Tuesday, May 30, 2006


I've noticed that more experienced bloggers refer to updating. "It's weird how not updating is self-perpetuating," Miss Beth Ann writes after a long period of silence in what turns out to be her last post of that particular blog (she's since moved from LiveJournal to the trendier MySpace: "and when I became a [law student], I put away childish things" as it were). Updating. So perhaps you'd like to know how some of these stories turned out. You'd like an update. I know I'm bemused by the outcome of seemingly minor events in everyday life.

Of course, some things are part of life's ballast: they won't change without a good reason. My briefcase is still large, lumpy, and full of greasy mixed nuts and loose change. Any event more formal than a roof-tarring reveals serious gaps in my wardrobe. The ultimate purpose of small appliances remains shrouded in mystery. My Five Year Clock is still ticking away the minutes, moved from beside my laptop to the mantle, along with Aunt Yetta's cool filterless cigarette dispenser. Harvey, my living room ficus, is still dropping ficus berries on the floor in the middle of the night (last night, there were hundreds; they woke me up. Plop. Roll. Plop. Plop. Roll). And I'm still running somewhere between 1 hour and 3 days late.

But lots of other minor bits could benefit from an update.

The Mr. Coffee surrogate, for example, has turned out to have a major design flaw. It's not surprising: $15 small appliances are seldom built to last. I was originally intrigued by the off-brand's sleek lines and unusual styling. Well, it turns out that there's a reason that Mr. Coffee's design is so widely imitated: there are things that can go wrong if your coffee maker is designed in a more imaginative way. As is the case for Mr. Signature Gourmet, my off-brand Mr. Coffee. The hot water is routed through the thing's lid and I guess the lid gets mighty darned warm. Warm enough to warp plastic. The top won't close properly; there's already a quarter inch gap. It won't be long until it transmogrifies itself into a combination letter steamer and aromatherapy unit. In fact, if I extrapolate (which I'm prone to do), I can calculate that at this rate, it'll be fully open in less than a year.

[If you don't trust my math, here's my work. We got Mr. Signature Gourmet on May 14. We make approximately one pot of coffee per day (especially given the availability of the swell pink caffeine pills I got in Ottawa. Wake Ups. The label is even in French, which has got to improve the stimulant quality of the pills). That's 18 brew cycles in Mr. Signature Gourmet so far. In 18 brew cycles, it's warped at least 1/4 inch. (NO METRIC!) Hence it warps about .014 inches per day. In a year, that's over 5 inches! It'll be open like a flower that's past its prime. The last rose of summer. Gone. Done. Buh-bye, Mr. Signature Gourmet.]

The lesson here is to never trust Walgreen's for your small appliance needs. Yeah, they're okay for Wal-AWAKE and Wal-tussin and Wal-mucil and Wal-atin and Wal-rus, but they don't know squat about small appliances. So don't you be going to Walgreen's to buy salad shooters or coffee grinders.

But, on the bright side re: Mr. Signature Gourmet, we haven't managed to leave it on unattended for long periods of time. So that worry stemming from the absence of a clock -- forget about it! No fires. No singed and scorched spots on the ceiling. It's not a problem. Yet. It really does appear that it'll break before it sets the house ablaze. Phew.

The notorious Park Central Hotel in Midtown Manhattan has earned a spot on my "dead to me now" list by sticking me with a mysterious $44.31 charge. It's got to be room service again, for yet another meal I didn't eat, possibly the one where I went across the street (in the rain, yet) to Fluffy's Deli (what a peculiar name for a deli!), or maybe the one that I sorted out by buying yogurt and 25-cent bananas at a nearby convenience store that offered a poisonous-looking salad bar as an alternative to a very minor selection of groceries. As Stephen Colbert would say, "Park Central Hotel, you are dead to me now!"

The awful thing about it is that contesting a charge on my corporate Amex looks to be about as difficult as creating an SEC filing. Ominous warnings filled my screen when I began to initiate the process yesterday. So, coward that I am, I temporarily hit the back button. There are times when I'm grateful for the statelessness of the Web. No. Maybe I don't want to protest the charge. It'll cost both my employer and me more in time and effort than just sucking it up and pretending I actually *did* eat some $44 room service item. But that doesn't suit my desire for revenge. And I'd like to at least know what meal I didn't enjoy -- was it a basket of stale breakfast breads or a soggy club sandwich? Did it come with a cool miniature bottle of catsup (a much better condiment packaging technology than the packet)? For $44.31, I hope I at least didn't get to eat a club sandwich with fries and a dill pickle spear. I suspect I'll never know. And I suspect I have more sense than to contest the charge. Or do I? I'm oddly angry on behalf of my employer.

Plop. There goes another ficus berry, courtesy of Harvey. I wish I could report that I have fewer houseplants, not more, but I'm trying to root a Dracaena that had gone bad. So now I have the potential of 5 more houseplants. Plus the original plant, which has been relegated to the light well to either thrive or not. At least the Bromeliad (Mr. B) and the Alocacia (Alfie) are both in bloom and one of the cacti has shown a brave tendency toward phototropism (evidence that it's really a live plant, which it'd be hard to know given that cacti are usually slow-growers). My advice here: don't name your houseplants. Really. Don't. It's almost worse than Wilbur and the inability to eat bacon.

I know I haven't mentioned this before, so I guess it doesn't really fall under the rubric of updating, but I'm puzzled and vaguely disturbed by a billboard that I see regularly on my way to the airport or to my double-super-secret Silicon Valley office. It's a Delta ad, right by the SFO offramp. What it says is: "Enjoy Buda, Fly to Pest." I realize that Buda's on one side of the river and Pest is on the other, but it's a perverse ad nonetheless, one that's slightly Pynchonian, like having a big post horn to distract you as you're trying your best not to be pancaked between an Escalade and a Mercedes SUV. The billboard may also have an unusual color scheme; I can't use a camera while I'm driving (unlike many of the other people who zip down 101, PDA in one hand, Starbucks in the other, and a headset on so they can talk on the phone, hands-free). So I don't have a photo. But I see it's been a topic for other bloggers, so I'm not the only one who's found it, well, disturbing.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

separated at birth

Canada reminds me of those classic nature versus nurture experiments: what if you took two young countries, offspring of roughly the same queen, raised them side-by-side, and let one of them run wild -- play all of the violent video games it wanted to; eat all the Lucky Charms and Doritos it could stuff into its maw; and smoke cigarettes and shoplift on weekdays, when it should be doing its chemistry homework -- while you encouraged the other young country to develop wholesome and sensible habits -- to play character-building team sports like hockey; to write its social studies term paper a week before it was due; and to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

What if? Well, I spent last week in Manhattan and this week in Ottawa, so I got to see.

The results of the experiment are pretty darned clear. No surprise which one is the glue huffer. Canada turned out to be the class valedictorian and got a full scholarship to Carleton; it's had a few soul-cleansing sips of beer, but certainly not enough to interfere with its paper route, delivering -- ironically -- Grit. Canada's skin is clear and its teeth are white. The US, on the other hand, spent much of its senior year in rehab and will attend Cal State Northridge as soon as its therapist gives it the thumbs-up. The US got a boob job as its 16th birthday present, mostly to distract other countries from its pasty CRT tan and undeniable tendency toward obesity.

