The voice

Recently, I was working at what’s called the Small Business Marketing Plan Bootcamp, run by two old friends of mine, Hank and Sharyn Yuloff. Well, I’ve known Hank longer, lost touch with him for a while, then re-encountered him at random because we had a friend in common we’d both met long after, and then Hank absolutely hated the movie The Blair Witch Project. Long story, but it was another one of those weird moments in which the most random of events somehow led to big things later on.

If you come to their bootcamp and I’m working it, he’ll probably tell you the whole story. Short version, he sent an email rant about the film to one of my friends, A, who’d co-founded the site with me and D (all three of us had been in a band together way the hell back in my “stupid enough to be in a band” days), and A also told him he should write a review for Filmmonthly.com. When the review popped up, I saw his name and, since it’s an unusual one, I contacted him to say, “Hey… didn’t I know you once?”

As for the Filmmonthly website, it’s still there, although A, D, and I passed it on to other people a long time ago, but since all three of us were the publishers for a long time, it’s unfortunately kind of hard to search for any of our reviews specifically there because our names are pretty much embedded in every page, although I can at least lead you to my deep analysis of the movie A.I., and my review of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. And, to top that all off, my other in-depth analysis, of The Big Lebowski, wound up enshrined forever in that mythos in the book Lebowski 101.

But I do digress… All of that intro was by way of saying that I’ve known Hank and Sharyn forever, they are amazing people, they have certainly plugged me a lot to their clients, and in this latest seminar, Hank said something that initially really pissed me off.

It was a day dedicated to the importance of social media, and during the portion about blogging. (Side note: This blog itself only exists because they gave me a freebie bootcamp a couple of years ago, although Hank told me that it wasn’t me getting a freebie from them. Rather, it was them investing in me, and he was right.) Anyway, after they’d talked about the importance of creating content and so on, somebody asked, “What if you can’t write? Should you hire a ghostwriter?”

Hank’s immediate answer was, “No. You have to write it because it has to be in your own voice.”

And, honestly, my sudden instinct was to jump up and yell, “Oh, that’s bullshit!” I mean, one of the words on my business card is “ghostwriter,” and it’s basically what I did for a certain cable TV star for five years, creating a weekly column for his readers, along with maintaining the marketing and corporate voice for his website and magazine that entire time. Hell, my titles were Senior Editor and Head Writer.

On top of that, as an experienced and award-winning writer of plays, TV, film, short stories, and long-form fiction, I’ve got a lot of experience in writing in other voices. That’s what writers of fiction do — we speak as other people. And so one of the biggest talents I think that I bring to the corporate world is exactly that: the ability to write as someone else. Give me your voice, I’ll imitate the hell out of it.

But I refrained from saying anything during the bootcamp because, after all, it’s his and Sharyn’s show, so I’ve got no place in rocking the boat (or, as we say in improv, not “Yes, Anding” them), but then after he said it, I started to think a bit more on the concept, and realized that we’re sort of both right in different ways, especially as he explained his reasoning.

See, most of the people at this seminar were entrepreneurs — small business people, either running their own show or with a very small staff. And that does make a difference in establishing a corporate voice because they are most directly the voice of their own corporation or company. Why? Because when they go out to recruit or meet potential clients, it’s just them. It’s not their CFO, or CEO, or Marketing Team, or Social Media mavens, or copywriter because those people do not exist in their organizations. And, so, if all of those blog posts sound one way but, in person, they sound another, clients are going to rightfully sense the difference and nope right outta there because the person they met online and the person they met IRL don’t mesh up, so the person IRL sounds inauthentic.

Brand killer.

That was my own a-ha moment. Keep in mind that I can get tetchy when anyone says, “Hey… anyone can write!” My knee-jerk reaction is, “No. False.” But, you know what? It’s partly true, but let’s go through all the steps.

We all grow up using language. It’s what humans do. And, honestly, it’s what a ton of animals and birds do. Most primates, most cetaceans, pretty much every mammal, parrot, crow, octopus, and even some trees and fungus, whatever. Linking together a bunch of signals — whether words, sounds, images, smells, or chemicals — and having those linked signals relay a message from one entity to the other… that’s pretty much what all intelligent life does.

Boom. Communication. That is what language is. If you can successfully tell that driver, “Hey, hit the damn brakes so you don’t run over my baby,” whether you do it with words, screams, frantic hand waves, a sudden bouquet of smells or hormones, or a well-timed text, then you have communicated very effectively.

But… there’s a huge difference between “effective” and “well,” and I think this is where my feelings and Hank’s feelings on it both part and converge again.

Yes, everybody has their own unique voice, and that has to do with words they use and patterns of speech, and so on. But… the really important part is how all of those separate phrases and sentences and what not add up into a coherent story. And this is where what I do comes in.

If you’re an entrepreneur, should you write your own blogs? Oh, absolutely, but only sort of. Absolutely because, honestly, if you can talk, you can put words down in a written medium. Even if you can’t talk — most humans learn how to communicate with words, whether it’s in spoken language, sign language, or even just written down.

What most humans don’t learn is how to structure the mass of those words into an interesting and compelling story. This is where I come in, and where Hank and I came back into agreement not long after.

He phrased it the best, although I paraphrase it now, in terms of attorneys. “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” He followed that up with, “The person who edits their own writing, likewise,” and I could not agree more.

And that’s really what I do — I’m the third eye on your manuscript, I’m the midwife who makes sure to clean up and swaddle your baby before we dump it in your lap. I’m the guy who jumps in the way before you step out into traffic and shoves you back onto the curb, and I’m also a pretty big history and science nerd, so I will stop you from looking silly by knocking the anachronisms out of whatever you’re writing and polishing up the science. Final bonus points: I was raised by an amazing grammar-Nazi English teacher, so I’ll give you the same.

I’m not cheap, but I’m worth it. Trust me. If you want to raise your marketing antlers above the herd of crap that’s all over the place out there, then drop me a line. Rates are negotiable, and depend a lot on subject and page count. Hint: If you’re doing history or Sci-Fi, or your word count is under 40,000 let’s talk discounts. Scripts, plays, and screenplays also considered. But if you want to invest in your future and get some returns, then invest in me first, because I will definitely steer you there.

Heterographs

No, heterographs are not charts about straight people. They are words that sound the same but which are spelled differently and mean different things. Here are six of them that tend to confuse people, and ways to remember which is which.

Advice/advise

Of course, whether these are pronounced the same or not depends a lot on where you’re from. To me, the first has a very short “s” sound where the C is, and somewhat of a “z” where the S is in the second, but your mileage may vary. The distinction between the two is that the C version is a noun while the S version is a verb. You give advice, or you advise someone.

The way to remember the difference is this. You can give a piece of advice, and both words have a C in them. Meanwhile, what the U.S. Senate does for the President is Advise and Consent, in which case the “c” is not in the first word. Note also that this error is so common that if you google “advise and consent,” the first few results will actually refer to “advice and consent,” which is just wrong.

Affect/effect

This was one that daunted me for years as well, until a wonderful TV writer and producer I was once lucky enough to work for explained the difference to me. It’s another verb/noun issue, mostly, with exceptions. “Affect” is a verb. “That story affected me.” “Effect” is a noun. “That story had an effect on me.”

The way to remember which is which is really simple. Verbs are action words and “affect” starts with “A.” Nouns are entities, and “effect” starts with “E.”

Now for the two exceptions. The word “effective” is an adjective, but it’s still not a verb, and isn’t as easily mistaken. “That was an effective marketing strategy.” Meanwhile, the word “affect” is also a noun but in a technical sense, usually limited to psychology, in phrases like “The patient presented with a flat affect.” In this case, “affect” refers to the personality or persona they’re giving off, and “flat affect” means basically a blank slate. This is the only time it will ever be a noun, and you’ll probably never use it like this unless you’re a therapist or psychologist.

