Friday Free-for-All #58: Movie love, movie hate, major useless, and “normal”

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What terrible movie do you love?

This one is easy. A lot of critics and others think that the movies Caligula is total crap, despite the all-star cast. But the thing is this — it is actually a really faithful retelling of Suetonius’ The lives of the Twelve Caesers.

Sure, Suetonius may have been totally full of shit and he may have libeled the fuck out of Caligula for the sake of kissing up to later Emperors. Still, ignore that part of it, and the film’s story follows the source pretty closely.

In fact, if anything, the producers actually held back on the sex and violence. But, come on. What’s not to love about this flick? Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud, plenty of eye candy for all genders and preferences in the supporting cast, and script by Gore Vidal – even though he disowned it — but he shouldn’t have.

Seriously, ignore the scissor sisters BS that Guccione snuck into it because he could just before he had to smuggle the footage out of Italy to avoid obscenity charges, boom, done.

One really interesting aspect of the anniversary edition I own is that one of the features on the DVD is raw footage from a scene set in Tiberius’ (infamous) grotto on Capri, where it looks like all kinds of bizarre sex acts are going on in the background – but unedited and from angles not used in the film, it’s quite clear that what you thought you saw was far more graphic and nasty than what was really happening. The magic of film!

What is the most overrated movie?

Oh, there are many, but two stand out because they won Best Picture and had absolutely no goddamn business doing so.

Exhibit A: Forrest Gump.

Exhibit B: Gladiator.

I mean, come on. In the case of the first movie, it’s the glorification of stupid, and I did not ever for one second connect with or empathize with Gump. Why would I? He obviously has mental problems and, given the era, if his Mama wasn’t able to help, he would have been put into an institution, preventing the rest of the movie, period.

Still… Forrest’s character through the rest of the film is an object lesson in this: The mentally ill, despite their condition, are still quite capable of being total assholes.

Second film, Gladiator… as a Roman History buff, this stack of shit just loses from the get-go. And it only gets worse from there, for ten thousand reasons. One big one beyond the rape of history at the end?

Well, true Gladiators were not slaves. They were celebrities. Think MMA fighters now, or social media influencers. So if they got tossed into the ring, it was not to die. It was to play up a high-profile slap fight at the most.

But don’t even get me started on the whole “Pissed off Gladiator killed Commodus in the ring, in public” bullshit.

Anyway, long story short: No way in hell that Gladiator deserved a single accolade, much less “Best Picture.” Nope. It was a steaming pile of crap then, and it still is now.

What is the most useless major in college?

I’m going to have to go with Philosophy – and not that I’m pegging it as a major, not a course of study. I absolutely think that everyone should have to take two philosophy courses in college, one general and the other more specific – but beyond that, majoring in it is pretty pointless.

You learn that when you take your lower division general philosophy course and realize that quite a lot of these philosophers were basically talking out of their asses, and most of them were stuck in the same error that wasn’t even discussed in philosophy until the 20th century.

That is, they forget to include themselves and their own experiences in seeing how their philosophies formed, and instead tried to create these grand mystical rules for what is “reality.”

And it all started with the worst of them, Plato, and his “ideal” forms. This meant that for every object, there was an ideal version of it that existed in some invisible ethereal realm, and that version was the one invoked every time an earthly imitation was created.

Carpenter makes a chair? He’s just copying from that ideal. Singer creates a song – echo of the ideal, and so on. Of course, he never talked about whether that dump your kid just took was a copy of the ideal ethereal shit. What he implied, though, was that everything ever yet to be invented was just floating out there somewhere, waiting to be invoked down here.

He did have one good bit though, his parable of the “slave in a cave.” In it, a slave is chained to a rock in a cave, constrained so that he’s facing the back wall with the entrance behind him. Way beyond the entrance is a bright fire. All the slave can see of the outside world are the shadows on the wall, created by people and animals and the like passing between the fire and the entrance.

In other words, he was saying, we could not perceive the real world of these ideal forms because our perception was limited. And that’s a kind of yes, kind of no, although I’d think of it more in terms of things like we couldn’t conceive of germ theory until we’d made the microscopes to see them, or couldn’t fathom the skies above until we had telescopes and math. Lots and lots of math.

There is, though, a great parody of Plato’s Cave that I first heard from the late, self-proclaimed “guerrilla ontologist,” Robert Anton Wilson. In that version, a slave and a Buddhist are chained up in the cave, just watching the shadows. Then, the Buddhist suddenly slips his chains off and walks outside, staying there for a while.

The Buddhist finally returns to the cave calmly, sits down and puts his chains back on.

“What did you see out there?” the slave asks, excitedly.

The Buddhist replies, “Nothing.”

Anyway, don’t major in Philosophy. It’s not worth it and doesn’t translate to anything marketable.

What seemed normal in your family when you were growing up, but seems weird now?

How rarely my parents had any kind of dinners or parties or invited guests, to the extent that the few times we did host something really stand out in my mind. And the lack of invited guests growing up extended to my friends. I was expected to go play elsewhere, and god forbid that I invite one of my friends into my Mother’s Holy of Holies.

I think we did host a couple of extended family Thanksgiving dinners, as well as my Mom’s older brother when he was in town with his college debate team (he was the professor/coach, who came with his two students, and I can still remember their names to this day: Vinnie and Tim.) Mom’s mom came and stayed with us twice, and one of my cousins (my mom’s niece) came and stayed with us once.

My mom did plan to host my 4th birthday party, but that happened to be the year that we had a bit of a flu epidemic, the end result being that the only guest who finally was well enough to make it was a kid down the street named Scott, whom I didn’t really know. Yeah, awkward!

When I was in Kindergarten, my parents did invite my teacher, Miss Jones, over for dinner and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I wondered. Jones was my father’s mother’s maiden name. Any relation? Although it’s such a common name, who knows.

Anyway, this all seemed normal until I grew up, and then saw friends who were constantly hosting parties of get-togethers, or frequently had relatives or distant friends visiting for a few days, and it blew my mind.

People did this? How weird. How… intrusive. And, unfortunately, I think I wound up inheriting the “No guests!” gene (definitely from my mother), and I cannot come up with more than maybe one time I hosted an overnight guest – an old friend and former roommate – and I’ve never hosted a party. Keep in mind, I’m only counting the times when I’ve lived alone. I’ve had plenty of roommates who were really into the parties and weekend visitors and the like.

And I don’t mind that. I think I was just not programmed on how to do this shit. Of course, I used to live along in a two-bedroom apartment back when that was affordable, but nowadays, it’s a one bedroom, so unless I’m really intimate with an overnight guest, there’s really nowhere to put them.

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up where I am

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I was, up until March 2020, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major originally in directing, soon “downgraded” to screenwriting once I learned that the university did not cover the budgets of their students’ films.

I’m sorry, WTAF? We’re paying y’all how goddamn much to learn, and that doesn’t go into some kind of production budget overall? Especially when we’re renting the equipment (okay, that part free) and getting the film/video stock from you (not free). Studio time and sets free, but gosh, are they limited. Location shoots and shit like paying your actors or at least stuffing them with food — all on you!

Yeah… electrons and paper were cheaper. But, even then…

The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details. 

Wednesday Wonders: More fun with Excel

Every so often, an Excel formula challenge comes up that takes more than a little dissecting and pondering before the solution becomes clear. I had one of these recently, and when I finally did hit on the answer, I even surprised myself. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first a little backstory.

One of my job functions was to create a Policies and Procedures manual explaining all of the workings of the place from my perspective, and to keep it updated. It’s currently somewhere around 70 pages, and to make it easy for the user, it’s a Word Doc that is extensively cross-referenced with a full glossary of the many complicated terms in the Medicare insurance business. There are also a number of appendices, from the very inside baseball explanation of the various Medicare Supplement Plans to a useful but very specific guide to the nearest fast and fast casual dining establishments relative to the office which links out to Google Maps for each destination.

Another inclusion was a schedule of pay periods and pay dates which I originally included as a quick and simple table cut and pasted in from Excel starting with the pay period from when I originally created it. But it was static and although it covered a couple of years, would eventually go out of date.