It's amazing Canada can stand to share a border with us.

Yes, Ottawa was nice. Even the morning radio show DJs were nice -- a veritable Prairie Home Companion of remarks -- especially when you compare them to the typical US morning DJs. (Every city seems to have a pair of them. They pull relationship-destroying stunts using nothing but an informant, a phone number, and a small library of innuendos. Common household items.) Of course, they've got Simon Harper heading up the govenment now, so they could play a game of catch-up in the near future. But I doubt it. Quebec could still secede. But I doubt this too. There'll still be black-fly jokes and beavers dressed up like RCMP officers. Canada -- through some quirk of nature and nurture -- will remain nice.

Did I venture all that way to eat donuts at Tim Horton's? Or to take notes on the functional health care system? Nope. I was attending a conference on archiving, which was both interesting and educational. Felt right in step with the Canada theme -- it's an audience on the correct side of the border, an audience that escaped the US obsession with the gee-whiz future. A sympathetic audience that didn't use personal digital archiving to demonstrate its anger management problems (you may know what I'm referring to here; if you don't, ignore this apparent non-sequitur). But you can read about digital archiving (and I suggest you do if you care about the future of your digital stuff); it's an important topic. Let it suffice to say that in 1997, a Canadian librarian, Terry Kuny, wrote:

“The tenor of our time appears to regard history as having ended, with pronouncements from many techno-pundits claiming that the Internet is revolutionary and changes everything. We seem at times to be living in what Umberto Eco has called an ‘epoch of forgetting.’… We are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages…”
Even though this may seem to you like hyperbole, I'm afraid that for much of our personal everyday stuff -- not to mention the stuff we really care about -- he may be right.

So that's what I was doing during the day. Ottawa doesn't seem to be a town that never sleeps; instead, you have to make your own mischief. I wasn't a particularly energetic mischief-maker this time, so I spent my time working on my Black Hole Superstring Non-Linear Theory of Hotel Stairs. It goes something like this:

Hotels all have stairwells. They have big red EXIT signs labeling them. But they're apparently not meant for ordinary egress. Instead, if you check them out, you'll find that they're of little use for getting from your room to the lobby. Oh, perhaps they're a smoking lounge for hotel staff members, or perhaps they're an architectural annoyance, mandated by law. But what they aren't is STAIRS in any normal sense of the word. First off, they're invariably bleak. Echo-y. A little grimy, even if the hotel is nice and everything else is spotless. There's a cigarette butt here, a candy bar wrapper there. Some unidentifiable stain from a long-ago spilled liquid. The stairways have those metal railings and not much paint has been wasted on them. I can't help myself though. I have to check them out; they exert some kind of gravitational pull on me.

This time, the first staircase I checked out was one of those Haruki Murakami staircases that occupies a set of dimensions that are completely orthogonal to the usual ones. You enter the stairwell and can descend more floors -- or ascend more floors -- than seem physically possible. And the number of steps between floors doesn't seem right. Either the ceilings must've been lower than you noticed when you were in your room. Or there's an interstitial floor between the ones you can get to on the elevators. It is there you'd meet the Sheep Man or take a turn into an alternate universe. It's creepy to think about this, especially in a dim flourescent-lit place where sounds echo in unbounded waves.

The second stairway I checked out was another canonical type: the stairway that brings you to somewhere you're not supposed to be, like a kitchen or a laundry room. You pull open the door and staff members look at you like, "what're YOU doing here?" You've interrupted them, smoking, laughing, hanging out. They're on break. In a nice hotel, they'll gently suggest that perhaps you shouldn't be where you are, with the implication that you might well be crazy for not taking the elevators like everybody else. I usually smile at them and explain my elevator-phobia. Sometime I make up something about once being stuck between floors in an elevator full of Shriners in their red fezzes, smoking cigars, shepherding a keg of beer up to the 18th floor. "I haven't been able to use an elevator since," I conclude.

This story NEVER makes anything better, but I tell it anyway. It did happen to a colleague, so I feel like it's almost true. I do commit an inordinate number of elevator faux-pas, like saying something to one of the other occupants or, worse yet, talking to myself (which is bad enough on the street, but it's much worse in a place where you can't cross over to the other side). Sometimes I'm not facing completely forward too, which isn't right. I know it, but I can't help myself.

Another typical stairway traversal deposits you on the sidewalk. Outside. Someplace where you've never exited the hotel before. It all looks unfamiliar, like it's taken you to a different city. That wouldn't be so bad, except you usually don't have a coat and opening that door marked Exit sets off an alarm that's entirely louder than it needs to be. It's hard to act nonchalant as you hustle your way back to a legal entrance, cold, with the alarm attesting to your guilt. This is a good time to take the elevator back to your room. Forget about the stairs.

You'd actually think that in Canada the hotel stairs would work right. But they don't. It's just that the hotel staff is nicer when you peer into the kitchen or creep back into the hotel after setting off the alarm.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

the difference is small

The difference between a swell trip to New York City and a not-so-swell trip can be very small. Infinitesimally small. At least for me.

Last trip to Midtown Manhattan, while I was waiting in line to check out of the Paramount, I had a friendly conversation with a beautiful hotel staff member whose only job seemed to be to chat with the hotel guests waiting in line. To keep 'em happy. She and I speculated on which movie or TV series was being filmed on 46th Street the night before, right outside the hotel entrance. She even went to check on this for me to resolve the mystery. She never found out, but not knowing made my trip even better: it could've been some kind of major star-studded big-money studio release instead of just another episode of Law and Order.

This time, my checkout from the Park Central New York consisted of the following exchange:

"Your bill is settled except for $23.65 in Internet charges and $58 for a room service breakfast this morning."

"$58 for breakfast! You've got to be fucking kidding. I didn't order a room service breakfast. I didn't even have a fucking room service menu in my dismal room. How would I have even known you offer room service? I want that charge removed from my bill. Now!"
Picture Rosie Perez on PCP, and you've just about got the tone and volume of my voice. It's not enough that both mornings I was awakened by events transpiring on the other side of the thin walls (once by an alarm clock left unattended, which beeped for a full hour starting at 6am, and the second morning by the noises that accompany the classic hotel room congress); now they were also going to charge me for breakfast, a meal which holds little interest for me when you compare it with that extra hour of sleep that'd already been rudely denied me.

I don't think that any of these things would've bothered me if the room hadn't been so darned depressing. Sure, when I made the reservation, my aim was to find somewhere to sleep indoors, which looked to be no mean feat in Manhattan on May 17th. It may well've been the last room in Manhattan.

It wouldn't have taken much to redeem the experience: certainly my meetings were fine, the hotel maids were kind, Manhattan was exciting and open late, the go cup of fresh-squeezed carrot, parsley, beet, and ginger juice that I had for lunch on Thursday was envigorating in that peculiar health food way, and my experiences in transit from here to there were uneventful (save a particularly vigorous armrest war on the way from SFO to JFK -- call me an a-hole if you will, but I think the person in the middle seat gets to claim one armrest. It seems to me that if I'm in the aisle or window seat, I invariable cede the relevant armrest to the poor sucker stuck in the middle. I was in the middle of the middle section on a 767, and neither guy would budge. Last seat on the plane. Probably between two 100K flyers. I gave up trying somewhere over Utah, but I was impressed with both guys' vigilant concern for that ambiguous bit of extra territory).

