Thursday, November 20, 2008

Avast, ye swabs!

Piracy is a terrific little business. Not the stealing music kind of piracy, but the hijacking of ships on the high seas kind. According to an AP article today:

"Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women - even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages."

The pirates even use money-counting machines to verify their ransoms. Just like they do in the casinos -- another bastion of piracy.

The article goes on to report how this business has benefited the local economy. Lots of fans of piracy in little impoverished villages such as Harardhere.

Makes you think about joining up, eh? Maybe hanging around in Mogadishu and hoping to get shanghaied. Or is that "Mogadishu-hied?"

Elsewhere in the world there are pirates who are a lot less refined than those from Somalia; they tend to kill people as a standard operating procedure. It's in their business plans and employee handbooks.

So I guess the Somali pirates are "nicer" than others, even if they're not as cute as Johnny Depp. Still, they present a problem. Actually, they REpresent a problem: poverty, desperation, non-existent government. At minimum, Somalia ought to regulate these guys -- or tax their profits. But neither of those is going to happen.

This situation is rather like a war, it seems to me. And there ought to be some organization (the United Nations?) mounting protective measures and going on the offense against the pirates.

The British Parliament passed "The Piracy Act 1698" in, well, 1698 -- declaring that piracy was a crime against their nation and punishable by death. The Brits changed the law several times, eventually deciding that death was too harsh unless the crime involved violence.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), defines piracy. All nations are required to prosecute piracy according to their internal laws. The Royal Navy, though was notified by the Foreign Office not to capture pirates from Somalia because to do so would "breach their human rights." That's because the penalty for piracy under sharia law in Somalia is beheading and whacking off of arms and legs and such. And if the pirates are captured and brought to Old Bailey they would be able to apply for asylum in Britain. And then you'd have even more pirates in Canary Wharf than work there now for various financial institutions. Not good.

I think it's kind of chicken of the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy not to go after these guys and put them in jail. But that would require some revisions to the civil rights and asylum laws of those nations. So first, let's get that done. Then let's get some war ships to patrol those waters. Then let's send a couple cruise missiles or those fancy drones they use in Iraq to take out the fancy new houses of the pirates there in Harardhere; they should be easy to identify among the mud huts.

Or we could do something about the roots of the problem: extreme poverty and no functioning government in Somalia.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beam Me Up, Wolf


November 4th, 2008. On a night that sizzled with genuine dramatic imagery, from scenes of hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Chicago's Grant Park to feeds of election-watch parties around the world, CNN premiered one of the silliest and most gratuitous uses of artificial computer generated graphics ever to spring from the minds of geek-dom.

Wolf Blitzer is a remarkably talented journalist. He has a B.A. in history, received an M.A. in international relations from Johns Hopkins, worked for Reuters and the Jerusalem Post, has written two books, and looks good on TV. He's been with CNN since 1990 and won an Emmy Award for his coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. These days, though, he hosts a pathetic show with the authoritative name "The Situation Room," which views like an "Entertainment Tonight" for pop-news/celebrity-scandal/breaking-tragedy junkies. For three hours every weeknight, Blitzer delivers the news with a bit too much energy and a lot too much volume as he stands before a huge video wall that's covered with graphics and bigger-than-life talking heads and live or taped "You Are There" scenes of the disasters and human interest stories that the network offers up for its viewers' titillation.

CNN is not content to deliver news unadorned, to let the story speak with its own inherent drama and energy. Everything is goosed up, scored with dramatic music, wrapped in slick 3D graphics, set in busy screens filled with scrolling text bars and titles with moving decorations. Talking heads and continuously looping B-Roll are framed in PhotoShop-ped virtual borders that are animated with dizzying movement -- as though the images themselves are inadequate to engage a viewer's brain.

Little wonder then that on election night Wolf roamed the stage at CNN's studio in the Time Warner Center in New York and used its outsized billboard video wall and slick graphics to dramatize what was, already, a pretty dramatic story. And then it went from gratuitous to excessive, from silly to preposterous.

Following some scenes of the enormous crowd that was gathering strength at Grant Park, including an appearance by reporter Jessica Yellin on location, Blitzer spoke to the television audience. "I want you to watch what we're about to do," he said, "because you've never seen anything like this on television."

Then CNN "beamed" Ms. Yellin into Election Center as a snatch of pretentious martial music played in the background. It was the global premiere of what CNN dubbed, erroneously, its "hologram" technology. And it was pretty lame.

The reporter appeared to be standing in a spotlight a dozen feet or so away from Blitzer, looking as though she'd just been teleported by the "matter-energy transport" that always beamed Captain Kirk back to the Starship Enterprise just in time to avoid some alien menace. CNN's engineers are not as adept as Star Trek's Scotty, though, for Ms. Yellin was outlined in the purple fringe that's typical of a bad chromakey effect. Still, as the studio cameras moved--ever so slightly--on the stage (apparently CNN does not believe in stationary cameras), Ms. Blitzer's "hologram" remained in proper position and perspective.

Ms. Yellin spoke: "Hi, Wolf."

And Blitzer, beside himself with awe at the magic wrought by CNN's engineers, continued. "All right, a big round of applause. We did it. There she is, Jessica Yellin. I know you're in Chicago, but we've done something, a hologram. We beamed you in. We beamed you in here into the CNN Election Center. I want to talk to you as I would normally be talking to you if you were really face to face with me. I know you're a few -- at least a thousand miles away, but it looks like you're right here."

What most thrilled Wolf, it seems, was that the television audience could now see Jessica without distracting stuff behind her on the screen; stuff like the enthusiastic crowd in Chicago; stuff like the story she was covering; stuff like real life.

"You know," he said, "what I like about this hologram and you're a hologram now, Jessica. Instead of having thousands of people behind you screaming and shouting, you know what, we can have a little bit more of an intimate conversation and our viewers can enjoy that as well. How excited are you, Jessica, that this is -- you're the first one that we've beamed into the CNN Election Center?"

Yellin could not resist the comparison to Star Wars. "I know," she remarked, "It's like I follow in the tradition of Princess Leah. It's something else. It's the first time it's been live on television and it's a remarkable setup, if I could tell you about it for a moment. I'm inside a tent in Chicago that's been built -- engineers spent about three weeks doing it."

