Monday, October 24, 2005

Crackers Don't Matter

I've never really watched Farscape. A friend of mine is fixated on it as only a person who fixates on Thing That Ended Years Ago can be. I can tell you that it's about wormholes, and that the main character's name is pronounced "cry-ten," like the unrelated popular author. I can tell you there's a spaceship named Moya, guy with a metal nose named Dargo, two muppets named Rigel and Pilot, two blue chicks, and a middle-aged British chick who is an alien. Other than that, I can't tell you a whole lot.

But I can fake it.

Like the episode, "Crackers Don't Matter," where everyone goes crazy. The synopsis is simple: everyone goes crazy over crackers. I can talk about how one of the concept artists is obsessed with the work of Brom, because, well, there's an entire alien race that was ripped right out of Brom's colorful and disturbing portfolio. I can compare and contrast the apparently opposite natures of the blue chicks. And yet, I've only seen two episodes all the way through.

You see, I had a Liberal Arts education. What having a Liberal Arts education means is that I got to sit in a lot of conference-style classes with no more than two dozen other students, and discuss our reading material. As often as not (actual rates ranged from 20% to 80%, depending on the class), I didn't actually do the reading. I just pretended I did, and spoke with great authority. I have a reputation as someone with "all the answers," and I usually have something to say about just about everything. The secret is that I actually only have a sound byte of information about most things, and I'm winging it.

Here's some tips: you don't need to read any work of literature, provided you can remember its name, who wrote it and when, and what its themes are. I've successfully faked reading Don Quixote, Faust, and the Anarchist's Cookbook. The basics of faking it is being able to have a springboard to get the other person talking.

Now, in principle, I advocate knowing as much as you can about everything. I'm not saying everyone should fake it all the time. But there's only so much time to be had, and I'm a busy man. You have to prioritize. So I never actually got around to reading Don Quixote and Faust until I worked an awful job in a call center that afforded me a lot of time reading (the Anarchist's Cookbook, sadly, was not suitable fare for those tired old career Nextel representatives). In fact, I got about three dozen novels of varying lengths read during my three-month tenure working at a Nextel-outsourced joint. I didn't have a lot of alternatives. Most of the time, though I need either more free time or fewer alternatives.

Going back to the springboard idea: it's very simple, when you get the hang of it. Dodge directed questions ("what did you think of the difference between Book I and Book II of Faust?") with vague answers ("I don't know, I think I preferred the style of the first one, but I liked them both"). Let the other person provide the details. If you're talking to a well-read and gabby person, smiling and nodding can get you a free lecture on the topic of your choice, often of the same quality as you can expect from taking classes at night school. And they can walk away thinking, "My goodness, what a well-informed person."

This brings me to the most risky, but potentially most effective technique: the obscure reference. Name-dropping, done correctly, makes a person seem vastly more informed than they actually are, provided it's done correctly. Here, it's useful to have a little grounding. Don't test the waters depth with both feet at once, as the Chinese saying goes. Take philosophy: I am only familiar with the works of two or three philosophers, but I know enough about the rest to dismiss them. To any assertion of "[a philosopher] is a genius!" I can reply, "well, maybe, but he's no Wittgenstein." Assertions that "[a philosopher] gives my life meaning," I can reply, "I think Hume put the last nail in that coffin you've made for yourself." I don't even have to know who they're talking about.

Here's the biggest secret to name-dropping: always talk in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone, which is either suggesting that you are being knowingly witty, or politely sarcastic. You know the tone - that sort of raised-eyebrow, rakish smile kind of tone. If you *always* talk like that when dropping references, you can convince a crowd you know what you're talking about, even if each half of the room interprets it differently than the other half.