Ah, maybe if my New Yorker hadn't gone astray last week and I'd have known about "Inside/Out", a piece of performance art taking place in a Times Square storefront that involves posted secret confessions of passers-by, I'd have had an unexpected experience to hang my hat on. Something to erase the prevailing memory of the depressing hotel room.

When I got back to San Francisco, I realized that what that hotel room really represented was a replay of the three months I spent living in The Most Depressing Apartment in the World.

The Most Depressing Apartment in the World was an overpriced studio on Sierra Madre Boulevard, just north of San Pasqual, in the no-man's land between San Marino and Pasadena. Was it called the Tiki Palms? The Royale Tiki? The Palm Royale? It had a tropical motif to the name, but that was it. Nothing tropical about the place. It would've been an okay setting for a Raymond Chandler novel, but it was way too depressing to actually live there.

The Leon Capri Apartments! That's it. The Capri was the tropical part. Either that or it was referring to the womens' pants style that accentuates the size of one's ass. One or the other.

It was one of those low-slung two-story 1950s apartment buildings where the studio apartments all look out onto a narrow courtyard. The courtyard had a small ice-cold pool, too small for anything except a kid to splash around and pee in the shadowy water. Or maybe for a particularly determined resident to drown him or herself. The narrowness of the courtyard ensured that the sun would never shine on the pool and warm up the water, and the building's inhabitants didn't seem like the fun-in-the-sun type. They seemed more apt to take a dry dive than to cannonball into a cold, shallow puddle-of-a-pool.

The Coughing Man was dying. You could tell. You don't cough like that if you're going to survive. The young black woman next door to me had just moved to LA from the South, and after spending a week at the YWCA, she'd moved into the Leon Capri Apartments. You could tell that her earnestness and shining-through goodness would just lead to stunning disappointments. You could tell. The fact that she'd rented an apartment in the Leon Capri was an omen: nothing good was going to happen for her in LA. That in and of itself depressed me more.

Our landlord was some invisible rich lady in the Valley, but we had on-site managers. Chip and Marty. Chip handled the financial matters, collecting rent and screwing people out of their deposits as a proxy for the rich lady in the Valley. Marty did the repairs. He had bandages everywhere you could have bandages and his arm was in a sling. Their apartment, which may've been slightly more spacious than the norm, was littered with prescription bottles. You'd have to be on something to be in charge of The Most Depressing Apartments in the World.

The bathtub faucet dripped steadily the entire three months that I lived there. Marty fixed it once, but there was no evidence he'd made any progress. Probably the work had resulted in the need for another bandage though, and quite possibly another prescription. Dangerous work, repairing anything in The Most Depressing Apartment in the World.

I never had a phone put in. I figured I'd never want to talk to anyone if they called me there. If they came over, they'd immediately suggest that we go out somewhere else. No-one even wanted to sit on the brown carpeting; they were afraid they'd catch the depression that seemed so virulent.

The apartment was furnished with The Ugliest Furniture in the World (and here we definitely see why the Park Hotel would evoke these memories). Two day beds with plaid covers at right angles to one another, with a white particle board and melamine table at the vertex. And a coffee table with impossibly sharp metal corners that looked like Marty'd gone on a medieval kick during the last redecorating period.

"Could you take the furniture away," I asked when I moved in, "I basically don't need it."

"No. We have no place to store it," Chip told me.
So I piled it all up in one corner of the room: a holy pyramid, homage to the gods of Furniture Discounters Warehouse. God, that shit was depressing. Piling it in the corner at least made me feel like the ugliness was localized. When I moved out, three months later (after slinking by the Manager's Unit four days into April with my April rent yet unpaid, then abruptly giving notice), Chip asked me if I wanted to keep the furniture.

"We're just going to throw it out," he said.
Cough-cough, the man downstairs would go. Cough-cough-cough-cough hack-hack-hack. He left his curtains open so the rest of us could see in when we chanced to walk by. Cough-cough. There he'd be in his Barcalounger (obviously he didn't have one of the Furnished Units), the TV turned up so loud that Chevys passing by on Sierra Madre Boulevard could hear Bob Barker. Cough-cough. His cough was so loud, and so bad, that you could hear it above Truth or Consequences. We knew that if you stopped hearing the coughing, whoever had a phone (the young woman next to me couldn't afford one; I'd see her now and then at the payphone at the grocery store across the street) would have to call 9-1-1. If we didn't do something right away, we knew the smell would only make the apartments more depressing.

One by one my friends dropped by.

"Man. You weren't kidding. This place is really depressing. Y'know what? You should move." They each said approximately this when they walked in the door and again when they were leaving.

"You're so right." I said. They were. They were right.

By the way, I wouldn't stay at the Park Central New York if I were you. Even if you aren't paying a premium because you didn't make reservations 'til the last minute. The place'll just bum you out. Better to sleep on the cot in the Ladies Room of some nice office building.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

hotel, hotel in NY, NY

This time my lumpy briefcase feels right at home in our Midtown hotel room. Right at home. No-one would ever accuse this of being a sleek hip boutique hotel. This hotel is as lumpy as my briefcase and just as big, just as neutral-colored, and just as ugly. There are stains on the chairs and the towels are thin and small.

I think this was the last hotel room in Manhattan, and for once, economics worked. Supply and demand: the last hotel room is gonna be expensive, no matter how skanky it is.

While I was checking in, there was a young Asian man in business clothes shouting at the staff member unlucky enough to be manning the Business Check-in Desk. They'd given away his room. Probably to me. If there's someone willing to pay enough, they'll give away that room you guaranteed on your American Express Corporate Card. Especially if there's a fool who'll pay that exorbitant rate in advance, before they realize what kind of place it is. Gone, daddy, gone. That room of yours is gone: it ran off with someone who was nearsighted enough -- and desperate enough -- to overlook its flaws, its love-handles, its cheap soap, and its peeling wallpaper.

I'm not taking off my shoes.

No, it's not as bad as the motel in Coalinga, where generations of Central Valley migrant workers had fried pig parts on an illegal hot plate and had left grease stains the size of a human body on the motel room walls. There you really didn't want to take off your shoes. Did you know that mold can actually ascend a shower curtain, much like a rock climber at Half Dome? I would've thought it was just a stylish fur shower curtain, except that it smelled like the fur hadn't gone far from the dog.

No, this room is not that bad.

This room costs more than fifty times as much as the room in Coalinga, however.

What did I expect for that kind of money? I think I expected a hotel room fit for a rock star. It seems as though the rock star -- a second-tier rock star at best, maybe the bass player for RATT or Axl Rose, post-therapy -- had partied all night, destroyed everything that wasn't tied down, and moved on. Checked out. The room shows signs of wear, like not everything's been tidied up and replaced.

The TV is large. I'm sure it gets lots of channels. This is something I've noticed: the skankier the hotel, the better the TV. It makes sense, but it's so trite that you wouldn't expect it to be true. Unfortunately it is. The air-conditioner is one of those in-wall units, one step better than a swamp cooler. It's got the vague warmer/cooler setting, ensuring that you'll get it wrong and wake up from that dream where you've been reincarnated as a 7-11 burrito and you're going from refrigerator case to the microwave oven, so you can spend the remainder of this life as the amuse-bouche to a Red Bull Slurpee main course. (This dream may also be attributed to the American Airlines Snack Box that I consumed on the flight from SFO.)

