Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Very Short Story About Job Searching

At work I occasionally receive unsolicited e-mails inquiring whether my school has any job openings. My usual course of action is to print them out, give them to my boss, and then place them unread in a large filing cabinet full of overloaded hanging folders.

Usually the resumes are from people well-established in their teaching careers, but one came from a recent college graduate. She was interested in counseling and social work, and currently working an unpaid internship at another school far away from where she lived. She was looking for a two-day-a-week counseling job to supplement her internship, and wanted to be paid for doing what she loved.

I read her cover letter several times and decided it would be worthwhile to ask the principal whether we had a place for this girl, even an unpaid one, for there was no money in the budget to compensate her. I rehearsed the manner of introduction that would portray her in the most positive way possible. She has solid experience. She’s good with kids. She’d be willing to work for free.

I was very busy that week (with kids needing to go home sick, forgotten musical instruments to be delivered, announcements to be read, substitute teachers to call, and report cards to file), so I did not find the time to explain these things to the principal, who was also busy. The girl’s e-mail fell behind others of more immediate importance, and after two weeks it seemed silly to follow up on something so late.

I felt bad for neglecting her, and thought back to all the resumes I’d sent out during my job-searching days. Nothing hurt more than not getting a response back, and facing the agony of waiting. In a faceless world indifferent to the sufferings of young people, this girl deserved to know that someone had been thinking about her. I was overstepping my bounds here, because only the principal can decide who gets hired and who doesn’t. This would be my act of subversion—to restore humanity to the job-searching process. I would write her a genuine response, and maybe even allude to my own difficulties finding a job that suited me. But keep at it, I would say, because the only real failure is submitting to less than your ideal. That thought might give her hope in a difficult world.

But I was very busy the next week too, and didn’t write the e-mail. Instead I threw her message away.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Plagiarism is Not Cool

If you’ve ever had something you’ve cared about stolen from you unexpectedly (because all stealing is unexpected, really), maybe this story will make more sense.

Three months ago someone posted an anonymous tip to my blog linking to another blogger who’d taken text from one of my entries, Fuck Your Impractical Hipster Room Decorations.  Her entry copied, nearly verbatim, the paragraph I’d worked the hardest on: a summation of why I despise the artificiality of curated rooms and would rather live in a space that has personal meaning rather than one I can show off.  Ironically, the plagiarist seemed to have missed the point of my discussion, as she’d posted the text in question beneath photos of her new bedroom, which included such hipster staples as a derivative of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, women’s shoes placed on a shelf for decorative purposes, china dolls proudly labeled as vintage, and a notebook with a bird on it.  She had moved into a new apartment and wanted to show it off.  She also wanted everyone to know that her decorations were genuine, not fake.

I sat at the computer for some time, thinking at first that it may have been a coincidence (it wasn’t) or a mistake (no), and, when denial had run its course, trying to decide what to do.  I searched her blog, finding photo-filled trips to island resorts, demonstrations of make-up application equipment, endlessly narcissistic pictures of herself in slim-fitting vintage clothes, and pictures of food from trendy restaurants.  I became distraught, hating this hipster fashion model who had stolen from me and from others (English was not her first language, and the quality of her prose changed drastically from entry to entry) and was now making money through blog advertising and paid entries about the make-up products and restaurants she praised just a little too highly.

This was my mistake.  Looking back, there were three reasons why it was easy for me to become as emotionally unhinged as I did:
  1. She came from a different country
  2. Her blog had a higher readership than mine
  3. She was a hipster
When we’ve been wronged by people we don’t know very well, it’s easy to choose a focal point like gender, race, social status, level of affluence, career path, or level of success to get angry at rather than confront the injustice directly.  When we know people better, we see past all of those things and can hate them for who they are, rather than the superficial qualities they embody. 

After my mania cooled, I set to work.  I wrote her an e-mail requesting nicely that she take my words down or give me credit.  When she didn’t reply I wrote more e-mails, sent her Facebook messages, and posted comments to her blog that never made it past the Awaiting Moderation stage.  My messages started out firm, then escalated to twistedly sarcastic and mocking prose of the sort I unleash on others in moments of frustration.  The girl never replied to my comments, a reminder that we live in a world that finds it acceptable for such correspondence to go unacknowledged (an infuriating reality for anyone who has ever had to look for a job).

Taking some advice from Stu, I contacted the plagiarist’s web host, since they would be legally prohibited from hosting content that violates copyright law.  Through the magic of social media, the plagiarized article was actually posted on two different sites: Blogger and a Wordpress-template domain.  Blogger is, of course, hosted under the Google umbrella, and a few quick links lead me to an amazingly user-friendly form showing applicants how to report a violation.  I filled out the form and within two days Google deleted the post.

I celebrated, cheered, and rejoiced that there was justice in the world.  I sent the plagiarist a gloating Facebook message pointing out that her Blogger entry was gone and requesting that she remove its twin.  In retrospect, I did this more to assert my moral superiority than to produce a tangible result, but it felt good.  I needed her to know that I was better than her.

