Stupid Excel tricks #1: INDEX and MATCH

Enter the matrix… math

There is an entire class of functions in Excel that take things to a whole new level, and they are called matrices. Maybe you ran across this in math in school and have forgotten, maybe not, but the idea with a matrix is that it takes one grid of numbers of X x Y dimensions and uses operators to manipulate it using another grid of numbers that may or may not have the same dimensions.

The great part is that to use these functions in Excel, you don’t need to know any of that. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s exactly like using a cookbook. Plug in the ingredients as specified, voila, the dish pops out the other end.

Maybe you’ve used the functions VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP, or maybe not, but they can be useful if you want to match exactly one criteria in a table and if the data you’re looking up is somewhere to the right of that criteria. So it’s perfect if you have something like a unique account number on the far left and want to use that to look up a name or phone number to the right of it:

=VLOOKUP(M2,$A1:$L556,6,FALSE)

This tells Excel to take the value in cell M2, compare it to all of the values in column A of the named range, then look up the value in the sixth column counting from the column defined in the second variable (in this case, F) where the first column is equal to M2. “FALSE” just means to use an exact match, whereas “TRUE” would mean to use an approximate match.

Again, this is great if you’re searching something with unique values in both places — there is only one account number, and only one data point associated with it.

Now what if you have multiple entries for the same person with different account numbers, or multiple sizes and colors of a product with differing prices, or you need to search on more than one data point in different columns, or your table was set up with the criteria you want to use somewhere to the right of the data points you’re searching?

Welcome, matrix functions! These are two nested commands that work miracles together. The first is INDEX, and what it basically does is point to a column with data that you’re going to pull stuff from, then follow that up with the criteria you’re going to use to do that. You can see the difference from the LOOKUP functions right off the bat, because those start with the single data point you’re going to use to search the data. The INDEX function starts with the place you’re going to get the answer from.

The MATCH function is the matrix math, and it allows you to specify multiple criteria matched to different columns in the source data. The nice part about it is that you can have as many different criteria as you need — first name, last name, account number; size, gender, color, style; title, author, binding, edition; and so on. And each of these can point to any particular bit of data you need — monthly cost, price, location, phone number, address, and so on. Any bit of data in the table can be found this way.

If you want to put a physical analogy on it, it’s this. LOOKUP functions are a librarian with a sliding ladder that moves horizontally or can be climbed vertically. But the way it works is that they first move it or climb it in the direction you specify until it hits the target word. Then, it slides or climbs the other direction however many rows or columns you specified, and has now targeted exactly one cell with the answer. Oh — and it can only move to the right or down from that initial search cell.

On the other hand, think of INDEX and MATCH as a whole bunch of librarians who have set out all over the same bookcases, but are simultaneously searching the rows and columns, and calling back and forth to each other to indicate what bits they’ve found that match.

If you work with any kind of inventory or any data sets where people’s info is broken down (as it should be) into separate first and last names and account identifiers, then you need to know these functions, because they will save you a ton of time. And the basic way they work is like this:

INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))

(Note: All column and row designations here are arbitrary and made up, so they don’t matter.)

That might look complicated, but it’s not. Let’s break it down. The first part, referring to the E column is the “Where” of the formula. That is, this is the column you’re pulling your data from. For example, if you want to use size, color, and style to find price, then this would be whatever column has the price data in it.

Next, we nest the MATCH function, and this lets INDEX know that what comes next will be the instructions it needs. The “1,” inside the parenthesis is a flag for MATCH, telling it to return one value. After that, each nested thing — and you can have as many as you need — follows the form “Single cell to look at equals column to search.” So, as seen here, for example, in the search data, column W might be the first name, and cell W2 is the cell corresponding what we’re looking at. Meanwhile, column C in the target data might also include first names, so what we’re saying is “Look for the single value of W2 down the entire column of C1 to C1405. The dollar signs are there to lock it as a fixed range.

All of the other parentheticals here follow the same pattern. Maybe X is the column for last name in the source and D is where the last names are in the target; and AA is account number, as is J.

The two other interesting things to note in building matrix equations: The single cell and the column are joined by an equals sign, not a comma, and this is important because, without it, your formula will break. What this tells Excel is that whatever the matrix pulls out of single cell must equal what’s in the column at that point.

The other thing to notice is that between the searches within parentheses, there aren’t commas, but rather asterisks, *, which indicate multiplication, and this is the heart of Matrix math.

What this tells the formula is to take the results of the first thingie, apply those criteria and pass it along to the second. In other words, if the first evaluation turned up nothing, that is mathematically a zero, and so it would quash anything coming from the second and third functions. On the other hand, if it comes up as a one, then whatever the second formula turns up will stay if there’s a one, dump if not, and then pass on to the third, fourth, etc..

Lather, rinse, repeat, for as many steps down the process you’ve created. A false at any point in the matrix math will kill it and result in nil. Meanwhile, as long as the tests keep turning up positives, what will fall out of the ass end of it is the honest legit “This data is the true data.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? The only other trick you need to remember is that after you’ve entered this formula, you need to close it out by hitting Ctrl-Shift-Enter to let Excel know it’s a matrix formula. Then, if you want to copy it, you can’t use the usual Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Instead, you have to highlight the column with the formula at the top, then hit Ctrl-D. Voila… the whole thing repeats down the column.