The view? I'm on the 3rd floor, looking out onto a narrow strip of rooftop. At least there's no dumpster right below me to be emptied at 5am. The wall opposite has nary a window and I can't tell whether or not the sky is cloudy.

Internet access is reasonable though (only $11/day) and I really don't mind sleeping with my shoes on. Keeps my socks cleaner.

Tomorrow night the room is oddly cheaper -- half of what it is tonight. You get what you pay for. And then some. In this case, you get the ability to sleep indoors and hide from the milling tourists camped in the lobby, shouting at the concierge that they must get tickets to The Wedding Singer. They simply must.

Somewhere in Manhattan I'm missing something, something that makes bad hotel rooms worth the extra dough. Somewhere in Manhattan, someone has a nice hotel room and someone's having fun.

Me, I think I'll go to sleep. With my shoes on.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

small appliances

Small appliances are an amazing cultural mystery. Where do they come from? Whose idea were they in the first place? What do you do with them when they break? What do you do with them if they don't break?

Did someone get a bigger annual bonus for inventing the combination 2-slice toaster and egg poacher? Or the Oster Electric Family-Size 6-Cup Arepamaker? What, I wonder, is an Arepa? And are Electric Families better than Gas Families? I'd guess so.

Small appliances are the cargo of our cargo cult. They're the Special under the beckoning Blue Light. They're the magically seductive offer on late-night TV: there are only 253 of these babies left; you've got to act now. We create rituals to attract small appliances to our homes. Weddings. Birthdays. Housewarmings. Baby showers. They appear in all of their custom styrofoam-encased glory. They're used once, cleaned with great effort ("Who the fuck gave us this Brushed Stainless Home Chocolate Fondue Fountain?"), and then they are stored in the original packing material.

In fact, whole banks of U-Stor-It 10x10x10 storage areas are stacked solid with small appliances, all neatly returned to their original packing materials. If you lined up all of the Juice Man Jr. Automatic Juice Extractors, Presto FryDaddy Electric Deep Fryers, and Nostalgia Electrics Old Fashioned Hot Dog Roller and Bun Warmers end-to-end, you could build a bridge to a distant planet, say, Pluto. Which would be a fine place to store an Old Fashioned Hot Dog Roller and Bun Warmer, because where else can you put the darned things so they aren't in the way?

NASA, I want you to pay attention!

It's a good reason to explore space: it's a convenient place to stash the unused (and unuseful) small appliances. Out of sight, out of mind, off the planet. And if we lined 'em up, end-to-end, we wouldn't have to have those dangerous space missions using highly explosive fuels. We'd just be able to stroll to the planets. It's that easy.

The more you think about these small appliances, the less sense they make. There's no reason that a person who lives on American Airlines Snack Boxes would make pasta from scratch, let alone electrocute (electroplate?) an Arepa. No reason at all. No matter how clever the appliance (I've never seen an Arepa made that way!). No matter how artificial the desire (You don't know how fabulous an Arepa is 'til you've tasted one!). No matter how automatic the production (An Arepa in just seconds! With the press of a single button!).

But then there's Mr. Coffee. Everything I've said so far fails to apply to Mr. Coffee. I alluded to Mr. Coffee yesterday: in addition to his primary function -- providing our household with warm drinkable caffeine -- Mr. Coffee keeps track of the time. He's often a few minutes fast or slow, since I only guess at the time when I reset the clocks after power outages or circuit breaker mishaps. But he generally knows approximately what time it is. Whether the Colbert Report is about to come on or whether the fading light out the dining room window means that it's just before sunrise or just after sunset.

That's Mr. Coffee for you: quirky, loveable, stalwart, dependable.

Did I say dependable? Unfortunately, I'm lying.

This morning, Mr. Coffee failed to perform his primary function. Water was poured into the reservoir; ground coffee was measured into the filter in the basket; and the switch was flipped from Off to On. Coffee time!

Not today.

One of the great mysteries of small appliances (besides why they exist in the first place) is how they determine when to fail, when to stop working. One day, they're good to go, performing their unique, semi-useless small appliance function, and the next day they've stopped. Unlike critical elements of one's everyday life, small appliances don't quit symbolically. They don't wait until the worse possible time -- the day you're slated to appear as a guest on the Daily Show (everyone's secret dream), for example -- and then fail. No. One perfectly ordinary morning, a small appliance that's given no hints that trouble's just around the corner will simply stop working. A blip in the day's events. No big deal. Just a minor inconvenience.

Mr. Coffee -- the only small appliance in the house with a title and gender, practically a member of the family -- went on the fritz today. It was more like the blue flu than like a catastrophic failure. Mr. Coffee staged a sick-out.

So we returned to primitive days of yore and used our small aluminum drip coffee pot, the kind you might use if you were going car-camping. Its handle has been lovingly repaired with coils of safety wire. It's been used and washed and dried and used thousands and thousands of times.

We used to swear up and down that this thing made better coffee than the euphonious Mr. Coffee. And that there was no association between aluminum cookware and Alzheimer's Disease. But we must've been deluded on both fronts. My coffee was crunchy with grounds by the time I drank the last few gulps of the cup. Yuck. And I was a real 'tard for much of the day.

Late in the afternoon, we found ourselves in Walgreen's, checking out the Mr. Coffee replacements. Neither Mr. Coffee nor any of his immediate relatives were on hand. Instead we were confronted with two off-brand Signature Gourmet coffee makers, one with a clock and one without. The unit without the clock appeared to cost the same amount as the replacement pot we bought following our gravity experiments with our original Mr. Coffee glass carafe. (As it turns out, gravity works just the same way in our kitchen as it does in the other rooms of our house and the other rooms of your house. Unless you've bought one of those anti-gravity rooms from Edmund Scientific or the so-soft marble floors from The Sharper Image.) $15 plus change buys you a replacement glass carafe and $15 plus change buys you an entire new off-brand unit. For $5 more, you can get the one with the clock.

We fought briefly there in the small appliance aisle at Walgreens. I wanted the one with the clock. Like my Five Year Clock, the point wasn't knowing what time it is; my fear was that a $15 Signature Gourmet coffee maker that couldn't consult a clock would not go to any great lengths to turn itself off after two hours of frying the five drops of coffee left after we glugged our morning brew.

But fighting in the small appliance aisle at the Castro Walgreens seems so, well, suburban, so I dropped my case about automatic shutoffs. We gathered up our $15 Signature Gourmet coffee maker and a 36-caplet bottle of Wal-Awake! and got on with it. Besides, I had a sneaking suspicion that Mark was right: how many coffee makers are there that don't have the great good sense to shut themselves off after cooking five drops of coffee for two hours?

As it turns out, there's at least one: Ours. It doesn't have an automatic shutoff. And I find myself disappointed when I glance at its sleek white front, hoping to find out what time it is (and just how late I am). No time. No shutoff. There's no way I'll remember to turn the darned thing off every morning. Oh, yeah, I'll turn it off most mornings, but it's very unlikely that I'll turn it off every morning. I can already taste the scorched coffee that'll cook to the bottom of the pot in a way that defies all efforts to scour it off.