When no tangible result was produced, I hunted down the second blog’s host using Site Trail, which tracks webhosting and other, less relevant information for websites.  I researched online plagiarism, how to find it, and how to report it.  I wrote an e-mail to the host’s abuse department.  When nothing happened, I did more research and found, buried deep within the cavernlike Terms of Service, a law office that handled copyright complaints and compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the American ratification of an international treaty protecting copyrighted material.  In densely-worded legalese, they cited six items required to report a copyright violation. 
  1. Your signature (or your lawyer’s)
  2. A link to the work that was stolen
  3. A link to the site that stole your work
  4. Your contact information (e-mail address, regular address, and phone number)
  5. An honest statement saying that you believe your work was stolen
  6. Another honest statement saying that you didn’t lie about items 1-6
To see the official, difficult to read versions of these items, click here and scroll down to section (c)-(3).

This time I wrote both an e-mail and an actual letter.  Two days later, the second entry was gone too.  I’d done it; something bad had happened, and I’d fixed it.  My work was safe again. 

What have I learned from all this?  Proper procedure for reporting copyright violations, for one thing.  (I hope that my experience, along with the Digital Millennium Act guidelines above, can be of help to someone.)  The foolishness of stereotyping people, rather than simply hating the things they’ve done, for another.  I’ve also seen, once again, the futility of attempting to contact someone who, as Kyle Reese says in the first Terminator movie, can’t be bargained with or reasoned with.  But most importantly, I’ve seen that there exist in this world many laws—voluminous, overly specific, and written in language that defies comprehension—that will yield results provided we follow the instructions carefully.  This is best done without emotion, as if the action were as routine a process as stamping a letter or signing the back of a check.  There is no use getting vehement or lashing out.  The solution might just involve filling out the right form.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions About "A Wave of the Hand"

Q: Are you still blogging?
A: Yes, though not as frequently.

Q: Why aren't you blogging as frequently?
A: I've been busy with other writing projects. Also graduate school applications.

Q: So, are you abandoning this blog?
A: No.

Q: Is this like a hiatus?
A: Not really. If there's a word for a sort-of hiatus when people do something less frequently, that's what I'm doing. (Note to Self: Invent reverse dictionary.)

Q: How frequently will you be blogging?
A: Once a month, until about February. Maybe twice a month if I get some good ideas.

Q: Why February?
A: That's when the last of the grad school applications are due.

Q: Why once a month?
A: So there aren't any unsightly gaps in the list of months on the right of the page.

Q: Why is that important?
A: Because if some months are missing, people might think I'm taking a hiatus.

Q: Won't people see this FAQ and realize you're not taking a hiatus?
A: Yes, but people tend not to believe everything they read in blogs.

Q: Why is that?
A: Because saying you're going to blog is an empty promise. Actually blogging fulfills that promise.

Q: Then why write this FAQ if people aren't going to believe anything that's in it?
A: .

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Modern-Day Recounts of Bible Stories: Samson and Delilah

Samson, drained of his man-seed (not shown) enjoys a satisfying nap in the garden.

Back in the day, before the Jews had a city of their own, they spent a lot of time hanging out in the hills of Israel trying to keep a bunch of Canaanites and Sidonians and Perizzites and Hivites and Jebusites and Moabites off their land, so they were always getting into fights and slaying a bunch of enemy soldiers they had to cart away after every battle.  Because they were God’s chosen people, it was pretty much a guarantee that they would win every time, but sometimes they got cocky and decided to worship other gods like Baalim and Ashtaroth that had more interesting names and fewer rules—plus, the people worshipping those gods were usually beautiful, large-breasted women.  (Back then, the Israelites were always getting cozy with other gods as an excuse to sleep with women from other tribes. They were pretty clever that way.)  So the Isarelites met some heathen women through the pink-light classifieds and started visiting pay-by-the-hour hotels and getting drunk on weeknights even though they weren’t supposed to.  God (as you might expect) didn’t like that very much, and lo and behold, the Israelites get royally fucked when the Philistines (and the Gazites, who pledged with most of the same fraternities as the Philistines) rolled in, and soon, no Israelites were going out to sleep with anyone.

Around this time, out comes this dude Samson from the hills and rips a lion in half with his bare hands.  He didn’t want anybody to know he did it, so he turned the whole thing into a riddle and tried to swindle the Philistines overlords out of a whole bunch of sheets and changes of garments (which were basically like money back then).  This doesn’t go so well, so Samson catches three hundred foxes, ties flaming torches to their tails, and sets them loose in the Philistine’s cornfields.  Then the fire spreads to the vineyards, which makes the Philistines really mad.

After the flaming foxes incident, the Philistines had it out for this Samson guy, though they still didn’t know about that whole ripping a lion in half thing.  They got revenge by killing Samson’s wife and father-in-law (which was kind of a good thing, because the father-in-law sometimes wouldn’t let Samson go in unto his own wife), but then Samson came right back and slew a bunch of them hip to thigh (think about this for a second).  For revenge, the Philistines tricked the Israelites into tying Samson up, but of course he escapes, grabs an ass’s jawbone (no other weapons being available) and slays a thousand dudes by himself at Ramathlehi because he’s so freakin’ strong.

That’s when the Philistines went to Delilah, Samson’s new girlfriend from the valley of Sorek, and offered her eleven hundred silver pieces each if she could figure out the secret of Samson’s crazy strength. (In comparison, all Judas got for betraying Jesus was enough to buy a measly field.)  Samson, having recently carried off the main gates of Gaza on his back, was pretty tired and wanted to spend some time in bed with his girl, who immediately got on his case about where his strength came from.  To make her happy and get her on her back, Samson told her that if he was ever tied with seven undried withs, he would lose his strength.

