one, or that some of the plot developments were just too absurd to be believable, but because they both had the same basic tone, which was cynical and sarcastic yet still warm-hearted and optimistic somehow. So when Happy Endings was over, I looked it up online and discovered that it was written and directed by Don Roos, the same guy who did The Opposite of Sex. I can't say I was surprised -- as a matter of fact, I probably would have been a lot more surprised if they hadn't been made by the same guy. I think Happy Endings is a pretty good movie, as is The Opposite of Sex. It can't take away the intense pain of severe inflammation in the lower back, but no movie really can.

The only other movie I want to say anything about is Redbelt, David Mamet's latest movie. I saw this movie the week before my recent back problems began, so I saw in the theater. It was hard to find a theater that still played this movie, since it wasn't very well received by either audiences or critics.

It's not Mamet's best movie by far, but it's still worth seeing. It's nowhere near as good as The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, or State and Main, but I still liked it. I don't know why, but for some reason, Mamet sometimes likes his actors to pretend they can't act. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch Lindsay Crouse in House of Cards, or Campbell Scott in The Spanish Prisoner. It's an odd directorial style, but it's part of what gives his movies their unique charm.

There was no deliberately bad acting in Redbelt, but the plot was somewhat ridiculous and some of the characters did things that people in their position would never do, but Mamet probably knows this and he makes them do it anyway. For the viewer, it's sometimes frustrating, but if you can suspend your disbelief, you'll usually end up enjoying yourself, and I'm sure that when Redbelt starts getting shown on cable, I'll watch it a few times, just like I've done with just about every other Mamet film I've seen.

By the way, a few months ago, David Mamet wrote an essay on why he isn't a brain-dead liberal. I read it, and it was sort of frustrating to read -- in the same way his movies can be frustrating to watch -- but the big disappointment for me was that he never really explained why he isn't a brain-dead liberal.

Anyway, you may have noticed that before last week's post, I let two weeks go by without writing anything. That's partially because I had better things to do, and partially because there wasn't anything I was really interested in writing about. I briefly considered writing about Redbelt and the brain-dead essay, but I didn't care enough about either of them to devote an entire post to.

I was also thinking about writing about the fact that some of my favorite filmmakers seem to be devoting their skills to making movies that are impossible to watch. I'm not talking about Mamet-style frustrating movies, I'm talking about people like Peter Greenaway and David Lynch.

Greenaway probably hasn't made anything really worth watching since The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover. That never stops me from seeing anything he makes that gets released in this country, but I'm usually disappointed. Try sitting through 8½ Women and you'll see what I mean. So maybe it's just as well that most of the films he makes never get released here. Nonetheless, I always wanted to see The Baby of Mâcon, even though I don't think it ever got a single good review. I think it played in the United States for one day at one theater, so I never got the chance to see it, and like a lot of other Greenaway films, no NTSC Region 1 DVD was ever released. But somebody posted a copy of it online recently, and although the video quality wasn't very good, I decided to watch it anyway. To be fair, it wasn't half-bad. As a matter of fact, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, which is a strong testament to the power of low expectations.

I also always wanted to see everything in Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases series, but as far as I know, those films were never released in the United States. If an NTSC Region 1 DVD collection had been made, I probably would have bought it, mostly out of curiosity, but as far as I know, that never happened. However, the Sundance Channel showed The Tulse Luper Suitcases 2 last week, and I saw some of it. I don't know exactly how much I saw because I fell asleep while watching it. That isn't necessarily an indictment of The Tulse Luper Suitcases 2, however, since it was shown late at night and I may have just had some Vicodin, but what I did see didn't make me particularly eager to see the rest. It wasn't painful to watch -- it was just sort of remote and uninteresting. Well, it was interesting from a purely cinematic standpoint, I suppose, but it wasn't very involving, which was probably deliberate. But deliberate or not, it didn't hold my attention, which is a shame, because Greenaway is capable of so much more.

The same thing is true with David Lynch. I've written about him before, so I won't repeat myself here. I just wonder if it's possible for him to make a movie even worse than Inland Empire. He's a director of considerable talent, so if anyone can do it, he can, but let's just hope that he decides not to.