I think I'll have to go back to Walgreens and get the $20 DeLuxe Signature Gourmet coffee maker.

I mean, who ever has enough small appliances?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

five year clock

Much to my surprise, I made it through SEATAC security with no questions asked about my Five Year Clock. It's a weighty item, this clock, made of genuine billet aluminum with a grained finish. Billet aluminum is what they make aftermarket Harley accessories from. It's heavy and shiny and suspiciously dense. Probably showed up on the TSA x-ray machine as a cryptic geometric lump in my backpack. But no questions were asked and my Five Year Clock and I hustled down to the boarding gate at the far end of Terminal C.

Now I have my Five Year Clock right next to my laptop here in San Francisco. It's quite the Five Year Gift; it was packed in a festive box, along with a card signed by my boss and his boss. Even though he's most unfond of me, my boss's boss has seen fit to write "Congratulations!" above his signature. "Congratulations!" He may have not even been aware of whom it was for. "Congratulations!" He must not have been aware of whom it was for. There's even a AAA battery thoughtfully enclosed so my clock can start ticking RIGHT AWAY. Not a minute to waste.

I could've set it right away, but I waited until I got home to install the battery. Somehow I thought the ticking would be pushing my luck when I was going through airport security. Tick-tick-tick-tick. TICK. TICK. TICK.

But it ticks very softly, this clock, echoing the quiet passage of time in one's working life. A year goes by. Two years. Five years. Ten.

I almost didn't get the clock, but I espied the box sitting on the corner of my boss's desk, marked with a post-it with my name on it.

"Is that my clock?" I asked him.

"Your clock?"

"Yeah. My Five Year Gift. Is that it?"

He gave it to me with little ceremony. I'm not sure whether he thought I didn't want it or whether the whole thing embarrassed him after a rocky previous year. Or perhaps it had sat on his desk so long that it had simply become invisible to him. In any case, I wanted the damned clock.

That's my clock, mister!

I'm not sure why I wanted the thing so much. A hyperactive sense of irony, probably. If this last year hadn't been so bizarre, so Camus-esque, I probably would've left the clock where it was -- on the corner of my boss's desk -- knowing that it would be a small obstacle in the completion of everyday tasks. After all, a clock with someone else's name on it has little value to him; he couldn't even use it as a last minute X-mas gift.

And god knows, I have enough clocks in the house: it seems like everything'll tell you what time it is these days. The microwave knows what time it is and urges me, "Enjoy your meal" to boot. Mr. Coffee knows the time, as does Mr. VCR, Mr. DVD Player, and Mr. Cheap-ass Clock Radio. Even my cell phone, which is more or less useless for making actual phone calls, usually displays the correct time. Besides, I spend almost my entire life sitting in front of my laptop, which conveniently displays the time in the lower right hand corner of the screen.

In spite of all these clocks, I'm invariably LATE: a half-hour, an hour, several hours, sometimes even days. It's easy to consult all these clocks -- they're everywhere. But I get distracted.

Some of it has to do with the galvanic sock response. When you have one sock on your foot and one sock in your hand, you have a situation with uneven electrochemical potential. So you end up being forced to do something to compensate. Reading a magazine, for example, or attending to your email. Playing solitaire works too. The galvanic sock response makes me late and there's nothing a billet aluminum Five Year Clock with my name engraved on a plaque can do about it. Nothing. You hear me? Nothing.

These are important laws of physics. Fundamental laws of nature.

But that's my clock, Mister, and I'll be collecting it to put on the shelf with all my other important commemorative gifts.

For example, here's my Ten Year Pin from Xerox. It has two -- not one, but TWO -- faux emeralds. Or perhaps they're simply man-made emeralds. When I'd reached a management grade level at Xerox, I received the Employee Morale Catalog without even having to ask. It informed me that my Ten Year Pin cost someone $2.50. That's 25 cents/year, right? Life can be so cheap.

At Xerox, some people wore their anniversary pins on their badges, somewhat reminiscent of Jennifer Aniston's flair in Office Space. There'd be badges crowded with pins commemorating various employment anniversaries, software (I have one that says LOOPS), the updated corporate logo, and the Rose Parade.

I can't really wear my clock. It's also hard to readily make out the time; it's got a lot of features, some of which actively obscure my ability to read it. You can see what the time is in other places, for example, or set a wake-up alarm (as long as you don't want to sleep more than twelve hours). It's a bit confusing, although I'm happy to say that its display is analog and it has the comforting glow-in-the-dark hands. Even if the power goes off, I'll know what time it is.

The medical device company that Mark worked for gave him a knife on his fifth anniversary. Perhaps it is suitable for performing ad hoc surgery. In any case, it seems to be quite useful for cutting up oranges and for opening the packaging of overly-aggressively plastic-encased electronics and other shopliftable items.

I'm delighted to have my Five Year Clock here by my side. It reminds me of my name (not to mention my middle initial); I can tell what time it is in Sri Lanka; and it's made of genuine billet aluminum like Screamin' Eagle Style End Caps to spiff up one's noisy Harley mufflers.

Tick-tick-tick. It also reminds me of the quiet passage of time.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

bowling alone

I just spent two hours on the phone with IT Support.

Usually when I spend two hours on the phone with someone, we have a conversation. I find out something about how they are and what they're up to, and I might even let them in on some of the highly secret details of my hermit-like existence high above San Francisco. Or maybe they just whine at me, or I whine at them, for an almost uninterrupted two hour stint. Regardless, it's human contact at its most basic. Talk.

I just spent two hours on the phone yakking it up with IT Support. You'd hardly call it a conversation. And I'm not sure if it even counts as human contact. Or yakking for that matter.

It's hard just prying from them where on earth they are: it's as if they're not allowed to become less disembodied, to be in a specific place. But I'm nosy and I wormed it out of this guy. Colorado. He was in Colorado. I'm not sure what city, but I do know the state: it's the rectangular one with mountains in it, home of Coors, NORAD, and big healthy people who hike and ski.

I could hear other IT Support guys taking calls in the background, so I assume he was in a big room with desks and maybe partitions and perhaps even a missile defense system. Our IT Support is in three locations: one's in Colorado, and the others are more vaguely in Ireland (Dublin, perhaps?) and India (Bangalore?). I can usually guess by the voice, but I like to ask. The IT Support staff in Ireland conducts these non-conversations with lyrical accents and greets you with an inappropriate time of day ("Good evening" when it's still morning). The Indian IT Support people use your name a lot. They'll say it over and over, weaving it into every nonsensical instruction they give you. "Now, Cathy, I want you to open up a CMD window and type in 'ipconfig.' Cathy, have you opened up that CMD window? Cathy, could you tell me what it says now?"

They're mighty fast and loose with my first name, but they don't like to be pinned down about where they are.

The calls are monitored to ensure quality. And to ensure you don't actually have a conversation with the person fixing your computer. Rather there are ponderous empty conversational voids -- abysses, really -- while your computer boots or while you run some magic .exe file they've told you to run.