Capital/capitol

What’s in your wallet!

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Anyway, this one is simpler than you might think, because the latter word has only one meaning while the former has all the others. The Capitol is the actual building that a governmental body meets in, so all you need to remember is the “O,” as in “Office,” as in where the government does business. Otherwise, capital refers to the city that hosts the Capitol, or the style of letter versus lower case, or the amount of money available for investment to an entity, or, particularly if you’re British, to a very, very good thing. Smashing! Brilliant!

Desert/dessert

Wow. Another pair of words a TV producer taught me to distinguish, and this one is probably the simplest of all. Which one has two Esses in it? Simple. The one that stands for “something sweet.” Dessert is the sugary, tasty one. The one with only one Ess is full of… sand. Ta-da!

Emigrate/immigrate

Another really easy one: If you emigrate, then you’re exiting your country and the preposition is from: “They emigrated from Italy in 1840.” If you immigrated, then you are going into, and the preposition is in, to, or into… “They immigrated to the United States in 1912.”

Principle/principal

Another one that’s really old, but really simple: “The principal is not your pal.” Kind of ironic, because the “pal” version is the person who runs a school, but whom you all probably hated with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Meanwhile, principle refers to an idea, a tenet, or the amount owed on a loan short of interest.

Rain/rein/reign

Here’s another oft-confused trio that I’m going to have to make up the reminders for but, hey, it’s what I do and why y’all pay me the big bucks. (Snark. Rolls eyes and points to the “tip jar” link. Cough, cough.)

Rain is the water that falls from the sky and gets you wet.

Rein is the thing you hold to control a horse, although metaphorically “to rein in” means to calm down or control anything. E.G., to rein in your emotions. (In Spanish, “saltar las riendas” literally means to jump the reins, but metaphorically means to just lose it — so the opposite of reining things in.)

Reign is what a king or queen has or does.

So, how to remember? Here we go. When it rains and you don’t have an umbrella, you’re probably going to go “Ai! Sky water!”

And a horse is a farm animal, and when you think of farms think of Old MacDonald, who had a farm… E-I. E-I. Oh… (That’s the middle of “rein,” in case you missed it.)

Finally, if you ever met a king or queen, you’d probably say, “Gee…” and that’s the odd silent letter that makes their reign different than any of the others. If that isn’t enough and you happen to actually live in a kingie or queenie country, then just remember the term “Regnent,” which you might see on your coins all the time, or at least abbreviated in the form “E II R,” and there’s another reminder.

Which sound-alike words confuse you or what mnemonics do you have do unconfuse them? Share in the comments, and drop a tip if this was helpful.a

Friday Free-for-all #31: From movies to the apocalypse

This originally started as me answering one random question generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the point where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

What’s the strangest movie you have ever seen?

I’ve seen a lot of strange movies in my day, having been a film major and a film critic, but as of now, I have to say that the strangest is one called Holy Motors, a piece of neo-surrealism made in 2012 by Leos Carax, a French filmmaker.

It’s impossible to describe, but incredibly compelling and hypnotic. It’s one of those things I just ran across online having no idea what it was, but from the first moments it hooked me and took me on its wild ride. The film is anchored by the incredible performance of Denis Lavant, who, as the lead character in the film plays a ton of them.

Check out the trailer.

The premise seems to be that Lavant’s character, who may or may not be Mr. Oscar, is chauffeured around the streets of Paris at night in his limo by Céline (Édith Scob), his faithful driver of many years. She takes him to his various evening assignments, which involve taking on various roles, with elaborate make-up and costumes that he applies himself en route.

Some of the “performances” seem to be for a specific audience, while others are for no one in particular — or maybe for everyone. In a sense, he’s sort of a one-man flash mob, although it’s also clear that he’s not the only “actor” traveling through this demimonde.

Most of the stories take really weird twists, and yet Mr. Oscar goes on to his next assignment after each previous one, no matter how it ended.

In a lot of ways, it’s clearly an allegory for an actor’s life, who is shuttled from role to role at random, led by the whims of their directors, but the metaphor goes beyond that. And, if for no other reason, there’s this interlude that is well worth the price of admission. In the film, it comes out of nowhere and yet makes total sense.

It’s not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood film because, of course it isn’t. It’s French. And as one of my film mentors once brilliantly explained to me, here’s the difference between Hollywood movies and French cinema…

Both films start the same. Our hero is going to meet some old friends at a café to catch up after a long time over a leisurely lunch and drinks, but his taxi gets caught in traffic. Before he gets there, a terrorist bomb goes off right outside the café, killing all of his friends. The only reason he survives is because he was late.

Hollywood move: He spends the rest of the story hunting down and killing the people responsible.

French cinema: He spends the rest of the story wandering around Paris, disconsolate, trying to find meaning in something, anything, and feeling extreme guilt an angst on being the one who survived due to a mere accident of fate.

Et fin.

If you lived to be a hundred, would you rather keep your body at 30 or your mind at 30? (You only get one)

A lot of people would instinctively go for the “young mind” answer to this question, figuring that they’d like to avoid Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so on. But if you understand biology, then there’s only one best answer: You keep your body at 30.

Why? Because it’s your body at 30, so it’s your brain at 30, along with your heart, and organs, and blood vessels. Ergo, you’re not likely to develop any of those other mental conditions. And if you keep that body all the way until you’re 100 and then start aging, then you’re going to keep on going until you’re pushing 200.

Also, if your body stays young, you’ll have the energy to act like you did at 30, so while you will mentally have all of the knowledge and memories you accumulated up to the point you started this adventure, you will also have the incentive to go out and keep learning.

So you kind of get the best of both worlds — the knowledge accumulated by your older self, but with the renewed kick-start of your younger self. And, come on. With that combination… watch out world.

Which apocalyptic dystopia do you think is most likely?

Hm. What is, “The one we’re living in right now, Alex?” A pandemic that some world powers refuse to acknowledge, the breakdown of democracy and the possible end of the United States as we’ve known it, weather conditions hitting new extremes on the regular leading to more frequent hurricanes and more devastating wildfires among other things, most of 2020 having become one long but necessary span of isolation, and on and on.

It kind of makes wanting to live to 100 in a 30-year-old body sort of a moot question — although if having that 30-year-old body would enable me to jump on the first colony flight to Mars, or even the Moon, I might just jump on the opportunity.

The spoiler paradox

This is another piece that has been amazingly popular since I first posted it in April 2019. I thought I’d bring it back around to the top, even though the suspense over Endgame and GoT is long over.

In the last few days, I’ve accidentally stumbled across big spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Now, I have friends who have posted online that if anyone spoils either or both of those things for them, then the person doing the spoiling is going to be unfriended.

Here’s the funny thing, though. According to a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at UCSD in California, although most people say that they hate spoilers, in reality, they actually enhance enjoyment, whether somebody was part of a particular fandom or not.

One of the most archetypal examples, perhaps, is the film Citizen Kane. I’m going to spoil it in the next sentence, so brace yourselves. “Rosebud” was his sled. (It was also William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for something else, but that’s beside the point.)

Oh noes! Movie ruined, right? Probably not. I’d had it spoiled for me long before my first viewing of the film in a high school movie history class, but it didn’t matter. Why not? For me, it was because I got to enjoy watching how the characters in the movie figured out what I already knew, as well as to enjoy all of those moments when they went down the wrong path thinking they were right.

A follow-up study by Christenfeld confirmed this even more. And think about it for a moment. Shakespeare is still being produced and adapted to this day, and so are a lot of other classic plays, but everybody knows how they end. Unless you’re maybe a middle-schooler who hasn’t read it yet, you know who dies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But it doesn’t matter. You know who Keyser Söze is, or what’s in the box in Se7en, or who Luke’s daddy is (or Kylo Ren’s parents, for that matter.)