THREE WEEKS! they spent, setting up 35 high definition cameras in a circle in the bluescreen tent, getting them to communicate with the cameras in New York, and testing and tweaking. All so Jessica Yellin could spend a minute or so "in the studio" with Wolf Blitzer. It is interesting that they did not set up a matching rig in Arizona, where the supporters of John McCain had gathered. Seems like fairness would have called for that. But I digress.

Blitzer closed out the virtual reality segment saying, "All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram. Thanks very much. Jessica Yellin is in Chicago. She's not here in New York with us at the CNN Election Center, but you know what. It looked like she was right here. It's pretty amazing technology."

Later, introducing contributor Roland Martin, Blitzer noted, "OK, the real Roland is here, not a hologram." And then he issued what seemed a threat, "All right, but maybe one of these days, Roland, we'll bring you in. We'll beam you in to the CNN Election Center."

Oh, please. Let's hope not.

The amazing television first did not go unnoticed by the press. Here is what a few people had to say about it:

"That is the creepiest thing I have ever seen," wrote Brooke Cain on The Raleigh News & Observer's blog.

"Not only does this technology seem completely creepy, but it's without a doubt one of the most useless and unnecessary pieces of phantasmagoric TV ever enacted," said engadget.com blogger Joshua Topolsky.


"I thought the whole thing was a bit silly and sort of annoying," CNet's Marguerite Reardon observed.


Anna Pickard reported on the "gimmick" for The Guardian: "Why? Because we can. We COULD have a correspondent that could say what she says perfectly well in 2D on a normal screen. But why should we, when we can have a hologram?"

On his Washington Post blog, Style columnist Tom Shales wrote: "It was a cute trick, but how did it substantially contribute to the coverage? No one seemed to know."

CNN was not the only network to embellish the story with over-the-top graphics. MSNBC made a 3D virtual U.S. Capitol Building appear atop a table on its set, surmounted by an equally 3D rainbow representation of the Senate seating chart. This was to illustrate the Democrat's progress in picking up seats in the real institution up there in Washington DC, and it, too, was introduced with a bit of verbal fanfare and oohs and ahhs from the network's reporters. But at least the MSNBC graphic served a purpose.

To my mind the real story of this momentous evening was told in the telephoto close-ups of a teary Oprah Winfrey standing in the crowd at Grant's Park and the likewise teary face of Jesse Jackson, also there, whose generation of angry confrontational politics may finally be at an end, and in the chorus of boos that followed Senator McCain's heartfelt congratulations to his opponent, and in the respectful silence of the awestruck crowd in Chicago as the President-Elect put the election and the challenges ahead in an historical perspective.

Perhaps the XBox generation has a new and different visual aesthetic--some kind of post-modern reality-is-manufactured sensibility--and television producers are smart to cater to it. Or maybe those producers underestimate the powerful effect that genuine raw images can have, even on young people raised on video games. But I'm with The Guardian's Anna Pickard on this one; CNN did it because they could. It's the same misguided enthusiasm for technology that's brought us cell phones with features we can't figure out how to use and never will and never wanted in the first place.

Seems like "Yes we can" is the mantra of the day -- in more ways than one.

###

OH, YES:
You can see the CNN hologram incident on their website.

(You might have to watch a soap commercial before you see the video.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mark Twain Doesn't Live Here

Well now it's curious so many folks have come to this humble blog in search of information about the saying, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble..."

The website statistics tell me that just yesterday Google sent ten people here (darned near a single-day record), who had typed one variation of that saying or another into the search field. (Yahoo sent a total of none, which may indicate why that company is on the skids.)

I typed the first part of the phrase into Google myself, just now, and this blog came up third on the results page. Kind of gratifying, I guess. Another blogger over at the Humanities Division at Northwest College has put a link to my "It ain't..." post on their website, and that seems to have brought some folks here, too. (To return the favor: it's here.)

I don't know what it is that fascinates so many people about a thing that Mark Twain may have -- or may not have -- said. But people in California, Illinois, British Columbia, our Nation's Capitol, England, Texas and even Vietnam demonstrated on the same day this week some curiosity about my favorite aphorism.

I've written in this space about John McCain and why the McCainines lost the election. Real important and insightful stuff, I thought. But nobody seems curious about that.

I've posted some stories that I've passed off as humor, and few people seem to give a hoot.

Somebody checked in from Durham, North Carolina, didn't see what they were looking for, and bounced away in under a second, while a devoted fan in San Francisco visited three times yesterday, looked at three pages each time, and spent all of eight minutes here -- probably looking for the exit.

One individual dropped by to find out something about Arthur C. Clarke, who I happened to mention in one post, and stuck around for 17 minutes to peruse 6 pages. This is an example of how the Internet can get you off track. Whoever that was got distracted by other things and totally forgot why he or she came into the room. I sometimes do that myself, so I understand the feeling.

If there were some way to make a buck off people's curiosity about "It ain't what you know..." I would sure like to know what it is. More than that, though, I'd like to find out why people in so many places in the world are so darned interested in it. Must be important enough to them that they spend their valuable time on Google tracking down the phrase.

Google Analytics doesn't let me know who you are, but it shows me a little bit about how visitors got here and where they hail from and even what browser they use. I wish it would give me some insight into what the heck they're doing here, what they were thinking.

So, do this for me if you'd be so kind: Leave a comment and let me know why you dropped by. What were you looking for that you did or didn't find? I won't be offended if you got here by mistake; most of my visitors probably did.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How John McCain Lost

I think Senator McCain's biggest mistake--the reason he lost the election--was the way he positioned himself. (And by "he" in the following I refer not only to the man but to his campaign organization.)

Perhaps the biggest no-no in a political campaign is to allow oneself to be defined by the opposition. That didn't happen to McCain; he did it to himself.

Seems to me that many people are more influenced by the persona a candidate projects than by the candidate's stands on specific issues or his professed beliefs and values. Even specific deeds, such as McCain's ill-advised selection of his running mate, are more viewed (at least subconsciously) in the larger context of what they reveal about the general character of the man, his overall essence, and less as insights into his decision-making abilities or other specific attributes.