So my challenge was this: How to create a dynamic table in Word by linking to an entire table in Excel that would always start during the particular pay period the document was opened in. For example, as I write this, our current pay period goes from September 28th to October 11th, with payday on the 15th. But if someone were to open the document in a week, then the first entry should show October 12th to 25th, and so on.

The three columns in the table show just that for each pay period: the start date, the end date, and payday. Each row below shows the next period, etc.

Normally, this would be a simple matter of doing an IF/THEN calculation. IF (today’s date) is greater than a period’s start date and less than its end date, then use the start date in that cell, otherwise increment to the new date.

Now, this would be great if I could create a table of all the start dates for however many years and then link to it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.

The other usual method for incrementing periodic changes wouldn’t work here at all. Normally, you could look at the cell above and use something like “IF (old cell) is less than 10, (this cell) equals (old cell) + 1, otherwise (this cell) equals 0.” Then (this cell) becomes (old cell), repeat.

The problem is that you can quickly run afoul of the circular reference problem,

This happens when two or more cells have formulae set up so that each one provides input to the other at the same time. The simplest example would be something like inputting “=A1+B1” in cell A1. This is telling Excel that the value in cell A1 is equal to itself plus B1. The problem is that B1 changes the value of A1 no matter what it is, so A1 has no value until B1 does, but even if B1 has a value, it will keep constantly changing the value of A1. It all leads to an endless loop, and computers do not like endless loops. That’s why programs like Excel have a hard-coded braking system that will stop an endless loop before it happens. If you ever accidentally do enter one, you’ll notice that the program gives you an error message, draws little arrows to point out the offending cells, and evaluates the initial culprit to zero.

Which is the long way around of saying that I had to figure out a way to calculate the current pay period start date based on the current date and do it all in one cell without evaluating any outside expressions.

Excel nerds, if you’d like to go grab a nosh or latte and think about this now, please do and compare your answer later. Everyone else, here’s how I managed to figure the problem out — again, after a lot of thought and contemplation.

The problem, restated: Calculate a table of payroll period start, end, and pay dates dynamically based on the current date, and without relying on any kind of lookup function using a pre-determined database. In other words, this puppy had to do it dynamically, with only one input point.

When I finally found the solution, I damn near shit my pants in joy, because it was really so simple and elegant, but it took a lot of thought, and gets to the heart of how Excel handles dates.

The only way that a computer can work with dates is to count them as a certain number of days since a fixed day. The behind the scenes work converts a particular number into a particular date. The catch is that a system can only handle dates after their zero point, and not before. If you enter 08/01/1899 into any Windows or Apple program, it won’t know what to do with it. Start with any date on or after 01/01/1900, though, and you’re fine, because that’s the start point.

So… in Excel, any date is just the number of  days since that start point, and if we go with the first start date of my company’s payroll period in 2020, we get January 6 which, in the terms stated, is 43,836. If you don’t believe me, divide this number by 365.25, and you get 120.02, which is just a hair over the number of years it’s actually been.

But forget that. The important number is 43,836, because, to Excel, that means the same thing as Epiphany, which is January 6, 2020 — the start of a past pay period where I work.

The key insight I had here was this: The important bits were those days that were exactly increments of 14 days after the starting point — and having a starting point and increment meant that I suddenly had two constants to plug into the equation, and that made all the difference, because constants are the anchors that everything else could be hung on, and it could happen in a single source cell.

Two constants would be modified by a single variable — what is today’s date? And the answer to that question comes in the form of another great Excel function, NOW(),  which simply returns the number for the date at the point it’s invoked.

So… given an arbitrary pay period start date of January 6 and a pay period of 14 days, the first cell formula looks like this:

=43836+(INT(((NOW()-43836)/14))*14)

Where 43836 is the constant date value for January 6, 2020, 14 is the constant interval in days, and NOW() is the variable based on today’s date. Inside the brackets, we get the integer value of Today minus the start date divided by the interval, and then multiplied by the interval outside of the integration.

What all that fancy math does is this: decides whether the current date is evenly divisible by 14. If it’s not, then it uses the original start date. If not, it increments it by a number that just happens to work out to be the actual number of increments since that first day. If it’s not obvious, it works like this. The +(INT(((NOW()-43836)/14) part determines how many pay period past the original date that NOW is. The *14) part puts back the days to land on the right week.

Yes, it was a struggle to figure it out and it worked beautifully, and I felt that my Excel Jedi score was vastly boosted. But… oh. Did I mention that I had to make this whole thing work as a dynamic spreadsheet insert inside of a Word Doc with no external links to Excel?

Oops, I guess? I did it again.

Talky Tuesday: The order of things

A friend recently posted this article to Facebook which points out something that we probably all knew but didn’t know we know.

But, if you’re a native English speaker, the following word pairs, which order is correct?

    •             Tick-tock or tock-tick
    •             Ding-dong or dong-ding
    •             Yin-yang or yang-yin
    •             Pong pong or pong ping
    •             Flim-flam or flam-flim

If you’re a native speaker, you’re going to pick the I-O combo every time: tick tock and so forth. Why? That’s just the way it is, but there is a name for the rule. It’s called ablaut reduplication. It’s a fascinating subject, but here’s the short version of what’s happening.

First, what’s an ablaut? Well, it’s a change of vowel in related forms — and as you can see, in all of the above pairs, the only change is the vowel and not the rest of the letters.

Ablauts are very common in strong verbs in English (and German) because these are the ones that derive their tenses by changing internal vowels instead of adding endings.

In other words, “to call,” a weak verb, is conjugated as I call (present), I called (preterite), and I had called (past perfect.) On the other, a strong verb like “to sing” conjugates like so: I sing (present), I sang (preterite) and I had sung (past perfect).

But notice anything else in that pattern? The ablaut actually follows the tense back in time. Now, the missing one is “song,” but that’s a noun. Still, where would you put it in the order if you were to speak all four words.

You just thought to yourself “sing, sang, song, sung,” didn’t you? Because that’s just the natural order for it.

The “reduplication” part just means to reuse the root or stem of a word in a different conjugation, tense, gender, or whatever, with or without variation. It’s very obvious in the conjugation of regular verbs in Spanish. For example, “llamar” (to call), is conjugated in the present tense as llamo, llamas, llama, llaman, llamos. The llam- stem doesn’t change. Only the endings do.

Okay, so those are the what’s of the thing. What about the why? Well, it’s simple. The vowels come in order of their placement as far as where they’re sounded in your mouth, from front to back.

In case you’re wondering about the pattern across all of the vowels, that order is I-E-A-O-U, assuming all of the vowels are short. The only place I can think of where this order doesn’t hold is in the English alphabet itself, but that’s because it’s not a word, and when we recite it, all of the vowel names are the long versions anyway.

Another thing the article reminded me of was an old improv exercise/theatre game called “Zip, Zap, Zop,” and it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Players form a circle, then the first person will say “Zip” and point at someone. They say “Zap” and point at anyone but the person who pointed at them, then the last person says “Zop,” points, etc.

So it creates a rapid-fire round of zip-zap-zops, and you can do it as an elimination game if you want. But there are a couple of variations to it, and thinking back on when I used to do these in the before times, the long ago, they really highlight how hardwired the I-A-O rule really is in our brains.

In the first version, the moderator/referee will declare something like “Silent Zap!” In this iteration, the first person says “Zip” and points, but the second person says nothing and points. Ideally, the third person will say “Zop” and point, but it’s surprising how quickly someone will screw up and say “Zap” because the last word they heard was “Zip.”

The more diabolical variation is this one: The change of order, so the moderator/referee might announce, “Okay, now it’s Zop-Zap-Zip.” This one tends to fall apart almost immediately. The most common error is for someone to respond to “Zop” with “Zip,” although “Zop” after “Zap” also happens.

Even more interesting: I’ve done this exercise in warm-ups where someone will suddenly arbitrarily change the consonants, and it does not affect play at all. We could be going along, and some suddenly says, “Skip.” Without missing a beat, we continue with “Skap”, “Skop,” even if not all of them are words.

That’s how hardwired this pattern is in our brains, anyway.

