Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finally, a practical way to watch your friend sleep.

For some reason this really stuck with me:

I wouldn't even call it "funny," exactly. I don't know what it is. But I like it.



I've seen a bunch of ads like this. I think there was one series last year, for example, in which people were thinking about whether global warming was real (what was that, some museum or television program or something?). What I love/hate about this trend is that, yes, people might actually sometimes make faces like that while thinking about questions—might, theoretically: I mean I'll accept that as a possibility, objection sustained—but would they make a face like that while thinking about a question like "Can I benefit from the New York School tax credit"?

It's a fucking factual yes/no question to which you find the answer by consulting tax forms or Quicken or—yes, as the ad itself suggests—some goddamned accountant; it's not something you just sort of wonder about, turn over in your head: it's not a scratch-your-curly-head, sleep-on-it kind of a deal. "Hmm, do I have to worry about the Alternative Minimum Tax? When is a person required to pay estimated taxes?" These are not questions you puzzle out. They're not matters of personal exploration. The cheerfully quizzical thinker is not always an appropriate illustration—even if your copy does include a question mark.

Not every question is a head-tilter, people!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Don't give smart people driver's licenses.

[IMPORTANT NOTE: For some reason I have decided that I hate this post. I can't tell why, exactly, but I've been sitting on it for a week and a half now and finally realized that's why: I hate it. Thought I should mention that. Enjoy!]

So I got my California driver's license,* which, because I already had a New York license, meant all I had to do was fill out a form, pose for a picture, and take a written test. I was able to take some practice tests beforehand online, on the DMV's web site, and while the experience was encouraging in terms of my chances of getting a license, it was somewhat disturbing in terms of surviving on the road.

As I first saw pointed out in a New Yorker article that I've never been able to track down—and as I discovered when first trying to write reading quizzes as an English teacher—multiple-choice questions are too frequently answerable without any knowledge whatsoever of the subject: just the way the question is set up can give away the answer. Specifically this article was talking about the effect of political correctness on the S.A.T.,† but there are all sorts of ways in which this can be true.

Take a look at some of these sample questions from the DMV web site:

You don't have to know the law, really. Maybe it pays to have a general feel for the kind of traffic laws there are out there, but either way, what are the odds that the DMV wants you to say that you should block an intersection or try to drive around an obstruction?

This one's a better example of what I'm talking about:

What idiot would think that the right answer would have anything to do with answering your phone?—that the safest precaution, safest, a superlative, would be keeping your phone within easy reach or, Jesus, reviewing the number, pretty much the opposite of the right answer?‡

This one's good:

I love the idea that the answer the DMV wants is that this helps reduce traffic congestion or that, better yet, tailgating is specifically, explicitly, importantly legal.

If you plan to pass another vehicle, you should do whatever you want and the very laws of physics will bend to accommodate you.

This one is hilarious—

—although you've got to give them credit for using continually right.

To be fair, I only barely passed: I think I got five out of thirty-six wrong and six wrong is the maximum. Of course, what I got wrong was in an entirely different category from the sort of thing I'm talking about above. For example, one that I got wrong was about the level of drunkenness that is permissible on the road: I went for the lowest blood-alcohol concentration [BAC] listed, when in fact it was the middle one, three hundredths of a percent higher than what I put. Now, again, the person who put the higher BAC ought not to score the same as the person who put the lower BAC—these are not equivalent wrong answers, are they?—but whatever. Point is, here's a question where you just had to know the answer, not like the ones above.

In conclusion, fuck this blog post. Why does it suck so totally? Nobody knows. Here's a picture of Hebrew Spider-Man:

[via Headfoot]

* I don't know how to write "driver's license." Is it possessive? Plural? My N.Y. license says, "DRIVER LICENSE." I have almost exactly the same problem with "boys' school." (It's not exactly. It's almost exactly.)

† Without having read the passage (whatever the passage might be), anyone with any sense of the College Board would probably be able to guess that the message the author was trying to convey (whoever the author might be) was "Everyone has a right to equal treatment under the law" and not "Some races are superior to other races" or "Sometimes it's defensible to murder people" (to use an example I just made up)—that sort of thing.

‡ It's also troubling that the test does not distinguish between an outrageously wrong answer and a simple inaccuracy—like the difference between, "When your phone rings while you're driving, be sure to hold it right in front of your eyes so you don't misread it," and, "You need to signal 75 feet before a turn" instead of 100 or whatever. Shouldn't a way-wrong answer basically make you fail automatically?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Please remain calm.