Delilah was pretty confused about what a with was, but went out and bought some undried ones to tie Samson up with.  Samson woke up from his post-coital reverie the next morning to find himself tightly bound, but he snapped the withs like dental floss because that wasn’t really the secret.

So Delilah tried again, and Samson told her that if he was ever bound fast with brand-new ropes, he would lose his strength.  Ropes were more expensive than withs back then, but Delilah went out and bought some to tie Samson up with the next time he spent the night, but of course that didn’t work either.

Now Delilah really wants those silver pieces, so she puts on this huge sob act and tells Samson that he if he honestly and truly loved her he’d tell her the secret.  Samson really wants Delilah to sleep with him, so he makes up another cock and bull story about putting his long Fabio-hair through the loom and weaving it into seven locks to get rid of his strength.  You’d think, that when Samson woke up the next morning with his hair in a loom and a closetful of Philistines to contend with, he would recall the previous two incidents and realize that something’s up.  But Samson apparently doesn’t realize this, and the next night tells Delilah that his strength actually comes from his long Fabio-hair.  Why does Samson tell her the truth?  I have a few theories:
1. He was so comically stupid that he just couldn’t figure out what was going on.
2. He loved and trusted Delilah so much that he wanted to tell her his secret, like when people play that game where one person fall backwards and the other person catches them.
3. Delilah wouldn’t have sex with him unless he told her, and he’d run out of stories about ropes and withs.
I don’t have any proof, but I’m guessing it was that third one.

After Delilah promptly shaved off all of Samson’s hair during the night, of course the Philistines popped out of the closet again (internet porn hadn’t been invented yet, so there was a pretty long line for who got to hide in the closet all night listening to Samson and Delilah do it) and beat him senseless.   Instead of killing him, they tore out his eyes and dragged him back to the Philistine palace, where they got really drunk and brought the now-blind Samson out to make fun of.  Unfortunately for them, a few weeks had passed, Samson’s hair had started to grow back, and he’d recovered enough of his crazy strength to knock down the pillars of the Philistine palace and kill everyone inside.  This was more people than he’d slain in his whole life—pretty impressive if you recall that thousand men with an ass’s jawbone thing.

Apart from the timeless lessons that Samson and Delilah have to teach us about trust and honesty in relationships, the story’s ending has roused much debate among Biblical scholars over the precise correlation between hair growth and Herculean strength, as well as the maximum occupancy levels of Phillistine palaces during the Mesopotamian era.

Click here for an all ages-appropriate version of this story.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Calamity Cash and the Town With No Name: A Success Story

My good friend, former roommate, and fellow writer Randall Nichols just released his own indie comic, Calamity Cash and the Town with No Name, a collaboration with artist and fellow West Virginian Justin Cornell 4+ years in the making. This is a success story of the kind you don’t often see in the post-college abyss: a writer and an artist, both contending with their own responsibilities and commitments, harness the time to produce a full-length comic over a period of years. This is evening and weekend warrior shit at its finest, and now they’ve invested the capital in their very own print run. That’s why you should buy it.

"Calamity Cash & The Town with No Name" Synopsis:  The mother/daughter vigilante team of Tana and Cal Cash are on the run from an Afro-rocking, Kung-Fu assassin, and have been forced to make their last stand in a nameless desert town hiding a unbelievable secret - every last citizen is in the Witness Protection program! Out of gas, low on ammo, and with their backs against the wall, Calamity and Mama Cash become the town's unlikely protectors, but with friends so quickly becoming enemies, and old enemies becoming friends, is the whole place doomed to burn around them? And will our heroines be the ones to light the first match? A modern-day action/adventure western with words by Randall Nichols, and art by Justin Cornell. "Calamity Cash & The Town with No Name - Pt. II" (25 pages, $4.50 w/shipping).  [from The Mojo Wire]

If that doesn't wow you, here’s another reason to buy: Randall’s work is witty, bitingly observational, and he portrays his vagabond, struggling twentysomethings with an insightful sincerity that never stoops to melodrama or cliché. Based on my dealings with the writer, I can guarantee you that this is going to be good.

One more reason: copies are only $4.50 (including shipping!) signed by the author and the artist. Click here or on the picture above to go to Randall’s blog, The Mojo Wire, and purchase via Paypal.

For those of you still reading who haven’t yet clicked above, I’ll give you another chance to buy Randall’s comic now.


It’s uplifting to hear that, in a world teeming with mundane distractions and lacking the financial and emotional support so vital for creative work, projects like Calamity Cash are getting finished instead of abandoned. Projects like Cash need an audience willing to shell out the few bucks necessary to keep them coming, but lack the marketing resources of a large publishing house to spread word of their existence to an overcrowded market. To know that so many projects have gotten off the ground through Kickstarter and other grassroots campaigns is inspiring, though even the most promising or awe-inspiring of projects is doomed to failure unless people know about them. I look and listen to the advertisements surrounding me on a daily basis and find that most of them feature products I already know. Yes, Coke is a sweet drink, Planet Fitness is a badass place to work out, and Old Spice makes you irresistible to women. Mass advertising, though its secondary purpose is to inform, first and foremost inundates us with those products profitable enough to warrant support while the smaller ones struggle to get noticed. How many amazing comics, novels, blogs, musicians, movies, webcomics, animated films, photographers, architects, dramatists, and other media could we discover if only we had the means?