That doesn’t make these things unwatchable. And here’s another way to look at it. How many times have you re-watched your favorite film or TV episode/series or play? Did knowing what was going to happen wreck that experience in any way at all?

The answer, obviously, is “No.”

Another example from my life is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — which we first read in middle school English class, but at least we were fortunate enough to not be subjected to it until the book had gone through name changes in order to purge the title of not one but two absolutely racist terms. I didn’t manage to see the movie version until I rented it long after I’d read the book, but knowing who did it and how did not detract from the experience in the least. In fact, it made it more interesting because I was in the know, as I mentioned above, and seeing everyone else being totally oblivious to it all just made me, as an audience member, feel smart. (We’ll ignore the fact that this version changed the original ending. Argh!)

So, coming back to the present… a funny thing happened before I got around to watching Avengers: Infinity War. I had the whole gotdang thing spoiled for me — who got snapped away, who got killed before that, everything. Did it spoil my enjoyment of the film? Not one bit. Now, full disclosure: I am not a Marvel Fanboy. In fact, I’ve only seen a few of the movies, and really couldn’t care less about the franchise. Likewise, I never got into the Game of Thrones TV series (although I love the books), although I can appreciate them as art, and I do not begrudge their fandom one bit. Hey, if you like either or both, great. Just don’t look down on me for not being into them, and don’t give me crap for being a Whovian and Star Wars nerd. Deal?

(I will judge you if you’re a fan of gore porn horror movies, though. Seriously — what is wrong with you that you call that shit entertainment? On the other hand, since Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, did I just go full hypocrite? Or did I just say, “Hey, gore porn creators, class it up a bit, okay?” I mean, GOT did definitely steal at least one big dinner bit from Titus. Thanks, Arya!)

Now, back to one, as they say in the film biz. I know how Endgame ends, what happens to whom, and yadda yadda. Does that infuriate me or make me not want to see it or unfriend people? Oh, hell noes. It makes me want to enjoy the experience of seeing how they make those things happen. Same thing with the most recent episode of GOT. Ah, so she did what to whom? Bring it, and show me how.

“Spoilers” don’t really spoil anything. We only try to pretend that they do. But, as Professor Christenfeld has demonstrated, they most likely actually enhance the experience.

So when I tell you that I was really surprised when Tony Stark killed Jon Snow, don’t hate me. Thank me. I’ve just helped you enjoy both of those franchises even more.

The Saturday Morning Post #12

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 12. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. This time around, the narrator was a co-worker of Tycho Ford, who was abruptly promoted to an executive-level position in the wake of the great quake that struck L.A. Well, Riverside, but it was big enough to do damage. But let him explain why Tycho’s promotion screwed things up.

FIFTH WHEEL

Okay, I know that the universe is totally random and shit, but I couldn’t help but take the timing of this earthquake very personally, because it had totally blown my long thought-out plans out of the water and, on top of that, had cock-blocked me big time.

The afternoon it happened, in fact, was a mere couple of hours before I was going to ask the Big Question, and I was pretty sure that the answer was going to be, “Sure.” The question was, “You want to go out, and then maybe stay in?” And the target of that question was a hot and sexy coworker in my department who I got along with really well. But there was a complication to the question, because the coworker had met my girlfriend many times, and the coworker was also a dude.

He was a little younger than me, but very gay, very out, and so painfully beautiful that it was sometimes hard to look at his face. It was like staring into the Sun. He was also incredibly intelligent and funny as hell and, to be honest, he always smelled really nice. I’m not sure what shampoo or cologne he used, but he was like a walk past the toiletries department at one of our ever rarer department stores, but far enough away that it wasn’t like being punched in the throat by an atomizer.

He also knew that I was bisexual and, over the last few months, he had become my chosen sob sister as I bitched and whined about every single way my girlfriend, Mercedes, wasn’t keeping me happy. And yes, I appreciate the irony that her first name and his last name are both cars. His name is Tycho Ford. Sadly, my last name isn’t Dodge or something like that. It’s Baxter. Trivia: Baxter is the female form of the occupation baker. Yeah, English used to gender things that hard.

Speaking of that hard… that had been my perpetual state, at least mentally if not physically, whenever I’d been in Tycho’s presence, or even thought about him, for the two years he’s been here. Seriously. My number one masturbation fantasy since about July 2027 has been bending him over a sofa and slamming his ass while using his shoulders for leverage while licking the back of his neck and whatever else I can get my mouth to while I still have my dick up his ass.

And then the earth shook and it all went to shit. I lost my opportunity to ask and our schedule went into major “Gov owns yo asses now” mode, and he and I wound up assigned to different posts in the disaster area. And then, the next time I saw him was after he’d suddenly been promoted and I’d gotten a text from our regional manager, Gloria, that I was now his assistant, and that he’d picked me.

And… fuck!

See, I knew how the rules worked, and that totally changed everything. At least on the official level, although we all also knew what was going on unofficially: already established couples who hadn’t formerly been superior and report got through fine. Those of us who hadn’t established already? Well, shit. Tycho would get fired for asking, and I’d get severely disciplined for coming on to him.

Speaking of which, I don’t want to say a lot about it, but I had an unfortunate run-in with some little gay fuck in the tailoring department who says that he’s Tycho’s SO, and claims that I jizzed on a flawed suit that I returned. As if. It was goddamn mayo from a Subway sandwich, and if he tries to say otherwise, I’m going to sue his ass for slander or libel or both. And definitely defamation of character.

Bitch is just jealous, because he can see how much I love Tycho.

But, again, the rules stop me from finally revealing it, so I’m not sure what to do. In lieu of anything else, I take advantage of our unlimited TAP cards to figure out where Tycho is staying. I stay a discrete distance from him on the platform before we hop the B Line, then get into the car behind his, and discretely watch through the windows, figuring rightly that no one really pays much attention to anyone in the other cars because they’re too worried about some crazy suddenly going off in their car.

And then I start to see him and this little queer tailor boy traveling together — both ways. What? I found a park near their hotel where I can sleep and no one will question because, hey, post quake, right? A lot of people are camping out at the moment. And so it goes until the Friday ten days after the quake and I follow them home.

Only this time, instead of going all the way to the NoHo Station, they hop off at Hollywood and Vine, and I follow, and they head up Vine almost to Sunset to a club on the ground floor of a forty story Omni Hotel. The club is called NCLU, and it has the typical jet black walls around and into the entry, overly muscled Bouncers/Security, velvet ropes and long lines. Except that Tycho and his little slut walk to the head of the line and they are let in immediately. Meanwhile, I have to stand in the very long line, and it’s about ninety minutes before they finally let me in — after charging me a $40 cover and telling me that there’s two drink minimum.

Motherfuckers. I mean, I could cheap out and just wait across the street, but that would probably be the best way to get spotted, so I pony up, dictating a note into my AI. “Cut grocery budget this week, try to stretch one into two.”

Inside, the club is a well-planned mind-fuck. The walls, floor, and ceiling are jet black, and the only light comes from purple OLED tubes where the walls and ceiling meet. I go down a short hall, around a corner, and then up some stairs — which are marked in red OLEDs. The walls here also have glowing figures on them — characters from Alice in Wonderland, dicks and tits and asses and twats, and, toward the top, large green illuminated arrows with the words “EAT ME” and “DOWN THE HOLE” in them.

It’s another u-turn and then into a gigantic warehouse space at the top of a metal staircase, and the place is insane. Here there are colored OLEDs sweeping everywhere and constantly changing, artificial vape clouding the air,  and some definitely old school shit, like spinning black balls stuffed with different colored… um… portholes? And, OMG, there are even Disco Balls up there — things I remember my mother telling me existed when she was my age, but which were considered “ironically” (another thing people my mother’s age did back then), but which also, apparently, had been big with people slightly older than her and, ultimate irony, were originally popular as dance hall accessories a century ago, in the years of the Great Depression.