McCain identified himself, repeatedly and with uninhibited relish, as the underdog. I don't think he could have prevented himself from doing so. It's his nature. (Surely some psychoanalyst is working on a book about McCain's psyche and its roots, so I'll leave the scrutiny of his id and ego to the shrinks. They can speculate about the "victim syndrome" and how it relates to his ancestry, his family's early disappointment with him, his imprisonment, and all that other psychobabble rubbish.)

While "everybody loves an underdog" and we may root for them at times, most of us don't really believe that an underdog is the right choice for the "top dog." I think that view is programmed in our genes. (More cud there, with my compliments, for the shrinks to chew on.)

In what ways did he act the underdog?

-- He viciously and unfairly attacked his opponent when he might have stood proudly on his own achievements. He snarled about irrelevancies and yapped at Obama's heels--while the latter stood firm and resolute, composed and presidential.

-- He emphasized trivial, inconsequential chinks in his opponent's armor.

-- He partnered with an insubstantial running mate of trifling accomplishment and minimal intellect, who likewise yipped about petty matters--another underdog who proudly self-identified as something akin to a "pit bull."

-- He introduced us to his friends and most ardent supporters, Joe the Plumber and a mangy gang of rabid hounds, and together they gave the impression of a pack of growling mongrel misfits more suited to a kennel than the White House.

-- He appealed to the insecurities of factions of the electorate: people who feel like underdogs themselves and thought McCain's mongrels were "just like us."

-- He whined about being treated unfairly--a common tactic of frail children who are incapable of defending themselves.

-- He repeatedly raised the specter of the usual bogeymen: higher taxes, socialism, terrorism--rather like a hound barking at the wind in the trees.

-- He charged his opponent with the crime of celebrity--implying that he himself was the antithesis of a superstar, the runt of the litter.

-- He self-consciously lowered himself to a more humble plane than he deserves by constantly addressing the public as "my friends." I don't know whether he did this because of an irritating rhetorical tic or as a desperate ploy to gain acceptance, but either way the habit made him seem pathetic.

But to appear pathetic ("provoking feelings of pity") and feeble was apparently his goal. For he actually TOLD us--on many occasions and most frequently as the contest came down to the final days--that he WAS an underdog, and proud to be one.

And we listened, and we believed him, and we followed the bigger and better-bred dog.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Intelligent Selection

So I dropped into the Bar and Grille a bit ago to have a pop with the guys and the place was pretty full so I had to take a stool right next to Handel Miller. Now Handle used to clerk down at Standard Plumbing and Hardware until it closed because the new U-Do-It supermart opened up and took away all their business. Handel might have gone to work there but chose instead to retire and now he spends his days at the O.K. Barber Shop talking philosophy and politics with the boys until five o-clock when he moves over to the Bar and Grille to do the same thing.

As I climbed onto a stool I raised a finger to Manny behind the bar and he nodded and picked up a glass for my drink.

"Well, Bob, how you doin'?" asked Handel.

"Well, okay I guess, Handel and how be you?"

He thought for a while and then put his hand on my knee and leaned in real close. "I figured out you was right, Bob."

I raised a skeptical eye and waited for the next shoe to drop as Manny put a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of me and sat my scotch down. "Cheers, man," he said in kind of an ironic "good luck with Handel, there, pal," kind of way.

"But," said Handel, "You was only half-right." Clunk went the shoe.

"Well, now, Handel, I am mighty glad to be batting .500 in your book, but do tell me just what it is I was right about and why only half way?"

"That E-vilution thing we was talkin' about. Remember?"

I did. Handel had said Darwin was full of it and evolution was only a theory and a bad one at that. And I had made some irreverent remarks about the flaws in the notion of intelligent design. These are things one doesn't talk about, surely not with Handel, unless one has been at the Bar and Grille for a while and had their drinks refreshed by Manny more than a couple of times. I remembered the discussion and calculated that I'd had about three, maybe four, drinks by the time Handel had got me trying to reason with him about what science is and what religion isn't and whether intelligent design was just a crock. And now Handel was back on the subject again and I was insufficiently fortified as yet to get engaged in a conversation about it. But I had no choice.

"See, what you was right about, Bob, is mutilation could of made us go from bein' monkeys to bein' men over a long lot of years."

"Mutation," I said. "Genetic mutation."

"Right. I get that. I see your point."

"Well, now that's one for me, Handel. And I believe I'll have another. Manny?"

"So I get that everything was the same itty bitty creature way back then and the genetics got all mutilated and some of them mutilations survived and they got mutilated a little bit more. And so on. And so on. All down through the vast recipes of time."

"Yeah, that's about it in a nutshell," I replied.

"So that's why it is there's you an' me sittin' here at this bar instead of us bein' a couple monkeys up a tree."

"One way to put it," I said.

"So there ain't no supreme intelligent designer workin' it all out in advance."

"Yeah. So you agree with that," I said, "But where is it I got it only half right?"

"Now, Bob, where you are wrong is that you say it was all accidental like."

It sounded to me like Handel hadn't quite got the point, but I urged him on as Manny swapped out my empty glass for a full one. "Why's that, Handel?"

"Well, you called it 'natural selection,' right?"

I nodded.

"Well that can't be no accident, see?"

I did not see.

"Look," he explained, "I pick me my five numbers and one mega number twice a week now for, what, 10 or 15 years? I make a selection, right?"

I nodded again.

"And not once -- not ONCE in all that time did I ever pick the right ones an' win the jackpot. And it ain't just me. Why all across this great State of ours there's millions of people picking their numbers twice a week. An' sometimes, like right now, weeks and weeks'll go by and not one of those millions picks the right numbers."

"Well, Handel," I said with growing patience, "the odds are against you. I've told you that more than once."

"Exactly! So if all of us, who aren't exactly dumb as doornails can't pick the right selection, then what does it take to do that?"

He waited quite some time for an answer, but I offered none.

"A super intelligent selector, that's what."