Randall realized this long before I did, and, for a significant period after we left Bennington, blogged, Tweeted, Facebook shared, and generally talked about as many of his friends’ projects as he possibly could, to the point where his social networks obsessively centered around the achievements of others. My own meager work failed to escape his attention, as he tweeted a lot of things from this blog and eventually devoted an entire Mojo Wire entry (featuring one of the most unflattering pictures of me ever to grace the internet) to my metablog project Corporate Takeover. When asked about his constant sharing, he said that his friends were doing great things and he wanted to help in any way he could.

Creative pursuits (especially writing) are isolating avocations, and for those of us lacking contacts, the chances of getting your work noticed can be frustratingly slim. We owe it to ourselves to harness those resources available to us, but we all need friends willing to shout our achievements from the metaphorical rooftops of social media and weekend drinking sessions. We also owe it to those friends to return the favor without being asked.

So again, buy Randall’s comic for a measly $4.50, or explore the blog to read about its long, arduous history. For those who enjoy samples, try some of his fiction: New Hooverville, Arches, and more . Or take a peak at the writer himself during our more formative years:

Revenge is sweet. Thanks for the support, man.

Monday, August 6, 2012

On the Temperature-Diminishing Effects of Simultaneous Bodily-Cleansing Apparatus and Laundry-Scouring Appliance Usage When Connected to a Single Hydrogen Dioxide Boiling System

(or, Will Running the Washing Machine While Taking a Shower Make the Water Go Cold?)
In older residential dwellings built with older plumbing systems, simultaneous use of two plumbing fixtures utilizing hot water will often cause a sudden drop in temperature in both systems, though the drop is most noticeable (often painfully so) to an individual taking a shower.  

To determine whether an inhabitant of a two-person apartment will have to suffer through an icy-cold shower if the washing machine is turned on during said shower. The ability to bathe oneself concurrent with one’s weekend laundry cycles would be a valuable time-saving asset to both roommates, so long as the showering roommate is safe from sudden bursts of debilitating cold.  

In the experimenter’s apartment, water pressure in both sinks (kitchen and bathroom) and the shower has been colloquially described as “very good,” with both occupants commenting on the extreme temperature when the faucet is turned to the hottest position. Routine conversation with the building's landlord has revealed that all three of the building’s units utilize separate boilers, with no interference from the other units having previously been reported. Though a formal test has not yet been conducted, neither occupant has reported a significant decrease in shower temperature due to the other’s use of the kitchen sink.

The apartment occupies the entirety of the second floor of a three-story building. Date of construction is unknown, but predates 1952 (the date of purchase by the current owners). The apartment utilizes a standard shower system (dimensions and yardage unknown) with pipes running down to a boiler for the individual apartment (specifications unknown) located in the building’s basement.

The apartment’s kitchen holds a Maytag “Dependable Care Fabric-Matic Heavy Duty Large Capacity” washing machine (purchased used for twenty-five dollars and installed using original parts), with a manufacturing date between 1990 and 1995. The washing machine is connected to the second floor boiler via an adjustable spigot, with drainage occurring via a rubber hose.

The detergent utilized will be a standard two-ounce aggregate of Gain, with no fabric softener or other additives.  

1. Load washing machine and detergent as normal, starting a standard Warm-Cold, Heavy cycle with infinite water level set to maximum.

2. Rotate hot and cold shower knobs the standard number of degrees (hot: eighty degrees counterclockwise, cold: twenty degrees counterclockwise) to heat the water to the experimenter’s typical shower temperature.

3. For safety purposes, conduct a preliminary temperature check before entering.

4. If the preliminary check reveals a suitable showering temperature, execute a standard eleven-minute shower while mentally noting temperature observations for post-shower recording.  

The experimenter noticed no adverse effects, commenting proudly that it was “just like any other shower.”  

Though the simultaneous usage of more than two plumbing fixtures will still need to be researched, performing regular loads of laundry with the apartment’s washing machine is not likely to cause a decrease in shower enjoyment, so long as the amount of hot water consumed is not too large. Though endurance tests of very long showers or many showers taken in a row may prove more conclusively how much strain the water boiler will endure, for now, both roommates may safety do their laundry in the morning without the need for shower backup.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Less-Frequently Discussed Second Half of the "You're Not Special" Speech

In this blog’s time-honored tradition of providing commentary on cutting-edge issues that everyone’s already forgotten about, I present for your enjoyment the “You’re Not Special” Wellesley high school graduation speech.

Youtube’s great and all, but I really recommend reading the full transcript.

For those who haven’t heard (or haven’t clicked above), last month, English teacher David McCullough told the entire 2012 graduating class of Wellesley high school, their families, their friends, and (after the resulting media frenzy) the world, that if everyone was special then no one is, that in 2012 American high schools would graduate 37,000 valedictorians and 37,000 class presidents, and that today’s graduates have been pampered and complimented all of their young lives instead of experiencing the hardships they needed to grow. This of course got people talking more than the humdrum “Go out and achieve!” speeches usually do. Most commentators (Rush Limbaugh included) took McCullough’s side, launching rants against the younger generation comparable to an angry grandfather waving his cane at the neighborhood kids for wearing sideways caps and low-riders.