In short, I may not be Shakespeare, but I'll settle for Iago.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sports: When You Can't Handle Real News

I've always been baffled by the "sports page" of newspapers. Let's face it: sports are recreational activities, and professional sports are spectator sports. They are entertainment. And yet, somehow the events in the world of sports are newsworthy while the events in the tabloid press are not. I'm not talking about general sports news either. It's perfectly typical to find an article about an up-and-coming football player in nation-wide newspapers, but that same paper wouldn't consider running a piece on some Hollywood actor's wedding party.

Its not like sports are "less escapist" than celebrity fixation. The proliferation of magazines about celebrities in the last few decades make clear that people want to know all about their personal lives, but in the end, your typical played-football-in-college middle-aged couch potato isn't at all more likely to play in the NFL gridiron as a college theater major is to star in the next $150 million piece of garbage to come out of Hollywood. Sports isn't going to change foreign or domestic policy, it isn't going to make a better world for your children, and it isn't going to help win the War on Terror/Drugs/Porn/Video Games/Republicans. It's just entertainment.

"But wait!" shouts my imaginary friend who likes sports. "The conflict is real! It's like watching a battle, with cunning generals and mighty warriors!" Let me make this abundantly clear: competition is only 'conflict' in the sense that someone's not going to be happy with the outcome. Professional wrestling, for example, is entirely fake choreographed and entirely scripted. The 'conflict' there is nonexistent. In competitive sports, there is indeed conflict and uncertainty, but it's artificial. Why should this team try to outdo that team at moving an inflated sheep's stomach to one or the other end of the field? Whether a game is checkers or multi-million-dollar football, it's still just a game, and still an artificial contrivance to distract, relax, and engage the interest of people. Just because someone really wants to win (or wants someone else to win) means their victory is a great deed or their failure to do so is a tragedy.

And yet, we have the sports page: a declaration to all and sundry that sports is just as much a part of vital current events as war, famine, pestilence, and death. And his country believes it, make no mistake. People let their fixation on these stupid games ruin their marriages. They go on shooting sprees because their teams won or lost. Most Americans can tell you more about their local sports teams than they can about their local government. And you know what? It's pathetic.

The sports industry (and make no mistake: it's an industry) exists for one purpose: to make money. The star salaries, the lucrative construction contracts, the pollyp on the organ of higher education that is college football: these all exist because, in the end, people pony up billions of dollars to glimpse sports. To see a game from hundreds of feet away, or to own a shirt that announces "I like this [generic athlete] more than others!" or to gamble on the outcome of a game. It's an industry that has it in its best interest that people never find something better to do with their time (like read a goddamn book). The game itself is just a means to an end.

Now, I'm not opposed to free enterprise in principle. If people pay that kind of money to see games, then athletes have the leverage to ask absurd wages. Just don't tell me that the game is "pure." Watching a football game is no more a spectacle of skill than it is a spectacle of greed, just like Hollywood. It is not a Good Thing in and of itself, any more than selling cars or sitting in a cubicle is. As Reality TV has so elegantly demonstrated, people are just as eager to watch cleverly edited reality as they are to watch fiction, and sports fills that need.

The cost is subtle, but sizable. An astonishing number of Americans are at a loss without sports to fixate on. It's like people who can't figure out how to have fun without getting drunk: it's a sign of a deeply, deeply limited perspective. Sports has not, can not, and will not change the world or improve lives. A society that refuses to remain informed about basic issues of political, social, and technological importance, but can tell you who pulled off a tremendous pass play the night before is in trouble.

So my advice to sports fans is: grow up. It's the same game you were obsessed with as back when you were obsessed with scoring a keg after prom. It's as irrelevant now as your keggers were then. Not that sports and drinking are fine as hobbies. But for the love of God, pay attention to the stuff that matters, first!

Friday, October 14, 2005

I Submit! Make Reality Quiet Again!

Gah! I make one cocky post about how bored I am, and BOOM, things start to happen faster than I can process. True, much of it is my fault (like beginning to play Myst IV, which is immersive, gorgeous, and hugely nostalgic), but Ack! Where did all these activities come from?!