But don't become alarmed. That's what the button is for: "ALARM" the button is meant to take the place of alarm the experience. Also, please do not become alarmed by what it says on the button. Yes, it says "ALARM"—but becoming alarmed yourself is the opposite of what is intended. Remember, besides, that it's only a button. Maybe we should have picked a different word? Well, what's done is done.

If you begin to panic, calmly and gently depress the "PANIC" button.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A post about a urinal I used tonight.

That drain looks like an arrow. I mean, either it does, or I'm crazy and thought it does, but either way, in my brain, it looked like an arrow. So let's move forward from there. Imaginging that that drain looks like an arrow, do we prefer to imagine that it's suggesting, essentially, just, "Pee here"; or that it's reminding you to pee into the urinal as opposed to, say, away from it; or that it suggests that you pee straight and not at the kind of an angle that might result in some backspray or even a plain miss?

That's all I got. Is it L.A.'s fault? Decimate.

About this 21st century.

That nobody knows anybody's phone number anymore is a much-noted curiosity: I think there's a backlashy movement to try to memorize numbers again, but since we've all got cell phones, in effect every phone number we have is "on speed-dial" (as we used to say), so nobody ever dials anything—dials itself being pretty much a meaningless word at this point.

Here are a few other changes, off the top of my head, that I haven't heard people mention:

  • nobody ever gives directions anymore, just street addresses;*
  • when you move to a different state, you don't necessarily (or normally, even) get a new phone number; and
  • I don't know whether it's the fault of text messaging or the fact that carrying your phone around with you everywhere you go makes incoming calls even more intrusive, but people call each other to chat much less often.†

I thought that list was going to be longer. Is this blog getting kind of half-assed? I'm feeling like its ass has been halved, or at least decimated.

Here's a picture of me thinking this over on the can:


* Even the street addresses part itself is a change per se because, before Google Maps, the only important info used to be the intersection, whereas now the actual number of the building or house is actually much more useful.

† Have you noticed this? Have I even mentioned it before?

the fifth element is love, folks [UPDATED]

The Fifth Element is one of those movies I had to watch more than once before I really appreciated it, and what I've wound up concluding is that the thing is like 40% awesome, 35% fine, and 25% idiotic.

Part of the issue is Luc Besson. The Professional* is a favorite of mine,† but—I don't know, is it offensive to suggest that maybe the French sensibility works better for morally ambiguous quasi-romantic hitman stories than for sweeping sci-fi mini-epics? (Well, I guess I've suggested it, so if it's offensive, then it's offensive. Very well.)

And that's really the crux of my objection: the 25% that's idiotic is pretty much all the shit that's supposed to be funny. Only a Frenchman would think that a sci-fi movie has to be funny. I mean, there are legitimately funny parts in the movie, but I'm talking about the goofy shit—like Obi-Wan Kenobi Cornelius fainting [Oops! -ed.]. I think what bothers me about that is one half its just being not funny and one half its being...I don't know, smug and condescending? Like, if this story involves aliens, it has to be a joke somehow? You run into that with sci-fi sometimes: people feel like it can't be enjoyed except on roughly the same level as like a Bazooka Joe comic. And sometimes The Fifth Element takes cheesy shit too seriously and is way too flip and corny about stuff that ought to be played safe—is my 2¢ (convert that into euros, I can't be bothered).

I seem to [remember people? –ed.] using Ruby Rhod as an illustration of this point, but actually I kind of like Ruby Rhod—or at least I really like the Prince-like‡ thing of his seeming flamingly gay but then not only fucking but in fact going down on the hot stewardesses on the space ship...? Pretty great.

And there are a lot of cute girls in this movie—

A cute girl in this movie.

—maybe one of the pluses of having a Gaul behind the wheel—and but of course the best of them, and the thing that makes this movie what it is, is Leeloo: the perfect being.

Those are—what, "thermal bands" or something? Wonderful nonsense.

I gave a wedding toast once that ended with the line, "I couldn't be happier to see any two excellent, excellent people joined together—except maybe Hamlet from Shakespeare's play and Leeloo from the movie The Fifth Element."


What is it about Leeloo? In high school I remember watching Dazed & Confused with a normally very respectful and discreet friend who kept leaning over every time Milla Jovovich was on screen and practically hissing in my ear, "She is so hot!" There is that. But there's also something about the gibberish she speaks that simulates the girl-from-a-country-who-speaks-some-other-language exoticism, and there's the combination newborn clone slash alien slash...well, personification of all that is good and open and loving in the world—love itself incarnate, innit?—sort of a wide-eyed innocence and wonder and joy that fits so counterintuively well with her being such a bad-ass...