I won’t even get into the “Red Riding Hood Rule” now, but you also know that one instinctively, and it has to do with the proper order of adjectives when describing a thing. So, if I gave you the noun “dragon” and a list of adjectives to describe it — greedy, old, vengeful, fire-breathing, big, scaly, scary — you would automatically be able to put them all in the right order.

And no cheating by just saying “Smaug-like!”

Momentous Monday: How to give good service

Also known as “Titles that sound dirty, but aren’t.”

A while back, I reposted an article on how to be a good customer, figuring that, since people in a lot of places have spent the last year and change away from most of the businesses they used to regularly frequent, they may have forgotten how to customer.

But it works on the other side of the register/desk/window/counter/whatever as well. Giving good service to good customers will just make everything a lot more pleasant.
Oddly enough, during the first couple of months of pandemic lockdown, it felt like everyone had been on their best behavior. Well, not counting a few insane Karens, of course. On the bright side, one of them did inadvertently make Starbucks Barista Lenin Gutierrez a lot richer.

General

  1. It’s a clichéd business adage, but only because it’s true. A customer isn’t an interruption of your job. It’s the reason for your job. Yes, you may be stuck restocking shelves when someone asks for help, or doing office paperwork when the phone rings, but look at it this way: It’s not an interruption of your work. It’s a valid break from what you were doing, so do it with a smile and focus on the customer.

And, trust me, a lot of customers actually are aware of having caught you in the middle of something else, and at least in a real-life setting, I think that people, particularly introverts, have an aversion to asking for help unless they absolutely need to, so if someone approaches you in a retail setting, they probably really have looked everywhere already.

Think of it as an opportunity to play detective and solve their problem — a mini Sherlock Holmes adventure as it were or, if you prefer more noir fare, instant Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

  1. Greetings are important. Always ask a customer how they’re doing, make eye-contact (unless you’re on the phone) and — the most important part — listen to their answer, and answer any questions that they ask. If they don’t seem like they want to make small talk, don’t push it on them, but don’t avoid any chit-chat, either.

I have an interesting story from the customer side of it from the early days of lockdown. I went to the Rite Aid next to where I live as I’ve done for as long as I’ve lived here (that’s a long time), and checked out with one of the clerks who I’d see regularly. It was a particularly low point because I didn’t know yet whether I would be getting unemployment after both of my jobs had gone away.

So, I put my stuff on the counter and he started ringing it up and he asked, “How are you doing?” I started to answer, “Fine” — you know, the automatic thing everyone is supposed to say.  But, instead, I said, “You know what? Not really fine, everything kind of sucks right now, doesn’t it? How are you doing?” And this led to a short but fairly personal conversation on what was going on in each of our lives, and ever since then, whenever we’ve seen each other in the store, despite being masked, that connection is there.

Oh yeah… when a customer asks you how you’re doing, The answer is always, “Great! Thanks.”

It’s really kind of like having found that moment in the foxhole of bonding with someone from half your country away while the bombs are exploding overhead. Of course, one of the things I remember most strongly from my childhood is that my parents were on a first name basis with a lot of the checkers and department heads — liquor, meat, deli — at our local grocery store, which was a Vons.

Sorry, Vons, I’m a Ralphs guy now, despite having gone to LMU.

  1. Give specific and detailed answers to the original question, and options if you can’t fulfill the request right now. If it’s a person in a store looking for an item that’s not on the shelves and it isn’t in stock, look up or ask someone who knows if it’s on order or can be ordered, and when it’s likely to arrive. You can also offer to contact another store to check if they have it, although don’t be surprised if the customer declines this offer.

If it’s some question about a service your company provides that you can’t answer right now, then tell the customer exactly what you’re doing. If you’re taking a message, tell them who it’s for (by name) or whether you’ll be calling them back, and give a time-frame.

A lot of customers seem to assume that if they call you at three o’clock on a Friday, they’ll hear back before five that day — but we all know how likely that really is.

And do your coworkers a favor — no matter what they’re doing, there are only two acceptable answers when you can’t get ahold of them immediately — they’re on the phone right now, or they’re unavailable. Only use the phone reason if it’s absolutely true. Use “unavailable” for everything else.

Sure, you may know that Cathy from Accounting is currently in the loo, taking her massive morning coffee dump; or that the CEO and President are touring an old college friend around the office; or Steve in IT just couldn’t be arsed right now because he’s hungover as fuck.

All of these things, along with lunch, in a meeting, or whatever, are considered (say it with me) “unavailable.” The only alternate third answer is if someone is on leave of vacation, but presumably someone is handling their duties for the moment, so then you can say, “Barbara will be out of the office until [date], but Samantha should be able to help you with that.”

This gently keys your customer into the fact that they might be getting someone who probably doesn’t know everything Barbara does so they may not get resolution today, or (if they’re lucky) Samantha is Barbara’s direct report, and did the same job for ten years prior to getting promoted.

But it’s probably the former.

  1. If your business involves writing emails, then for fuck’s sake, leave your Business English 101 at the door and write like a human. And this doesn’t just involve avoiding jargon — in my business, I could stuff my email with as many AEPs and MAPDs and PDPs and Med Supps and HIPAAs and whatever and only people in the industry would understand.

That does no one any good, but the other part of it is avoiding like the plague that “nobody gets the blame” bullshit use of passive voice that is way too common, particularly in memos from higher-ups and the HR department.

“It has been decided that…” Really? Decided by whom? Or, an old favorite of collection agencies (and I used to do collections, so know this one intimately): “It is imperative that…” It’s a bullshit scare phrase that means nothing because it’s a statement that comes without a consequence.

“It is imperative that you call us immediately.” Or then, what?

The non-passive and meaningful version would be something like, “If we do not hear from you by [date], then we will [specific action].”

See the difference? Likewise, for the first one, “The Board of Trustees has determined that…” is one option. So is “I [upper management in one department] have decide that…”

It identifies the person or persons doing it, and also assigns weight to it.

When you’re dealing with customers, this is kind of imperative. And yes, that was intentional.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to go totally informal in your emails, like you’re posting to social media, and you should still avoid contractions. What it does mean is that you should take a more casual and familiar tone. Use “I/We” and “You.” Write in clear and complete sentences.

And for dog’s sake, if writing emails is a part of your job, invest in learning spelling and grammar, and how to express yourself coherently. I can’t tell you how many customer service emails I’ve gotten that read like somebody tossed a dictionary into a wood-chipper and caught the results on flypaper.

Telephone

Find your “telephone voice.” Yes, this is a thing — Tim Curry even based Frank-N-Furter’s unique pronunciations and elaborately diphthonged vowels on a combination of the Queen and his mother’s own telephone voice.

And I don’t mean speaking like some posh person who over-enunciates. Rather, speak slowly, clearly, and in an upbeat tone, and try to smile when you answer.

I know that I have a telephone voice because, back in those days when we actually spoke to friends on the phone, more than a few of them who were talking to me that way for the first time (instead of in person) remarked, “Wow. You sound really different.”

What they really meant was, “I can understand you.” Of course, IRL, I have this weird funky mongrel accent that combines Southern California lazy-mouth with my grandmother’s Kansas twangy flat Midwest and my mother’s Scranton exurb syllable-dropping, vowel-bending mélange.

Fun examples of the latter: She pronounced the words Saturday and towel as “Sirdee” and “tal,” and a dog was a daag. And there were others. Since she was the one at home during my formative years, boom — me talk weird.

Except on the phone. Well, and onstage, too — but I think they’re connected. When you’re on the phone, you’re really just performing, so own it.

My greeting shtick at work now involves twelve words, divided 4-3-5. Or, if you want to go by syllables, 9-3-5 — three iambs, beat, one anapest, beat, dactyl, trochee. And yes, I do it in a sort of sing-song, but always smiling.

On top of the phone voice — which should be slower than your normal speaking voice, as well as more carefully enunciated and in a deeper register than you normally use if you can manage it — all of the rules on specifics apply, but more so.

Always inform the customer of exactly what you’re going to do, whether it’s taking a message, putting them on hold until you get back to them, checking to see if someone is available, or offering to transfer them to someone’s voicemail.

