Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Humans are more than just pooping machines


The hierarchy T-Rex is talking about can be seen here.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and the other ideas put forth by the humanistic psychologists, were in some part a reaction against other leading psychological theories at the time, those of the behaviorists and the psychoanalysts. Those ideas seemed to reduce people as just fulfilling their base desires, or mechanically responding to stimuli. Maslow was trying to develop a theory of human personality that respected the broad, over-arching goals that many humans have throughout their lives: the desire to feel loved and accepted, the desire to fulfill our potential, the desire to experience the beauty in art and literature. These are often things we seek out on our own, for reasons the behaviorists and psychoanalysts cannot satisfactorily explain (except in those cases where we do these things just to get laid).

Like any theory, it has its flaws, though it doesn't seem to be nearly as flawed as psychoanalysis. As a therapeutic approach, it works just as well as any other therapy. It also doesn't have much predictive value, because plenty of people will be so driven by goals at the top of the pyramid that they will forget about goals lower down. One such example would be the starving artist who is so devoted and engrossed in their art that they stop bathing and stop seeing the people they know. Such a person is admittedly an "outlier," but there are plenty of other examples of people who ignore their basic needs and safety in order to fulfull a higher goal. People can be pretty, um, driven. I want to say "crazy" but that is not actually what is going on and would totally be misleading in this context.

And I think people do care about basic safety when they need to poop. They just might make compromises on it. Like, if you were in a war zone, and you had to poop, and your choices were 1) poop in your hiding hole, or 2) go out and poop in the line of fire, the second option is going to seem pretty attractive when you consider how disgusting the first option is going to be.

I want to stop their for the sake of style, but the philosopher in me wants to add in one last bit, which is this: there is a slight additional problem that the top of the pyramid (self actualization) does not have a whole lot of data to back it up. However, Maslow's description of what self-actualization is like seems to be remarkably similar to Heidegger's idea of "authenticity" (Eigentlichkeit) in his book Being and Time. People who are self-actualized have a developed sense of morality, a tendency to act spontaneously, care about problems greater than themselves, and are more accepting of themselves and others. Whether or not the general humanistic theory is sound, though, it at least provides some ideas of how we can be happy and satisfied in our lives. And I'm kind of okay with that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

If you want ideas for this punctuation mark, I got nothin'


When writing was first invented, it did not have punctuation in it. Most of it didn't even have spaces. There were various writing conventions to denote things like parentheticals, quotations, and starting a new sentence. Over the centuries, people started thinking it would be a good idea to start introducing punctuation marks for ease of reading.

Today, we have punctuation marks out the wazzoo (or up the wazzoo, whichever you prefer). From time to time, someone comes along with an idea to introduce a new punctuation mark. Some punctuation marks that never took off were the interrobang (a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point), and the "irony mark" (which resembles a backwards question mark).  Some of the best evidence that they never took off is that you have never seen them in print, and you probably have not even heard of them, although there happens to be a joke band called The Interröbang Cartel.

The problem with the former is that it feels unnecessary. It is meant to be used for those situations where one is asking an exclamatory question, such as, "How much did you pay for this?!" We already have a convention for that: using both marks separately, sometimes repeating the question mark ("Who ate all the cookies?!?") Adding in a special character just seems like... more work, you know?

The problems with the irony mark, though, are a bit more philosophical. To start, deciphering a statement as irony or sarcasm is sometimes an interesting exercise for the audience, as they dig through the words being said to get at what is actually being communicated. It might be a useful mark for a single sentence is meant with sarcasm or irony, but what do you do with something longer than a sentence? If you were going to insert the marks into Swift's "A Modest Proposal," would you just put one in the title to say that the entire work is meant ironically? What about the songs by Electric Six, a band writing ironic butt-rock songs, which sometimes have a profound message that is not even lurking beneath the surface but is right there in the words?

There are so many potential uses for irony, along with the potential to create multiple layers of it, that the question of where you put the irony symbol quickly turns into something like a zen koan: the question has no answer, because the question itself is wrong.

I have a better suggestion of what to do: learn how to use the punctuation marks you already have, especially the colon and the semi-colon. Because do you know where the irony mark goes? Up your ass, bitches!*


* - The words of this sentence are intended ironically while its message is intended in earnest.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

To thine own chump be true


The line T-Rex is talking about is in Act I, Scene III of Hamlet. Polonius is giving advice to his son Laertes, and it is basically about how to be a worthless tool who doesn't have an opinion of his own. This is because Polonius is a worthless tool who doesn't have an opinion of his own. He is "that guy," the one who doesn't commit to anything, and will support whatever seems popular.  This is why it is ironic when he says, "This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man."

Many people interpret this line to mean something like, "You gotta keep it real!" Or, "Do what you want with your life!" Which is worthless advice, as T-Rex points out: "Some people's true selves are total chumps!"

There is another interpretation to the line, though, that might have some wisdom in it: if you are honest with yourself, then you will be honest in your dealings with others. It is very easy for us to lie to ourselves, and delude ourselves into believing things that we only want to be true. It seems like we only hurt ourselves when we do this, but we also have the potential to hurt others. We might promise to do things that we might not actually be able to do, or misrepresent what our goals and intentions are. If we are first honest with ourselves, and then equally honest with those around us, people can have more certainty in what to expect from us. For instance, they can expect us to talk about ourselves in the plural.

Saturday, September 26, 2009



T-Rex might here be going for some rhetorical persuasion, but as logic goes, it's not exactly a sound argument. Even as rhetoric goes, it's the kind of argument that makes you feel like you're getting tricked.

It goes, "I am good at X. If someone else were not good at X, I would do X for them if they wanted my help."

If a friend cleans poop off of your porch, they are doing you a favor. It is not something required of them as a friend, but something they do of their own will simply because they are your friend. The way that you persuade a friend to do a favor for you is usually with an appeal to some kind of reciprocal exchange, which can either be something in the past or the future. You can say, "Remember that time I helped you with that thing? This is your chance to return the favor." Or, you can promise to help out in some way in the future, and this works best if you name something clear and explicit, like, "I will buy you a case of beer." What T-Rex might have to offer in this situation is a promise to clean up vomit for Utahraptor, or something else gross that Utahraptor simply can't deal with.