All things bright and beautiful, to old Leeloo.

I actually haven't seen the movie in its entirety for a few years and therefore can't comment any more intelligently on the subject...but in the end I think it's just that Leeloo is kind of amazing fantasy woman of a particular sort I'm not sure I've seen anywhere else.

Not a bad Halloween choice, if you can pull it off.§

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that this whole post could probably be edited down to the two-word assertion "Leeloo rules"?

* ...which I am very slow to call Léon because (a) it just plain wasn't called that in the U.S. for the first few years I knew it, (b) it seems therefore as pretentious for an American anglophone like me to call that movie Léon as it would be for him to talk about Godard's classic nouvelle vague film "À bout de souffle."

† And by the way, can we just note that there's at least one scene in The Fifth Element (the scene with Milla in the cab) that's more or less the same scene as a scene in The Professional (the scene with Natalie at the door), right down the feel of the music?

‡ Well...maybe. Prince is a little unclear.

§ Double-entendre courtesy of chance and my unconscious.

Yes, construction is his knack...yes, yes, noted.

I know a boy. His name is Zack.
He loves to fit; he loves to stack.
At nine years old, he's smoking crack.
He's Zack, the Lego maniac.

He mugs second graders—he's off the wall!
He's pushing drugs down at the mall.
If he knew how, he'd sell his soul.
He's Lego wild, out of control.

Zack! Zack! He's a Lego maniac!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

God: what we know

[For a while I wasn't updating Alt85 enough; now I reckon I'll update it too much—already I've put up stuff that I had to go back and correct like Charles Grady because it was so damned slapdash and crazy. That's the spirit!]

So I got a kick out of this Talk of the Town piece by Adam Gopnik on the subject of Jonathon Keats, an "experimental philosopher," a "conceptual art[ist]," a "poet of ideas," or a plant pornographer. I don't really have anything to say on the subject other than to highlight this particular tasty detail:

[Keats] has, over the years, sold real estate in the extra dimensions of space–time proposed by string theory (he sold a hundred and seventy-two extra-dimensional lots in the Bay Area in a single day); made an attempt to genetically engineer God (God turns out to be related to the cyanobacterium); and copyrighted his own mind (in order to get a seventy-year post-life extension).
–The New Yorker, March 15, 2010
Love it; predictably enough, the God part's my favorite. The assertion that God "turns out" to be a cousin to blue-green algae—both the association itself and the suggestion of some kind of super-objective and matter-of-fact rationale behind it—oh, it just warms my rotten atheist heart and tickles my twisted atheist brain.

God: a rare photograph

Menarded the hell outta that menu. [CORRECTED]

We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone
Not Responsible for Lost Articles
Service Charge for Spilling Orders

Saw this on the menu at Canter's (which I had been told I had to check out—the deli, not the menu). I wrote the thing down because I liked the way you actually could make it work as a single sentence if you had if you felt inclined for some perverse reason to question the lack of commas.*

Add the second line to the first and you get that Canter's reserves the right to refuse service to anyone who's irresponsible about lost articles. What that would actually mean gives your brain a little exercise: does it just mean losing stuff, or does it mean not taking responsibility for that which you lose...or could it be something more passive, really just that if none of what has been lost (forever, we can imagine) is yours, then you have no business eating here?

Fitting in the third line is a little dicier—not dicier than the question of what responsibility for lost articles would mean to a customer, but dicier than the basic structure—but† basically what you wind up with is that the thing that'll get you 86ed at Canter's is negligence regarding not lost articles but rather that service charge. Right? If you don't show a little service-charge responsibility, you can order your matzoh-ball soup somewhere else. No civil disobedience here: civil disobedience'll get you kicked right out.

I'm pretty sure that everything I've just said here is sheer blather and nonsense. Can't be bothered to check at the moment; I'm a very busy man.

[I will note, though, that, for one thing, it's not the same service charge any longer. Now it's a lost articles service charge—indeed a lost artices service charge for spilling items—which actually at least sort of offers some sort of explanation (if not excuse) for that spilled items service charge: they're charging you because, in a sense, anything you've spilled you've lost? Yes, that makes sense...]

* Perhaps they migrated here?
† Just totally ignoring the service charged for spilled items, which is a battle for another day.

But does it clump?

Pooping Cat, by Marvin Astorga*

This may seem like a question for Dr. Math, but I think in the end it's actually more about language than it is about mathemagics.