As I walk in here and remember my grandmother telling me that latter fact, all I can think is, “Ooh… shiny. So what shit are they distracting us from now?” And then my brain screams at me, “Forty bucks to get in and they want you to spend another thirty on drinks, dipshit.”

“Um… did they specify what kind of drinks?” I wonder.

“No,” that voice sighs, and so I go down the metal stairs into Wonderland, go to the first bar and ask, “How much is a Coke?”

“Eight bucks,” he says.

“And… water?”

“Eight bucks.”

“And… how much do they pay you an hour?”

“It’s $22.50,” he replies.

“Shit. Same non-living wage here, dude. How much do they pay per Coke?”

He just smiles at me in some sort of extreme gratitude and says, “These bottles? They pay 89 cents each.”

“Holy fucking shitballs. Okay, so… they make a fortune, you make shit?”

“Yeah. Sucks. Doesn’t it?” he says. “Who do you work for?”

“City government,” I reply, flashing my ID on instinct, and he looks like he’s going to shit his pants.

“Oh, dude, sorry. Wrong price. For a Coke, or whatever soda, you pay two bucks.”

“Um… why does my employer matter?” I ask.

“City runs this place, ma dude.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Okay,” I tell him. “So… bang me a Coke.” I show my city debit card, then stick it in the reader.

He charges me two dollars, so I tip him six.

“Hey. Thanks, man! Oh, hey — you didn’t know. I hope they didn’t charge you full cover.”

“They did.”

“Shit. You want me to talk to the manager — “

“No, it’s fine. Call it a donation.”

By this point, I was over it, and I was going to full on justify this as a business expense for the government. And why not? First, I had to make sure that my boss wasn’t abusing government funds or time (hint: he was not.) Second, I had to check up on our contractors, right? And if I cleared them, no harm, no foul. Right?

Okay, sure. Our particular department, the UECLA, didn’t really deal with places like this — unless you could call them houses of worship, and I’d argue that some of the guys here would — but it was all about CYA.

I grabbed my two dollar Coke and headed back up to the dance floor, taking up a position on the catwalk above it, scanning the crowd for that one familiar face. It wasn’t easy because of the constantly changing lights and moving crowds, but I eventually spotted Tycho and his little whore. They were both shirtless, jeans riding tantalizingly low, and they were grinding each other.

Mental snapshot for the fap bank, then I raced on down, figuring that, by this point, it wouldn’t be weird if I happened to bump into them. On the way down, I peeled off my T-shirt and stuffed it down the side of my jeans to match their style, and then danced my way through the crowd to where they were, taking enough time so that I’d be sweaty enough to look like I’d been dancing all night, too.

When I finally get within hailing distance of them, I realize that the two of them are dancing with a couple of really hot Hispanic guys, who are equally shirtless and sweaty, and judging by the body language, it looks like they’re all well on their way to having a foursome.

Well, fuck.

And then Tycho’s little tailor boy spots me. We lock eyes and I’m not sure what to do, but then the little bastard smiles and waves me over. Tycho notices and so do the other two guys, so I’m trapped, and I walk over to join them.

“Jimmy!” Tycho’s fuck toy gushes weirdly, throwing an arm around my shoulders. “Fancy meeting you here. How are you doing?”

“Okay,” I mutter.

“In case you forgot, or I never told you, I’m Finley, by the way.” He extends his hand and I’m not sure how to take it, so I just give it a brief shake, constantly wondering, “Why the hell is he being so nice to me?”

This is the guy who accused me of jerking off on his “boyfriend’s” suit. Okay. Okay, So it wasn’t mayo from a Subway sandwich. I lied. It was my jizz. But how the hell did he know that on sight?

“I had no idea you’d show up at a place like this,” Tycho said. “Where’s Mercedes?”

“Um… we… broke up,” I lied. “She really wasn’t into all the quake overtime and having to be separate and all that.”

“Oh, right. Where did they put you up?”

“The Lexen,” I lied again. I was actually at a Holiday Inn in Hollywood, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Wow, us too, but I haven’t seen you there. You’ll have to pop up to our room some time.”

“Yeah, I should,” I said.

“Who’s your hot friend?” one of the other guys asked, and Tycho did the quick intro.

“Oh. This is Jimmy, my assistant. Jimmy, we just met these guys. Um… shit. Refresh me?”

“Adam and Tony,” the other one said.

“Right,” Tycho added. “Adam and Tony.”

“Este tipo debe llenar un sándwich con pan moreno y carne blanca,” the taller one said to the other.

“Y monta nuestras vergas toda la noche,” the other one adds.

“Tipos… hablo español,” I reply and they look at me in total shock.

“¡Mierda!” the tall one mutters.

“Pero… todavía deseas que te follemos?” the other one asks.

“Fuerte y duro, papís,” I reply. Sure, I’m usually a top, but I’m willing to make an exception sometimes, and these guys are exceptional.

“You little slut,” Tycho mutters. He smiles but then he sort of freaks. “Sorry. Sorry, no, I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. It was encouragement, okay?”

 “I’m just impressed that you understood all that.”

“What? Dude, it’s almost 2030 in L.A. Who do you know under forty who doesn’t speak Spanish?”

“Yeah, true, I guess.”

“And… we’re okay with that comment?” he asks.

“Why would I not be?” I reply. “I am a slut…”

Image: © 2018 by the author, Vine Street looking north from Hollywood Boulevard.

Friday Free-for-All #9

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If all humans want the same basic things, why is there so much violence and strife between people?

And away we go, then… this is one of the more interesting questions that’s come up so far, and probably also one of the most meaningful and important.

Well, the short answer is in my favorite film right here:

And yes, that bone-toss and cut to: satellite shot is quite intentional, because Kubrick and Clarke were geniuses, but especially Kubrick, because in one single cut he explained everything that I’m about to do with a bunch of words.

As you can see in the clip (and you really need to watch it), the proto-humans involved all want the same basic things — food, water, shelter, etc. Two groups of them have come upon one pond. Now, realistically, there’s more than enough water in there for all of them. Kubrick even emphasizes this point earlier in the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence of the film, when we see various beasts (all of them potential prey for humans and big cats alike) sharing the same body of water to drink from.

What changes the dynamic is when one of those proto-humans (known as Moonwatcher in the book, nameless in the movie) suddenly gets an idea while toying with the femur of a long-since dead and predated tapir type creature.

It becomes at first a tool, and then a weapon — first to kill for food by taking down another tapir-beast (no different than what we’ve seen a proto-leopard do already), next to kill for resources and territory by taking down another member of his own species — something that had not occurred previously in the film.

But here’s the nice hidden ditty in this one. Moonwatcher gets the idea to use this bone in the first place from a mysterious black monolith that just appears one day. On the one hand, and canonically, it was a benign artifact placed long before by an alien race passing through, basically meant to give a little nudge to the local populace at such point that they were able to receive it.

Note that in this world, none of the other beasties on view showed any interest, but Moonwatcher and his tribe did — and, as it turned out, it was really, really unfortunate that the monolith showed itself at first to very tribal animals.

Intent of the alien race: Probably to teach whatever sentient species encountered by their drones (Clarks’s name for them: sentinels) how to make and use tools. Context: At the time that Clarke and Kubrick created 2001, the prevailing idea was that only humans used tools. Yeah… wrong. And even more wrong when the attempted definition was “only humans use tools to make tools.” Sigh.

But… the salient point is that the sentinels accidentally shared advanced knowledge with a species that was not ready for it because it wasn’t ready to share. Ironically, if they had hit up the tapirs or zebras first, the planet might be more successful now. Instead, nope. They enlightened assholes, and in a bad way.