So I get a complimentary flight to the East Coast, as people do who have relatives with frequent flyer miles, and I get back, and BAM: it's stuff time. The return of a good friend who sent many years abroad has brought with him his DVD collection. So now (or so I'm told), I must watch the first season of Deadwood, the first season of Carnivale, the third season of Six Feet Under, and a dozen movies. Plus, I must satisfy this returning hero's hunger for Halo 2 multiplayer. THEN, it is revealed that this honored guest has assembled decks of cards for playing (the Call of Cthulhu card game, for those keeping a list) from the stash I accumulated during a short and profitable stint of selling them on eBay. So that needs to get played. Plus, I started Myst IV, and it calls to me night and day like the sirens (I'm so CLOSE to figuring out the electrical floating rock puzzles!). AND I have the game I run on the weekend looming, demanding some unrewarding gruntwork be done before things get underway. AND I am honor bound to attend Serenity a second time (because, you know, I'd like it to "succeed" where others have "failed").

It's enough to keep a man awake! Which is a problem when one's system is already reeling from a rather strange sleep schedule on and off of planes for a week.

So: you'd think my approach would be "Time to Knuckle Under, Buckle Down, and Have Fun Efficiently!" It's a good plan in theory. You juggle social commitments. You wake up in the morning and set priorities for what kinds of fun the evening should contain.

So what does life do? It throws tea at you.

Yes. Tea.

The Safeway in the area has a "Corner of Discount Stuff" hidden away, where prices have been slashedon damages, overstock, or otherwise unwanted goods. And as a friend and myself cruised rapidly through Safeway seeking quick dinner, we hapen upon the tea. We're not just talking crap tea, either. Stash, Twinings, Rooibos (or something), and many other quality brands. They're 99 cents a box. At that price, tea isn't just for drinking: it's for squirreling away for years and years, and it's also for giving to relatives and the relatives of friends ('cause, you know, tea is good stuff). So there goes a solid hour of my evening, with all this tea sorting and tea buying, and getting the word out to other teamongers who then need rides to do their own tea sorting and tea buying.

I had a schedule! I had a plan for Maximal Uninterrupted Fun! Now, I am behind. The floating electrical rock puzzles remain unsolved. I still haven't played any CCG goodness. A veritable crate of DVDs stares me down, daring me to veg.

I think I'm god for a while on the whole immersion thing. Can someone throw me a life preserver?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Food: Supercharged

Hunger is annoying. Well, it's true! This damn body of mine guzzles fuel. Where's it all going? I'm not exactly holding the world aloft on my shoulders. How much horsepower can I possibly have?

(Dr. Internet estimates that I, and other healthy humans, can sustain about 0.1 horsepower).

Seriously: I only need to fill my car's gas tank after something like five hours of continuous freeway driving. That's 5 hours powering a 62 horsepower engine, dragging a one-ton body. Here I am, light as a feather, and I can't jog for more than five minutes without "overheating." and yet, three times a day, I've got to pour more fuel into this damned body.

Now, I know what you're going to say: "But eating isn't just fuel, it's parts & service, too!" A fair point. My car would run pretty poorly with someone constantly meddling with the engine. But consider: I'm stationary more of the time. It's the nature of both my professional and leisure activities. Hell, I spend a third of my time in a coma-like state. Can't they work on it then?

That's another annoying thing: sleep. Who's bright idea was it to have the immune system regenerate its defensive status during obligatory downtime. And who thought it would be a good idea to force us to chose between oblivious rest and exhausted delirium? I know some people (you know who you are) who seem to have largely dodged the sleep bullet (they need precious few hours a night - so more like they were grazed by it), but by consequence they're wracked with hunger all the time. And I mean *all the time.* Any day or night, chirpy "I'm hungry" proclamations can be heard.