I once got into a bit of a (ridiculous, nerdy) argument† with someone about the idea—which I had read somewhere‡ and which seemed right to me—that random numbers or, to put it in a way that may "scan" better, points selected at random on like a graph have a tendency to clump. In other words, whereas you or I might assume that they'd be pretty well spread out—that if you kept marking points randomly on a plane they'd be all over the place—instead you'd be likely to wind up with...well, clumps. This would also explain why sometimes it seems like your MP3 player's random feature isn't actually random (because it played two songs by Prince in a row, what the fuck??): true randomness might not in fact appear random to us because a random-number generator might well pick 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 all in a row and in that order, no particular reason not to unless you nonrandomly asserted that that kind of sequence was verboten.


The argument arose because the person I was talking to said that it can't be true that anything random would have a tendency to do anything. I had said that random numbers (or points) "have a tendency to clump"; he said he understood what I was describing and accepted that it might be true but that "tendency to clump" could not possibly be right, by the very nature of randomness, which (he asserted) is intrinsically opposed to any kind of tendency.

As I said above, ultimately I concluded that this was more linguistic (or even psychological—didn't mention that) than it was mathematical or theoretical. I think his point was that any tendency we perceive in randomness is by necessity an order our minds are imposing on chaos. Makes sense. But my feeling is that he had this flipped or reversed—and indeed that in general we have this concept flipped and reversed: isn't it instead that our mental picture of randomness is itself a false order imposed on chaos, and that true randomness looks like order to us because we don't actually understand what randomness looks like?

Look at it from another angle: what is clumping? Does it necessarily imply order? Must something be clumped by someone or something, or can it just...clump? Is clumping itself meaningful only from a human vantage point? In other words, is the very concept of clumping nothing more than perceptual? Does clumping exist outside of our imaginations? Maybe the "tendency to clump" really just translates into something like, "tendency to look like what we would call 'clumping'"—my point being that if clumping is only something we see, then a thing's tendency to clump is really just its tendency to be perceived by us as clumping...?

Dude, we are SO stoned right now.

"...he had this flipped or reversed..."

* I used to have this on my wall, but it (and this one, too) left town along with the real pooping cat.

† Interesting question: you'd write "an argument"—so if the vowel-starting modifiers are parenthetical, making them grammatically "invisible" to the logic or flow of the sentence, is it right to have your article affected by them? I obviously chose yes, but it seems wrong, somehow—I always see parentheticals as somehow sort of liftable off the page without any effect on the rest of a sentence, so it rubs me wrong to see an a that would have to be an an if the parenthetical were indeed "lifted"...

Here, probably, knowing me.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hurt People :||

Adjective noun, verb, object, prepositional phrase:

Imagine that we're talking about a movie called Hurt People (not too tough to suspend disbelief on that one: everybody hurts, after all). So what if the Times said, "Hurt people hurt people hurt people Hurt People"—rephrasable* as, "Hurt people who have been hurt by [other] hurt people fill the film Hurt People"?

I'm sure someone can expand upon that...

* -phraseable?

cartoon-caption contestants getting cheeky?

Is it me, or are two of the New Yorker caption finalists* this week sort of making fun of the cartoon (if not the whole miserable endeavor)?

  1. If you think this is annoying, just wait. In a few miles, they switch to binary.
  2. I heard they're part of a failed Italian space program.
  3. You know, a drive in this old open roadster sure does turn back the clock!

Man, that would make this whole horrible disaster much more enjoyable—if people started managing to slip in captions that are basically undermining the whole idiotic enterprise? Would serve the double purpose of hastening the feature's demise and making it much more entertaining in the meantime.

Now if only they were funny...

* Maybe even three: I just plain don't get the second one—unless (as I fear is the case) it's actually, unbelievably, nothing more than a reference to the fact that the numbers sort of resemble a countdown, in which case what we've got here may well be the most embarrassingly incoherent caption in the feature's shameful history. (Roman, do you mean? Jesus H. Jesus.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Human beings: built for profundity.

What the Times thinks meaningful conversations look like.

An article on one of the New York Times blogs (which by the way I don't really understand what that means and how it's different from the regular Times online, but whatever) reports that people are happier when they talk about meaningful shit: "It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier."

One little complaint, both as a side note and a kind of introduction: Why in the world would that sound counterintuitive? Do people really believe that a superficial, unreflective attitude toward the universe would lead to greater happiness?