Your friend is still under no obligation to help you, though, until they accept your offer. They might give Utahraptor's response of, "But I'm STILL not cleaning raccoon poop off your porch."

In any friendship, there is going to be some give and take, and the amount that is appropriate will depend on how close the friendship is, and the amount of reciprocity that occurs.  But the bonds of friendship can be stretched if one of the people starts to make unreasonable requests, or is unwilling to comply with requests. People of the latter type, it's still possible to just hang out with them, but people of the former type, we generally just stop talking to.

I do not think that T-Rex's and Utahraptor's friendship is in danger, though. For one thing, Utahraptor is in two of the six panels every single day, and giving him the silent treatment would be kind of difficult. But these ridiculous conversations are almost the bedrock of their friendship. To take them away would be like rain without rainbows.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Verbing weirds language


You know, I just kept looking at this comic thinking, "I don't have a goddamn idea what to do with this." I'd go away, come back later, and then say to myself again, "I still don't have a goddamn idea what to do with this."

So let's talk about the verb form of this literary device. "Leitwortstiled." How does one leitwortstil a work of fiction? The obvious answer, I think, is to start with a work of fiction that already exists in some form (even if its existence is only in your head, and you haven't written anything down yet), and you introduce a leitwortstil as if this was a wonderful idea you just had to make the work better.

There is the broader question, though, of whether one can indeed make any noun at all into a verb, to which the answer is a firm, "It depends." The only determining factor is whether a person can understand what you mean from the given context. In T-Rex's use of "leitwortstil" as a verb, we know what he is trying to say, even if (in my opinion) he is completely wrong about leitwortstiling the word "frig." A real world example of a noun that has become a verb is Photoshop, which is sometimes abbreviated to 'shop. This is, of course, the act of radically modifying a photograph, usually through the use of Adobe Photoshop, to put things there that weren't there before, or vice versa.

A real world example of something that is not a verb is "tree," as used in the following context that I heard it from my roommate: "The dog treed the cat." [Editor's note: I have since determined that this is a perfectly cromulent use of "tree." See comments below.] What he was trying to tell me was that the dog chased the cat up a tree, where she stayed for some time as the dog barked at her. I was completely stumped, though, and had barely a clue what he was talking about. I asked him to repeat himself, and then said, "What on earth are you talking about?"

What we had here was a failure to communicate. The problem was not necessarily that I had never heard anyone else use "tree" in the way my roommate was using it, though it would have helped if I had. The more general problem was that for any usage of "tree," as a verb, that I could think of on my own, none of them would have involved a dog chasing a cat up a tree. To me, the most natural use of the word "tree" as a verb would be "to plant a tree, or several trees." I could see this being a useful shorthand for landscapers, or people who replant forests. I could even see my roommate's use of "tree" being used among animal and wildlife workers who see those kinds of chases happen regularly.

In neither of those scenarios, though, does it become a good idea to start tossing around that kind of terminology with a lay person. What you have there is industry jargon. There's nothing wrong with an industry having jargon, because they're usually doing specialized tasks that need a specialized language. Using jargon with an outsider, though, is going to lead to communication failure at best (as in the above example). At worst, though, it is going to be a dick move, because some people like to talk over your head and use words you don't understand in order to show how smart and important they are. But they're not. They're just dicks.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Genes, Memes, and Rick Astley (part 3)

One of the purposes of slang is that it establishes an insider from an outsider, because the insiders know their slang, and outsiders don't. This is a valuable thing when exposure to outsiders can be devastating, like in drug dealing. If you want to buy drugs from someone you haven't met before, you will either need a formal introduction from someone else, or you will have to say bizarre slang words you've never heard anywhere else.

The most common source of slang in America is from urban black culture, with the words disseminating sometimes gradually, by pure word of mouth, and sometimes rapidly, by being incorporated into hip-hop music. (And I do not mean to imply here that all black people are drug dealers. However, I don't think any of you readers knew what "endo" or "chronic" were before Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre put them in songs.) Many consider a slang word to be "dead" once it reaches middle-class, middle-aged suburban America, because this class of people is the quintessence of "outsiders."

It is my contention that memes have become the internet's form of slang.  The coolest people are the ones who know the most recent jokes, the ones recent enough that not quite everyone has heard them. The "lame" people are the ones who still think ancient internet jokes are funny (e.g., the people who think it's funny to say, "All your base are belong to us," without any context). As of this writing, the most popular internet meme that still has cool points is the Xzibit "yo dawg" jokes (e.g., "Yo dawg, I heard you like cars, so we put a car in your car so you can drive while you drive").

This is how many internet memes go: you take a basic joke structure, and make several different jokes out of it by making minor changes. I mentioned the Xzibit meme already; one other is the story from Command and Conquer 2, of the guy who said, "I am in your base killing your d00ds." Permutations of this formed the cornerstone of the lolcat meme:
  • I am in your base killing your mans
  • I am in your fridge eating your f00dz
  • I am in your pr0n collection, fappin to n00dz
  • I am in your sweatshop making ur sh00z
  • I am in your wine cellar drinkin' ur b00ze
  • I am in your bra squeezin' ur b00bz
  • I am within your base of operations, enacting fatal attacks upon your conscripts
  • I am in your base, stealing your intelligencez
  • im in ur dictionaries, verbin ur nounz
Generally, the more creative the permutation, the funnier it is. So, the original form of the Rickroll might have involved a duck (depending on who you ask), but as the joke became more popular, there became a design space to expand on the joke. Permutations have included:
  • Setting "Never Gonna Give You Up" as your ringtone, or a ringback
  • Randomly inserting the lyrics to the song in a handwritten note. For my girlfriend's birthday, I translated the song into Latin, and wrote it in calligraphy on the inside of a card.
  • Putting a video on YouTube that starts out looking like one thing, but then turns into "Never Gonna Give You Up." The first video I saw like this was titled "Muppet Show Bloopers," and had Beaker going up to a microphone, with the Muppet Show band in the background. He squeaked a few things, and then the editor dubbed in "Never Gonna Give You Up," end then edited the video to make it seem like Beaker was singing the song.
  • Limerick form:
There once was a man named Bertold
Who drank beer when the weather grew cold
As he reached for his cup...
Oh, snap! You just got limerickrolled!
Even Nancy Pelosi got in on the joke when she started a YouTube account. The first video she posted started with cats playing in her office, and then turned into "Never Gonna Give You Up."