And if you’re going to transfer and someone says “Yes, but give me a second,” then go back and tell the caller, “[Person] will take your call in just a moment or two.”

Finally, always, always, always confirm the spelling of names and phone numbers, and never be afraid to tell someone, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Can you repeat it again, please?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me that their name is, “[Corgi farts into a blanket],” so I’ve gotten quite used to asking them to repeat it until I can at least get it phonetically.

Clerk/Checker Specific

Finally, we come to those stores where we’ve been standing six feet apart and then staying behind Plexiglas shields as we buy our stuff. And while our checkers have mostly been doing phenomenal jobs, when they haven’t been infecting or killing staff, there are a few giant pet peeves.

Number one is this: If I pay with a debit or credit card, don’t go shoving the damn receipt in a bag. Put that mofo in my hand, or at least extend it toward my fingers for a no-contact exchange, because I’m going to need that to go balance the books.

Number two, although who knows when this one will apply again, since coins went away in the before time in the long, long ago… but if you’re counting out someone’s change, here’s how it works: Coins in the hand first, bills on top.

This became a lost art form once registers started doing the math, but FFS do the physics. Metal slides off of paper, and it just makes it tons harder for someone to quickly stuff the bills in their wallet or wherever and then pocket the change.

And why did registers change it? Well, once upon a time, checkers could math, and it was the only way to assure the customers that they weren’t getting short-changed.

So, for example, I spend $7.31 at the store and give the clerk a ten. She counts out the change like so — drops two quarters, a dime, a nickel, and four pennies in my hand, and says, “$7.31 and 69 cents is eight…” then either counts out two singles or plops a paper Jefferson on top of the change and says, “And two is ten.”

Of course, even though two dollar bills are still legal tender, don’t be surprised if you get shit for using one, on either side of the transaction.

Image: Daderot public doman via Creative Commons licence (CC0 1.0).

Sunday Nibble #58: Obituary

It is with great sadness that I must announce the passing of Gateway DW4320, who had long been my faithful servant. After a series of minor strokes, DW suffered a major event last Monday evening and, despite valiant efforts to keep them alive, they passed on Tuesday afternoon.

DW did have a long and eventful life, during which time they offered great assistance to their writer patron, as well as facilitated communications between the writer and friends around the world. DW’s research skills were immeasurable, and were instrumental in the creation and dissemination of many of the writer’s works, even right up to the very end.

DW is survived by an external hard drive, laser printer, monitor, and a wireless keyboard, mouse, modem and router. In lieu of flash drives, we ask that you make donations to the Alan Turing Foundation in their memory.

Well… it feels like that when an old and trusted machine suddenly dies of old age. And, yeah, I should have upgraded a while ago, since this box was still running Windows 7. But it was working fine, I had a bunch of legacy software on it, as well as a bunch of online passwords.

Fortunately, all of my writing was on the external drive. I had to Frankenstein data out of the old hard drive using what’s called a USB/SATA/IDE interface. Basically, this involves pulling the drive from the old computer, hooking it up to a connector that in turn provides motive power to the drive. Hardware and software inside the connector make the hard drive look just like any normal external drive at the other end of the USB, and the new computer recognizes it.

So I did manage to save all of my important documents and files, but it’s going to be a bit more complicated to get some of the software back. Fortunately, subscribing to Microsoft Office was a necessity anyway, so Excel and Word are still around.

Side note: Subscribing to Microsoft software? Yeah, fuck you, Bill Gates, or whatever twatmonkey bean counter at Microsoft came up with that shit. This was actually one of the reasons I held out from updating the computer in the first place.

But back to the point… I do still have the discs to a lot of the old software I’d been using, I just haven’t figured out yet whether Windows 10 will like them. Kind of annoying, because the version of Photoshop I’ve been using forever is something like 6.0.

Yeah, I know. Ancient, but I like that for one simple reason. It keeps my skills sharp, because I have to do manually a lot of the things that Adobe has automated over the years. Nowadays, if you want to erase a person from a photo, fill in a gap in a background seamlessly, color-match two images from different sources, or create a cut-our or mask for a figure, those are pretty much all one-click operations in modern versions of Photoshop.

Would it be cool to be able to do things that way? I don’t know. Maybe. What I do know is that by having to do these things in multiple steps, it keeps more than my skill sharp. For example, when it comes to something like dropping a person from one photo into an historical scene taken with completely different lighting, color temperature, film stock, etc., taking the steps to match the coloration and the lighting and the perspective just helps keep my eye trained on the subtleties of that.

A funny side effect: It makes it a lot easier to spot when something has been Photoshopped.

but it should all be recoverable. And I think I still have the original discs for a lot of the old software I’d like to keep using — assuming that Windows 10 even likes it. Fingers crossed.

But the two biggest things I haven’t recovered yet are actually the most important. One is that I couldn’t just open and export my Chrome bookmarks from the old computer, because that install thinks it’s still on the C: drive even though the USB ported version was now something like the G: drive. Consequently, when I ran Chrome using the .exe file on the old drive, the startup info it loaded was from the bookmarks and such on the new computer.

Meaning that… I had no access to my saved passwords. Now, I did manage to pull a really sneaky bit by just copying the old bookmark file from the appropriate place on the old drive to the new one and voila! All of my old bookmarks were there.

So I tried the same with the login file for saved passwords and… nothing. And not just nothing updated. I mean, suddenly nothing saved yet again. This will definitely involve me having to put the drive back into the old computer, trying to restart, and then probably manually looking up and copying the essential logins that I do need.

The other unrecovered things is the version of Quicken that I had used for years, which is just gone now. The original came on a 3.5” floppy disc, which I don’t even have anymore – I think it was called Quicken 2000.

Hey, if anybody happens to have an electronic image of that disc that can be uploaded and installed, let me know in the comments!

I may have managed to re-install it from that disc on several subsequent computers – I’d started using it around 1994, and that was after I bought it from the $5 discount bin at some computer store. in other words, it was already old 27 years ago.

But it worked, it was stable, and when you’ve dumped that many years of financial records into something, inertia is strong.

Fortunately, I was able to save the data files and all of the annual backups going to the beginning of (program) time. But this time around, I wasn’t able to just port the program over. I must have somehow done this to get it onto the previous computer, which had no floppy drive.

This time around, though? I couldn’t even get it to start by running it like any other program on an external drive would normally run.

The good news is that I have the latest Windows version of Quicken waiting in the wings. The bad news? The format of my data files is so old that I can’t just open them directly. It’s going to involve a series of installs of (now free online) intermediary versions of Quicken to perform successive updates on the data file as part of the install process, until I get one that will port over.

Oh, joy. Of course, I can only do this if I can shove the old hard drive back into DW and, essentially, pull a JC and Lazarus trick. This might be doable, though, because I think part of what might have caused DW’s death in the first place was that I actually had way too many documents and files on the desktop, instead of just shortcuts and folders.

Yeah, I guess that a folder with a shit-ton of images in it isn’t the best thing to keep on the desktop because it actually lives in hidden space that only the physical host computer can normally see – a little detail that made me shit my pants the first time I connected the new computer to the old drive. But, on start-up, the OS apparently queries through all of these files, meaning that boot-ups used to take forever and, eventually, the process was just too taxing on the rest of DW’s hardware.

Things I should have known better, given my decades of computer experience. However, I did clean the hell out of that desktop once I’d migrated all the files and documents, and also jettisoned a lot of crap elsewhere on the drive. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a good defrag or chkdsk going on that drive because my new computer told me, “Hey, no problems, no need to,” obviously thinking of it as always having been a part of its young and invulnerable self.

Oh. Kids. When will they learn?

Anyway… perhaps accounts of DW’s death may be premature. If I do bring them back, will I get rid of the new computer? Oh, hell no. It’s already shown me that, Microsoft BS aside, it’s much faster and more stable. Plus the most surprising part is how really cheap computers have gotten.

This one was under $500 – but was also the one with the most bells and whistles and power among its brand line. I’d tell you exactly when I bought DW and how much they cost but, well, until I rescue that Quicken data, good luck with it!