Why? Well, reason number one: Moonwatcher and his bunch — probably immediate extended family — were not willing to share shit that they didn’t even own — i.e., water — with that other tribe over there that, honestly, were probably already his second or third cousins, but nobody was keeping records, and great grandma ran off with that dude, and… whatever…

Not that other animals are immune to this. Mammals are particularly bad at sharing, and birds can be territorial assholes. I can vouch for that one from personal experience with geese and swans. At least in the case of the former, the asshole geese in chief — who actually bit me — wound up as Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days later, so I was vindicated.

What? I was visiting my grandparents on their farm. They grew the goose for food. It’s not like they shot an elephant. And, anyway, see above. That goose was a major asshole.

But, particularly among humans there’s an Us and Them thing going on for no good reason at all, perpetuated only because we are the one species that labels things because we have language and names and insults and so on. One ram facing off another only knows, “Hey, this mine, yours not. Go away!” With humans, though, it gets more complicated. “Here is Mydonia. You are from Theristan. None of you can come here.”

And then let’s complicate it more once humans go into full-on hallucination mode and start making up invisible friends and then declaring that their side gets special favor from some supernatural or imagined entity as long as they do stupid things that make that entity happy, and bingo. There is the formula for creating endless violence and strife.

One imagined entity is a border, and the other is a god.

This creates the two flavors of separation, but they frequently combine into one swirly cone of stupid: Religion and Nationalism.

The thing that causes strife in humanity is the absolute illusion that we are a bunch of separate tribes, each of us battling over resources, and divided by utterly arbitrary and artificial things like religion, nationality, borders, and languages.

But if you look at the Earth from above, you’ll see that the only natural divisions are, well, just that… natural. Oceans, mountain ranges, and deserts are probably the big three things that naturally separate one group of people from another. But… if you go back far enough, the geographic divisions don’t matter, because genetically, there are no divisions.

All of humanity has a common ancestor, and one which pre-dates our humanity and makes us cousins of chimpanzees. Or, in other words, all of us are related, period. We are all one tribe.

Let me repeat that part: We are all one tribe. What we call “races” are just different expressions of genes which were created by accidents of location — i.e., colder climate with less Sun would favor people with paler skin, while hotter climates with a lot of Sun would favor people with darker skin, etc.

And one other thing: It is a big, big planet, so there’s plenty of room for people on it if we divide it up. Eliminating borders and just letting people have their own plot of land to live on, we’d each get half an acre, maybe… although it’s not clear whether that calculation of people over arable land allows room for all of the public stuff, like roads, streets, libraries, fire stations, etc.

Although if we cut that down to half an acre, it’s still a space that’s 104 feet on a side, and that is already a lot bigger than most of the apartments that people, couples, thruples, and beyond already jam themselves into. Hell, cut it down to 52 by 52, you’re still bigger than the typical urban apartment by a longshot — 52 by 52 is a house.

So… if we decided to share the entire planet equitably, everyone would get more than enough. Also keep in mind that a lot of these lots would go to families, and would be based on number of household members, but that the addition of a family member does not necessitate the addition of space equal to the original. I.E., a couple with that 52 x 52 house doesn’t need to add that amount to their square footage to accommodate a child living at home. Rather, their add-on might be more likely in the vicinity of a 10 x 12 or 12 x 12.

So, we have plenty of room, we’re all related, there are no borders, All of that should be obvious and self-evident, and yet we still fight each other, but this comes back to the other brilliant message Kubrick hid in his movie, because his opening sequence was nothing more than the secular version of original sin — the thing that divides us today.

And in the beginning, was not-human, but not-human listened to a not-god, got the message wrong, and committed the first murder, then never stopped doing it.

Yes, there are shades of Cain and Abel in the first act of 2001 as well. Or is that story our collective cultural memory of that first murder by that first proto-human, backed up by the mistaken belief that some higher power had commanded it?

Or, in other words, the biggest creator of violence and strife between humans in the present day — and the thing that must be wiped out — is organized religion. Period.

It’s everything Kubrick warned us about in the first thirty minutes of that film. Start with a group of creatures who think that they are different from another group of the same species, and then they discover a precious resource. Meanwhile, one of them hallucinates or has a major insight and attributes it to a deity, rally ‘round the flag, and Bam! Cain kills Abel; the first murder happens; this occurs across cultures, and the justification becomes, “I was doing it for my god.”

Down through the years, the worst terrorist acts have been perpetrated in the name of religion — any religion. And there’s the crux of the biscuit. If we want to take the next step, get off of this planet, and evolve beyond being just a bunch of silly monkeys, then we need to start.

So my short answer to the question “Why is there so much violence and strife between people?” is: religion and nationalism. Get rid of those, solve a lot of problems.

Friday Free-for-All #8

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Is true artificial intelligence possible with our current technology and methods of programming?

It’s funny that this question should come up, because I’ve long thought no, this isn’t possible with our current technology for various reasons, and just recently I ran across an article about a program called TextFooler, which in effect uses A.I. to mess with A.I.

The project came about as a way to find vulnerabilities inherent in A.I., specifically how algorithms designed to spot auto-generated media stories could be tricked into accepting them as legit, and it basically involves swapping in some synonyms that will not change the meaning to a human reader but which will fool the A.I. into thinking that the text has a different tone than it really does.

A test example given in the article cited above is this: TextFooler will take the source, “The characters, cast in impossibly contrived situations, are totally estranged from reality,” and change it to read “The characters, cast in impossibly engineered circumstances, are fully estranged from reality.”

The net effect in this case is that the target A.I. classified the quote completely incorrectly, seeing it as positive instead of negative. A human could see in an instant that both versions are negative reviews, but the A.I. focuses on the italicized words, which are the changed ones, and weights the latter versions as positive, even though the overall meaning is still negative.

In most cases, TextFooler was able to reduce the accuracy of the A.I. tested to less than 10% while changing fewer than 20% of the words in the source text. In the above example, the change is 25%, but it’s quite likely that changing totally to fully doesn’t have as much of an effect, in which case changing only 17% of the words would do it.

From personal experience, I know that it’s really easy to mess with A.I., and one of its weaknesses is that it can’t deal with ambiguity, which includes humor and especially puns. If we ever get into a serious cyberwar with A.I. backed forces, our best defenders would be squads of Dads, armed with their best worst jokes.

It’s the inability to deal with ambiguity that will keep us from developing true A.I. for a long time, and it’s not something that machine learning can overcome. Human brains just process information differently.

I’ve seen this countless times as new people come onto my improv team. We traditionally end most of our shows with a “jump-out” game, which involves the players making lots and lots of puns based on audience suggestions. Punning is a difficult skill. Some people are naturals at it — I learned very quickly that I was — but others aren’t.

Here’s the difference between a human and A.I,, though. Teach a human the parameters of a pun game, let them try it a few times or watch other people do it, explain how to structure a pun, and suddenly they start to get good at it as well; in some cases, rather quickly.

One of the classic games is called 185, and the basic form of the joke (as we play it now as opposed to the version in the link) is this: “185 (suggestions) walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the (suggestions) say (punchline).”

For example, “”185 horses walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the horses say, ‘Guess we should hoof it out of here, then…’”

Simple for a human to come up with and understand, but for A.I., not so much. The program would have to understand the double meaning of “hoof” — one a common noun related to a horse, the other a slangy and somewhat dated verb — but then would also have to decide, “Is this funny?”

Funny is often based on the unexpected, and here’s another good example from my improv company. When we have a birthday in the audience, we’ll bring the person onstage, make a big deal about it, then prepare to sing for them. The players do some throat-clearing and vocal warm-up, someone sings a tune-up note, and then they launch into it, to the tune of Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay.

Here’s where the joke comes in the unexpected, though. After all of that build up, there are exactly two bars: “This is your birthday song, it isn’t very long — ” And then it abruptly ends and everyone just walks away, now focused on a new subject, making small talk with their fellow players, whatever. It always gets a huge laugh from the audience and, truth to tell, although I’ve seen it a bunch of times and have done it a few myself, it cracks me up every single time.