But I don’t want to talk about those things because they’ve all been said before. I, however, am more interested in another section of McCullough’s speech that antsier Youtube viewers might not have reached:
In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another—which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality—we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point - and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it's "So what does this get me?" As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.
McCullough’s explanation for why we love praise and awards more than personal fulfillment is, I fear, accurate, because if we’re constantly in competition with each other for the best grades, the best colleges, and the best jobs, then deeds that bring those rewards closer to our trembling grasp become all the more precious. It makes us desperate to get the things we want: we’d do anything. In a dishonest world, if we don’t take the fabulous prizes by any means necessary, then someone else will. If the average high-school senior, worried about getting into the college of his or her choice, was faced with whether to carefully research and prepare a term paper for a class in which he or she already had an A, or join an overcrowded after-school club whose leadership qualities would look really good on a college application, which would that student choose? How often have you seen a co-worker follow correct protocol, say something intelligent, or work a lot of overtime not because it was the right thing to do, but because the boss was watching?

The most satisfying actions aren’t always the ones that carry the most reward. The girl who wrote all those Twilight books earned far more fame and riches than John Kennedy Toole ever did for writing A Confederacy of Dunces, but which will likely last longer? Moving past the soundbites, McCullough’s speech speech actually calls for a more honest world where people work to produce something real (like a Guatemalan medical clinic) and not just to fill up their resumes with important-sounding achievements and program names.

 And I’m not just saying that because I got rejected from Bowdoin back in high school

Monday, June 11, 2012

We're Pleased to Bring You a Short Essay on Public Relations Writing

Writing for public relations is different than other kinds of writing. If I am at work and something bad happens, I must present it in such a way so that it appears as if something bad has not happened. (Failing this, I should present it in such a way that does not make my organization appear negligent or broken-down.) Public relations writing must create a fantasy that everything is going perfectly well. Organizations are always excited to present something, proud of something else, pleased to announce this, and regretting to inform you of that. I must spin negatives into positives, and when I share bad news, it is with an apology for the inconvenience. I cannot show you any of this writing, for I am embarrassed to have created it. You would not recognize me in it.

However, if I’m writing for myself and something bad happens in that writing, I am always honest about that bad thing and how it affected the characters involved. I do not want bad things to happen in my writing any more than I want bad things to happen in real life, but in describing them honestly, as they occurred, they take on a power that people can feel, understand, and appreciate. That thing becomes real, and we can appreciate the full power of that terrible thing.

The terrible lows of writing not bound by an organization’s constraints also brings with it dizzying highs; for when our minds are open to honest writing we also become receptive to all the emotions that come with it. No one could ever be open to a novel that began A friendly reminder that... for readers, knowing that the reminder is not at all friendly (and may actually be less friendly than a normal reminder), will shut off their minds to what follows. We live in a world saturated with the worst kind of bland, uninspired, official-sounding English meant to disguise truth in a cloud of euphemism.  How frightening to think that it might affect our ability to digest the writing that really matters.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

School Administrative Office Fill-In Game

Instructions: There's a problem at the school, and the office assistant needs some help! Fill in the blanks in the sentences below using one of the choices under (A), (B), (C), or (D):

Office Assistant: Is it OK to (A) ____________________?
Principal: (B) ______, because if (C) __________, then (D) __________.
Office Assistant: I see.

...sign this welcome letter?
...let this kid with a broken leg use the elevator by himself?
...remove this tick from a junior high girl’s scalp?
...ask a fifth grader to help me move this very large and heavy fish tank?
...give Tylenol to this girl who’s having menstrual cramps but doesn’t want to tell me? pictures from the science fair on the school website?
...let this kid go home with his grandmother without a note, even though I talked to the mother about it earlier today?

I wouldn’t if I were you...
You’d better not...
Technically, we're not supposed to...

...anything in that letter was inaccurate or could be claimed as false advertising…
...the cable suddenly snapped and the elevator hurtled downward into the basement...
...the tick burst, spewing lyme disease-filled puss everywhere...
...that fish tank fell on his foot... gave the wrong dosage and she had to have her stomach pumped...
...any of those parents didn’t want their children to be photographed...
...there were to be a car accident, kidnapping, fire, molestation, abusive situation, air raid, or if the kid got sick or had an allergic reaction to something in the car or tripped and fell on the front stairs or bit down on his popsicle too hard and cut his tongue or got really upset and cried a lot on the ride home...

...the parents would sue the school, they’d sue me, and then they’d sue you’d be legally responsible’d be held liable for that’d be a legal nightmare, and you’d be dead in the center of it
...there’d be grounds for a lawsuit, and you wouldn’t like that very much, now would you?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Officespeak Dissected: On the Overuse of Myself

From the Journal of Contemporary Linguistic Study, Volume 21, Issue 2:

Because Officespeak as a dialect spoken by middle- and lower-level administrative workers and bearing its own unique vocabulary, idioms, and grammatical structure has only recently come under the close scrutiny of linguists, many of its idiosyncratic uses (or usages, as Officespeakers would say) have not yet been isolated for further study. This journal proposes to chronicle some of the emerging distinctions drawn between Officespeak and our own variety of Common English.