At the most, I’ll wind up with a second computer that I can still run the old crap on and, if that doesn’t work out, then at least I’ll have another working external hard drive, meaning that I will suddenly have access to three terabytes of storage.

That’s quite a lot, actually. At the time I bought my 1Tb external drive, the words was that 10Tb would hold the entire text collection of the Library of Congress. I’m sure that this figure has gone up in the interim, although if we’re talking just text, not that much.

But I guess if I wanted, I could still have 30% of the Library of Congress just sitting on my desk.

The Saturday Morning Post #59: The Rêves Part 37

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles. In this one, the shit hits the fan.

Zero Hour

Simon and the Boys made sure that Joshua was up well before seven in the morning, although Joshua himself was uncharacteristically ready to go. At seven on the dot, he called Brenda.

“Hi, Josh,” she answered when she picked up in the middle of the first ring. “Construction barriers have been set up on all freeway routes into Pasadena, with at least three-mile detours before off-ramps, but which will lead to really complicated street routes back, and we’ve also shut down all Metro stations in all of Pasadena.”

“Wow,” Joshua replied. Thanks! So… once you re-open, how long will it take people to get to us?”

“Usual time,” Brenda said. “Which is why we’re not going to open until you tell us to. The only complication might be Federal agents, but we can at least provide them with enough union rule headaches to stall them for half an hour or so.”

“Great,” Joshua said. “So, we are going to send the message and go pick up the package. Thanks!”

“You too. Good luck!” Brenda hung up and Joshua dialed Ausmann’s burner.

It took him a few rings to pick up before he answered with a terse, “Yeah?”

“Hey, Assman,” Joshua replied in high spirits, “We’ve got Lorre, he can definitely tell you how to destroy the Rêves, and it’s go time. We can be there to pick you up in half an hour or less.”

“What do you mean ‘pick me — ’”

Joshua didn’t let him finish. “You heard me,” he said. “It’s for your own protection.”

“How the hell do you even know where I am?” he demanded.

“Because we have spies,” Joshua said. “What? You thought that turning my husband into one of them wouldn’t have consequences?”

“Oh, goddamn you!” Ausmann spat.

“No, dear,” Joshua replied glibly. “God has already damned you. Now get ready, because we’re going to be there really soon. Bye!”

Joshua hung up and the four of them headed downstairs and piled into the Tesla. Joshua drove — of course — and they were actually in DTLA and at the Alexandria hotel in about eighteen minutes — the advantages of a traffic-free Saturday because most people had already fled the city for the holiday.

Preston and Danny took advantage of their physical state to skip the elevators and head on up, while Simon also begged off of the elevator, but promised he’d wait for Joshua upstairs. Joshua took the slow human transit and, when he arrived, found Simon true to his word.

They went to Ausmann’s door — the boys had told them the number — but before they could knock, they heard a lot of commotion inside.

“Fuck it,” Joshua said, moving to ram the door open, but Simon stopped him and pushed his way through it, unlocking it from inside.

Joshua’s entrance startled the other occupants — Simon, Danny, and Ausmann.

“All right,” Joshua called out. “Fucking freeze. We are here to take you back to JPL in order to do what you need to do to end the Rêves. Okay?”

“What makes you think I want to go back there?” Ausmann demanded.

“Because it’s the only place you can do what you want to,” Joshua explained.

“What if I don’t believe you?”

“Well, then,” Joshua replied, approaching him, “I believe that the term is… oh, what is it?” He quickly swung up his arm and jammed the high voltage Taser into Ausmann’s shoulder, bringing him to the ground. “Oh yeah. Right. Bringing you into custody in a subdued state. Boys?”

Simon, Danny, and Preston merged together and picked up Ausmann’s unconscious body. They dumped it in the convenient wheelchair, and then the three-in-one of them rolled it out and down the hall, letting Joshua take it into the elevator.

They all reconvened in the lobby, got Ausmann out to the guest parking lot three stories down, then dumped his ass in the trunk, shut the lid, and set off for JPL.

They made their way out of downtown via the 110 and then the 2, heading almost due north. As they approached the 210, Joshua saw the brilliance of what Brenda had done — the entire interchange between it and the 2 was shut down, allegedly for construction, traffic being rerouted off the freeways in all directions.

Joshua pulled up to one of the workers standing by a barrier and rolled down the window. Danny and Preston were hiding in Simon again so that he would appear like a normal human and not draw any attention.

“Road’s closed,” the man said, but then Joshua showed him the credentials Brenda had sent him on his phone. The man pulled a device from his tool belt, scanned it, then nodded and whistled loudly.

He was soon directing some of his men and they quickly lifted one of the concrete rails and moved it out of the way. One of the other men waved Joshua and he drove through, onto the completely deserted 210.

“Wow,” he said to Simon. “Want to see what this thing can really do?”

“I’ve seen what your thing can really do. Besides, you don’t want to overshoot the exit.”

“Party-pooper,” Joshua teased him. But it was true. They were at the exit to Oak Grove Drive in no time. Joshua drove up, but not directly onto the campus. Instead, he pulled up outside of the emergency exit they had used the last time they left.

Simon took a still groggy Ausmann out of the trunk and carried him to the door, which is when Simon realized that it had no keypad or keyhole on the outside, Danny and Preston slipping out of him once he had put Ausmann down.

Meanwhile, Joshua did a quick search of the neighborhood, found a safe residential street nearby with no parking limits, and sent the Tesla off to park and wait until he called it back.

When he got there, Ausmann was starting to focus, and he looked at the door.

“We can’t get in from this fucking side, you idiots!” he spat at them.

“True,” Simon replied, slowing pushing his way through the door, then opening it from the inside. “Ta-da!”

“This way, please,” Joshua said, gesturing Ausmann in, and they all headed toward the tachyon generator chamber.

There was a surprise waiting for them before they got there.

“Well, hello, dear!” a voice called out as a trio of women stepped around the corner into view. Joshua and Simon recognized two — Anabel and Pearl — but not the third.

“Coraline!” Ausmann exclaimed, stunned.

“I bet you never thought you’d see me again, dear,” she said. “Correction: hoped. I would get my revenge on you in the obvious way, except that your machine would just bring you back, meaning we really would be stuck together forever.”

“Revenge? You died when the house collapsed.”

“I saw what you did,” she countered. “That’s what you get when shiny things fall into the basement from the upper floor. I knew you couldn’t resist coming here, so I brought some friends.”

There was something weirdly mythical about it, Joshua thought — the young and ethereal Anabel, the earthy Pearl, and the very senior Coraline, standing shoulder to shoulder, apparently with one goal.

“So what are you going to do?” Ausmann asked nervously.

“We can’t stop you,” Anabel explained, “If that’s what you’re wondering. All we can do is let you try.”

“I will succeed!” Ausmann insisted.

“No, darlin’,” Pearl cut in. “You will fail and see the futility of your efforts, and then maybe you’ll turn yourself over to human justice for all your crimes.”

“There is no futility!” Ausmann shouted. “I have a secret weapon.” He turned to Joshua. “Where is he?”

Joshua looked anxiously to the women, but Pearl gave him a look and a feeling shot over him that he understood as full permission. He took the trap out of his pocket and opened it. The usual smoke shot out and coalesced into Peter Lorre, in character.

He was about to speak to Ausmann when he looked past him. “Pearl?” he said nervously.

“Mr. Cairo,” they replied, but said nothing else while giving him a serene look as he heard the whispers of the Hadas in his ears.

We know exactly what you’re all doing and what you have planned, so do it as you planned it, and we will play along. But don’t be afraid of anything we say, except in character, of course.

Pearl smiled broadly at him, and then Lorre turned to Ausmann, feeling an enormous sense of confidence and relief — so he turned up the performance as weasly sell-out lackey to ten.

“What do you want of me?” he pleaded to Ausmann. “I am innocent, I did not do anything.”

“I want information,” Ausmann said.

“Anything, anything please, I beg you,” Lorre went on in a very convincing manner.

“All right,” Ausmann said. “What will destroy the Rêves for good?”

Lorre started at him bug-eyed, then looked at Pearl nervously. She glared at him while sending him encouraging thoughts on his performance.