A.I. ain’t gonna get that, not now, and not soon, Turing test notwithstanding, because it really may not be the best way to detect fakes. That distinction may actually go to the word poop.

But getting back to the Achilles heel of A.I. — computers are only as good as their programming, and there’s an old term you may or may not know: GIGO, which stands for garbage in, garbage out,

The short version is that the output you get is only as good as the input you gave, and if the input was in an unexpected form, you won’t get anything usefull back. For example, if the computer expected a number and you entered “snot,” you’re probably going to get back an error message.

If you’ve ever seen those annoying #NA or #VALUE or #NAME? errors pop up when you’re trying to enter a formula in Excel, you’ve committed a GIGO error.

Now remember that input can also come from internal sources, so if you have a database of words or phrases for an A.I. to look up and find responses to, it can quickly turn into garbage out by tossing some nonsense at it.

For example, if the A.I. says, “Good morning, what’s your name?” and you reply, “My name is Digital Badger Wankstick Flipflap III,” a human would probably reply with, “What? You’re kidding, right?” A.I., though, would see the designated response tags “my name is” (or “I am” or “It’s” or just take any unprefixed response as the name), and reply, “Hello, Digital Badger Wankstick Flipflap III. How are you today?” Particularly smart A.I. might just reply with “Hello, Digital,” but still… the fact that it doesn’t immediately ask, “Is that really your name?” is a dead giveaway that you’re probably not dealing with a human.

In theory, this could be programmed in, but think of how much data it would need. The programmers would basically have to create two tables — one containing actual, normal names across a number of cultures, and the other containing things that are most likely not normal names, then the A.I. would have to search both and respond accordingly.

In computer terms, it wouldn’t add much lag time to the response — maybe milliseconds — but when it came to the size of the program and the lines of code needed, it could bump things up considerably. Not to mention that the data would have to account for all kinds of possible variant spellings.

Hell, as a human, I’ve learned to always ask someone to spell their first name unless it’s totally unambiguous, which is rare. At least in the U.S., my first name is itself the less common variant of John (I’ve also seen it spelled Jhon), and you can have variations like Ralph/Ralf, Marc/Mark/Marq, Karen/Caren/Karin, Jack/Jaq, Alan/Allan/Allen, Jeff/Geoff, Charles/Charlie/Charley, and on and on and on. And yes, I’ve known people with every single one of those variants.

One of the more disappointing attempts at A.I. with a good purpose is Replika, which tried to be a counsellor and source of help, but which failed badly. The idea was that it would get to know you quickly through a series of conversations, but despite having spent a lot of time (as it turns out, over a year ago) chatting with it and answering its annoying questions, it never learned anything, and I never saw its personality change.

Of course, the grandmother of all A.I. is Eliza, who was pretty much the first attempt at this sort of thing. The original Eliza was created back in the early 1960s, believe it or not, although it was not so much an attempt at true A.I. as it was a stab at getting computers to communicate in natural language.

But if you click the first link in the preceding paragraph, it won’t take very long for you to figure out that you’re talking to a program. In fact, IIRC, in my early days of learning to program, studying the code for Eliza was one of my assignments, and it really was an amazing job of using very few clues from the input (with a lot of wiggle room for “noise” thrown in) to select from a fairly limited number of slightly customizable responses.

Also keep in mind that, at the time Eliza was originally written in a long lost language called MAD-Slip (which was decades before I encountered the code in BASIC [which lives on in Microsoft products as VBASIC, yay!], as a training exercise) that the possible size of programs was very, very limited.

In fact, after a little searching, I found out that the version of the program in BASIC was limited to… 256 lines — which is a very, very important number in binary. In fact, it’s as high as you can get in 8 bits, because 256 is 2^8 (or 16^2).

But that’s all the long way around of me saying that, no, we won’t develop true A.I. until we build computers (probably quantum) that can deal with enormous amounts of data, ambiguity and multiple choice, actually learn and reprogram themselves constantly, develop a sense of humor, and play with language like humans can. Meaning… no time soon, and not until we manage to create artificial and literal neural networks that would involve interfacing computers directly with… well, lab-grown brains would be cheating, because that wouldn’t be artificial.

We’d have to figure out how to create a completely synthetic and functional analogue to a human brain. Well, to be honest, we’d have to start simple, and to some extent things like John Conway’s famous Game of Life did manage to cause artificial objects to follow certain rules and either reproduce and thrive or die out, and he did it with a few simple rules, but that was basically creating single-celled organisms, which are not intelligent, only reactive.

But if we want “real” A.I., we’re going to have to fake it by creating biological computers. Or growing brains in labs and wiring them up, but that would probably be all kinds of unethical.

Whether you think so is up to you, but please discuss it in the comments, and thanks for reading!

The Saturday Morning Post #6

Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of a not-yet-titled book made up of thirteen short stories and one novella, each story told by a different narrator and the novella stepping outside to bring all of the stories together. It’s very much a story of Los Angeles, and takes place in some of my favorite parts of the city. You can read from the beginning starting here, or catch up with the previous chapter here.

LOSING GOD

The last week and a half since the Riverside quake has been exhausting, but gratifying. That’s always the way with disaster relief, and especially when we have to wait for the dilly-dallying of the bigger NGOs — not naming any names. I could have mobilized the UECLA — United Ecumenical Council of Los Angeles County — by the day after the quake, and it would have taken one text an hour after to mobilize my own group, the United Atheists of America, or UAA.

And before you try to point out any contradiction between those two groups working together, I’ll just say that I’ve spent the last decade reminding the religious groups that “ecumenical” is a big tent, and yes it includes atheists and agnostics (and Satanists), even though neither we atheists nor the other two groups will ever consider our positions to be religious beliefs.

I’ve had this job since right out of college. Well, actually, I’ve been in this department since then, but worked my way up fast. I majored in both religious studies and public policy, and the two meshed really well. I’ve been Director of Communications for the UECLA for four years now, and Director of the UAA for seven.

Oh. My name is Rebekah Clement, and you’ve probably seen it on various press releases over the last few years if you live in L.A., as well as having seen it be ripped and defamed for just as long a time if you happen to follow any particular fundie or orthodox religion or subscribe to their newsletters.

Funny thing, though. At least where I work, I have watched the number of regular churchgoers plummet. It was about 30% when I started, and now it’s hovering at 22%. It was certainly interesting, after I’d given the first invite, to see how many people either just wandered off, or followed the couple of totally secular groups I pointed out.

And that kind of thing was a major anchor that kept me from freaking out, because I’d been stuck downtown since the quake doing duty for the county, and then wound up in Koreatown on Friday, embedded with the Red Cross. I’d tried to contact Matt after the quake on Tuesday, but got no answers. I didn’t even get voicemail when I called our landline.

Yes, we still had one, but it was more a requirement from both of our employers than anything else, since governments tend to lag about thirty years behind reality. I mean, honestly, my office still had fax machines. Really?

I was trying to stay calm, but I remembered my parents’ stories of Northridge, which happened two years before I was born. They had lived in Sherman Oaks at the time, and their neighborhood was devastated because it happened to follow the old path of the Los Angeles River. Even though the river bed had been concrete since the 1930s, there was still enough alluvial flood-plain for the whole thing to liquefact in the shaking, and that’s exactly what happened to their two-story house, which basically became a one-story house as the first floor sank eight feet and the upper half of the front façade fell off. Luckily, they weren’t injured and were able to walk across the fallen wall onto dry land, but the place was never going to be rebuilt.

Fortunately, though, my dad had actually bought the earthquake insurance and the supplemental insurance that covered the deductible, so that the payout enabled them to buy a new and pretty similar house a bit more northeast — and for cheap, because it was “freak out and move” period for a lot of transplants, aka “highly motivated sellers.” That’s the house I grew up in. Oh yeah… even though their old house had been wrecked, they still owned the land, so they also sold that off when I was in high school, which paid my college tuition. I think that it eventually became the site of a commercial development.