Handel drained his drink. "See, there's this supreme being -- now I ain't sayin' it's 'God' or anythin', call it what you want -- but there's this supreme being that is an intelligent selector. An' He goes, 'Well, now, I will select this here critter because it will survive and all them others won't.' See? He knows! Nine times outa ten He is right, by golly."

He turned to squint at the teevee above the bar, seeming at once very satisfied with his logic but still intently working on the problem; you could tell he was thinking pretty hard by the way he squinted. The teevee played the Manchester Dog Show because there weren't any other sports on at the time.

Then, all of a sudden, Handel had one of those Eureka! moments and his eyes bugged out and a grin came to his face. "In fact!" he said, "He is never wrong."

I took a sip and was about to say something, but Handel slipped off his stool and stood unsteadily, preparing to leave. "You show me one critter, just one, or one single vegetable on this here Earth today that did not survive." He paused and swayed and tried to keep his balance. "Can't do it, can you?"

"Well..."

"Intelligent selection." Handle cackled a little bit and began to totter toward the door. I said, "Well, now, Handel if you want to see a whole quarter acre of plants that aren't surviving, you just come on over to my back yard."

He weaved his way toward the exit and turned back in my direction. "Well, Bob, that's because you spend too much time sprayin' and not enough prayin'." And he let out a little "Hah!" as he stumbled out the door.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's a Debate, Wink, Wink

During a post-debate program on KQED's Forum last week, a caller questioned one conservative pundit's comment that Governor Sarah Palin had "expertly" avoided answering moderator Gwen Ifill's questions. "When I was on the high school debating team, if you avoided answering the question," I paraphrase the listener, "that was a negative and you would lose points! So, how-come-is-it you give her credit for 'expertly' avoiding the questions?"

What the listener failed to understand is that political "debates" are hardly the same as the kind you might have engaged in when you were in high school. They are theatrical performances in which one's ability to convey predetermined messages--irrespective of the topic at hand--is greatly prized and highly rewarded. Avoiding-the-question is an important skill for politicians and diplomats--they do it all the time. While I am no fan of Ms. Palin I give her some credit for her ability in that regard, although her execution remains a bit clumsy.

In a preview of the debate for the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Joe Garofoli described the techniques of Bridging, Hedging, Hooking and Flagging -- all designed "to maximize performance." None of these tactics will win points for your debating team, but they're the stuff that political jousting is made of. "Bridging," says Garofoli is "Used to avoid answering directly and pivot to one's main messages. Example: 'I understand your point. The more important issue is ... (insert key message)' or 'No. I'd like to explain ... (insert key message).'"

I doubt Palin read Garofoli's unsolicited advice ("If you're stumped, don't be obvious about steering the questions back to a safe knowledge harbor"), but she did just that several times. Natural talent, I presume.

Another thing that counts on the stump but not so much in high school debates is body language. Gestures, tics and physical appearance can win or lose points with the electorate. Nixon perspired: bad. Gore scoffed and snorted: bad. George H.W. Bush checked his watch: bad.

Both Palin and Joe Biden used gestures well last week; she with her wagging head and hypnotic eye-contact, he by cupping his hand to his ear to visualize that "I haven't heard" the difference between McCain and Bush, pounding the lectern to underscore his side's determination to end the war, and pointing a finger for emphasis each time he said, "Let me say that again..."

I have to give the advantage to Biden, though -- and not only because I find Palin frightening. Her gestures underscored her positioning as "just plain folk," which I take to mean "inadequate for the job," while his helped to articulate his commitment, sincerity and strength. Her smiles were broad, but seemed disingenuous.

And her winks! My God, those WINKS!




For a commentary on those, please see "Sarah Palin, all-American cheerleader" by Tim Kingston and Lisa Moore from this morning's Chronicle on sfgate.com. I'm not sure Sarah's eye-squinches represent "the promise of power in exchange for sex," but they sure seem manipulative to those of us who don't consider the moose-hunter from Wasilla to be a hottie.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Monday, September 1, 2008

The List

I must have been quite a sight when I hobbled into the Bar and Grille the other night all scrunched over from an aching back. “Well, now, Bob,” said Pat McGinty from his perch at the end of the bar, “Aren’t you a sight, all bent over like that.”

I gave a thumbs-up to Manny behind the bar and he began to fix my drink.

“So what’s the problem with you? Got an achy back or some such?” asked Pat.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, “Damned back. I’ve been in pain all day and it’s killing me.”

“You take anything for it?” he asked.

I told him I had some pills at home and I planned to take one as soon as I got there and maybe that would do the trick. I said I thought maybe an ice pack would help.

Manny put my drink down on the bar and I took a sip as Pat frowned and shook his head. “These pills,” he said, “pretty strong, are they?”

Well they are pretty strong. I got them from a doctor in Mexico last time I was there and had a similar backache. This doctor specialized in treating everything from acne to broken bones with a laser. He offered me the option of three laser treatments at forty dollars American each or a bottle of pills at thirty for the lot. I had opted for the pills and not just because I’m so cheap. Pills I can understand, but a machine that shines invisible light to perform a miraculous cure was a bit beyond my skeptical nature.

“Pretty strong stuff,” I said, “They’ve done the job before.”

Pat shook his head again and advised me to have a bite to eat before taking a strong pill like that. “I’ve taken many a pill,” he said, “what with all the aches and pains I get on the job. And just about every one they say you got to have it with a meal. So I think you ought to have a little supper before you swallow one of those things.”

He was right, of course, and I remembered those were the Mexican doctor’s instructions, too. “I’ll do that, Dr. Pat,” I said, “Maybe I’ll drop by your wife’s cafĂ© on my way home and get a sandwich to go.”

Pat thought a sandwich would be well advised, but in his opinion the right thing to eat would be the chicken tetrazzini that his wife had on special that day. “That’s a better meal for supper than a sandwich,” he said, “Not that her sandwiches aren’t good, but for supper I’d sure recommend the chicken.” He took a swallow of his beer and went on, “It’s only eight or nine bucks, so for a couple dollars more than a sandwich you get a regular meal. And it comes with French bread.”

“Well, Pat,” I said, taking out my scratch pad, “I’ll make a note of that, ‘chicken tetrazzini.’”