“I… no. No, please, anything else, but they are my friends. I cannot let you destroy them.”

“So it is possible?” Ausmann asked him.

“Of course it…. oh, damn you! Damn me, you have made me say too much,” Lorre exclaimed, making what could have been melodrama work by sheer virtue of his well-crafted creepy little screen persona — which was nothing like him in real life.

“And you know how to do it.” Ausmann announced in triumph. “So give me the information.”

“Or what?” Lorre attempted defiance, but it was backed by terror.

Ausmann just pointed to the trap. “Back in there for you, sealed in forever and no getting out. Didn’t that happen to you in a movie with Vincent Price?” he suddenly asked.

“I was in that movie,” Lorre replied, briefly changing character, “But I was Montressor. I could be again, but then I would not negotiate.”

“Fine, then back to whatever sniveling little coward you were.”

“Is there anything else I can tell you, please?” Lorre groveled.

“No.”

“But you have no idea what they’ll do to me if I tell you,” he said, looking at the three women, terrified.

“If you tell me, they’ll be gone,” Ausmann explained. “They couldn’t do anything.”

“But I would be gone, too,” Lorre added sadly. “You are asking my suicide.”

“Actually,” Simon suddenly spoke up, “If he’s in the trap, he should be protected from anything that happens to the rest of the Rêves, and we can let him out later.”

“So there’s your offer,” Ausmann said. “Save yourself, or I swear that I will get one of you to give the information. After all, if you have it, one of them must — ” he gestured toward Simon and the boys, “And I don’t care who I have to torture to get it.”

Lorre realized that this was the climactic moment of the scene, so he fell to his knees, tearing up although he didn’t go so far as to sob. His eyes darted from the women to Ausmann to the men and back, and he finally let his entire body sag in defeat.

“Deal,” he said. “I will tell you.”

The women feigned outrage — well, all except Coraline, who wasn’t faking it, but Anabel and Pearl easily held her back. Meanwhile, the other four were quietly elated.

“It’s fucking working,” Joshua thought to himself.

“So tell,” Ausmann replied.

“It is the machine sustaining us,” he explained. “In order to destroy the Rêves, you need to create a paradox.”

“Doesn’t the machine already do that?” Ausmann asked.

“Apparently not,” Lorre said.

“There’s a certain self-correcting dynamic in time travel,” Simon explained. “It helps prevent paradoxes.”

“So how do we uncorrect it?” Ausmann demanded.

“I do not know what it means,” Lorre explained, “But they have told me, you have to drop mass into the containment field.”

Joshua stepped forward in a fake a-ha moment. “Of course!” he said. “So far, we’ve only been sending messages on the thing. But if we sent something with mass back, it kind of breaks the rules of physics, which would create one hell of a paradox — ”

“And un-create all of us,” Lorre added sadly.

“So what kind of mass?” Ausmann asked. Joshua pretended to do some quick calculations, then announced, “Not much. Maybe a kilo. And not that big. I mean, you want it to pass between the super-conductor pipes, right?”

“I know just the thing,” Ausmann said, heading for his office. The other men followed, while the women and Pearl stayed behind.

In his office, he took a highly polished metal sphere off of a stand. It was about four inches in diameter. “Beryllium,” he said. “This is a kilo. Highly valued in the aerospace industry because it’s so light. It should do the trick, so let’s go play ball.”

As they started off, Joshua caught Lorre’s attention and pulled out the trap, indicating it. Lorre nodded and Joshua opened it, pulling him back in for safe-keeping. Ausmann led the way back to the generator itself, and then they all ascended the many flights of stairs to the catwalk above.

Neither Joshua nor Simon had ever seen the view from up here, but it was beautiful, really, the lightning-like stream of electric-blue plasma flying down the space between the six bright yellow pipes that shepherded it all the way to Virgina.

It was an impressive feat, really. Kind of a shame to shut it down, although Joshua felt no regrets now because, obviously, the thing didn’t really work. Telegram to the past, my ass, and he knew that first-hand.

But then, Joshua noticed something that wasn’t apparent on the ground, nor was it in any of the specs. He could see a reflection from here, between the pipes, and it obviously wasn’t coming from the plasma, since that was impossible.

The overhead lights were reflecting off of some sort of transparent shielding around the plasma itself. “Shit,” he sighed.

“What?” Simon asked him.

“Reflection,” Joshua pointed as Ausmann announced, “All right. We’re all doing this together, because if this shit blows up, we’re all going together, okay?”

He headed up the last stairway, which led to a railed observation platform that was directly above the first stretch of the plasma and tubing.

Only now, Joshua and Simon were feeling uncertain. Why hadn’t that shield been mentioned in the specs? Was it made of some top-secret indestructible material? Were they about to fail spectacularly as the sphere bounced off of it harmlessly?

They and the boys followed Ausmann up to the platform, Joshua and Simon exchanging a look, then glancing at Danny and Preston, who decided to suddenly take refuge in Simon just in case.

Ausmann stood at the rail looking down.

“I know she’ll survive this,” he said. “Oh — the machine, not my former wife or any of those creatures down there. But it’s probably going to be interesting.”

“No doubt,” Joshua said.

Ausmann leaned forward and held the sphere over the tube, closed one eye to aim, and then started counting down. “Three… two… one.”

On one, he let the sphere go but, at the same time, Joshua and Simon — who of course was able to do so — grabbed each of Ausmann’s legs, lifted, and pitched him over the side.

They could hear the sphere shatter glass first, but then an instant later, Ausmann hit the pipes. Danny and Preston abandoned Simon and they all took off in Rêve fashion, Simon warning Joshua as they went, “Run!”

Joshua didn’t need to be told twice. He skipped putting his feet on the stairs and rode the hand rails down as many cases has he had to until he was able to burst out a door and slam it behind himself.

That left no human witnesses to what happened next.

The sphere cracking the glass actually did nothing. It dropped through and vaporized almost instantly when it hit the plasma. The containment field did its thing.

But when Ausmann hit, he was flailing and had managed to twist sideways, so that his entire torso hit two of the pipes. They didn’t give right away but, true to Simon’s calculations, the joints to the adjacent sections had been weakened enough that they were slowly giving away.

Ausmann was stunned enough to do nothing for a few seconds, which was also all the time it took Joshua to get his human body away from the area and onto the safe side of thick concrete walls. Then, right as Ausmann tried to roll over and get up, the pipes gave way.

He and they fell, shattering the tube completely, and he kept right on going. The parts of him between his shoulders and his knees were incinerated instantly, the other bits hitting the concrete below.

When the pipes broke, liquid hydrogen immediately boiled out, sending up white clouds that were still very cold. With the containment gone, the plasma suddenly expanded as well and, unlike the hydrogen, it began to cool down rapidly. The blue glow vanished almost immediately, and by the time the burning plasma had expanded to about three times its original volume, it was no warmer than a Finnish sauna.

With the containment gone, the tachyons were free, and they had actually firehosed out of the initial small breach in the plasma, which had happened in the first microseconds after Ausmann fell in. Unlike the other escapees, no one could see the tachyons because they were gone before they got there, so it looked like nothing was happening. At least below ground.

But that stream shot up and got wider as it went, a like lawn sprinkler sending up a cone of water.

What Joshua and crew also couldn’t see was that they had a lot of company upstairs, and they’d all basically arrived at the same time about half an hour ago, traffic block notwithstanding, because all of them had originally intended to make this a pre-dawn raid, which meant they’d been aiming to arrive by six a.m., not nine.

Captain Shrantz and her crew were here, along with Captain Davis and Lieutenant Lewis on their own. About twenty minutes after they’d arrived, the FBI did show up — and then none of them could figure out how to get into the complex, so there were a lot of calls to home base and haggling back and forth, so all of them were distracted when… something happened.

There was no big bang or flash or anything like that. There was definitely a feeling that came with it, but suddenly everything within about a hundred foot radius just… changed.

No one knew what had happened, only what they experienced. Davis and Lewis suddenly both looked like they were in their late 20s again, although their cruiser and their uniforms — and all of their clothes and other possessions — had vanished, with the exception of Davis’ chai necklace, which her grandmother had given her when she became bat mitzvah, and which she never took off, and their wedding rings. They had married at 26.