Well, I guess that's a stupid question because people obviously do think that—see the old ignorance-is-bliss argument for just a single e.g.—but in a way it's sort of shocking that this is such a prevalent attitude, especially given how dominant religion is in our culture: I mean, isn't it disappointing that so many people who self-identify as deeply religious or spiritual also apparently believe that we're better off not thinking about the deeper questions in life? Unfortunately, what religion amounts to to most people seems to be a kind of magical thinking and an abdication of personal responsibility: as the same blog reported a little while back,
...most Americans believe God is directly involved in their personal affairs, and that the good or bad things that happen are "part of God's plan"... "The interesting thing is that when you press people to start talking about things like speeding tickets or losing weight, a lot of people will weave a divine narrative in, describing God as somehow setting up situations or setting up scenarios for success or failure." ... And one in three respondents agreed with the statement, "There is no sense in planning a lot because ultimately my fate is in God's hands."
While any of this, particularly the last part, could suggest a reasonably healthy kind of engagement with life, a thoughtful person's feeling of loving wonder and a drive to explore the mysteries and subtleties of an endlessly complex universe that is not entirely obedient to our will (or some shit), overall this seems like pretty much exactly the opposite of a profound and thoughtful attitude. You would hope that religion would promote deep discussion and a curiosity about the meaning of life—but you and I both know that that is (to be perhaps even way too generous) not always the case (q.v., e.g.). All too often, the religious attitude amounts to an injunction against probing questions, requiring that the faithful person simply accept that someone else has got it figured out and even chastising the curious for a kind of arrogance or hubris.

But forget religion—obviously that's a whole other conversation. Whatever side you think religion falls on, I hope you agree that it does not "sound counterintuitive" that people who explore the "deeper" questions are happier people than those who limit themselves to "small talk"; at most I should think it's sort of validating of a fairly positive view of human nature. Because what are our brains for? After solving the basic problems of survival, the human mind may begin to eat itself or to invent problems, but from both an idealistic and cynical or practical standpoint, it seems fairly clear that engaging with complex, profound questions is just about the best thing we could do with our heads.* A human life spent thinking of little more than the weather, the TV schedule, and what he was like and then what she was like is pretty neatly comparable to a cetacean life in a small aquarium, swimming in tiny circles—or a feline life devoid of hunting, not a mouse, not a bug, not a string, not even an imaginary antagonist to chase down and murder. The human mind needs to think; don't let it, and it'll get soggy.

So anyway—counterintuitive or not, in line with mainstream religious attitudes or not—it's good for you to use your head and to think about serious shit. Now, what counts or what's best, the hierarchy of the profound, is a whole other tank of octopuses.† But if we've learned one thing today, it's that swimming with those fucking headfoots is good for your goddamned health.

To a brighter, wiser future!

* I was struck in A Prophet by the way the main character at least once, in the beginning, slammed his own head against something as a threatening or angry gesture. Is it a stretch to wonder whether this is itself sort of a profound illustration of what happens to a person whose growth is horribly stunted? And is what happens later in the movie [SPOILERish] interpretable as a next-best-thing-to-good version of finally just realizing potential—using one's head productively instead of as a club or weapon?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

another word people always misspell

To my earlier list I add lightening. If it's a lightening of the load, fine. If it's something that breaks the dark sky in half like the zig-zag in a broken heart to let in a flash of blinding light like the wrath of God—and electrocutes your ass—then you, my friend, have just misspelled yourself another word.

Only now, at the end, do you understand.

Friday, March 12, 2010

the sophomore bump

Almost two years ago I elected to call myself "Short Round" and to call this blog "Alternate 1985."

Short Round: a reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Alternate 1985: a reference to Back to the Future Part II.

That these are both second movies in trilogies that came out in the 1980s and were produced by the same people—total coincidence! I swear I didn't do it consciously; I swear on the grave of Dr. Emmett Brown, shot in the back over a matter of eighty dollars. It's eerie, scary—isn't it? There has to have been some sort of supernatural hand in it, almost certainly involving malevolent spirits: I mean, what other explanation is there?

But so I only made this connection recently, and (more or less unrelatedly) I have a thing or two to say about second movies in trilogies, and particularly these. In both the Indiana Jones trilogy and the Back to the Future trilogy, the following are true:

  • as a kid, I thought the second was the worst and the third was the second-best, but
  • later in life I reversed that opinion;
  • the third movie is in many ways a return to the formula of the first, whereas
  • the second movie is in certain key ways audacious and almost genre-changing; and
  • whereas the first movie is surely the best, it is in no way inconceivable that I might opt to see the second instead if given the choice.