By the way, you know how slang is "dead" when it reaches white, middle class America? The fact that Nancy Pelosi knows the joke means it's time to give up on Rickrolling being funny anymore.

The next installment in this series will be the EXCITING CONCLUSION! Stay tuned!

Arthur Friggin' Schopenhauer


Schopenhauer is pretty much the philosopher of pessimism. He was a hypochondriac, paranoid enough to sleep with loaded pistols next to him, and overall a complete jerk. (For what it's worth, many famous philosophers were also complete jerks, but it's not always reflected in their philosophy.)

Many of his contemporaries saw humans as primarily intellectual, or a kind of "meat robot," or a primarily intellectual meat robot, and they saw human progress as inevitably arriving at some state of perfection. Schopenhauer knew that was all bullshit. Humans are animals, and though they are rather smart, they are animals first, driven by personal motives and emotions. We will always need some kind of legal structure in place to keep us from killing each other.

As for the contention that we are living in the worst of all possible worlds, I don't think the argument holds up to scrutiny. For one, the fact that there is suffering at all does not mean there is a net amount of suffering when weighed against the joy in the world. Additionally, there are many other ways the world could have turned out that would make life worse. If the earth were different enough that there were fewer domesticable plants and animals, it would be far more difficult to develop agriculture and, consequently, civilization itself.*

I am thinking here of a world where no civilization advanced much further than pre-Columbian native Americans. If you think that would be a "good thing" because our species would be "more in touch with nature" and "more spiritual" than you are wrong and/or full of shit. It is a fickle existence where mere misfortune can kill your family and ruin your life. It's like a game of "Oregon Trail," where Buttface has died of dysentery, except there is no "end" to the game. So, the next year, Poop and Fart die of scarlet fever, and before you know it, you've had eleven children and run out of dirty names for them, so you kick yourself that it was only Kimberly and Thomas who lived to adulthood. That is the kind of misfortune I am talking about: a world where children with hilarious names never survive. And that's horrible.

Take that, Schopenhauer. In our world, we have people with names like Chip Munk, Anita Bath, and Dina Soares. There is no way this is the worst of all possible worlds.


* - For a more in-depth study of this, you should read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel." It's a very good book. It also made me want to play the game "Civilization" bad enough that I went out and got Civlization IV, and got addicted to it for a month or two.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I guess if the Care Bears were robots, Optimist Prime would be their leader


First, I'm not entirely sure it's true that, by expecting the worst, pessimists are pleasantly surprised when things don't go so badly. It really depends on the kind of pessimist. Some people are just upset about everything, and when things go better than expected, they find something else to be upset about. Maybe that's not really pessimism. I don't know.  I'm honestly not much a fan of "optimism vs. pessimism" conversations, because each one of those words can mean a lot of things, not to mention that there is middle ground between them. But if you had a battle between two robots named Optimist Prime and Pessimist Prime, I'd be all over that.

Moving on, I think I initially misinterpreted what T-Rex says in panel 6.  What he is probably saying is, "If you're a pessimist, and imagining hard enough, life is going to seem so horrible that you are going to freak out over everything that happens. Like spider eggs hatching and tunneling out of your stomach." But I think that if you accompany imaginative pessimism with a good sense of humor, it makes life far more tolerable.

I've talked before about laughing at the horrible things in life. Sometimes, life is already horrible enough that you can laugh at it, because laughing at it is the only thing that keeps you from totally freaking out and totally losing your shit.

Sometimes, though, something happens that is just mildly unfortunate, and maybe a little frustrating.  Nothing laugh-worthy, but you don't really want to complain about it too much, because you know some people have much more serious problems.

Like, say that you misplaced your wallet. You know it couldn't have gone far, but you just can't find it. It's got your credit card, your driver's license, and all your cash. It'll turn up eventually, but in the meantime, you are at an inconvenience. There's nothing funny about this, and it doesn't make for much conversation. "How's it going?" "Oh, dude, I can't find my wallet." "Aw, man, that sucks. Good luck finding it." "Thanks."

But let's say you let your imagination run wild thinking about what could go wrong without your wallet. Picture yourself getting pulled over and saying, "Sorry, officer, I don't have my license on me. I must have left it at the bar the other night before driving home. I was pretty wasted, y'know, so it's a miracle I even found my keys."

Or you could go the other direction, making a big deal out of something trivial in your wallet. "Oh, fuck, I can't find my wallet! And that has my portable periodic table in it! You know I can never remember the atomic number for bismuth!" (If you're wondering, it's 83.)

Use your imagination to make everything worse than it really is, because just like every mistake is a learning opportunity, every misfortune is a laughing opportunity.

Friday, September 18, 2009

If I could travel through time I would go back and tell the Greeks about science fiction


A good science fiction writer not only writes something scientifically plausible (even if it is a little hand-wavey), but also shows us what the implications would be for what might happen if we had technology that we think we want. It usually starts with a "What if...?" scenario, like, "What if we developed submarines and underwater bases, and were able to explore the earth 20,000 leagues under the sea?" One of the reasons that science fiction became an established genre in the 19th century is that technology was progressing at a rapid pace, and had been for some time, so it started to seem prudent to examine where our technology was going, and whether we really wanted to do things like bring dead people back to life.

A thousand years ago, though, technological advancement in the West was pretty damn slow. The Arab empire happened to be hot shit, but aside from some of the stories in the Arabian Nights, they did not give us much one could call science fiction. Going back even further, to ancient Greece and Rome, even though they had scientific advancements that were changing their quality of life, fantasy was the dominant genre for fiction, and the stories they were writing far more often involved the gods and other supernatural things.