The same thing happened to countless other law enforcement officers around them, with most of the vehicles in the lot within the area suddenly gone, the few exceptions being employee vehicles like a fully restored OG Volkswagen Bug, a couple of vintage cars from the 30s or 50s, or anything from earlier than about 1990.

And the place was populated with hordes of now naked people of varying ages, all the way from infants to, at most, maybe mid-40s, but the latter were few and far between.

Shrantz found herself thirteen again, or so she estimated, and awkward and embarrassed as hell, although that was a very common reaction from everyone right now.

Then it became apparent that a lot of the younger officers in their 20s were just gone. Not there at all. Vanished. And though no one noticed, the trees were shorter and younger, some of them not even there, and the buildings, especially Ausmann’s complex, looked decidedly newer.

So did some of those 80s and early 90s clunker cars still remaining.

But everyone was blind to the obvious because they were all so focused on their own situation and their inability to process what had happened. That, and suddenly being naked in front of their co-workers.

Well, except for two Mormon FBI officers, who had owned the same sets of secret underwear since their mission days in their early 20s, which they had almost caught up with, but not enough that they lost their undies. Of course, to them, that was just as bad as being seen in nothing.

But if they had actually taken a moment to think about what had apparently happened, their next question would have been, “But then why do I remember my future?”

Down below, Joshua had seen none of this, and he had managed to get to where Simon and the boys were before shit went down. This also happened to be where Pearl and the ladies were, and he joined them, breathing heavily.

“Well,” he said, “I think that worked.”

He smiled, and then the other six of them abruptly vanished.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #57: Reality, inanimate, huge tracts, best and worst

Do you like reality TV shows? Why or why not? If so, which ones?

Oh, hell no. There’s nothing I find more boring than watching other people drama. On top of that, I worked for a reality show star for ten years, so I’m very aware that there really isn’t a single bit of “reality” going on. Everything you see on every one of those shows has been planned, scripted, carefully edited, and reshot when necessary.

The only possible exceptions are shows like Punk’d or other prank shows, but even then, they still have to get permission to film the “victim,” either before the fact, or get clearance to use what they shot afterwards.

In short, there are so many rules and openings for liability that nothing you see on TV other than live news coverage is “reality.” So, no, I don’t like reality shows because they aren’t, and I find most of the people who star in them to be self-centered and vapid wastes of oxygen.

If you had to become an inanimate object for a year, what object would you choose to be?

This is one of those questions that really needs the rules well-defined. That is, by definition, if I’m inanimate, then I’m not conscious and have no senses, right? In that case, the only real requirement is that I’m something very durable that’s going to be around for at least that year so that I can come back to human form intact.

So, in that case… I’d go for something really durable, like a mountain, or maybe a beloved local landmark with historical protections in place.

Now, on the other hand, if this were a Beauty and the Beast situation, and I had all or most of my senses and was aware of what was going on, then I’d want to be a patio umbrella, awning, or inflatable at one of the many small gay-male nudist resorts in Palm Springs — preferably one with a twinkier crowd.

What? If I’m going to be stuck in inanimate form, I might as well get some enjoyment out of it.

If you were given one thousand acres of land that you didn’t need to pay taxes on but couldn’t sell, what would you do with it?

Okay, here’s the math for perspective. A thousand acres is 43,560,000 square feet, which means a square that’s 6,600 feet on a side, or a mile and a quarter. That covers a pretty decent chunk of neighborhood, and so I’d turn it into an art village.

Yes, I would be greedy and grab maybe four acres for my private enclave which would actually be the brain center for the place. But a lot of the rest of the acreage would go toward single family homes or bungalows on either a quarter or half acre

Qualification for residency: a demonstrated proficiency in one or more the seven lively arts, or similar in a related tech skill. Note: not “a ton of professional experience.” Just “are you good it?” Bring receipts or talent.

So if you’re a writer, director, actor, singer, dancer, musician, composer, painter, sculptor, visual artist, designer of sets, costumes, or lights, make-up artist, producer, electrician, grip, PA, stage manager, best boy, gaffer, caterer, PR or marketer, accountant…

Well, fuck it. Tell us what you do and how you’d like to do it for the arts. I’m setting aside 750 acres of this place to create half and full acre lots that will either house families (on the acre) or individuals or roommate groups on half acres, which would allow for about a thousand units.

That’s following the ideal of each residence being free-standing, with its own private yard and outside space. Now, if interest got really big, it might be worth setting some of that acreage aside for multi-family housing, but not too much of it, And there’d probably need to be at least one hotel-like facility for visiting artists.

Okay, so that leaves the other couple hundred acres, and that would basically be the arts “campus.” That’s where the theatres, studios, classrooms, galleries, and whatnot would go in order for everyone to have space to do what they came here to do.

Now, again, I cannot sell the land, but I can make it self-sustaining without making it ridiculous, so the basic deal would be that residents would only be required to cover their utilities, and some minimal housing charge that would go into a co-op to support the art campus and maintenance of the village itself.

Of course, any profits that came from productions and public exhibitions on that campus would go back to reducing the resident fees. Any kind of HOA would be prohibited. Yes, I know that technically we’d be charging an HOA fee, but screw the idea of a bunch of busybodies making stupid rules. This is an art colony. There are no rules!

Oh yeah — although sort of renting and despite my not being able to sell of the land, each resident would still get a deed giving them ownership of their place as a $0 value land-grant.

Damn. Okay. Now who wants to give me a thousand acres free of property taxes?

What’s the best and worst thing about the country you are from?

Talk about two sides of the same coin. I’m from the United States, and the absolute best thing about this country is that it was built by immigrants. I’ve seen the meme online, and it’s something like this: “If you’re an American, then you’re either an immigrant, a refugee, a slave, or a Native. There is no other option.”

And that is absolutely true. In my case, I come from a combination of immigrants and refugees — although I do find it weird that “invader” isn’t included on the list.

But… I live in a city with a lot of people who fall into at least three if not four of those categories, and I love it. That is the beauty of the USA. Go to any big city, you can find any culture in the world represented, and hear any language, and it is awesome.

Sure, for the last year or so, I haven’t been as free to travel around L.A., but one of my joys before the Dark Times was to hop on the Metro, ride to an unknown neighborhood, and then just take in the community.

Los Angeles is not alone in this, but it is a really good example of a truly international city. Name an ethnic food you want to eat tonight, and I will find you a place that serves it within a mile of my front door in two minutes.

Ask me where we can go to see art or performance of a particular culture within a half-hour drive, again, boom. Done.

Los Angeles has everything. So does San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and a whole lot more.

And… surprise, surprise… it’s not just the Big Blue Liberal Cities that are such melting pots. Okay, the key word is probably “cities,” so that blue dots in red lagoons, like Austin, Texas, stand out.

But the point is this: The best thing about my country is that we are a mosaic of every other country, and our diversity is what makes us so special and so strong.

And the worst thing about my country? The white racist assholes who just don’t get this part. They have this really warped fantasy that America was founded by a boatload of Puritan WASPS who landed on Plymouth Rock, and that was it.

But the joke is really on them, because chances are that their ancestors are really more likely to be German, Irish, Italian, or Eastern European and, at various points in time, each one of those “white” groups of immigrants was considered to be less-than, and shunned and ridiculed.

And the shunning and ridiculing was done by those stuck-up WASPS from whom none of the later immigrants were descended.

They also like to ignore the fact that for a lot of its early history, ‘Murica only consisted of a narrow band on the east coast, especially after the Founders kicked out the Brits, during which time Ohio was considered to be the far west frontier — q.v. Case Western Reserve University, located all the way over in… Cleveland.

Otherwise, the rest of the continent was owned by Spain, France, and England and, if you did go far enough west, Russia.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that we managed to either buy a ton of shit from France so that Napoleon could attempt to take over Europe, then kill off enough Natives to sweep west screaming “Manifest Destiny!” and then finally curb stomp Mexico (after they’d kicked France’s ass) in order to steal the bottom third of the western two thirds of the country back form Aztlán.