What is it with second movies? They're often darker. But maybe also they require—for reasons both of artistic integrity and of commercial viability—that a preexisting model be tweaked creatively, which may (almost accidentally) result in a burst of sort of amazing invention...?

The Alien series is interesting because while the second one does indeed bend the genre (transforming what is essentially horror into what is essentially action), the third one does not return to form but instead gets even weirder—and the fourth, even, is just completely off the wall. Unfortunately, the movies get progressively worse: some people do prefer Aliens to Alien, and Aliens is probably more fun, but in my opinion Scott's film is superior to Cameron's by, like, an order of magnitude;* meanwhile, Fincher's Alien Cubed or whatever the fuck it's called is in some ways incredibly cool but in the end basically unsuccessful, and Jeunet's Alien Resurrection has things in it that trick me into watching it when it's on TV but is, boy, hoo-ee, a train wreck: yeesh.†

I don't have a point. I'm just yappin'. No, wait, lemme see if I can come up with a point:

Just as I said (maybe a little incoherently if I remember it right) about Las Vegas, maybe sequels are amazing almost accidentally, as the side effect or waste product of what is essentially a business move: what on one level is just corporate sleight-of-hand winds up producing, "above," something that qualifies as a kind of art. John Swansburg at Slate said once that the reason the original Transformers movie killed off Optimus Prime et al at the very beginning—a bold and shocking move for a kid's movie, and one you might read as bespeaking noteworthy artistic or philosophical integrity—was that Hasbro or Mattel or whoever-the-fuck passed down the orders that the filmmakers were to kill as many major characters as possible so as to make room for new toys that kids had to buy. So the most cynical and slimy of business moves resulted in something sort of amazing—and does that background discredit or somehow undo the amazing? It's a bit like the way human beings work: we're the sum or synergy of untold countless parts and processes, each individual cell obviously lacking anything even resembling a central nervous system and yet somehow adding up to us, to you... And who cares if you're essentially a Cameron-esque exoskeleton or vehicle for your own eggs or sperm? As Number Five taught us—I'm sorry, Johnny Five—what you began as, or were built or "intended" for, isn't what counts. What counts is what you are and what you do.

God bless America, and good night!

* Is that an expression? Rather, is that an applicable expression?

† The Alien vs. Predator movies were made by school children during recess and do not bear discussion.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Insane Nonsense on the Subject of Male Facial Hair, by a strange man with a beard.


This has changed in the last few years, but for a while there it seemed the norm among straight women of my generation was to have a declared aversion to beards. And I was always like, "Eh, I don't buy it"—because, come on, beards are a secondary sexual characteristic!* Millions of years of evolution tell you to be attracted to beards; you're not attracted to them, really? Not at all?

I was wrong about this, sort of, as I found after shaving a beard—Beard #4, I believe it was—and leaving a mustache, sort of as a joke or at least as an experiment. I figured that a mustache was something women wouldn't like because whereas facial hair in general is a secondary sexual characteristic, as soon as you start grooming it into particular shapes, you start sending very specific signals—messages, even—that can short circuit the basic biological message, and...

Wrong. Dead wrong.


Turned out that women, or a lot of women, were sort of into the mustache, which—well, first of all, it made me keep the damned thing for more than a year instead of, like, two days as originally planned (because I do WHATEVER WOMEN WANT), but second of all, and more importantly, it made me reevaluate my whole cockamamie analysis.

Short version: yes, facial hair is a secondary sexual characteristic, and yes, showing some probably does therefore have some sort of effect, attraction-wise, but it's not the only communication going on, and obviously (as I myself could have told you even then, if asked the right question) another big thing going on in the dialogue of attraction and courtship—on a similarly low-down, deep, animal level—is the question of whether a male has the ability to support and protect (a) a laid-up knocked-up mate and (b) a newborn helpless offspring. So whether he's capable of grooming his face is hardly irrelevant.

This means that, at least in my experience, a mustache—assuming you can really pull it off, can really "rock it" (as for some reason everybody seems to agree is a reasonable thing to say about a mustache)—is a bigger hit with the ladies than a full beard. It shows, I suppose, that you can grow hair out of your face, but that at the same time you are capable of taking some kind of care of yourself, which suggests, in turn, that you're capable of taking some kind of care of her, and of the baby you are going to beget upon her.†

Apparently this person is called Amanda Beard. She seems nice.