It makes me nervous, these silences, interrupted only by the musical sound of Windows booting for the 32nd time or the clickety-click of typing. So I always attempt chitter-chatter. "Is it sunny there?" I ask, figuring that the monitoring supervisor can't get too upset if we talk about the weather. I suppose asking about the weather assumes the IT Support guys can see out the window, or that there is a window to see out of. Maybe it's a sore point, asking about the weather; it reminds them that they're working in a converted ICBM silo and there are no windows. Or that the facility is surrounded by a razor-wire topped fence. I really want to ask something more personal, even something small like what they're using as their screen background (almost everyone customizes that) or something even more to the point like "Are you looking for a different job? Any prospects?" or "Are you currently incarcerated somewhere?"

Anything to break the silence and anonymity.

It used to be, you'd have the IT Support guys on site, and you'd be nice to them. You'd offer them Red Vines and M&Ms. That way, if you had them work on your computer, they wouldn't accidentally reformat the hard drive when they were reconfiguring your email. Your nervous chitter-chatter went somewhere: you were strengthening the social fabric or establishing some small measure of rapport. Or even just buttering up the IT guy so he'd fix your network connection first the next time it disappeared everywhere in the building.

It's not that way anymore. Now I'm talking to an inmate at the Supermax or some poor slacker who decided customer support was safer than driving a cab. Less apt to get knifed. You don't have customers who barf. But in my view, at least I know who my cab driver is. I can catch his eye in the rearview mirror as we jerk down the freeway. As he works the brake with one foot and marches on the accelerator with the other. Lurch. Lurch. Lurch. Honk. I'd know even more about him still, except he's talking on the cell phone in a language I don't even recognize. Lurch. Lurch. Lurch.

But I can see my cabbie. He's in the same city as I am. We're sharing the same scary experience. We're looking out the same windows at the same traffic. We're blowing through the same stop sign. Together. We're lurching down the freeway. Together. We might even have a conversation about something. When I was on my way to SFO, going to Charlottesville, the cab driver informed me that Edgar Allen Poe had attended the University of Virginia. I discovered he was right: the university had preserved his dorm room, intact. My cabbie had prepped me for my trip. The last cabbie I had was an MBA student at NYU's Stern School. He'd come to Manhattan by way of Pasadena from India. We marveled at the cultural implications of the migration of Trader Joe's from Mission Street in South Pass all the way to the heart of Dean and DeLuca-ville.

The IT Support guy and I don't engage in this kind of small talk. There's just the small mechanical noises my Vaio is making as it reboots and reboots. It's a funny noise, but I don't dare ask about it. He'd have to open a second SR (Service Request) if I did. Then I'd have to fill out *2* questionnaires rating his performance today.

It's not just that they won't engage in small talk (or Smalltalk); they never even tell you why they're having you do the seemingly meaningless sequences of steps. Over and over. You're just right-clicking and left-buttoning and poking at this tab and opening that window and going to this website and double-clicking on that icon.

Sometimes I think they're just messing with me: "Okay. Now bring up a Cmd window. Okay. Now type 'ipconfig /renew'. Okay. Now stand on your left foot and touch your nose with both index fingers."

Today's guy had me looking for Windows Updates over and over again, convinced that I hadn't installed the right ones. There were lots of long silent periods as 5-then 7-then 18-then 9 megabytes of squishy update files squeezed through the wireless router and onto my hard drive. It was like repairing the holes in walls with Crest.

If this were a date, the long awkward silences would've meant something. Something important. Something like, I'm glad the human race isn't depending on this. I'd have said, "There's this TV program? I think it's on right now? I always watch it? Like, I mean, always? It's my show? So I really gotta go?" That's what I would've said -- uptalk and all -- as I backed away from my half-finished mocha and fled the cafe to escape these grim silences.

The weird thing is, after we'd determined there was nothing he could do for me, after I'd gone through a year's worth of reboots, after he'd told me any number of times that he was taking notes on my case, after he'd sent me on my way, after he'd completely lost face and escalated my SR (which seems to be a black mark against these guys), not 5 minutes later a woman named Suzanne -- tier 2 IT -- contacted me via email. I followed her brief instructions and viola! my system was magically fixed.

I still had no idea what was wrong or why the incantation she gave me worked, but it did. I never even got to ask her where she was. Or what she was wearing.

But my issue was fixed.

The only time I had a real conversation with one of these guys was one Thanksgiving Day, when I spent 6 hours on the phone with David in Colorado. The thought of all that togetherness elsewhere -- all that warmth, all those turkey smells, all those dysfunctional families breaking bread -- while the two of us sat at our respective computers trying figure out why my Smart Card had suddenly become a Downs Syndrome Card (a 'tard card?) threw us into conversation. I found out about his family, his childhood, everything he associated with the holidays.

But I don't expect it to happen again. Probably not. Probably David's finished serving his sentence.

It was a pretty minor offense.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

tough shit corp

Earlier today I was thinking about my first job out of college. How I didn't know anything about having a job: whether you had to wear shoes to work, for example, or whether your friends could hang out with you in your office once in awhile. I tried to determine the answers to these questions experimentally. That was no help. No-one offered any guidance. It wasn't a restaurant -- it was a company that specialized in signal processing applications -- so no-one had any opinion one way or the other on the shoe question, nor did anyone seem to notice an extra person in my office or in the computer center. I struck what I thought of as a reasonable compromise: I wore tatami flip-flops most days and didn't bring any of my more questionable friends in to work with me.

My office mate Matt wasn't much help either. He wore a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, bathed only occasionally, and rode a Norton 850 Commando. We had puffed wheat fights in our already messy office. Periodically he went to Fort Huachuca in Arizona to work on some kind of secret stuff; then I'd have the office to myself. That was boring. That's when I wondered whether I could bring a friend to work with me. The day would drag on and on if Matt and Margaret -- whose office was two doors down -- weren't there.

The company rented several floors in the State Bank building on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. 2811 Wilshire, if memory serves. That was when you could still stop six lanes of traffic in LA by stepping off a curb into the crosswalk, even on a busy street like Wilshire. The terminal room, a long narrow space with four or five tables-worth of baby-blue ADM Dumb Terminals, had a terrific view of the ocean, all of Santa Monica Bay. Think of the view from the Getty Center, and you'll just about get it right. It was the kind of view that'd distract you from the blippity-blipping of the dot-matrix characters crawling across your terminal and cause you to stare out the window at the sunset. It was the kind of view that made you forget that Fortran variables that started with an "m" would be implicitly typed Integer.

Matt and I shared a windowless office that shared a wall with the elevator shaft. It pretty much reflected our status at Tough Shit Corp. If Matt wasn't there, the only thing to do in the office was listen to the elevators go up and down. We were on the 7th floor, midway up the building. It wasn't that exciting to listen to the elevators. More exciting was to leave the suite and stand in front of the two elevator doors. Sometimes the doors would open onto Glenn, the financial guy, sneaking a Coke as he rode up to the 8th floor. He was a Mormon. I don't know why he thought he wouldn't get busted sneaking a Coke on the elevator. Perhaps God couldn't peer into elevator shafts. Perhaps elevators were exempt from the "no caffeine" rule. The radio reception in elevators is usually crappy, so maybe that's what he was basing the "no-one can see me here" rule on. Maybe if I waited long enough by the elevator doors, I could catch him dancing or sipping a Pina Colada. But I never did. Just Coca-Cola. The doors would shut on his guilty countenance.