“Then take your pill, not before,” said Pat, draining his beer.

For his free medical advice I bought Pat another beer and told Manny I’d go again myself, not wanting the Irishman to have to drink alone. “Then I’ll put on an ice pack after the pill,” I said, “That sometimes gives me a little relief.”

We clicked our glasses and sipped our drinks. “You know,” I said, “sometimes a soak in the hot tub works, too.”

“Well,” said Pat, “I’d do the hot tub before the ice pack. Then I’d go to bed and by morning, why, you’ll probably feel just fine.”

I sure hoped so. With the wife gone for a few days I had a lot of chores to do around the house, plus my regular work. When I thought about all that, I remembered I had to feed the dog when I got home and we were a little low on kibble. “Geez,” I said, “I have to go by the market and pick up some dog food on the way home.”

“Seems like you have quite a full night ahead of you, Bob,” said Pat.

Now I am well known around my house for the lists I make of things to do. In fact it is a matter of some amusement for my wife. Every Saturday morning I jot down a list of chores for the weekend, just so I remember what has to be done. When I head to the market or the hardware store I make a list of everything I need to buy. If it isn’t on the list, it doesn’t get done or it doesn’t get bought. There’s a better chance it will if it’s on the list. Not a one hundred percent chance, mind you, but better than even.

“You’ve got that right, Pat,” I said. “Maybe I ought to write this stuff down.”

“In order,” said Pat.

“In order to what?” I asked.

“I mean, you ought to write it down in the order you need to do it. Otherwise you could take your pill before you eat or put the ice pack on before you get in the hot tub.”

He sure had a point. My list for the night was already started with the words “chicken tetrazzini” so I picked up there and added the next item: “dog food.” Then I wrote on separate lines, “eat supper, pill, hot tub, ice.”

“Now, Bob,” said Pat as he looked at my list, “you’re not going to forget to go to bed if it isn’t on your list, are you?”

I laughed as though Pat were pulling my leg, and I wrote “bed” at the bottom of the list.

“Good,” he said. “And I believe I’m ready for another beer and it’s my turn to buy so drink up.”

Manny brought us two more and asked, “What is it you two are working on over here?”

Pat explained that I had a big night ahead of me with a lot of things to do and I was making a list just so I would not forget anything.

“Good idea,” said Manny. “I see it says ‘chicken tetrazzini’ here at number one. So what is it about chicken tetrazzini?”

Well, Manny had a good point; the noun was missing a verb. “I’m going to pick some up at that Chat ‘N Chew on the way home,” I explained.

“Oh. Gotcha.” said Manny. “I just didn’t know. Kind of unclear, if you ask me. But, hey, it’s your list.”

So I squeezed in the words “pick up” before “chicken tetrazzini.”

Pat was impressed by Manny’s contribution to the effort and looked hard at the list for other possible improvements. “Dog food,” he said. “So what about the dog food? You gonna buy it, or you gonna give it to the dog?”

“Now, Pat,” I said, “That seems pretty clear; I got no dog food so I am gonna have to buy it, now aren’t I.”

“Well,” he said, “Long as you know what it means. It ain’t my list, it’s yours.” He took a long draw on his beer. “But if it was me, I’d say, ‘buy dog food.’ Just to be for sure.”

So I wrote “buy” ahead of dog food. “Is ‘eat supper’ clear enough for you fellows?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s pretty straightforward,” said Pat.

“Some of your best writing,” said Manny, “but what is this ‘pill’ thing?”

I told Manny about my bad back and how I was going to take a pill and he offered his sympathy and his opinion that, if I planned to take a pill I ought to write down ‘take’ or there might be some confusion as to whether this was something else I was supposed to buy or an instruction to myself to swallow some medicine.

“Take” went in ahead of pill.

“If you need ice, “ said Manny, “you can take that off your list here because I can give you a bag here from behind the bar.”

I told him I had plenty of ice at home and knew the recipe to make some if I should run short. “I’m going to put an ice pack on my back,” I said. “That’s what ‘ice’ is for.”

“Could a’ had me fooled,” said Manny. “But, you know, it’s your list. It’s just that…”

“Okay, Manny. You are the editor of this piece here, you and Pat, so if you say I ought to write down ‘put ice pack on back,’ then that’s what I will do.” I made the correction as suggested, but it was kind of difficult to write the words small enough to fit in, yet large enough to be legible.

Pat took some offense to my tone. “Well, Bob, we’re not tryin’ to be littie-airy critics, here, we just want to be sure you can make sense of this here list of yours when you get yourself home after a few pops here at the Bar and Grille. Just tryin’ to be helpful, you know.”

“My bad,” I said, “No offense taken and just to prove it, this one’s on me and Manny you have yourself one of those Patron’s you like.”

None of us said much for the next few minutes as Pat and I sucked on our drinks and Manny shot down his jigger of Patron and went to the other end of the bar to greet a new customer. When he came back, Manny noticed Pat’s wrinkled brow and asked what he was thinking.

“Well, you know boys,” he said, “I think we’ve got Bob here a fine list now with not too many ambiguities that could lead to major disaster.”

I was relieved, but he went on, “Not too many,” he said. “Except for this item of ‘hot tub.’”

Manny and I both leaned over the list to see what Pat was talking about.

“You see,” said Pat, “here we got another of those noun things without it’s got a verb. Is that what you call it, Bob, a ‘verb’?”

Now that Pat had pointed it out, the oversight was terribly obvious. There sat the phrase “hot tub” without the company of a single other word or phrase expressing action, existence, or occurrence. Unlike the other items on the list that had been carefully revised for clarity, ‘hot tub’ was completely without predicate.

“This will not do,” said Manny. “What is it that you’re trying to say here about the hot tub? You need to think about that, Bob, it seems to me.”

“Well, I’m going to sit in it, you crazy bastards. What do you think I’m going to do with it?”

“If that’s what you mean, Bob,” said Pat, “then why don’t you say so? You need to articulate these things. As it stands, the phrase is vague. It’s a veritable swamp of vagueness.”