But all of this—my original assumption and the revised analysis that I'm sort of half-jokingly presenting—is subject to subjectivity.

For some reason I'm reminded of the time my parents had me over for dinner at the same time as a guy they knew who was from Germany, and he began—a little rudely, actually, now that I think of it—complaining about my parents' bathroom: "I don't understand American toilets," he said. "They're like swimming pools. Why do Americans need so much water? To hide the shit?" (Shit floats, asshole. Sorry our toilets don't measure up to your water-closet master race; take it back to the fatherland, pal!)

It's a matter of taste. It's a matter of fashion. Back to beards: in a way that may in fact be related to the decrease in stated female aversion to beards [see above], what now in our culture we call a beard has changed. In fact I'm generally inclined to say that a lot of today's "beards" are not beards, and although (as I so often do, but I think less so lately) I find myself starting to make an argument for how this is not relative and is not a matter of taste—only a few years ago what was called stubble is suddenly a beard?‡—

Left to right: Beard, stubble. (Stubble ≠ beard.)

—of course it is relative, it is a matter of taste. Indeed the central flaw of my original evolutionary-psychology beard argument may have been the fallacious assumption that attraction is absolute and not, maybe on a deeper level but all the same, a matter of taste. Different people are attracted to different things—obviously, obviously.

But this gets really interesting to me because it occurred to me one day—well, you can have good hair days and bad hair days (as is well established in the culture), and the same goes for beards. But what occurred to me at some point recently was that maybe bad hair days are only perceptual. I mean, keeping it with beards, sometimes I'd look at my beard and think it looked great, usually because I saw it as a single entity framing my jaw and giving shape to my face, but other times I'd look at it and basically just see a bunch of individual hairs growing disgustingly out of my face, and what I'm getting at here is that I'm not sure these looked different: I think it might just be that I was looking at the thing differently.

This anonymous primatologist's beard earns him a moment in the sun. You are welcome, sir.

Is the difference between someone who doesn't like beards and someone who does like beards that the one just tends to see them differently? What was that essay—I may have even mentioned it here—about what it's like to be a bat? It might even be called "What It's Like to Be a Bat," and the conclusion is that it is absolutely 100% impossible to know what it's like unless you are a bat (and sci-fi solutions like having your mind transplanted into a bat wouldn't do it, either, because then you only know what it's like to be a human mind inside a bat, something surely quite unlike the experience of your average run-of-the-mill chiropteric critter). What do you see when you look at my beard? God only knows. I mean, God and you. But not me. And if even I see my own face differently each time I look, just think of the variety in perception of other human beings, female and otherwise.

I feel like I had a conclusion, but maybe this was just a rambling explorational type thing. As such, I conclude with Zach Galifianakis shaving his beard and then replacing it with a fake beard. God bless.

* And studies show that people (women in particular, but let's just gloss over that part, no need to get into a fight with anyone here) are sort of bad at knowing what turns them on: it's not at all uncommon for the mouth to say, "Doesn't grab me," while the genitals say, "Please grab me."

† Have I mentioned how amused I am by this construction? My fantasy is to phrase a birth announcement that way: "We are delighted to announce that Short Round has begotten Yahweh Spengler (8 lbs.) upon his lovely wife Leeloo."

‡ Similar but different: watch a movie from the 1980s and marvel at how the "fat" guy looks not so fat at all anymore. We've become so used to morbid obesity that what the medical profession classifies as "overweight" can strike us as surprising or even absurd...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Not just right turns on red.

Admittedly I'm still sort of in awe of the fact that I'm in Los Angeles and consequently blown away left and right by minor differences between this city and New York (where I lived for more than 25 nonconsecutive years, approximately* 87.5% of my life†). But I see no reason to restrain myself. Take a look at this shit:

Sometimes in New York you'll find a space like this in the sidewalk without a tree—sometimes it's a tree stump, sometimes nothing, sometimes even some fuckin' cabbage or some shit—but never ever (at least in my experience) a cactus.

* But more precisely than the "more than 25" jab preceding.
† Which is, of course, a B+.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

east meets west

So I've moved to the West Coast, and maybe it's the "honeymoon" period (it's only been a few days), but I'm gonna go ahead and say the West Coast is the best coast.*

One problem:

I seem congenitally incapable of telling east from west. There are people who have this problem in the left–right variety; I'm fine with left and right but routinely get east and west mixed up. I mean, give me a few seconds and I'm fine: the answer is always there. But ask me fast, and my first answer is always wrong.

What is wrong with me?