Raydeen and I ran the Computer Center, such as it was. There were two minicomputers, but one was locked away in a more secure back room. The combination to the lock on the door was written on a slip of paper taped to the bottom of Raydeen's top desk drawer in case one had to gain access to the back room, but I usually didn't. I was mostly responsible for the unlocked Prime 400 that was in the main room; it was as responsible as I was for anything. When we'd had the Prime for a year, I baked it cake with chocolate frosting and we had a party.

The joke going around the office was that I'd spiked the frosting. With some homemade hallucinogen. I noticed that several people eating the cake looked worried. It tasted okay, but who knew?

I didn't spike the frosting.

But it was like shoes and friends: spiking the frosting didn't seem completely inappropriate either.

Raydeen worked two jobs. By day she worked at Tough Shit Corp, running the administrative end of our little Computer Center. By night she worked at a truck stop in Bakersfield. She was on the lookout for husband number 4. She'd already decided that husband number 4 would be a trucker. Her theory was, you'd be most likely to meet one of those if you waitressed at a truck stop on the night shift. Preferably one in a place like Bakersfield, where the big trucks roll through on their way up 99. So she lived midway between Santa Monica and Bakersfield in one of those bizarre nowhere exurbs. Canyon Country. It would've been a sucky commute into Santa Monica, except Raydeen was willing to buzz down the emergency lane of the 405 in her big ol' Chevy with the bald tires. Whatever she did when she was stopped by cops, she was good at it. Very good. She didn't get tickets. I still think of her when I drive in the carpool lane from the Valley into Westwood; that was Raydeen's own personal carpool lane.

I'm given to understand that the technical term for Raydeen and her ilk is horn-dog. She conducted various liaisons with visiting repair people on the roof, on top of the out-building that housed the elevator. There were a tangle of blankets up there. I discovered this love nest when I was up on the roof, smoking whatever, taking in the sights of the city and looking out to sea. No doubt what it was and who used it; Raydeen came back from lunch one day with her pants on backward.

Now Raydeen'd be cited by HR for sexual harrassment violations. But then, she'd lick her lips unconsciously contemplating any guy who'd venture into the computer room. The ones that didn't respond she'd tell me were gay.

One day Tony came into the computer room and said, just barely audibly, "I wonder what the disk looks like when it's spinning." I whirled around just in time to catch him lifting the cover on the disk drive. He got to see what a head crash looks like. It took me two weeks to restore the system from backup tapes. I might've been in trouble, but I don't think I noticed. It was like shoes and friends and hallucinogens in the frosting: I didn't know that a senior manager couldn't get in trouble from mischief like that, but that I could.

On nice afternoons I'd walk up Harvard Street to the streets bordering the Brentwood Country Club and collect golf balls. I kept them in my office: a cardboard Xerox box with like-new dimpled golf balls. If I wanted to venture further afield, I'd walk all the way down to 7th street and watch the old Italian men play Bocci ball in the little park. But that'd do nothing for my golf ball collection.

I didn't know anything about having a job. Not a clue in the world.

I had no idea how lucky I was.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

ouija bored

What encourages mindless compulsive behavior, plays into a current fad, and creates little of value while promising so much?

The ESP Game, that’s what.

I should know. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many hours I’ve spent playing this game. Let it suffice to say: I belong in a 12-step program. That’s how bad it is. They’re sending over a squadron of recovering solitaire players to stage an intervention.

Here’s how the game works: You login to the site using your player identity. You’re paired with someone else who’s also currently connected to the site. Then the two of you are given two-and-a-half minutes to tag ten images with new tags (some already have a few tags assigned by previous pairs of players). Whenever the two of you match, the tag is applied to the image and you receive some points. These are added to your cumulative score. You never know who you’re paired with, although sometimes I imagine my counterpart to be a twelve year old boy hyper from MSG-saturated Doritos washed down with a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew.

“What’s a tag?” you might ask.

For those of you who have lives and haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the plastic box where all your imaginary friends live, a tag is a word that serves as descriptive metadata. Tags are all the rage. They’re social. They’re hot. They’re not stuffy like MARC records. You don’t need to be a cataloger to tag. No siree Bob. Websites are tagged via people like you and me using services like del.icio.us, blogmarks, blinklist, jots, clipclip, spurl, furl, simpy, Technorati, and god knows what else. Several more have probably been announced as I’ve been typing this. In fact, I may have made up a few in that list. Sounds like it, doesn't it?

Tags. We just say what we see and do what we do. What could be easier and more useful?

Did I say useful? I didn’t mean it. Honest.

If you play the ESP Game compulsively like I did today, you're supposed to rationalize your behavior by saying: “I’m doing something useful. I’m making all those images, all those photos and drawings and jpegs and gifs and pngs, accessible to everyone else. I’m contributing. I’m working for the social good.”

But it’s not true.

Librarians have long warned against amateur metadata mavens.

You’ll see why if you play the ESP Game.

For one thing, good metadata is not only useful when it comes time to look for something. It should also do other hard work, like describe what you see and establish the image’s provenance. This isn’t just a painting of yellow flowers in a vase; this is a photograph of van Gogh’s Sunflowers taken by Tsholofelo Reichenbach when he’s not busy sending online pharmacy spam.

The poor compulsives who play the ESP Game pick tags to match each other; they’re don’t have an eye toward use nor do they demonstrate any domain expertise. A photo of newly appointed ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito is tagged man, tie, white, suit, and maybe dude or guy or old. Okay – that’s some helpful tagging if you think to yourself, “y’know, I want to find a photo of the newest Supreme Court justice. Aren’t those guys usually old white guys? And they don’t go for casual wear: I bet he’ll be wearing a suit and tie. The black robes, they don’t wear them when they’re out on the street.”

In fact, the longer you play the ESP Game and the higher the score that you attain, the worse your tags become. With experience, you know you’ve got a better chance of matching your fellow tagger if you go for generic, for colors, for shapes, for frequently-used terms. If I didn’t know better, I’d say players were trying to imitate all of the problems and deficiencies people cite for image recognition software.

Here. Let me show you. I’ll let you look over my shoulder while I play a game. Right now, I’m the highest scoring player of the day. You’ll see why I’m so embarrassed. This was a perfect round – my partner and I matched all ten in our brief mental liaison. If this were eHarmony, we’d be getting hitched.

Here’s one that was already tagged girl when we got there. We added pink. When in doubt, add a color. If there’s already a color, you can’t apply that strategy though. It’s a Flickr photo, so maybe this is as good as it gets if you don’t know the girl, the photographer, or the circumstances. Don't try to be too specific about the color though: you'll never match on aqua, only blue and green. And no matter how little red there is, go for it: it's a very popular tag.

Ah, here’s one from the news. Shit. Someone’s already given this photo the helpful descriptor man. He’s someone in the Spanish-speaking world, perhaps a soccer star. Definitely a someone. But we don’t know that. To us, he’s just a man with hair. Yep. Hair was the salient feature we picked out for this guy. That’ll help someone who’s looking for men who aren’t bald.