One of Officespeak’s most widespread traits is its use of the reflexive pronoun myself to increase the formality of a sentence. Consider the following Officespeak sentences alongside their common English equivalents:

Example #1:
Mr. Graham and myself are expecting you in the meeting room by 3:30. (Officespeak)
Mr. Graham and I are expecting you in the meeting room by 3:30. (Common)

Example #2:

He gave copies of the guest list to Donald and myself to proofread. (Officespeak)
He gave copies of the guest list to Donald and me to proofread. (Common)

Example #3:
Return this letter, signed and dated, directly to myself. (Officespeak)
Return this letter, signed and dated, directly to me. (Common)

Linguists theorize that Officespeak’s use of myself in place of I or me deviated from Standard English in one of two ways:

Theory 1: Base Uncertainty: As in the first two sentences, Officespeak’s myself often appears when the speaker is referring to both himself and another person. The speaker may have been unsure whether to use I (a subject pronoun) or me (an object pronoun) and thus risk appearing unprofessional by making the mistake. Myself, however, shrouds the sentence in a more formal tone whose grammatical structure is more difficult to decipher (one of the dialect’s main purposes), ensuring that the mistake will not be noticed. Over time, use of myself grew to include sentences in which the speaker refers only to one person, as in Example #3. (For a more thorough discussion of this transition, see Hartwick pp 17-293.)

Theory 2: The Fear of Unprofessionalism: In common English, small children are often criticized by teachers and pedantic parents for making the following error:

X Josh and me got really wet!
O Josh and I got really wet!

The top sentence is wrong because the italicized portion is a subject, not an object. However, using Josh and me is correct when it serves as the sentence’s object:

O Ryan splashed Josh and me with water!

If this is still confusing, try reading the sentences without Josh around to muck them up:

O I got really wet!
O Ryan splashed me with water!

However, through overcorrection, many children learn to shun using Josh and me in both cases, thus transposing the taboo onto both subject (correctly) and object (incorrectly). When attempting to form a sentence that would accurately use Josh and me (see Example sentence #2), the Officespeaker substitutes myself, fearing that any use of Josh and me would be viewed as improper.  Kincaid M. Fowler, the theory’s leading proponent, reasons that Officespeakers attempted to escape their childhood humiliations instead of correcting them, and widespread Officespeak use of myself then grew to include subjects (as in Example #1) and objects without a second noun (Example #3).

Altered use of other reflexive pronouns (yourself, themselves, etc.) has not yet been adequately documented among Officespeakers, though the linguistic community is currently awaiting a promising study of the speech patterns of manufacturing accountants in the 128 corridor of northeastern Massachusetts.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stock Responses

The Scene: Our hero, on a break with a co-worker, is discussing a recent string of terrorist scares in which white powder was mailed to schools around the continental US.

“Everyone thinks it couldn’t happen up here,” my co-worker says with an air of authoritative experience, “but if it did, as soon as you opened that envelope, there’d be that moment when suddenly, BAM—you’re in the real world.”

“That’s true,” I agree. “I don’t think people consider serious threats a possibility, though I also don’t really like the term “real world” because, I mean, we all live in the real world—”

In the middle of this sentence my co-worker’s eyes take on a vacant, glazed look, his mouth forcibly curls upward into a smile, and his cheeks crease unnaturally with the strain of listening to something he is so clearly not interested in, for he is annoyed by my insinuation that he has just used a clichéd term inappropriately and could not care less about my interpretation of the phrase “real world.” That’s when he says it, in a long, slow drawl:


More and more often I find myself noticing moments like these when my interlocutor acts on his or her obvious disinterest by either changing the subject or (more commonly) using a stock response. In this instance I am uncertain whether the culprit is simple disinterest or my having chosen to speak at all. Or, is it a fear that I may take the conversation to a place in which my co-worker has no bearing, and thus nothing to articulate? (He would have to be quiet, then, and might become embarrassed if it appeared that I knew something he did not know. After all, he is older than me.)

The stock responses people regurgitate in these situations have no real meaning, but are easy to say and create the illusion that the person is listening or interested in the topic at hand. (To my great disgust, they have also become more socially acceptable.) Common examples include:

I know!
Oh, sure.
Amen to that.
Yeah, I know, right?

Stock responses are often accompanied by a lack of eye contact, forced smiles like the one described above, an overabundance of laughter, or continued involvement in a task or activity while speaking. I believe the majority of people accept these encounters as a conversational norm (particularly in the workplace or when meeting people at parties before the alcohol has worked its desired effect), but we don’t have to let this happen. If we all listened more, made more of an effort to engage ourselves in what other people had to say, and focused less on sharing personal accomplishments, our conversations would flow more genuinely. They would also be more interesting, and talking to others would be more fun. It would be a more dynamic world.

But there are a lot of people out there, and a lot of them are stuck in this conversational rut. Is it too late for some of them whose souls have been dulled by years of flagrantly self-centered behavior? I wish I had the answer.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fuck Your Impractical Hipster Room Decorations

That the photo blog Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table has as many followers as it does proves conclusively that other people like making fun of hipsters as much as I do. Maybe more.