So… let’s recap. Best thing about my native country: It was created as a place for all, and as far as I’m concerned, all are welcome here. Worst thing: We still are plagued by a pack of assholes who just don’t get that part.

Sigh.

Theatre Thursday: Of plague and playwrights

Although the possible anniversary of his birth in 1564 and the definite anniversary of his death in 1616 isn’t until tomorrow, April 23, I thought it was worth re-running this tribute from April 23, 2020, in which our world became a lot more like the world Shakespeare was plunged into ten years before his death. He’s been gone for 405 years, but only physically, of course. He’s left an incomparable imprint on all of western literature and the English language that we feel to this day.

We’re not really sure whether April 23 is the day that William Shakespeare was born, but it was the day he died. I don’t have any particular connection to that date otherwise, but I feel that I now have a stronger connection to the Bard, because both of us had plays shut down due to a plague.

For Shakespeare, it was in 1606, when the theaters were shuttered right after, or perhaps during, his premiere productions of King Lear and Macbeth. By the time productions resumed in the winter, and had moved out of the open-air theaters, the all-boy companies who had portrayed women onstage were a thing of the past, and shows were often candle-lit.

After the plague year, Shakespeare only wrote one more tragedy (Anthony and Cleopatra) and one more history (Henry VIII — although he may have written that one earlier, since Elizabeth I died in 1603.).

Otherwise, everything that came after was based on myth or legend, and this is when he created some of his most atypical works: Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles (often considered Shakespeare’s weirdest), Cymbeline (a very black comedy), The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (probably co-written with John Fletcher.)

Now, while the play I had shut down is probably far less consequential than any of the Bard’s, it was still difficult. The only mitigating factor was that theater in California went dark a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to open.

However, I was fortunate in two things. First, that the director, theater owner, cast, and I all gathered on Zoom to toast the cancelled opening night and get to know each other — unlike all but one of my other shows, I’d been unable to attend rehearsals for this one. Second, later on, the director, cast, and I got together on Zoom for a private performance of the show.

Now, granted, it’s a very physical farce that pays tribute to Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, and other writers who have influenced me. So, let’s just say that it loses a lot of that physicality when it’s just talking heads in little boxes. On the other hand, the cast still gave it their all, and my faith in the director’s choices and the actors’ abilities was not misplaced.

As a writer, it’s a rare thing when seeing your own work performed can still move you emotionally, mainly because you’ve lived inside it for so long, so it technically doesn’t have any surprises. And yet, with a brilliant cast, the humor or the drama all come flying back at you because they bring their own surprises.

I only create the characters in my head, but the  premiere cast makes them their own and cements that interpretation, and that is why I love the collaboration of theater, even if sometimes it can’t happen directly.

When I do get to develop a work through rehearsal, incredible things happen. But even when I only get to give occasional notes or am inspired to do rewrites, incredible things still happen.

That’s the magic of theater, and no plague or disaster or worldwide shutdown can ever stop that permanently. It can only put it on pause, but the art-form will keep coming back, over, and over, and over again.

Finally, in honor of the possible birthday of Willie Shakes, here’s a little music video version of a number from a show I was lucky enough to see onstage before everything shut down, and which I absolutely love. The show is a musical comedy called Something Rotten, and it posits the idea that Nick and Nigel Bottom were rival playwrights to Shakespeare in 1595.

Jealous of his fame, they enlist the help of Nostradamus’ nephew to use his psychic powers to figure out what Shakespeare is working on so that the Bottom Brothers can steal it. Needless to say, Thomas Nostradamus falls short of the mark, to hilarious effect.

The interpretation of Shakespeare is… unique, to say the least, but it fits the conceit. Here is the always fantastic Christian Borle as the Bard, in a role for which he won a Tony. Enjoy!

Image: William Shakespeare, public domain via (CC) BY-SA 4.0.

Wednesday Wonders: There’s science to art?

In reviewing an upcoming repost of an article about William Shakespeare, I was reminded of something about my creative process that I’ve seen at least one other writing teacher mention online, but it’s something I’ve been doing since forever, and I think that if writers of fiction adapt it, it will make their lives so much easier.

It’s simple, really. Who writes your novel, play, screenplay, or short story?

If you answered, “I do!” then you’re wrong. First of all this is why a lot of people think that writing is hard or suffer writer’s block. You’re laboring under the notion that you are doing everything.

But here’s the real answer. Who writes your dramatic work? Your characters.

What this means is that your job is to sculpt those characters first. For each of them, figure out their wants and needs, their personalities, they manner of speaking, and so on. Chart this all out — and trust me, it will be more useful than elaborating plotting out your story.

Figure out which characters get along and which ones don’t. Pay attention to their background, age, education, political leanings, and so on.

The only things you need to worry about plot-wise are these: 1) Who is my protagonist? 2) Who is my antagonist? 3) Where to they start? 4) Where do they end.

Sure, you can blop in rough route markers if you have major set pieces you want to happen. But in order to write your story, you begin by setting the scene, dropping in your first speaking characters, and then just standing back, shutting up, and letting them do the talking.

Now, that probably sounds kind of weird and difficult, especially if you’re writing prose and not a script. But it’s the same either way. Plus, in prose, you get the bonus of being able to let your readers know what your character is thinking or feeling at any moment. Hard to do that in a play or screenplay without reflecting it in the dialogue.

For a long time now, before I start writing everything, I create a spreadsheet with rows for each of my characters, and a series of questions I ask about them, which covers things like what do they want right now, what do they want as their major life goal, how do they see themselves, how do others see them, and so on.

One of my favorite parts of this, which I picked up from one of my writing teachers and best friends, Che’Rae Adams, is creating a metaphor to describe your character, because you can go wild with these. Maybe your character is a nervous Chihuahua in a room full of veterinarians, or a bowling ball tossed down a staircase, or your grandmother crashing your bachelor party while the stripper is there, or whatever.

This can be a nice little anchor that brings all the character traits together in a very powerful visual and emotional shorthand.

So, again, got all that? Good. To write a scene, put two characters in that room and let them start talking. All you’re doing is transcribing the conversation. All you need to keep in mind that each of those characters is going to steer things toward what they want or need. You only need to nudge them if they start to veer away from your overall route from beginning to end.

And yes, this is where learning how to do improv is really, really helpful, because what this style of writing essentially is (and it took me decades to realize that I’d always been doing this) is this: You’re doing a long-form improv act, but the entire cast is You.

For those of you who’ve been following my fiction on here via the Saturday Morning Post, either from the first excerpted short story/novella collection The Rocky Road from Walgreens or the later serialized in full novel The Rêves, this was exactly how I created the stories.

I knew where I was starting out. I knew where I was going. But I spent my development time creating the characters instead of the plots.

And, wouldn’t you know it? This is pretty much how TV writing has always worked. Irony alert: I never wanted to go into TV writing because, before the second golden age of streaming, I thought that most of it was crap.

I still think that, but I also see how TV has always focused on character over plot. And this is even true of police procedurals or medical shows or any of that kind of shit. Yeah, there’s a mystery to solve or a disease to cure — but it’s in the context of our (quirky, difficult, independent, etc.) protagonist fighting the system in order to be vindicated.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the only reason it sucks in TV is because it gets repetitive for any particular show. “Oh, look. House is pissed off again.” “Oops. Walter White kind of overreacted. Again.”

Or maybe the problem is that a lot shows start out with characters and Point A, but never nail down the landing at Point Z because it’s a crapshoot over how long the series will run.

Just look at American Gods. It sure seemed like they were going to get another season, so they pulled a big risky season finale and… whoops. The end. Sucks when that happens.

But back to novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Don’t let all that TV shit discourage you. If you do wind up in TV, make sure to A to Y each season while always having the ultimate Z in mind that you can swap in at a moment’s notice.

And, always, don’t burden yourself with writing the story. That’s your characters’ job, and if you learn to listen, writing will become a breeze instead of a chore. Trust me.

<em><a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dictaphone.jpg”>Arnaud 25 (original image)Pechristener (cropping)</a>, <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0″>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons</em>