I suggested that two words do not a swamp make, but Manny offered the opinion, “only as an amateur at these kinds of things, but an avid reader,” that “hot tub” by itself lacked energy and could use some “goosing-up.”

By this time I needed to go to the men’s room, so I handed my pen to Pat and said he and Manny should just have at it while I relieved myself and I’d see what they came up with.

When I came back into the bar they had moved to a table and had called some of the other expert regulars in to offer opinions on diction, syntax, and subject-predicate agreement. Dolores was fussing with her hair and defending her opinion that the passive voice was not in all cases impermissible, while Reverend Mike argued the virtues of parallel construction.

Before I reached the table I realized that my back felt much better; I was no longer hunched over and felt only a minor discomfort – not the intense pain I’d experienced all day. I put a twenty and a ten on the bar, drained my drink, crunched an ice cube, and walked happily out the door.

I never got to read the final draft of my to do list, but I’ve heard that Manny has it pinned to the wall behind the bar, and I’ll have to drop by there in the next day or two to see how the thing came out.

But first I really do have to pick up some kibble for the dog.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Honoree

So I am sitting in my office this afternoon waiting for an important phone call regarding the possibility of maybe actually getting some paying work, when the phone rings and I pick it up and this voice says, "Well, now, Mr. Kasaley..."

And of course I know that when they say "Mister" it is probably not a call I want to take and when they mispronounce my name so badly I know it is a call I will want to end as quickly as possible. But I nevertheless admitted, "Yes?"

"Mr. Kasaley," this woman says, "I am calling on behalf of Congressman So-and-So..." And I think, "Oh, boy, here it comes. How much do they want?"

"I am delighted to let you know..." And now I am very sure I want to end the call right now. "I am delighted to let you know that you have just been nominated..." Oh boy.

"...You have just been nominated by the Congressman on behalf of the Republican Party..." So I figure maybe they want to draft me up again and shoot me off to Iraq or something, but no.

"...on behalf of the Republican Party to be named as a member of the True and Solid Patriotic American Honorary Council of Honorees."

And I said, "The what?"

And she continued, "I am sure you must be thrilled and delighted with this great honor which you will be receiving in gratitude for all your many years of support of the United States of America as a true and solidly patriotic American Citizen of the private type. Right?"

"Well, now," I replied, "I am not quite sure exactly what it is you are talking about here, Missy."

And she responded with, "Well, Mr. uhhh... Kaliseyaly, you are in luck because I have here this recorded message from the Congressman which I would like to play for you and which will only take a moment of your valuable time. And then we can talk about you getting this great honor and all."

And I said, "Well, now, did the Congressman make this tape there in the prison, or did he make it before they threw him in the clink, or is he (I shudder at the thought) out on parole already?"

And she said, "Ummm.... What was that?"

And I said, "Well, never mind. But the fact is I really don't care to hear from the Congressman just now -- or ever, if you really want to know."

And she said, "Well, now Mr. uhhh... Kasiliylaly, why is that if I may ask?"

And I said, "That is because I am an anarchist."

There was a pause and I could hear some pages being flipped over on her end of the line, and then she said, "You are a what? What is that?"

I repeated that I was an anarchist and I asked her if she knew what a liberal was. She allowed as she did know what a liberal was, so what did that have to do with it? So I informed her that an anarchist is somebody who is very much more liberal than a liberal.

"So... you are a Democrat?"

"No, I am an anarchist. You see," I went on, "We anarchists don't believe in any kind of government at all. And furthermore we believe that all the Congressmen and -women that are not currently residing in a Federal Penitentiary ought to be put in one right away unless the laws of their State permit them to be shot on sight instead."

She thought about that a little while and then she said, "Well if you do not care to listen to this very nice tape recorded message I am sure the Congressman will be mighty disappointed, but perhaps we can just talk about this honor you will be getting as a nominee."

I said, "Well, now, Missy, I am not exactly experienced so much at getting any kind of honor and I don't recall ever being a nominee, so I would like to know something about what this entails. And I do have a specific question for you."

"Well, now, Mr. Klazkey, what would that question be?"

And I said, "Does this mean I have to go hunting with the Vice President?"

She said she didn't think that was a requirement. But I told her I'd appreciate it if she'd hang up and ask her supervisor -- just to be sure -- and call me back once she found out.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It Ain't What You Don't Know"

I have this signature line that is appended to my posts on a writer's forum that I frequent, and it goes like this: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." That just about sums up my most important philosophy. Now, when you quote somebody it's just polite to give the author some credit. So here is the credit line that I use for that quote: "lots of people."

This afternoon a helpful member of that forum dropped me a line to point out that Mark Twain was the actual author of the aphorism I have been using in place of my own wit. But I'm not too sure my correspondent is correct.

My research has shown conclusively that Mark Twain said just about everything that has ever been said. He must have said so much that his acquaintances frequently had to ask him to "just shut up, Mark; just shut the f*** up!" I surmise that he was very boring at parties, always yammering on with some kind of folksy wisdom or other and never giving a fig for what anybody else had to say. (I am very sorry if you are a big Mark Twain fan or something, but the truth is the truth -- as Mark Twain said.)

You can be pretty sure that Samuel Clemens once said, "Pass the gravy." But that doesn't mean he was the original author of that phrase, either, under his own name or his assumed one. That's why I don't give him credit in my signature: that he deserves that credit is something (one of many things) I don't know for sure.

You will read that Twain said, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." But you won't find those words or any like them in anything he ever wrote. A friend of his, Charles Dudley Warner, an editorial writer for the Hartford, Connecticut Courant newspaper, wrote that "A well known American writer once said..." the remark. But he did not name the well-known writer so we have no idea who he was talking about and everybody just ASSUMED that Mark Twain MUST have been the guy because he was, well, a well-known author and he was known to be clever and it sure sounded like something that the guy who wrote about celebrated jumping frogs might say. And there's no proof either that Twain remarked that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer day here in My City of San Francisco.

You will also find references to Twain writing that, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." He did write that, but he was quoting the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli and took no credit for the witticism (or is it "criticism?").