By posting the worst examples of ultra-hip interior decorating, Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table sends a clear message that it’s not cool to copy designs that you saw on the internet, it’s not cool to buy quirky old things when you’re under thirty-five, and it’s not cool to own a terrarium. Actually, it’s pretty ridiculous to do all of those things, and the more of its bland abominations you look at, the clearer the uninspired repetition of fashion clichés becomes. Here’s another example:

Ignoring the dangerously low-hanging chandelier for a moment, take a look at this picture. At first glance, it may appear interesting, aesthetically pleasing, unique, etc, but then look closer. What is this a picture of? Stacks of books on a table. The whole table. This presents the question of why the occupants of this apartment have chosen to render useless a perfectly good table that could otherwise have been used for eating, card-playing, building model airplanes, spontaneous after-dinner lovemaking, or blueprint examination. This may appear to be a perfectly logical way to display one’s book collection (as one might display an athletic trophy or a soda bottle from an exotic country) until one considers that books meant to be opened and read, and the whole purpose of vertically storing books spine-outward on a bookshelf is so they can be easily removed and used for this purpose. If books are stacked one on top of another, removing one for reading becomes a tedious exercise as one must either slide the uppermost books to one side or awkwardly move the upper portion of the stack into a separate stack as one attempts to retrieve the desired book. And this is made more difficult by there being a fucking vase thing on top of the books. How is anyone supposed to read anything on that table without accomplishing a minor feat of acrobatics?

The stacks of books epitomizes my problem with these designs: they stress looks over practicality. For the people who took these photos, books are meant to be looked at, not read; vintage typewriters are meant to be admired, not used (we have computers for that); and oversized taxonomic illustrations are meant to provide rooms with character, not actual information.

I prefer rooms that look lived in, imperfectly designed, and even a little messy. I feel more comfortable in them. If a room looks like something out of a magazine cover, I feel as if I’ve wandered into a place I don’t belong, as if my being there has thrown off the intricate balance that the designer hoped to achieve. (There are no people in the Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table photos.) An ideal room need not be curated to achieve a desired result; it should evolve naturally through the objects we bring to it because those objects mean something to us or just happened to catch our eye. That's a look that can't be faked.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Worlds of Power: Mega Man 2 (A Review)

Isn’t it a little strange that our hero has chosen to attack Quick Man with his bare fists?

The Worlds of Power book series was a moneymaking scheme concocted by marketing extraordinaire Seth Godin to sell video-game based books to adolescent boys who spent most of their free time playing NES (though, to be fair, anything that helps adolescent boys enjoy reading can only be a good thing). The series included novelizations of Metal Gear, Castlevania 2, and Ninja Gaiden, as well as two junior edition books for younger readers: Mega Man 2 and Bases Loaded 2. All contained helpful game hints in upside-down boxes, though sadly, none included the quintessential center insert with eight pages of color photos.

In the Mega Man 2 novelization, author Ellen Miles imagines the eponymous character as a whiny eight-year old with a limited vocabulary and a penchant for clichés like “cool your jets” and “he was just full of hot air.” The plot proceeds as follows: Mega Man is transported to a robot boss’s lair, kills some enemies, then easily defeats the boss. Repeat seven times, and then add in a slightly expanded version for Dr. Wily’s castle. There’s also a poorly-developed subplot where Mega Man accidentally becomes human and must deal with his newfound emotions for the first time, but this was handled a lot better in the movie Blade Runner. Several times in the book, Mega Man encounters obstacles like oversized enemies, or weapons that seem to have no effect on the bosses, but each of these challenges is quickly remedied as the Blue Bomber continues on his quest (fortunately, the author leaves out the part of the game where you choose the wrong boss, find out that all your weapons are useless, and have to go back and choose another).

The most annoying loyalty to the game comes when Mega Man has to fight all eight robots a second time by going through teleportation machines. Instead of omitting this relatively unimportant scene, in an act of deft narrative summary, Miles describes each battle in a single alliterative sentence (“He wiped out Wood Man,” etc), leaving only Air Man’s battle described in minor detail (presumably because she couldn’t think of a destructive verb beginning with A).

To make things more exciting for younger readers, the author also litters the book with italicized KaBoom!s, Whump!s, Pow!s, and FWOOSH!s of the type one might expect from the Adam West Batman series. Even more annoying is Bubble Man’s habit of inserting underwater sounds into his speech, which is poorly handled at best:
Mega Man swam through the gates. Bubble Man was waiting for him. “Mega blorble man!” he cried. “How gurgle dare you enter my king-burrble-dom!
While I’m quoting, here’s a typical example of the author’s attention to detail:
The door to the Robo-Transometer* swung open, letting in a stream of light. Mega Man stirred. His head hurt.

“My head hurts,” he said.

*Robo-Transometer (n): a machine capable of both cloning robots and making them human.

The Game Tips (requiring the reader to turn the book upside-down like a Slylock Fox puzzle) range from revealing enemy weaknesses to laughably basic advice (“To kill Air Man, carefully jump the tornadoes to get close to him”). Amazingly, later in the book, the same tip is repeated twice within ten pages (“To get to Heat Man, use the C weapon to cut through the wall”), meaning that either the editor got a little lazy, or this tip was so important that it had to be repeated twice for the forgetful reader.

I’m probably being a little hard on this book considering it had a target audience of eight year-old boys back in 1989, but it was a fun way to kill a half hour. I definitely had a good time making fun of this book that I wouldn’t have had making fun of a book based on Call of Duty 4 because childhood memories of the gameplay, however cheesy, made it fun. While one can’t possibly attribute any objectivity to this nostalgia, it will add a noticeable degree of enjoyment for any twentysomethings who grew up with NES.

Or, you could skip the book and watch this video of James Rolfe reading it in its entirity instead.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Discussions Turn Into Arguments (or, People Don't Listen, Part II)

A: Have you ever read a really interesting article online, but when people posted their comments it was obvious that they didn’t really understand what the author was saying and instead posted tangential comments based around the topic under discussion?