So, in the literature of the world for those 2,500 years, there were a few stories written here and there that one might say were more like sci-fi than fantasy. But it didn't become what you'd call an established genre until the 19th century, when you started to have writers contemporary with each other, and critics starting to recognize it as a genre in its own right.

Because I am a nerd, I once had an idea for how one might write a science fiction story set in the ancient world: machines like those used by Archimedes start to see widespread use, improving the quality of life for many people, most prominently by making farming easier and more prosperous. People start neglecting their religious rituals, and their religion in general, thinking that the gods have nothing to offer when machines provide all the prosperity they need. And then the ending of it would somewhat resemble "Godzilla vs. Gundam Wing."

Because I am a nerd, I was also going to write it in Attic Greek, on vellum, and otherwise do everything possible to make it appear that the story had really been written during that time period. Unfortunately, that project is currently taking a back seat to all of my other writing ideas, because who the fuck writes in Attic Greek.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Stupid Kobans. What's so great about you if you're all dead?


The progression of popular notions in a culture happens, for the most part, in generation jumps. As far as prejudice goes, it's almost exactly as T-Rex says. This is why I would be surprised if gay marriage were legalized at the national level any sooner than the next ten or twenty years. By then, more baby boomers will have kicked the bucket, and more young people will have grown up to become voting age. And the thing about these young people is that they will have grown up living in a world where some states allow gay marriage, but not all of them.  In all likelihood, they will be unmoved by scare tactics about how much society will crumble if we allow gay marriage, because they will have examples to look to.

There are also things like technology and political ideas that work this way. The technology you grow up with is just normal. The technology that gets introduced between the ages of 18 and 35 (or so) is really neat. After that, everything is just devil magic.  If you are reading this blog at all, you probably are not old enough to see any technology as devil magic (except maybe cell phones, which can be devil magic at any age). But think about how your parents and grandparents react to technology. Maybe they double-clicks on internet links. Or they try to talk internet slang and completely fail, because it's basically a law of the universe that parents cannot talk the slang the kids are using these days. If you have tried to introduce your grandparents to the internet, it has probably been a disaster, and you answer questions all the time that seem like the stupidest thing in the world.

Of course, this isn't what happens all of the time.  One of the "ascendingest" players in Kingdom of Loathing is a grandmother in her 50s. She has played through the game more than five hundred times. Though it is more difficult for people to learn new skill sets when they're older, it's not impossible, and people do it all the time.

Likewise, you're never too old to take up a progressive political cause like gay rights. Contrariwise, you're never too young to complain about kids these days, with their pants, and their music, then shake your cane at them as you yell, "You damn kids get off my lawn!"

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

But really, is there anything that DOESN'T make me think of Transformers?


What is satisfying about a mystery is that it is a puzzle we turn over in our heads, trying to solve. If we can't figure it out, when the detective finally reveals what happened, there is a feeling of, "Oh my gosh! It all makes sense now!" I'd like to say that I could have done this with "The Sixth Sense," given enough time, because I was noticing some things that seemed pretty weird.* Like, if I had to stop watching the movie before the "reveal," and the next time I watched it, I had to watch it from the beginning, that might have been enough time for me to figure it out.
T-Rex's idea here is not, properly speaking, a mystery story. It's another one of his "ahead of its time" experimental fiction ideas, and I think I like it a lot better than the last one. The trope of the "unreliable narrator" has been used many times, but the trope of the "disinterested narrator," as far as I know, does not exist. It would probably work best if the story became less about solving the mystery, and more about a corrupt detective making stuff up because he's not interested in legitimately solving the case. "L. A. Confidential" is a bit like that (a story about uncovering a police corruption mystery), but T-Rex's added element is that the narrator is not at all interested in telling the story as it unfolds, and is instead focusing on interior decoration. The readers are left to unravel the police corruption themselves, with no help from the narrator.

This makes me think of Michael Bay's "Transformers" and its ill-begotten sequal. The original cartoon was about robots from space having battles with each other, and there were a couple of humans who played supporting roles, but it was mostly the robots. Michael Bay's "Transformers" is not so much about robots from space as it is about a shy, unpopular teenager's romance with a smoking hot chick, in the midst of some robot battles that are not nearly as important as product placement and Megan Fox's breasts. And "Transformers 2" is about Michael Bay's obsession with military hardware, in which everyone else plays only a supporting role. Tanks! Aircraft carriers! Jets! Battleships!  These are on the screen far more than the robots or the humans. I'm glad I got as drunk as I did for that movie. I just regret that I did not get a second date with the girl I saw it with. Katie, if you're reading this, you should totally come over to my house so we can watch The Pirate Movie.


* - I generally attribute weird things to bad writing, which is one of the reasons I don't like reading mysteries very much. Too often, what is meant to be a clue, I attribute to bad writing.

He lived a long and prosperous sixteen years


This is why it is "better" for a person who is 50 to die while skydiving, rather than a person who is 16. A teenager is young, and full of hope and potential and blah blah blah. But that is also a huge investment on which no one will ever see a return. The fact that old people die with vast stores of accumulated experience and knowledge is just a basic fact of death, and will happen to anyone at any age.

It takes a tremendous amount of resources to raise a child, most of which can be quantified as a dollar value. For instance, it will cost your parents $1 milllion to raise you to the age of 18; this is both in actual money spent because of you, and foregone opportunity costs from work. Then there is the cost in tax dollars from public schooling, and other such things.

When you add up all the numbers, the average person has not made a positive contribution to society (as far as dollars are concerned) until their late 30s. If you cannot see the value in "investing in our children's future," think of it as an investment in society itself that will pay off decades down the road.

And as a slightly political footnote, this is one of the reasons America was so prosperous during the middle part of the 20th century. The GI bill financed a great many college educations, and then there was a lot of investment in science education in order to "fight" the Cold War, and produce world class scientists. Much of that has since been cut, mostly by the Reagan administration, and today the US is no longer #1 at anything we would like to be proud of. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Probably more than you wanted to know about my sex drive but whatever


Sexual attraction is only partly about a pretty face and a nice body. A person also has to get our minds racing in some fashion. For T-Rex, one extra "oomph" is appealing to his love of flappers and old timey fashions. (I'm sure there are others. What T-Rex likes in a lady has a fair amount of canonical continuity.)