Now, most folks will swear that Mark Twain is indeed the author of the line about what you know that ain't so, but I suspect none of them have taken the words to heart in the very matter of who said the thing or who deserves the credit for the saying of it.

See, Mark Twain was a writer (and a very good and very prolific one). But if you have a look at all 20,400 citations that Google will dish up for you, not a single one of them tells you WHERE or WHEN Twain uttered, wrote, or thought up this little tidbit. And that's the sort of thing that makes me just a bit suspicious about his authorship. You'd think if Twain wrote it down -- or if somebody heard him say it and reported it somewhere -- somebody would have by now gone to the trouble to find out just when and where and by what motivation he made the remark.

I am the proud owner of an entire fleet of respected scholarly books of quotations, from which I borrow ideas often and without shame. I have looked through every one of those books and, not very much to my amazement, the "what you don't know" quote appears nowhere in any of them. I must assume that the reason the editors of these weighty tomes have ignored one of the best-known witticisms of America's most renowned humorists is that they're not too sure themselves that he actually said it. They are completely mum on the matter, not even printing the saying with the note: "apocryphal."

Perhaps Twain did say or write the words, or something like them. Closest I can find is in Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." But that's not quite the same thing, is it?

In any event the sentiment of the aphorism we are talking about is certainly not original to Mark Twain. A few other people have been credited with the observation that there is more danger in our holding beliefs that aren't true than there is in outright ignorance. Better to be dumb than wrong.

No less a philosopher than Satchel Paige is said to have observed: It's not what you don't know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know that just ain't so that gets you into trouble." Too many "troubles" in that version to make for a good aphorism, so Satchel Paige strikes-out once again.

And speaking of baseball, Yogi Berra has also been credited with the remark. He's one of those people that it's easy to pin weird sayings on; you can credit him with some dumb remark and folks will go, "Yeah, that sounds like ol' Yogi, alright."

As far as INTENTIONALLY funny people (that is, not Yogi Berra), the "cowboy philosopher" Will Rogers is another reputed speaker of the line that got this started but, once again, nobody's been able to find the saying in any of his works.

A lesser-known humorist and semi-contemporary of Twain named Josh Billings (whose real name was Henry Wheeler Shaw, (what is it about humorists that makes 'em want to write under assumed names?)), is credited with saying "It's not ignorance does so much damage; it's knowin' so derned much that ain't so." Now EXACTLY those words have not been found in any of Billing's/Shaw's writings but similar ideas are in his 1874 book Everybody's Friend, or Josh Billling's Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, to whit: "I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so." So... did one of them-Twain or Billings-borrow the idea from the other? Did they come up with it independently? Did each of 'em overhear it somewhere separately? Did they use the same joke book? I suppose we'll never know. And that's my point.

Maybe we'd be better off following the wisdom of Confucious: "To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge." Or, before him, of Socrates: "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." What kind of world is this when even famous dead philosophers crib stuff from one another?

Somebody once said, "Good lines become great ones when presented as the utterances of those whom we already hold in high esteem for their wit." That somebody was Barbara Mikkelson, writing recently for Snopes.com. That I know. But I don't know where she got it.

***
UPDATE: Please see this more recent post.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Too Much Sex

So the other day Lizzy sees on a teevee entertainment show called "Good Morning America" that there's a whole lot of kids coming up in the latest generation that are not going around having sex and that don't intend to have sex until they are incarcerated behind the bars of marriage.

According to Lizzy, the teevee personality who talked about this bit of shocking information said some social pseudo-scientists had cleverly dubbed this cohort "Generation Pure."

I guess that's a play on the designation "Generation X" which was given to the gang of youths who were becoming socially active in the 1960s and who, according to a 1964 British study, "sleep together before they are married, don't believe in God, dislike the Queen and don't respect parents." Sounds about right, as I remember those days.

Many of my peers back then didn't believe in God, and while quite a few might have had some respect for their own parents not many thought much of parents as a species. As for the Queen of England, I suspect that was more a concern in the British Isles, but on the sleeping-together-out-of-wedlock thing, most of us, both here and abroad, did not feel it happened quite often enough.

Anyway, Lizzy's report of the teevee's report of the pseudo-scientists' report got folks down at the Bar & Grille talking about this whole sex thing and some of the patrons offered up some doubt that very many young folks had been bit by the purity bug and further surmised that the whole thing was just a bit of teevee sin-sationalism. Then one of them went so far as to raise the contrary proposition that there was just too much sex going on these days so any movement toward purity, any movement at all, was a good sign.

Kenny's big head wobbled around a bit and his walrus body slumped back with a thud against the brass rail that demarked the never-used cocktail waitress station and when everybody looked over in his direction he plopped his shot glass down, slapped his other hand on the bar and bellowed, "Too much sex!" And waited for a response.

Everybody got real quiet and checked around to see what might stand between themselves and the door, then scanned one another's faces for advice on whether this might not be a good time to go home for dinner. After a moment or two I raised my glass to Kenny and offered a loud toast, "You are right there, Kenny, boy. Here's a toast: To Much Sex!"

After a few "here-here's," the night's stool-side seminar drew to a close with some rude comments whose purpose was to prove the commentators' virility, and ultimately ended with the general agreement that teevee was mostly horse-leavings anyway but there wasn't much harm in people thinking that folks were having too much sex these days.

Well since that night I have given some thought to what little I remember of that conversation down at the Bar and Grille and, while I sure don't want to cross Kenny or any other large and inebriated people who might agree with him, I have come to the conclusion that most people don't have sex often enough.

I think whenever they are moved by the impulse people ought to just go right ahead and have some. The more the better. Just so long as they don't do it in such a place or such a manner as might bring embarrassment to observers who are not in a position to derive benefit from the act themselves. (I do make another exception regarding people who are not sufficiently mature to understand and handle the emotional consequences of their activities, but only in the case of performances involving more than one person.)

For those who don't get moved by the impulse often enough (say, less than a few times a day), there are cures for that and I believe people ought to be encouraged to seek them, use them, and get on with the getting on of it.