B: People make off-topic comments all the time, like male enhancement ads on the Rane forums.

A: I don’t mean off-topic like spam; I mean off-topic like they couldn’t quite grasp the writer’s point and were arguing in a different direction.

B: No, I know exactly what you mean. That happened a few weeks ago when I was reading a discussion about the Occupy movement and somebody posted about how Obama was being a socialist by not approving that oil pipeline.

A: No, you’re still talking off-topic.

B: I think that’s quite different than the male enhancement example.

A: Listen! Pick a random topic, say, Monopoly. Monopoly is a game based primarily on luck. If I’m the last person to roll in a five-player game, my odds of landing on unowned properties are greatly reduced. They’re reduced even further if one of the other players gets doubles and can buy a second property on the same turn. If I can buy fewer properties, I have a weaker chance of developing a strong position later in the game.

B: That’s ridiculous! Lots of games are based on luck! Settlers of Catan, for instance: if nothing but fours and tens come up, then the players who build on the fours and tens are going to get a shit-ton of resources every game. Cribbage is the same way: if I get a twenty-nine hand, it’s going to be pretty hard for you to beat me. Or in Hearts...

A: You see what just happened?

B: What?

A: I said that Monopoly is a game based primarily on luck, especially in larger games.

B: You didn’t mention anything about larger games.

A: I implied it. Anyway, I was saying that in larger games, Monopoly is based primarily on luck. You didn’t respond positively or negatively to that comment; you just went on to talk about how lots of games have luck in them.

B: Are you saying there’s no luck in cribbage? If we cut a starter card that gives me an inside-double run and helps you out not at all, isn’t that luck?

A: Of course it is, but I was only talking about Monopoly.

B: Maybe you weren’t being clear enough!

A: Do you think Monopoly is based primarily on luck?

B: In larger games?

A: In larger games.

B: Any game with dice or cards intrinsically involves some degree of chance! That’s the way of the world!

A: Yes, but do you think that degree of chance is substantial enough in a game of Monopoly to cause an imbalance?

B: In a large game, or a small game?

A: A large game.

B: How many players constitutes a large game?

A: I don’t know. Five.

B: You don’t know? This doesn’t seem like a well-thought out argument to me.

A: Fine! We’ll say more than four. Four or more players constitutes a large game.

B: You said five before.

A: Five is more than four! I’m trying to explain as best I can: Do you think that the degree of chance in a game of Monopoly involving more than four players is enough to create an imbalance for the player or players who are last to move their pieces?

B: I think the Chance cards have a lot to do with it as well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mole That Poked His or Her Head Above Ground

All of my co-workers consistently misuse the genderless plural pronoun in place of a singular pronoun, as in the following example:
Someone left their book on the table.
Their is a pronoun used for more than one person (They left their books on the table), but here, only one person left a book. You wouldn't say Cinderella left their slipper at the ball because that doesn't make sense either.

People talk like this everywhere, and it's a reality I've grown to accept, like the prevalence of pro football or the existence of Crocs. Today, however, I found this in a kindergarten newsletter:
Every group of moles has a guard. The guard mole pokes his or her head above ground and warns the other moles of danger.
I was aghast at such an awkward, though grammatically-correct sentence from one of my co-workers. His or her head? What had caused such a pedantic shift?

I've come up with two explanations, possibly related:
1. Because the subject in question was the guard, the writer felt more inclined to use singular pronouns, as the is generally only used for one of something.
2. Because the sentence is about an animal, misusing their in place of singular pronouns seemed less appropriate.
Whereas in previous centuries, the teacher's sentence would have been commonplace, our language is constantly changing (and whoever be he who thinketh othewife might best have his head cleft clean from his body), and the singular their may be here to stay. I predict that in a generation or two, the casual their will be formally regarded as correct, and blog entries like this one will seem as dated as they are condescending.

Want to learn more?
The Genderless Pronoun: 150 Years Later, Still an Epic Fail
The Epicene Pronouns: A Chronology of the Word that Failed

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Bizarre, Saturnalian Cover

1967 Bantam paperback edition of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49*

I love old paperback art, and this one is no exception. Paisley designs should be integrated into far more book covers.

Also, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a bizarre, off-the-wall, novel that still manages to retain a concrete hold on its plot and characters. (It's also short!) Pynchon's prose expresses the most everyday actions in strikingly unique ways, and for that I adore it.

* I hate it when items that normally appear in italics (i.e. book titles) appear inside other items that normally appear in italics (i.e. picture captions) so that the italics cancel each other out and the former must then be unitalicized. It just looks wrong to me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Relative Nostalgia

More and more often, I see our generation united by common memories of mass consumer and pop culture from our childhoods (approximately 1983 to 1996), thus firmly establishing the popularity of sites like The Angry Video Game Nerd, the Nostalgia Critic, and this site examining awesome VHS covers from the ‘80s.

The ‘80s covers might be a different story, but were all those cartoons, movies, Nickelodeon shows, video games, and commercials really worth enshrining, or were we just at an impressionable age where even marginally serviceable entertainment would blow our minds? Is it possible that today’s mass culture (mediocre by our standards) has the same effect on kids, and in twelve years we’ll have a whole new generation talking about how cool the Geico gecko was?

Answer: not fucking likely.