So what's to be done? The answer, I think, is clear: we need high octane food. Something that passes straight into the bloodstream carrying vital nutrients. I'm not talking about those clunky energy bars (try eating six of those and tell me how much energy you've got for the next half hour). I'm talking fast-acting liquid that can be absorbed through shallow cell walls, providing nutrition the moment it enters the mouth by infusing your soft pallette with life-giving vitamins, proteins, and sugars. Think of it: in addition to conventional food (which you'd need for roughage and the like), you could have "fuel injection" foods.

Naturally, there are design issues. We'd need to figure out how to keep that "cycle of stomach acid production" thing under control. And abusing the stuff would probably make you grossly obese and result in weird dietary deficiencies. But still! Forget those goopy power shakes, those empty granola promises: this could be real "power food." Fast food would have to renounce it's title and go by it's True Name: "Fat Food." We'd no longer hear stories of obsessive teenagers in Korea starving to death in Internet Cafes (just require them to take a mouthful of the Company Power Drink once every 12 hours). Disaster victims could have dramatically better chances of surviving their recovery periods, their bodies being given all the raw materials needed to rebuilt.

Enough. All this talk of superfood has made me even more hungry. I'm going to go get something sugary and likely unhealthy. Stupid hunger.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Grandsons Against Drunk Grandmothers

You know who shouldn't be drinking? Elderly women without the leg strength to stand on their own when they're sober, that's who.

A combination of weak body and weak will has put my grandmother in a state of perpetual bed rest. She can walk (and does so almost exactly three times a day), but spends most of her day reclined on a couch or in her bed, watching television or reading while seated. Her lack of physical activity has weakened her further (on both counts), so she walks less and less. Her muscle mass (such as it was) is now gone. She's already a tiny woman. She probably weight no more than 80 pounds.

80-pound women with weak wills should not drink dry manhattans. Seriously.

She's one of those "nice people" from the Midwest who constantly thinks bad things about other people but refuses to believe it. Instead of saying things like, "You really should have had children, and it's a waste that you didn't," she says "Wouldn't it have been nice if you'd had children?" Other favorites are "Wouldn't it have been nice if you had played football/hockey/sports?" and "Wouldn't it have been nice if you had become a lawyer/accountant?" In her world, all men should be accountants and all women mothers, with the exception of lawyers (of both genders).

Since Sept. 11th, her Pollyanna attitude turned quite grimly ignorant (or at least became publically so) with her new refrain in response to any current event: "And to think that those arabs are trying to kill us!" Other variations are "I can't believe how muslims want to kill Americans" and "I don't think you should trust/believe/vote for that man, he looks like a terrorist." She simply can not understand (a) that Muslims can also be Americans (b) that Muslims can also be friendly to Americans, and (c) that Musliums can also consider terrorism abominable.

Other mental deficiencies include her genuine fear of and revulsion toward anything technological (If it was developed later than 1975, she views it with suspicion our outright rejection), her refusal to admit to her own incorrect memories (she insists others are either remembering events incorrectly), and her limited short-term memory, which leads to strangely cyclical conversations that return to the same questions repeatedly.

The trick with alcohol, in such a person, is that it loosens the lips. Her memory goes from poor to non-existent. Her demeanor goes from sweetly innocent to confusedly ignorant. Discussion is impossible because she can't follow the thread of an arguement. Any discussion of politics degenerated into a rant about either the Bush administration or the terrorists. Any discussion of technology leads to frustrated declarations that the world got too complicated. Any other topic causes her to bring up her homesteader ancestors, with whom she is singularly obsessed.

It has to stop.

Bartenders of the world! Waiters, hosts, and husbands: stop pouring liquor down these old ladies' throats! They can't handle it, and if they don't piss off half the people present with racism, sexism, religious ignorance, prudishness, or a belittling of everyone's intelligence, they'll loose their balance and break a hip. Their bones are as fragile as their ignorance is robust! For their safety, and our conversational interest, keep them sober, when at least it's possible to change the subject, if not their minds.

The Grandson has spoken.