And there you have it — a way to search multiple criteria in a row in order to find a specific data point in a table. You’re welcome.

Seven deadly grammar sins that aren’t

There are certain grammar “rules” that everyone knows, but a lot of them are just wrong, or have so many exceptions that it’s pointless to follow them. Here’s a quick rundown.

An easy error with “an” and “a”

What we get taught: If a word starts with a consonant, the singular article before it is “a.” If it starts with a vowel, then you use “an.”

Why it’s wrong: Using a or an doesn’t depend on whether it’s a vowel or consonant. It depends on the sound. And it may even depend on the dialect. But here’s a simple example: “What are you doing an hour from now?” The word “hour” starts with a consonant, but “a hour” is just wrong because the sound is an open vowel.

As for dialect, an American would probably say “there’s a hospital there,” while a Brit would probably say “there’s an hospital there.” Here’s a vowel example: “There is a universe yet to be discovered.” Why? Because in that case, it starts with a consonant (or semi-vowel) sound: “you-niverse.”

There is never a reason that “their” is singular

What we get taught: The only singular pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers, or it/it/its. When the number is singular but the subject is unknown, use the masculine pronouns. They//them/theirs can never be singular, dammit!

Why it’s wrong: Because it’s the goddamn 21st century, and English as a language doesn’t have enough genders to fit the ones that exist. In some ways, it’s kind of nice that English is so genderless, except for those parts when it tries to insist that there are only two genders, and this is one of them. So they/them/theirs are just as valid in the singular as any of the others, and a lot more humanizing than referring to non-binary people as “it.”

It’s really linguistic evolution in action, and very similar to Spanish adopting the conventions of ending nouns and adjectives with either “x” or “@” to be gender-neutral in what’s generally identified as the Latinx or Latin@ movement. (The nice part about @ is that it combines the masculine O ending and the feminine A, although that’s not a hard and fast rule in Spanish, either. La mano and el planeta could tell you a thing or two about that.)

But… here’s the point. Not everyone fits into either he or she and that is a reality of the present. Therefore, it is entirely all right to use they as a third person singular, and it’s best that we refer to it as the gender-neutral form rather than what they call it in German, Romanian, or other languages with the unfortunately dubbed “neuter” case. Because that one always sounds less than, but the idea with ignoring this rule is to be ever more inclusive. “Their” is one (of many) inclusive gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns available now. Ask people theirs, then use them. It’s not that hard.

James’s rule: Don’t add an “S” after the apostrophe to words ending in “S”

What we get taught: If a word ends in “S,” then you make the possessive by only adding an apostrophe, and not an apostrophe S.

Why it’s wrong: This completely ignores how the word is pronounced, and it boils down to this. If you were saying it out loud, would you pronounce the extra S? In most cases, the answer is yes. For example, look at “The car of Jon” vs. “Jon’s car.” Extra S gets pronounced. So… “The car of James” vs. “James…” That’s right, when spoken, it sounds like “Jameses car,” so the correct possessive is “James’s car.” When you get into plural possessives ending in S, as the link points out, it’s the same deal. When a family named Jones owns a thing, then you pluralize first, then follow the rule for plural possessives and wind up with “The Joneses’ House.”

To glibly split infinitives is wrong

What we get taught: It is wrong to split an infinitive in English, by which we mean nothing can come between “to” and the basic verb form. To be, to do, to go, to eat, etc.

Why it’s wrong: Because some pedant in 19th Century England decided to just make things up. But this rule doesn’t make any sense at all, either. It’s right up there with the stupidity of throwing that extra “U” into words like color or flavor. And, bonus points: English is one of the few languages with infinitives that can even be split because, unlike most other languages that do it with a prefix, suffix, or stem word to create a singular word infinitive, we insist on throwing a preposition in front of a mostly neutral form to create an infinitive. Ooh, look. That was an infinitive right there! English is weird.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something to watch out for

What we get taught: Never end a sentence with a preposition. It’s wrong. Don’t do it!

Why it’s wrong: Cue up another pedant, in this case John Dryden, who, according to that link, was not well-liked by his contemporaries despite his success, or maybe because of it. His whole shtick was trying to force Latin Grammar onto the English language because he really loved him some Latin. But here’s the problem: Although English is partly a Germanic language and German follows a lot of the grammar left over from Latin, English managed to escape that first via Anglo Saxon and next via a mega-dose of Romance Language grammar via the Norman Invasion. Preposition placement in Latin was very carefully dictated. in English, not so much. Put that preposition wherever you think it needs to go.

There’s a very famous anecdote often attributed to Winston Churchill, but probably not him, in which a subordinate made a note on a speech or some such telling him to not end a sentence with a preposition. The reply, which was probably not Churchill, but rather just a joke, was that he wrote back, “This is an impertinence up with which I will not put.” The point here being that this sentence explains perfectly why this rule is so stupid and useless.