I've found that sex is the sort of thing that improves dramatically with practice and with a modicum of dedication to its perfection. I have read professional opinions in ladies magazines and elsewhere that support that finding. So folks should know that the doing of it can lead, with not a great deal of effort or inconvenience, to the greater enjoyment of it and, thence, to the doing of even more of it. And I think that's a very excellent idea and the perfect outcome.

Of course there are natural limits arising from conflicting human needs for sleep and food and from social and economic necessities, but heck, not many people are going to exceed those limits to the point of fornicating to death.

So just let 'em be. Let 'em at it. Far better to be giving and/or deriving physical pleasure than to be inflicting pain and suffering on others. If all those I-raqy terrorists and Palestinian suicide bombers would spend more time with their pants down maybe there wouldn't be enough hours in the day to strap on a vest-full of explosives. Or maybe they would be grinnin' so much they would not feel the kind of free-floating animosity that brings one to that kind of act. Or maybe if they had enough virgins (or otherwise) in the here and now they wouldn't consider the rumored (and most likely fictitious) rewards of martyrdom to be so darned attractive.

I say we should all go for it as much as possible and without the slightest tickle of guilt. The world would be a much better place and folks would be more relaxed and the only ones to suffer might be the pharmaceutical companies that make anti-depressants and sleeping pills. And even those outfits could just switch over to cures for erectile dysfunction so that virile men could do something more than fling footballs through tire-swings, or cures for whatever the female equivalent is. Or—during the transitional period—smelling salts for the suffering religious fundamentalists who probably get laid plenty at home or the office or behind the pulpit but faint dead away when they hear about consenting unmarried adults doing whatever it is they might do in the privacy of their own homes, cars, or recreational vehicles. Big money potential in that last one.

Just Do It! That's what I say. Do it PLENTY, and encourage all your friends to do the same, with or without your generous assistance. But if they need help, why, step up and volunteer like a real friend. Give 'em a hand, if that's the part they want. Help folks out, because believe me people just don't get enough sex and they ought to have a great deal more of it.

Now, on the other hand, what people have too much of is babies.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Fact" Finding

Here is an example of how you can find support on the Internet for virtually any belief you may hold. After an argument with my brother-in-law, with whom I share a residence, I found several articles on the important topic of our discussion: the proper way to install a roll of toilet paper. 

Most of the Web "experts" declared that the proper way  is the "over the top" method, supporting the B-I-L's stance on the subject. My preference though, due to years of habit, is the "under" method—the way my Mama taught me.

Undaunted, I continued researching until I landed on an article by Brian Mathis on his blog. I now consider Brian, who writes about technology, to be a renowned authority on this vital subject. And I consider myself fully vindicated, even though one site I viewed had surveyed its users and reported they preferred the "over" method by about 10:1.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Story Fishin'

This item appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 30, 2008:

"The Chronicle is interested in speaking with people who are now seeking or have just bought residential property in the nine-county Bay Area. We're particularly interested in talking with first-time home buyers who think the real estate slump makes homes more affordable to them, as well as investors who see this as a good buying opportunity. If you'd like to talk, please e-mail a brief description of your situation to realestate@sfchronicle.com." (Italics mine.)

Well, now, it seems the writer at the Chronicle ("reporter" would be too generous a description), already has his or her mind made up about what the story is. "Story-fishing" has always been a part of journalism, and this request for quotable quotes and supportive anecdotes exposes the practice pretty clearly. So when you read the newspaper, be sure to ask yourself if the "news" it carries is dependable. Might just be a reflection of the writer's personal opinions, preconceptions, or a not-so-well hidden agenda.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Movies about Movies

I chatted this morning with a colleague about a plan to use additional audio tracks on a DVD we're working on about technology. The conversation turned to how that feature of DVDs has been used in funny ways on some Hollywood releases.

"Incident at Loch Ness," for example (20th Century Fox, 2004) is a very funny mockumentary about Werner Herzog's troubles in making a documentary about the Loch Ness monster. The movie is hilarious, especially to people who are into documentary filmmaking, even though it is flawed (according to some reviewers). Werner is a great sport about his reputation as a director and gives a terrific performance. The movie raises a lot of disturbing questions about how "real" documentary films are and pokes a lot of fun at the industry. The special features on the DVD, though, are to my mind the most outstanding thing about it. They include a joke commentary soundtrack by the director (Zak Penn) and Werner that is an extremely funny send up of director's commentaries.

If you haven't seen the 1985 movie "Blood Simple" (Universal Studios) by the Coen brothers (or even if you saw the original), you should get the new DVD version that was released in 2001 -- just for the mock introduction to the film in which the fictional Mortimer Young, pompous CEO of the equally fictitious "Forever Young Film Preservation," discusses how the company restored the film and removed the "boring bits" from the original release.

The DVD also features an optional audio commentary by the fictional artistic director of the movie. He offers several "facts" about how the movie was made: a scene with characters driving in the rain was acted out in reverse and upside down, he claims, in order to accurately synchronize the headlights passing the car with lines of dialog. (Because the actors were upside down they had to use a lot of hairspray to keep their hair from looking like it was standing on end.) He reveals that in scenes with both dialogue and music, the actors just mouthed the words and recorded them in post-production, so their voices wouldn't interfere with the music that was playing on the set; that a dog is really an animatronic robot; that the sweat on the actors is fake "movie sweat"; and that a fly buzzing about in one shot is not real, but was done in CGI. Etc., etc. It's a very clever take on the typical DVD "commentaries" that purport to reveal the secrets of filmmaking and which largely consist of directors and others patting themselves on the back -- along with everybody involved in the project.

Now as I think about these some other movies come to mind that ought to be interesting to filmmakers -- one in particular.

Probably one of the funniest films about screenwriting is director Spike Jonze's 2002 "Adaptation," starring Nicolas Cage in the double role of screenwriting brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Chris Cooper is particularly wonderful, as is Meryl Streep. The plot, about Kaufman's struggle to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction book "The Orchid Thief," takes a very weird turn or three, but the satire on screenwriting -- and Hollywood movie-making -- is a hoot. A screenwriting seminar "expert" advises, for example, "God help you if you use voice-over in your work... That's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character." Of course, much of the film is voice-over narration in which Cage relates his thoughts. It's brilliant, quirky, and original.