Maybe you know all of this already, that the brain is the largest and most powerful erogenous zone in the human body. You should keep reading anyway.

I enjoy looking at naked ladies as much as the next heterosexual dude, but I am equally interested in what she is wearing before she gets naked. I admit that it takes some amount of skill to artfully photograph a naked lady, but it takes more skill for her to start out dressed fashionably, then have her remove the clothing in a sexy manner with a satisfying progression. The lingerie industry exists because of this.

I work for a print shop that is basically the McDonald's of print shops. We print a lot of stuff for a lot of designers, and design students, who for some reason are often incredibly attractive. Quite a few of them brighten my day just by being in the store. There is one, though, who isn't that attractive physically, but I'd rather go on a date with her than any of the others, based solely on her artwork.  One piece had a giraffe looking out a window, with a bunch of flowers growing outside the window. Another had a unicorn, a rainbow, and an accordion all in the same picture, which is a combination that makes my brain say, "Fuck. Yes."  There's another girl (not a designer, as far as I can tell) who, in addition to being stunningly attractive, has a bitchin' haircut and a lot of beautiful tattoos.

Now, I don't want you to get the wrong idea here, gentle reader, that I am the kind of person who judges a woman's worth based solely on whether I find her attractive. It's just that checking out ladies at work is the only thing that breaks the tedium, and otherwise I am just standing there staring off into space. If you have worked retail for for than a few months, you probably know what I am talking about.

Getting back to the comic, T-Rex's rating policy sounds a little silly, but he definitely has the right idea: if 10 is going to be your maximum, you should only give a 10 to those women who are stunningly gorgeous, and excite your brain. Otherwise, you have to start raising your ceiling, and say, "Oh, she's an 11 out of 10." Which is ridiculous. It's not even funny. "Why don't you just make 10 a little hotter?" "But... she's an 11."

It's interesting that T-Rex labels the extra point five as being for "emergencies." As if there could be a sexiness emergency. Okay, yes, there are definitely sexiness emergencies... and now that I think about it, this is not that bad of an idea. I should probably develop a sexiness emergency plan, because so far, my reaction mostly involves becoming speechless, then either trying to pretend that there is not a sexiness emergency, OR to try to think of something witty, clever, and/or sexy to say. So, perhaps I will spend this weekend coming up with a "Sexiness Emergency Plan."

Monday, September 14, 2009

There are probably some much better blogs than mine


I'm definitely a fan of the things that T-Rex is talking about. I like to laugh at the horrible things in life, and laugh at how terrible life is.

It's a bit like this: there are so many posters and mugs and knick-knacks out there trying to get you to buck up and be optimistic. Sometimes, though, life really is pretty awful, and there is nothing you can do about that. Last year, for Father's Day, I set up a store in Cafe Press to make shirts and mugs saying, "Not Exactly the World's Greatest Dad," with the "Not Exactly" part in smaller letters on top. I also made shirts that said in big letters, "CREDIT RISK." I was pretty pleased with myself, but I am not sure that I sold anything. Maybe some day I will print and market the shirts myself, or something.

There is an ironic value in these things, in the sense that people do not often celebrate their failings in life, nor (to get back to the subject) do they remind people of how horrible life is. (I get reminders every goddamn day, I really don't need any help.) At the same time, though, it is up front, brutal honesty. It feels more genuine to have a mug that says, "Maybe Mondays Aren't the Problem; Maybe I'm the Problem."

Is this post-irony? Some kind of post-modern fusion? Fuck if I know. But there is a value in confronting and embracing the worst aspects of life, and choosing not only to embrace them but to laugh them as well. It beats the heck out of trying to evade these things for the majority of our lives, and have it all catch up to us when we're too old to do anything about it.

If you also happen to enjoy laughing at these things, you should probably check out A Softer World (which you have probably heard of) and Joshua Green Allen's Twitter (which you probably have not heard of). The latter has such gems as...
  • Guess who made some brownies?? Seriously, guess. TAKE A FUCKING -- actually, I'm not sure. I found them on the sidewalk. They're pretty bad.
  • I said I can undo a bra with my feet, she asked what my feet were doing later, I said probably running away from some angry topless lady.
  • I tell people I met my wife at a methadone clinic because it's easier than trying to explain the internet.
Seriously, you should go read it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Keep your friends close...


When T-Rex finds someone to get vengeance on, it seems like he could use Urban Dictionary to do that. Then maybe try a Google-bombing. Better than thinking of an acronym, though, would be to turn their very name into something unpleasant. That seems like a much better way to get revenge on someone. If you do it right, then their name will live on for centuries, and people will use the word even when they don't know why it means what it means. For example, nearly anyone who uses "McCarthyism" as a word can tell you that it came from Senator McCarthy's hunt for communists in the '40s and '50s.

But the best example of naming something after your enemy is one you probably don't know of: the Molotov cocktail. During World War II, for plot-related reasons, the USSR went to war with Finland. The Soviets were dropping cluster bombs on Finland, but the their foreign minister* Vyacheslav Molotov completely denied this, saying that what they were really doing was delivering food to the starving Finns. The Finns started referring to the bombs as "Molotov bread baskets," and the Molotov cocktails they started throwing at tanks were "drink to go with the food."

Finland ended up losing the war, but they turned it into a war of attrition, and it lasted much longer than the Soviets hoped.** This is not exclusively because of the Molotov cocktail, but it certainly helped.

So if you have an enemy you want to get revenge on, don't just make up a dirty acronym with their initials. Any corporate tool can think of a backronym. Go the whole hog, and turn their very name into something awful.

And it's definitely a nerdy thing to say internet acronyms out loud when one is talking in meatspace. It's like, you're not even typing. What are you economizing on? It takes more time to say "double-you tee eff" than "what the fuck."