But… this job had been getting really annoying because I had to pretend to be objective because… “I work for the county,” per my job description. On the other hand, it was getting harder and harder to deal with these bigoted religious assholes who hated anyone outside of their system while smiling and claiming to be inclusive as I had to host ecumenical breakfasts post disaster. Of course, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t point people away from these dicks, and I certainly did — especially when I wound up in the Koreatown Camp.

The Sunday after the Riverside quake, I couldn’t have been happier than to realize that less than a third of the people under the breakfast tent decided to follow some kind of religious leader. In reality, way more than a third of them went off to do theater and improv, another third and change wandered off to just go do… whatever, and the rest of them seemed to follow the several milder mainstream religions — a lot of Catholics, a lot of Anglicans, a lot of MCCs. The only people who seemed to follow the few fundies were the resident Koreans, but that wasn’t surprising. They had been exploited by those monsters since the time of the Korean War, and the colonial hooks were deep in them. I was just surprised that most of the members hadn’t died off by now.

Then again, since this place had been Koreatown in name only since about fifteen years ago, there weren’t a huge number of Koreans to follow.

At least I wasn’t leading the atheist meeting. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but it gave me a much-needed break to try to get in touch with Matt again. This time, I tried calling and texting, since the Red Cross brought WiFi and chargers with them, but I still got nothing. Voicemail picked up on neither. But he had to be all right. He worked in Van Nuys, farther from the epicenter than I’d been when it hit, and we lived on the West Side, in the house on Euclid in Santa Monica that he’d inherited when his grandmother died.

We had also lucked out when they opened up the Q Line, because he could now take the train from Santa Monica to Van Nuys. I’d been taking the E Line since I’d started the job. Hell, it had been so long, I remembered when it was still the Expo Line.

I started googling damage reports and so on, and found nothing major in either of those places. Santa Monica had not been swept away by a tsunami, and Van Nuys hadn’t been sucked underground. In fact, most parts of the Valley seemed to be fairly well-off, which seismologists explained by the various mountain ranges surrounding it creating so-called “earthquake shadows.” I’d had no idea that those were even a thing, but I guess it makes sense. And it was certainly nice payback to the Valley, which had been host to two of our previous big quakes, Northridge and Sylmar, and so had gotten wrecked.

They even brought Lucy Jones out of retirement on the newspods to explain the earthquake shadows. And I don’t think I need to mention how happy I’ve been about California having nothing but female seismologists in the public eye since forever, female senators for almost as long, and, finally, a female governor since the inauguration in 2023. Well, okay. Transwoman, but that still counts.

Suck it, fundies.

But… none of this explains why I still can’t get hold of Matt. The cell phone thing… maybe, but only if all the towers around him are down, or he isn’t able to charge his phone. But the landline is still mystifying, and despite the TelCos spending so many years trying to propagandize us into the idea that we all still needed them in case of disaster, no one ever bought that bullshit.

Of course… while most of our handsets at home were wireless, the base station had one of those really old-fashioned handset on a cradle things, and if the shaking knocked it off, the phone would go “off the hook,” in a literal, not figurative, sense, and that would block all of the other lines. I couldn’t remember whether that would block voicemail from answering or not, because I wasn’t sure whether that lived on the phone or happened at the phone company.

So… phew-ish?

Still… I was stuck down here until such point that… oh, what did the guidelines say? I was here until “…a majority of the faith-community organizations within your district are able to once again provide for the pastoral care of their members in their own, original physical spaces or FEMA-approved emergency structures in the case of buildings that have been yellow- or red-tagged. Alternate venues provided by other existing businesses or residents are also acceptable, provided that they have the same maximum occupancy capacity as the space they are replacing. Representatives are expected to remain on-site for at least thirty days after initial event, with two days of home-leave allowable commencing at the end of shift on the ninth day after the inciting event, and on the ninth-day after return from each home-leave. Except during home-leave, disaster pay and overtime are in effect, and per diem at current county rates and secure, suitable lodgings within two miles by ride service or forty-five minutes via public transit, station-to-station (should the lines be operational), will also be provided in the form of a TAP card. Most lodgings will be single-occupancy except for married couples both of whom are employed by the county or city of Los Angeles, or upon the written request of two un-related employees om different departments, after direct-report review and approval.

I remember watching an improv show by a theater company in my area right after the quake that had a game they called “Yay, Boo!” and this was definitely it. Combat pay and overtime? Yay! Remain on-site thirty days? Boo! Per diem and suitable lodgings provided, yay! Nine days between home visits? Boo! That meant I’d have to wait. There were so damn many registered faith-community organizations within the area we were covering that it could easily take months to get them all accommodated.

And Matt still wasn’t answering, I couldn’t get hold of him on social media, and I wasn’t sure what the hell to do. At least we didn’t have children, so that was a little bit less to worry about…

Image taken in 1948, Fukui, Japan;  now public domain under Australian law. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bert Cohen. 

Wednesday Wonders: Thoughts into action

Today, March 11, 2020, marks the 209th anniversary of the birth in 1811 of a man named Urbain Le Verrier, a French astronomer and mathematician. One thing he is remembered for is his hypothesis that our solar system had a second asteroid belt, located between the Sun and Mercury. It, of course, does not.

But there was one other thing he did that led to a big discovery. Before we get to that, though, we need to jump back to almost exactly 30 years before Le Verrier was born — March 13, 1781.

This was when the astronomer William Herschel took a look at his third survey of the night sky and realized that one of the “stars” in it was not a star, it was a planet. By sheer luck, he had managed to find Uranus.

This was no mean feat, because the five “classic” planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — had been discovered in ancient times and were always a part of human culture.

They were also easier to spot because all of them could be seen by the naked eye. Uranus can be, too, but it is incredibly dim, which is probably why it wasn’t picked out as a planet a lot sooner. Not to mention that its year was a lot longer, so its apparent motion relative to the stars would take a much more time and patience to notice.

But for the other planets, motion is what made them stand out. The constellations and everything else appeared to travel together across the sky, but these five objects had their own  different and predictable pattern.

In other words, Venus, which frequently appears in the eastern sky after sunset (in the northern spring) or the western sky before sunrise (in the northern fall), will appear to move from constellation to constellation as the year progresses. What’s really happening, and what it took astronomers a long time to figure out and a longer time to convince the public of, is that it was the Earth that was moving around the Sun, along with all of the other planets.

In effect, all those stars out there could basically be considered fixed objects, as if they were painted on the inside of a giant sphere that we’re moving around in. Oh, they’re not fixed at all, and they all move too — the Big Dipper will look really different in thousands of years — they just move too slowly for humans to notice the change.

It’s a variation of the old “moving landscape effect”, more properly known as motion parallax. That is, if you’re riding in a vehicle as a passenger, look out the side window, and you’ll notice that nearby objects, like freeway guardrails, trees along the road or close buildings appear to zip past, while slightly farther objects cruise along more slowly and the most distant objects, like far-off mountains, appear to barely move at all.

It’s this effect plus the telescope that finally allowed Herschel to find Uranus. And, by the way, it’s actually pronounced oo-RAN-oos (or you-RAN-us, if you must), so enough of those jokes. Don’t make the IAU change its name!

Uranus turned out to be a really odd duck of a planet, though, one of the more interesting facts being that its axis, unlike every other planet, is tilted on its side. The others basically rotate with their north poles being “up” and “down” relative to the plane of the ecliptic. Not Uranus. Its axis is tilted more than 90 degrees, meaning that it’s rotating on its side. Astrophysicists aren’t sure yet why this happened, but the leading conjecture is that something about the size of Earth smacked into it once it had substantially formed as a planet, knocking it over, and it can’t get up.