We don’t recognize this guy either. He’s a TV newsman on MSNBC. He’s already tagged with man old gray. He doesn’t look that old to me, but then again, we know this kind of thing is relative. He obviously looks old to some of my social-software compatriots playing the ESP Game. My partner and I added smile to the list. Nice, huh? Reminds me of that old bumper sticker: “I love your smile.” We can tell he's not a 70's smiley face because that'd be tagged yellow, not gray.

So far I’ve seen a few celebrities tagged with proper nouns. Everyone apparently recognizes Howard Stern. Angelina Jolie. George Bush. Cher. Gwen Stefani. But not Tony Blair. And certainly not Colin Powell. I already told you about Samuel Alito. Even sports stars and supermodels don’t rate identities. Supermodels in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue are reduced to their essential components: boobs, girl, beach, and hot. Later in this round, in defiance of this stated wisdom (and the fact that we can’t see her boobs), we’ll tag Heidi Klum with bikini to add to the poetic tag, butt.

Ohhh. Speaking of beaches and oceans, here’s an old favorite. The anemones. I’ve seen this image about a dozen times in different rounds and I’ve never managed to have a partner who can identify them. Ha! Bingo! We’ve got it: anemones. Add that to sea. It’s an out-of-focus Flickr image, but we’ve got it pegged. I think. It’s a moment: we might’ve added some useful metadata to this ill-focused photo. Unless it’s already tagged anemones in Flickr. Which it seems to be, amid lots of in-focus pictures of anemones. So it’s a helpful tag unless quality’s an issue. In which case, you'd choose one of the other photos. One that's in focus.

When you play this game, you realize just how many images on the Web are simply logos, buttons, banners, and bits of color. That’s why we’ve tagged this one Yahoo and blue. Think there’ll be a lot of people looking for it? Sure. It’ll come in handy for the person who is composing those phishing messages. Gotta have those Bank of America logos and realistic eBay and PayPal graphics if you're going to fool anyone.

Just one more, okay? I know you’re not as compulsive as I am. You may even be getting tired of one perfect, closely narrated round of the ESP Game. We Phenoms (not kidding! I'm a Phenom!) like to see these. They’re an easy match, just human OCR. Before my partner and I got here, this one’d already been labeled lifestyle mobile add-ons. We added rectangle. And I’m sure the next set of players – if they’ve got any chops at all in the ESP Game – will add a resounding blue or green to round out the description. It’s the next guys that’ll be up shit creek. That’s when things get creative. Sometimes shapes are exaggerated: this rectangle will become a square. Maybe red will match. Or Jackie. I’ve seen a few Jackies. Makes me think that some people chafe at the game’s anonymity.

Every once in awhile, you do see evidence of this game's sociality. I saw a modest-looking schoolgirl holding an open book tagged whore and a landscape without a donkey in sight tagged ass. It makes you feel just a little bit better. It's not as stupid as we thought: people find ways to join forces, to collude, to circumvent the anonymity straitjacket, to be subversive, to be thirteen, to have some fun. I tagged G.W. as an assclown in one round, but my partner and I didn't see eye-to-eye.

But while I'm telling you about this, the game goes on. Better get back to it. Otherwise I may lose my status as today’s top player.

I’m not competitive.

Just compulsive.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

bravery and simulacra

I've spent the early part of this week trying to persuade myself not to blog about Stephen Colbert's magnificent performance at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner last weekend. Everyone else has been there and done that. You probably don't even need the link I've given you: News of his ballsiness -- not to mention the complete transcripts and videotapes of the event -- has made the rounds. Twice. In a variety of resolutions and formats.

But there's still something I want to add. I can't help myself.

When I first started working at Microsoft, a friend who'll remain anonymous told me, "It's easier to work here if you're on the right meds." She was a ballsy girl herself, lovely and outspoken. And did I say funny? She was funny. Kept me sane on countless occasions. And more than once our conversations caused the straight arrow in the office adjacent to hers to slam his door in horror and embarrassment. I miss her. She was definitely on the right meds herself.

It's easier, she said, if you're on the right meds.

So what I want to know is, what kind of meds is Stephen Colbert on? Which pharmaceutical gives you the courage to look the President of the United States in the eye and say things like:

We're not so different, he and I. We get it. We're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut.

Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.
It was hard to pull those two excerpts from the transcript. I would've liked to quote the whole damned thing -- that's how good it was. Those weren't even the funniest things he said; they were just two examples of things it'd be hard to say looking the President in the eye. It's hard to point at your gut to refer by proxy to the gut of the guy who's got his finger on the button to launch the nukes. These are things he said knowing that when he was done speaking, he'd have to leave the podium and sit down next to him. Maybe even eat dessert and coffee and endure a round of after-dinner drinks.

It's hard enough sitting next to a stranger at one of these formal banquets. Harder still to sit next to a faux Texan, who can invade countries whenever he feels the urge. That galvanic power gap'd keep you off balance for the entire meal; it'd be tough just keeping the gravy boat of Hollandaise sauce for the salmon out of your lap. In fact, I'm sure they had a lively chat before Mr. Colbert's speech -- Mr. Colbert alluded to the possibility of Mr. Bush appearing on his show. And all the while, as they were dining together, as the table enjoyed Mr. Bush's unselfconscious anti-intellectualism and folksy patter, Mr. Colbert knew he was going to drop the bomb.

It'd be one thing if he'd performed this routine on his show; there you've got a sympathetic audience and you're not looking G.W. in the eye. Even in the posted video taken from the C-Span coverage, you could hear the coughs, scuffles, and nervous laughter of an audience on the edge of fear. He'd clearly gone too far for the likes of this august group of correspondents, correspondents who were still allowed to attend presidential press conferences. Even though this Bill O'Reilly simulacra is just a character he plays (for who knows what Stephen Colbert qua Stephen Colbert is like), it's a character he maintains week after week without slipping. And he didn't slip here. Even as the audiences' discomfort became electric.

What kind of meds could he be on? Surely it's something new, the fruit of many years of neuropharmaceutical research. And even if the drug is no longer under patent protection, Mr. Colbert is not taking the generic version. Did you know the generic version of a drug can be up to 25% weaker than the original? And possibly less effective than the original formulation because of vagaries in the manufacturing process? I don't need to look this up; I know this from my gut. And my gut tells me Stephen Colbert was on something FULL STRENGTH AND COMPLETELY GENUINE.

A couple of shots of bourbon don't give you that kind of courage. They just make you a little more apt to topple when you're leaning on the podium to make your best point. Or more prone to drop your notes and be unable to re-assemble them in the right order. Nope. Stephen Colbert didn't take a swig from a silver flask moments before he was introduced, Ivy League style; he's got to have been fortified by a big strong complicated molecule. It's not a wimpy simple molecule like ethyl alcohol. Something with a couple of benzene rings and hydrocarbon chains hanging off of it.

Mark has speculated that Mr. Colbert must've been toughened up by his childhood, a childhood no doubt spent defending his ears. I don't know if you've noticed, but Stephen Colbert's ears are profoundly asymmetric: one is much higher on his head than the other. He must've been aware of this, since one day on his show he demonstrated a trick where he folds his ear in half like origami. Earigami? It's a great trick. And the ears allow you to forgive him for his young Republican good looks and boyish charm.

But I still think it's the meds, not the ears: I'll have what he's having.

I hope our next president is as brave and his (or her) anti-intellectualism is just an act like Mr. Colbert's.