* - Technically, he was the "Commissar for Foreign Affairs" but that is pretty much the same thing.
** - Sound familiar? It sounds like war is governed by Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Running behind schedule

I recently experienced a service interruption with my internet, and I know that I still need to post about Thursday's and Friday's Dinosaur Comics. Things should be back to normal by Monday. And I'll probably post an additional something non-Dinosaur to make it up to you. Because I love you, dear reader. I love you so much.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My passion for you inflames my arse ropes


T-Rex makes it seem like Wycliffe's Bible was generally pretty silly. Exactly how silly, I cannot say, but my Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that his translation was consulted when compiling the King James Bible.

I definitely see the merits in making things like this accessible to everyone everywhere, especially since I grew up a WASP. If the scholars can make an interpretation of the Bible that gives them more power, there is potential for them to cleave to that interpretation regardless of how true it might be. They are also more likely to have interpretations that maintain the status quo of their church, since reformist interpretations can be career suicide (and Wycliffe himself was thrown out of Oxford for doing just this).

The problem with populism, though, is that it brings Biblical interpretation to a lower level. It's no longer about coming up with an interpretation that has a scholarly defense, or is in any way inspirational, but instead becomes about whether your interpretation and your silver tongue can persuade people into following you and giving you money.

With that in mind, there is something to be said for keeping Biblical interpretation in the hands of the educated. Each book of the Bible has a specific context, audience, and genre. There are scholars who spend their entire lives trying to determine how to interpret the Bible, and converse with other scholars on the subject. They are closer to the truth than the people who pick up the Bible and want to read it without any context whatever, and then pick and choose passages to mean what they want it to mean.

But then, I'm just a pointy-headed, ivory tower intellectual.

On another note here, T-Rex speaks often of "evidence we are not living in the best of all possible worlds." Leibniz claimed that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, because God, being perfectly wise, powerful, and good, has a moral obligation to choose the best among possibles if he decides to admit any possibles to existence. Because it is possible for our world not to exist (not just the planet Earth, but everything in the universe), then that makes it something possible God admitted to existence.

Is it a convincing argument, even if one believes in God? I can't say. If I've ever read something he wrote, it was back in my intro philosophy class. Maybe I'll save it for another post, on another day. I will say this, though: what T-Rex thinks would be the best possible world might not really be possible. I can see "arse-ropes" being a colloquial dysphemism, but it is unlikely it could be legitimate medical jargon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Here, the T-Rex, have a trophy!


A trophy is a symbol of an accomplishment. Now, I'm not a competitive person, but I would say that people who compete do so for the sake of being recognized as the best. It is only on television that I have seen people obsess about a trophy qua trophy.

I have a book called The Simpsons and Philosophy, and all but two of the essays in it are very good and worth reading. (Those other two are boring drivel that robbed me of precious moments of my life that I could have wasted doing something else frivolous.) My favorite of the essays is "Enjoying the So-Called 'Iced Cream': Mr. Burns, Satan, and Happiness," by Daniel Barwick. To paraphrase, one of the reasons that Mr. Burns is unhappy is that he sees the world in abstractions. F'rinstance, in the episode where he joins Homer's bowling league, he does so only for the sake of acquiring the trophy, and completely misses half the point of bowling leagues: hanging out and drinking with your friends. When Mr. Burns takes the trophy, it becomes a symbol for an accomplishment he really had no part in. "[T]he result is that the original thing that is symbolized ceases to exist, at least in any pleasurable way. Unfortunately for Mr. Burns, it is the original thing that he truly needs for happiness."

This is not to say that this is how T-Rex is acting. If anything, I would say that it works in reverse: because the trophy symbolizes an accomplishment, by having the trophy, he can pretend to have accomplished something he didn't really do. Or, he might have an ironic perspective on it, thinking it rather funny that he has a trophy for winning a track meet.

Utahraptor steps in, though, and makes T-Rex realize how awesome it would be to instead making novelty trophies. The intention may have been to prevent T-Rex from filling his house with trophies for things he didn't do, or just plain ruining everything forever. The trophy then becomes a souvenir for a friendship, allowing it to once again symbolize something real and actual. Even if Dromiceiomimus can't really appreciate hers. And now that I think about it, I am pretty sure that when she dies, unless Utahraptor can stop him, T-rex will make her epitaph read, "DROMICEIOMIMUS: THE CLASSY DAME WITH THE SIX-SYLLABLE NAME". He'll go on explaining, "Yeah, that's totally what she wanted. She even had a trophy with that inscribed on it!"

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Genes, Memes, and Rick Astley (part 2)

We all know plenty of catch phrases that have been repeated and parodied enough that you can stick any word into them and people will recognize the phrase. The accepted term for this is a "snowclone."

What people on the internet tend to call "memes" usually start as snowclones. One of the earliest (and I know some came earlier, such as the "Mr. T Ate My Balls" fad) was, "All your base are belong to us." When the song and video made for it became popular enough, "All your ____ are belong to ____" became a popular joke template.

As technology has developed over the years, these snowclone memes have since come to involve images, sound, and video. In my first introduction to lolcat macros, all of the images were some permutation of, "I'm in ur [noun], [verb]ing ur [noun]."

Some internet trends have gone a little farther in the amount of creativity involved. For example, there are quite a few "literal videos" on YouTube, where people sing what is happening in a music video, to the tune of that music video. The most well-known one is for Total Eclipse of the Heart. It starts out:
(Pan the room)
Random use of candles, empty bottles, and cloth
And can you see me through this fan?
(Slo-mo dove)
Creepy doll, a window, and what looks like a bathrobe
Then a dim-lit shot of dangling balls
It has a lot of great lines in it, such as, "They shouldn't fence at night, or they're going to hurt the gymnasts. Why do they play football inside?"

So if we were to distill down the essence of what an "internet meme" is, it's variations on an idea, theme, or template. WhatPort80 (the SFW version of Encyclopedia Dramatica) has a pretty good explanation of this, so I won't go too far into it. But I would describe that page as being "worth reading."