Traditionally (upon realizing and then admitting the problem) I blamed my having grown up on the West Side of New York City and the East Coast of the United States. As a little boy, I learned these two things as plain stand-alone facts without much knowledge behind it or context surrounding it, and it might be easy to mix it up. Add to this the fact that I grew up as far west as you could get at my latitude, such that it was almost a North Pole phenomenon in which, while I was west, everything else was east...†

(via this, via that)

There was just one problem with this, which is that I knew plenty of people who grew up on the West Side and did not have this cognitive deficit.

So what is it? Here are a few just fucking confusing things about East and West (they are fucking fucked up, seriously!—it's a fucking clusterfuck trainwreck shitstorm DISASTER) that maybe act as some half-assed apology for my stupidity:

  • As I noted early on in my childhood, what in the world could it mean to refer to one part of the planet as "the West" or "the Western world" when you're on a goddamned sphere?‡ How can anything be absolutely (or let's say exclusively) east or west of anything else, for that matter? Isn't everything east of something else also west of it? We're getting into some serious Gremlins-style "after midnight" mindfuckery now.
  • When someone says "I'll meet you at the northeast corner of 78th and West End," the standard seems to be that this means she'll meet you on the corner coming from the northeast (Fig. 1, below), but couldn't it just as easily refer to the corner pointing to the northeast (Fig. 2, below)? This used to confuse the hell out of me when I was a kid: seemed totally arbitrary. (It's like the word northeasterly, which infuriatingly means to the northeast or from the northeast—its own opposite—and is therefore effectively useless.)
  • Actually I think it all does sort of have to do with the absolute vs. the relative: I mean, when something west of one thing is east of another, and some things are called the west but are east of other things, and when the West Side is east of New Jersey and the Far East is west of California...

(Fig. 1)

(Fig. 2)

Anyway, but yes, I'm a little stupid, at least in this particular regard—I won't contest that any further. But I do think we can all agree, however, that EAST AND WEST ARE DUMB AND ONLY LOSERS CARE ABOUT THEM.


* Oh, New York, don't give me that look: you know I love you best.
Capitalization note: it's my understanding that you capitalize the first letter of East or West if you are referring to a place (or the very concept) and leave it lowercase if you're referring to a direction.
‡ Answer: mapmakers are the center of the universe and east becomes west, like the International Date Line, at the cartographic antipode.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Whore: not a word.

I guess at a certain point the story shifts focus onto why I keep being surprised by this. But I do want to point out that whore is a word you can find in the Bible. Now, I'm not one to get all pious about the "good book"—quite the contrary—but really, Electronic Arts? Whore is good enough for the Bible but not good enough for fucking Boggle?

And this is your rhetorical question on drugs.

(click to enlarge)

Took this picture a few days ago* because of what I saw as an example of a backfiring rhetorical question.

The ad reads:

Reasons to Keep the Drinking Age at 21

Since the drinking age in NJ was raised to 21, the number of young people killed in drunk-driving crashes has dropped nearly 78%.

Need we say more?

Actually, yes, you do need to say more. Questions right off the top of my head:

  1. When was the drinking age raised?
  2. What else has happened in the years since then? E.g., has there been more education about drunken driving, more forceful ad campaigns, tougher laws?
  3. What percentage of these young people killed in drunk-driving crashes were themselves driving drunk and what percentage, if any, were victims?
  4. Where's the "young people" cut-off? Under 21? Not clear from the copy.

I'm not saying that raising the drinking age didn't save lives. I'm just saying that the fact that deaths have fallen since N.J. raised the drinking age does not prove causation per se.‡ So making a big Q.E.D. flourish—particularly when phrased as a very nearly sarcastic question about whether any additional information could possibly be requested—is counterproductive. When you've made it look as though you've proved your point but haven't quite proved it, that is not the time to ask, "Need I say more."

Need I say more?

* I've been busy to the exclusion of just about all other activities, but I'm back, I'm back, I think I may possibly be back.

† Side note: I wish I'd gotten a better angle on this because now I can't tell whether they maybe ended the question with a period (or it looks if you look carefully as though there's another period there, so maybe it's a dot-dot-dot question mark; I'm guessing so because I feel like I would have remembered the starkness of asking the rhetorical question with no question mark). Kind of amazing if so.

‡ Reminder: per se does not mean "precisely" or "particularly," but rather "in itself."

It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.

I saw this and it occurred to me to wonder, "Has anyone ever peed into one of these hand dryers, drunkenly or otherwise?" Then I realized the answer is, surely, "Yes: both."