But there was one other oddity, and one that was only noticeable because of the work of Sir Isaac Newton. He’s that gravity guy — and no, an apple didn’t fall on his head, although he did wonder why things fell and whether they all did it at the same rate.

This led to him coming up with some laws of gravity that have proven to be pretty damn accurate. So damn accurate, in fact, that once Uranus had been discovered, something quickly became apparent: It wasn’t quite orbiting the Sun the way that it should be according to how the gravity of the Sun and other planets should have affected it.

This is what got to Urbain Le Verrier. There were noticeable differences between what Newton’s laws said Uranus should be doing and what observations showed that it was doing, but Newton wasn’t wrong, so something else must have been going on here.

Here’s a little note for people who still don’t know the different scientific terms. A law is something that is an irrefutable fact. It’s been observed, tested, confirmed, and reconfirmed far too many times for it to be falsifiable, and generally comes with a formula to back it up, like Newton’s f = ma, or force equals mass times acceleration.

If anything appears to violate a law, then there’s something else affecting it, period. And a law doesn’t come with an explanation, it just is what it is. In terms of gravity, the law just says, “Stuff falls at this speed,” which in an equation is F = Gm1m2/r2, or, more commonly, the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the distance between the centers of two objects, with G being the gravitational constant. Simplified, gravity on Earth is described as g = GM/r2, where M is the mass of the Earth. Which is 5.972 × 1024 kilograms, or 6.583 × 1021 tons, by the way. You’re welcome.

Law is top of the ladder in science. Theory is next, and in science it doesn’t mean what it does in popular vernacular. A theory is an explanation of how and why the law works. It says “After a ton of reproducible experimental results and rigorous testing and attempts at falsification, this idea here is our absolute best statement of what we think is really going on.” For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity is an explanation of how Newton’s laws work.

So Le Verrier, being a math dude, looked at the discrepancies and ran the numbers, and although he was really flying blind, here’s what he managed to do, using Newton’s Laws and a lot of calculation. He reverse-engineered our solar system to the point that he said, “Okay. Uranus is acting weird because there’s this other planet out there, and here’s where you’ll probably find it in the sky.”

August 31, 1846: Le Verrier announces his prediction to the French Academy.

September 18, 1846: He mails his prediction to Johann Galle of the Berlin observatory. The letter arrives five days later.

September 23, 1846: Galle finds Neptune, within one degree of where Le Verrier says it will be.

Fortuitously, this is the day of the autumnal equinox — one of two days in the year when Earth’s axis has zero degrees of tilt. That has nothing to do with Neptune, but it’s a nice touch in the story, and something that gives the astronomically inclined a little warm fuzzy.

Now just think on that one for a moment. Herschel only found Uranus because he’d been looking at the sky repeatedly and noticed something a bit off, and he made his discovery at least ten millennia after all the other planets had been discovered.

It only took sixty-five years (and six months) for the next planet to be discovered, and how that happened says a lot about how science should work. The theoretical folk (Le Verrier) used the math and formulae to come up with solid predictions, and then the experimental/observational folk (Galle) put those into action. End result: instant planet!

Throughout human history, we have had thinkers and we have had doers, and both are indispensable to progress. We will always need idea people, who can come up with solutions, questions, or fixes. We will always need action people, who can take those solutions, questions, or ideas and make them happen.

Together, the two are an unstoppable force. Just take Le Verrier and Galle as an example. They did, in seven decades, what all of humanity had been unable to do for tens of thousands of years before Herschel found Uranus.

Now just imagine what would happen if we applied this model to every field. Let the thinkers do their thing, then they hand their ideas to the doers, who do theirs. I think that the overused corporate term for this is synergy, but it works. If we can discover planets out there with it, imagine what we could do with it down here.

Image: Neptune by NASA, public domain.

Friday Free-for-All #1

I wasn’t sure how I was going to decide what this theme would be. On the surface, it seems like “just write whatever you want to” would work, but I tend to do that otherwise, constrained only by the subject of the day. But then I ran across a site that generates random questions, and realized that this was the way to go. In a sense, I’d be letting AI interview me. But to make it truly random, rather than take the first question, I pulled ten, and then used Excel’s RANDBETWEEN function to pick one from that list.

And you’re all invited to play. Feel free to answer the question yourself in the comments and let’s see what we all come up with. Now with no further ado, here we go…

What personality trait do you value most and which do you dislike the most?

This is a very interesting question because there are so many possibilities for the first one — sincerity, intelligence, punctuality, honesty, integrity, and so on. But beyond all of those, which are all very good things to have in my book, I think the one that anchors them all is curiosity about the world, and a desire to constantly learn new things.

All of the most interesting people I know are still students, whether they only graduated from high school six months ago or whether they’ve been retired for ten years. And they don’t necessarily have to be taking classes, but if they’re reading, listening to podcasts, studying on their own, whatever… it shows. And that kind of interest in self-growth extends to every other part of their life.

These are the people who actually remember things that I tell them when, for example, they can’t figure out how to do something on their computer. Their minds are definitely in “one and done” mode.

Me: “To do thing X push keys Y and Z, and then follow with A and B…”

Them: “Ah, got it, thanks.”

And the truly curious ones do, and never ask me the same question twice. The incurious ones, though? Every five goddamn minutes. “How do you do that thing, again?”

“Jesus, Mildred. I told you. Hit control-whatever, click on particular box, done.”

The great thing about curious people is that they never create the mindset of “oh, this is hard,” or “I can never learn that.” Instead, they dive in with a hearty and enthusiastic need to know and confidence in their ability to know it.

I’ve experienced both sides constantly in my own process of re-learning Spanish again and learning improv for the first time as an adult way out of college. The fellow students I encounter fall into two camps. One group asks questions and accepts answers. The other group complains and whines — “What I said should be right because…” This is always followed by a wrong example, and then they don’t listen to explanations.

The absolute classic version of this for students of Spanish is this: “It should be la agua, because agua ends in ‘a’ so it’s feminine.”

Except… this is one of those rules you just have to know. Yes, agua is feminine, but Spanish doesn’t like to put “la” before a word that starts with a stressed “a.” It’s exactly the same reason that English uses “an” instead of “a” before a vowel sound. It’s just easier to say.

So… the singular version of agua, which is still feminine, uses the masculine article to avoid the “a/a” crash: el agua. Other examples include el águila and el arpa. Note that with indefinite articles, it’s okay to go either way.

But, yeah. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone who is clearly only at a ¿Qué Hora Es? level of  Spanish insisting that they’re right. It’s… cute. Infuriating, but cute.

Now, when it comes to the one I dislike the most, you might think that I’d go for the easy opposite, which is “incuriosity.” However, that’s not it. I can just ignore incurious people and let them go on with their empty little lives. The personality trait I dislike the most is what we could probably classify as flakiness. That is, making a commitment to doing something, and then bailing out with no advance notice or explanation.

Now, this is different from saying you’ll come to something and then letting me know, last minute or not, that you can’t. That is totally fine. If you send a text an hour before with literally any reason in it, or even not a reason, then we’re cool.

“Sorry, stuck at work.”

“Sorry, forgot I had this other thing.”

“Sorry, I really don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Sorry, my S.O. surprised me with other plans.”

Those are all fantastic, and so is something as simple as the no reason, “Sorry. Can’t.”

That’s cool, too, because at least you’ve told me not to wait for you to show up, so you’ve respected by request, and you’re awesome.

But… if you’ve told me, and especially if you’ve done it enthusiastically, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there for sure,” and then your place is taken by crickets at time and date, and then you don’t bother to catch up later and say why… WTF, really?

That’s flakier than a bowl of morning cereal, and it’s not an attractive look for anyone. Want to know how to get fewer invites to anything? To paraphrase Archer, “This is how you get [fewer invites to anything.]”

Okay, I think they said ants, but whatever. The point is… if someone asks, you answer, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without excuses is acceptable. This is modern life. Enjoy it.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.