The most popular and effective memes are the ones that have the most room for creativity. This is probably why one of the worst memes I've seen so far is "Subtitled Hitler," where people give their own subtitles to the pivotal scene of the German film "Der Untergang," in which Hitler finally realizes that he's lost the war. Some of the ones I've seen include "Hitler plans Burning Man" and "Hitler gets banned from World of Warcraft." The problem with these videos is that the first one you see might be entertaining, the second is less so, and after that, you just want to put your face in your hands and wonder why people even bother. Really, all you're doing is putting words onto a video and they don't even match the dialogue that much. Give up already and find something else to do.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Genes, Memes, and Rick Astley (part 1)

I couldn't think of anything to say about today's Dinosaur Comic, so I'm going to post the first part of a thing I've been working on. Enjoy.


The word "meme" has been tossed around on the internet quite a lot, at least since the year 2001. 2002. Something in that area. I'd like to discuss what they are, what they aren't, and what they mean. After I've done all of that, I'll dissect all of the memes at work behind "Rick Rolling."

What a meme is has its roots in genetics. That sentence might make it seem here that it's "turtles all the way down," and you may be right, but I'm trying to start with the lowest interesting turtle here. Genes contain instructions for doing stuff in your body, and they are turned "on" and "off" as the need arises. Some of them are only "on" while you are growing, and some stay "on" all the time.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins started to make popular the idea that genes are inherently selfish. (See his book "The Selfish Gene," if you want to learn more.) We tend to think of ourselves as organisms that spread ourselves by using genes, but it is equally true that genes use us to spread themselves. The idea has been very useful to biologists, because some mysteries of evolution made a lot more sense when they started thinking of things the other way around.

Within the same work, Dawkins is credited with inventing the word "meme" to refer to a unit of cultural transmission. Whether a meme is successful enough to get passed on can depend on a lot of things. To give one example, "You should care for your children" is a fairly successful meme, because it encourages the survival of those children, who can grow up to be vectors for the "care for your children" meme. But the seemingly harmful meme "it is noble to die for Christianity" survives because it brings a lot of attention to the religion, and the people of the religion talk in glowing terms about their martyrs. The meme only works because of all the other positive benefits people got from being Christian in the first three or four centuries of the religion.

In the next installment: "snowclones," and how internet memes fit into "traditional" memes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Friends help you move. Real friends murder you IN SPACE.


T-Rex here puts Utahraptor into a moral and/or semantic dilemma. What T-Rex describes could be better construed as "assisted suicide," but it doesn't have to be that way.

Here's how this could work: T-Rex is terminally ill, and decides to live out the rest of his days IN SPACE. He accepts the fact that he is going to die, and makes the best use of his time by, I dunno, taking to zero-G flower arrangement. Some kind of hobby. Additionally, he tells Utahraptor to murder him at some indeterminate point in the future, when T-Rex still has several days left to live, at the very least. It will be a surprise! T-Rex will cower in fear, crying, "No, Utahraptor! I know I don't have much time left, but I'm not ready to go yet!" And Utahraptor shouts, "You wanted to be the first murder in space! There's no other way!"

Whether national or international laws apply IN SPACE is kind of murky.* It's entirely possible that an independently owned ship would be exempt from the law, the way that boats are when in international waters. The court would first need to decide whether the law even applied in this situation before they decided whether it constituted murder. Utahraptor's situation could also be improved by arranging a contract with T-Rex stating that there was some level of consent involved here. Then the headline would be, "First Dude Murdered IN SPACE! And It's Totally Legit! Nobody's Going to Jail!"

So long as there isn't a woman President, and people start referring to her husband as "the First Dude." Then that headline would be totally confusing. People would be all, "Oh no! Todd Palin is dead! He had so much life ahead of him!" And that would be terrible.


* - Yeah, sure, there's a Wikipedia entry on space law, but I don't have the patience to wade through that and figure out if it applies to murder. It's got all this junk in there about treaties and shit. Maybe if you pay me like a lawyer, at about $100 an hour, I could figure it out. Maybe I should set up a PayPal donation button...

Pop Music Ponderings vol. 2: Tori Amos

Last time I posted, I talked a bit about Trent Reznor's particular brand of atheism, and the way he replaces God with sex.

Today I want to talk to you about Tori Amos's own "lack of god," for I hesitate to conclude that it is atheism. Rather, it is more like a guilt complex that is fairly Christian-centered, but with Jesus absent from the equation:
I've been looking for a savior in these dirty streets
Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets

I've been raising up my hands--drive another nail in
Just what God needs, one more victim

Why do we crucify ourselves

Everyday I crucify myself

Nothing I do is good enough for you...

And my heart is sick of being in chains
Some forms of Christianity (notably Catholicism) place a lot of emphasis on guilt, because all of our sins are absolved through Jesus. It is a bit like the way that modern marketing works: you convince your audience that they have a problem that can be solved with your product. "Feeling tired? Run-down? Feel like you don't have any purpose in your life? Do you feel like you have done unspeakably horrible things and now nobody will ever love you? Maybe you need Jesus in your life. Ask your doctor if Jesus is right for you."

If this were true at face value, that we are all horrible sinners who can be saved through Jesus, then there would not be a problem here. But what happens when you convince yourself that you are a horrible sinner... and Jesus doesn't really make you feel any better?

This is the problem faced by the speaker in "Crucify": she is looking for a savior other than Jesus, and in the meantime, she cannot forgive herself for anything. (If you want to continue the marketing analogy, this is similar to how pharmaceutical advertising can make a hypochondriac out of the most ordinary person. And if you are in any kind of bad mood, Zoloft can help you.)

The thing is, making mistakes is just part of what it is to be human. (For more on this, see my post regarding Pi Approximation Day.) If you're not making mistakes, then you're not really living... and that itself is a mistake, so I guess there's no way around it. Mistakes do not always have to be regrets--at best, they they can be learning experiences, with the mistake itself being just an "oh well" kind of thing. Burning your toast is not all that big of a deal, but now you learned something about how not to make toast!

This is not to say that it's okay to make mistakes indiscriminately. It's also important to prevent mistakes as best we can, and plan in advance for a worst case scenario. "What could possibly go wrong?" should not be a rhetorical question: one should form a mental list of the things that can go wrong, how they can be avoided, and whether they are an acceptable risk. There is a variety of safe and unsafe ways to cross the street, and each one of them carries some amount of risk that you will be hit by a car. Sometimes it's an acceptable level, and sometimes it's not.