So after being disappointed by some of my favorite filmmakers, I'm glad there are people like Todd Solondz. Or more specifically, I'm glad there is Todd Solondz. I've only seen four of his movies, but he's only made five features and one short film, so I've seen the bulk of his work and I've never seen a movie of his that I didn't like. I wasn't all that wild about Storytelling, but after I saw it in the theater, I still decided to watch it a couple of times when it went to cable. His most recent movie, Palindromes, seems to have pinched a few nerves, however, at least judging from the love-it-or-hate-it reviews it got. You can read the external reviews at IMDb if you want, but it's a lot more fun to read the user comments, especially the negative ones. As you read them, count the number of times people use words like "perverse," "offensive," "sick," and "horrible."

So that about wraps it up for this week. And if you're wondering how my back is doing, it's a lot better, thank you. I still don't have full range of motion and I'm still in occasional pain, but it's getting a little better every day, so the next time you hear from me, I'll probably be fine.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Dancing on the Moon

It was July 4th yesterday, which also happens to be Independence Day in the United States. Things can get pretty crazy here with all the fireworks and stuff, so I decided I'd take a long week-end and spend a few days on the moon.

But with gas prices so high these days, I didn't think I could afford it if I went by myself and none of my friends wanted to go, so I decided to try and thumb a ride. I haven't hitch-hiked anywhere since I was in college, and it wasn't always easy to get a ride back then, but it's a lot harder now, especially if you're going someplace far away, like the moon.

But I figured I'm also a lot more patient than I was back then so if I had to wait a little longer, I wouldn't mind so much. And as they say, the journey is just as important as the destination, so I thought I would just focus on the hitch-hiking aspect of my trip rather than the fact that I was actually trying to get somewhere.

So I didn't really mind that it took so long to get a ride. It was hot outside and I had to wait a few hours before anyone picked me up, but the wait wasn't that terrible. My first ride wasn't going all the way to the moon, though. As a matter of fact, they weren't even going half that far. But they took me as far as they went, and then they let me off at some diner.

It was an okay place, but I didn't have to wait there very long, since people were coming and going all the time and it wasn't too hard to get another ride. This family with two little kids picked me up, and I thought the kids might be a problem, since they were young and the moon was far away and I thought they might get bored and whiny after a while. But they were cool. They had games and movies to keep them busy, so they never got impatient or anything. The parents were pretty cool too. They traveled a lot, and they were both good conversationalists, so they had plenty of stories to tell and it never got boring. I offered to chip in some money for gas, but they said it wasn't necessary.

So I got to the moon and thanked them for the ride, but after that, I realized there wasn't much to do up there. So I wandered around aimlessly for a while until I found a small encampment. There were a lot of people there -- most of them were inside the cabins, but a lot of people were just hanging around outside. Some of them were doing a kind of group dance thing, or it looked like they could have been exercising, even though no two people seemed to be doing the same thing at the same time. Another group of people was preparing some food over a huge open fire, so I helped out with that, even though I wasn't really hungry.

After a while, it started to get dark, which also made it get a lot colder. There wasn't any room in any of the cabins for me to sleep in, since I was one of the last people to show up there, so I set up some blankets at the side of one of the buildings, and that wasn't too bad, since I got some of the heat radiated from inside. I wouldn't say it was the best night of sleep I ever had, but when I awoke, I felt invigorated and refreshed, so I decided to run a few laps around the encampment before breakfast. Normally, I don't like to run, but gravity isn't much of an issue on the moon, so you feel a lot lighter and you can run a lot longer before you get tired.

I kind of liked it up there. I was actually thinking of not coming back until tomorrow, but a lot of people were packing up this morning and I figured it would be a lot easier getting a ride if I didn't wait until everyone already left.

I got a ride easily enough, but the people who picked me up weren't from Earth -- they were just stopping there on their way home. I forget where they said they were from, or maybe they didn't even tell me. Their English wasn't that good so I'm not exactly sure what they said the whole time. They didn't talk that much in the first place, so the trip back seemed longer than it otherwise would have. Plus, wherever you go, it usually seems like the trip back home takes a lot longer for some reason.