Unfortunately, sometimes we make mistakes big enough that they are difficult to forget. Sometimes they stare us in the face every day of our lives, be it literally or figuratively. We run them through in our heads over and over again, thinking of ways it could have been done differently, things we should and shouldn't have done. This is the self-cruficixion Tori Amos is talking about. (Maybe... let's assume it is.) Adjusting to it or getting over it is usually a lengthy and drawn-out process. Commonly, the most effective part of the healing process is when one goes beyond mere acceptance of the circumstances, and becomes appreciative of the amount one has learned from this experience: about oneself, about loss and sacrifice, about life itself.

But the acceptance has to come first. If you're stuck in the other four stages of grief, you're just going to crucify yourself every day.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Background Teen in Green Shirt is really pretty hot


[Optional note that you don't have to read: the organization of this post might seem a little bit jumbled. I'm thinking in two or three dimensions here, but can write in only one dimension. And, y'know, it's a frickin' blog, so I'm not going to spend three hours trying to make sure the writing flows together.]

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is perhaps the most famous work that draws attention to what T-Rex is talking about here. The work follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they play out their roles in Hamlet, having witty dialogues with each other when they are not on stage. They learn of their impending demise while on the boat to England, but learn too late to do anything about it. (I recommend that you read the play, and/or see the movie. If you see someone in your city preforming it, though, proceed with caution, because it requires some strong actors in order not to be dreadfully boring.)

T-Rex takes this idea one or two steps further: focus on background characters, and then have them interact with main characters. This is something you see very rarely, and it's only ever presented as something comedic. One example would be the "Scooby Doo" ending of Wayne's World, in which they pull the mask off of "old man Withers," who by that point you probably even forgot was in the movie. So why doesn't anyone use this device in a serious manner?

Well, as anyone who has even looked at fanfiction can tell you, fans are fucking crazy. Each of them is going to have his or her own idea of which main characters should date/boink/marry. Having a main character marry someone the audience has never heard of would be a slap in the face to most fans. If you doubt me, you should pay attention to the press's reactions to whom celebrities date. If a celebrity is already married when they become famous, no attention is paid to their spouse. But when they are already famous, it is inexcusable for them to date anyone but someone who is also famous. (It is okay if the fans haven't heard of the person so long as he or she is famous elsewhere, or just fabulously wealthy.) You're not allowed to fall in love with your makeup artist, unless your makeup artist also happens to be smoking hot, in which case he or she is probably going to start doing some modeling work.

This is why Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are Hollywood's darling couple: they are celebrities who are married, and it is working out so far! So many other Hollywood marriages crash and burn, but they are doing great! Of course, before Brangelina, the darling couple was Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. So, y'know, let's hope things work out for Brad and Angelina.*

Now, let's suppose that you are making an innovative work of fiction that is defying tropes left and right, and, among other things, the characters have romantic entanglements only with background characters and supporting characters. You might develop a niche following, but most people will not be all that into it. This is because the things with mass appeal tend to use the same tropes simply because, if you want mass appeal, they work.

I am reminded here of when Adlai Stevenson was running for President. Allegedly, a supporter said to him, "You're sure to get the vote of every thinking man in America," to which he replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win." The analogy is thus: in the realm of movies (like "Star Wars"), a cult following is not what any major studio wants, because of the cost of producing the movie, and because so much of what gets you more work in Hollywood is being able to point to recent successes. "The Princess Bride" is a good example here: Cary Elwes went on to do "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," but nobody else in that movie did anything significant.**

However, for music and fiction writing, a small but loyal fan base is very good for you in the long run, because it gets you a small but steady income even after you stop producing anything. "Gravity's Rainbow" comes to mind, which is heralded as being one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, but the number of copies in print is probably not even close to a million. Elvis Costello broke into the US top 40 only once, but you probably couldn't name what song it was. (Hint: it was not "Pump It Up.")

Never forget that quality is a long-term investment.

* - SPOILER ALERT: they both die! But that isn't for like another 40 years.
** - Yes, Mandy Patinkin has gotten a steady stream of work since then, but if you can name something he's been in, then you are a nerd. This is not to denigrate you but merely to point out that because few people in America could name anything he's been in, that means he hasn't really gotten any major work since "Princess Bride." QED

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On becoming Batman


There is something somehow universal about Batman as a superhero. My theory on it (and there are many like it, but this one is mine) is that we feel like any one of us has the power to become Batman if we wanted to. Because he does not have any super powers beyond just being fabulously wealthy, it seems like any of us could be Batman if we wanted to. Nothing radioactive involved, no secret military experiments, just having his family murdered in cold blood and then spending ten years training to be a ninja.

So, if you want to be a superhero vigilante like Batman, what you need to do is spend three hours a day studying martial arts, and on your weekends, study how to be a detective. If you are wealthy enough not to have to work, you have the added luxury of not having to hold down a job at the same time, and then you can devote twice as much time each day to becoming the goddamn Batman. You'll be in decent fighting shape in two or three years, and at your peak in ten years.

If you are still a teenager, get started right now! If you are in your 20s or older, it is probably too late for you. In ten years, your body will be past its peak. You wanted to be Batman when you were a kid, but there was something else more interesting than that, and you did that instead.

This means that there is something you are already good at, and your time would be better spent developing that. That is how these things usually work. "Nobel Laureate Hubert Smartypants first became interested in science when he was six years old and started playing with the chemicals he found under the sink." It is the rare biography that says, "After working as a lawyer he decided he actually wanted to study solid state physics, earning his PhD at the age of 45. His inventions are now found in every electronic device manufactured."

Which is not to say that a midlife career change is a bad idea. It's just that the person who does that kind of thing usually has wanted to do it for a very long time, and then suddenly said to themselves, "I never really wanted to do this, you know. I wanted to be... a lumberjack!" (Or whatever.) And so it's better to start being a lumberjack or a physicist or Batman as soon as it's possible. Then you spend your years thinking of how much you love your job instead of how much you'd rather be doing something else.