“I” before “E” except after “C” is the best of policies

What we get taught: I before E except after C, or when pronounced “A,” as in “neighbor” or “weigh.”

Why it’s wrong: Because there’s not a single thing right about it? There are more exceptions to this rule than there are rules, so it shouldn’t be taught at all. So where did it come from? Simple. Early grammar textbooks in the mid-19th century, designed to be shipped out to remote schoolhouses, and which included lots of lists of little rhyming rules like this that were sometimes right but often wrong. This one just happened to be short and simple, and so it stuck, even though it’s very, very wrong.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction

What we get taught: Using and, so, but, etc. should never come at the start of a sentence.

Why it’s wrong: But so many writers do it. And it can be very useful. So why the problem? Again, it’s made up. Or, rather, it’s an oversimplification of when conjunctions are needed to connect two clauses directly, or when they’re not. The problem, as is frequently the case, are the fanboysfor, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These cannot start sentences because they do connect to the previous clause. The other conjunctions? Not so much, so have at them!

In conclusion

As they say, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. But sometimes, you have to learn that the rules are just plain wrong, and these are examples of that. If you have any favorite grammar “rules” that are wrong, share them in the comments.

A/B test

Linguists have long debated the topic of whether the language you speak affects and changes the way you think, or indeed creates it, but Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky believes that it does, and about a decade ago her studies did indicate some surprising things about how language can change the way a person perceives space, time, and relative location.

I won’t go into them here in detail since that’s not the point of this post, but there is an aboriginal tribe in Australia that gives spatial directions in absolute terms, based on compass directions — “What are you holding in your northwest hand?” Consequently, not only are they always aware of their location relative to the compass points, but they think of time this way as well. Ask them to arrange a series of photos in chronological order, and they will do it from east to west no matter which way they’re facing.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Time measured from sunrise to sunset; from dawn to dusk.

She did also notice some cognitive changes when they taught English speakers to use the same kind of terms as other languages. For example, they’d ask their subjects to think of durations not as “long” and “short,” but in terms common to Greek and Spanish speakers: little, a lot, and big. They also had English speakers think of time the way Mandarin speakers do — not horizontally and left to right, but vertically, from top to bottom. Yesterday is up and tomorrow is down. Once they started to think in these terms, English speakers started to perceive time vertically as well.

Different languages can change personalities, too. Someone who is shy and reserved in one language may be outgoing in another, and their degree of fluency may also affect the type and depth of change. It’s also a matter of whether someone is bilingual but monocultural, or bilingual and bicultural. In the case of the former, it’s generally a speaker of language A learning language B in their own A-speaking country, largely free of cultural influence from B. For example, a native-born American studying Japanese, but only in the U.S. in school.

In the latter case, the speaker of A will grow up either in the original country of the A language and culture before moving to learn the B language in the B culture, or will grow up in the B country with parents and possibly grandparents who grew up in the culture of A. For example, someone who was either born in Turkey or born to Turkish immigrants to Germany, who either learned only Turkish during their early schooling and then German after emigrating, or who grew up in a household in Germany where Turkish was the primary language, but learned German in school.

I know from my own experience that my personality changes when I speak Spanish. Me hace mucho más coqueto. It makes me a lot more flirtatious. And while I’m technically bilingual but monocultural, the culture of Southern California is so heavily influenced by Latin America in the first place that it takes actual effort to be monocultural here. Then again, the western third of the U.S. used to be Mexico before we manifest-destinied the shit out of it, and two whole continents belonged to the natives and their expansive empires before the Spaniards and Brits toddled along and screwed that up.

Yeah, in English, I tend to digress to lecture a lot. I don’t do that in Spanish so much, either, unless it’s explaining some fascinating thing I discovered about the language to a fellow learner.

Onward!

Another aspect of language is the one that creates group personalities, and part of successfully joining any particular group is picking up on their own specific terminology and slang. Not knowing the terms will immediately peg a person as an outsider. This is very true of improv, and at ComedySportz we jokingly say “We are not a cult,” because some of our warm-up games certainly sound like we are.

But if you eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple of improvisers and had no experience, you’d be totally left in the dark hearing terms like Bunny Bunny, 185, Canadian cross, heel and face, “lean into it,” space work, VAPAPO, Harold, scene game, jump out game, head-to-head, brown-bag, groaner, piano torture, and (#) things.

Some of those terms are even unique to ComedySports and improvisers from other companies might not know them unless they’ve seen CSz shows. Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you probably know where this is going.

Since I started working in the field of health insurance, I’ve been learning a completely different set of words and expressions, a lot of them initialisms or acronyms, and by now I can reel them off by memory: AEP, Part D, MAPD, Plan F, Plan G, effective date, “Original” Medicare, Med Sup, HIPAA, ePHI, open enrollment, re-shopping, CMS (with a whole different meaning than in the internet world), guaranteed issuance, birthday rule, SEP, and on and on.

In all likelihood, unless you’ve ever been on Medicare, worked in a related field, or have helped an older relative navigate its rapids, you probably don’t know what many or any of those terms mean. I sure didn’t just over a month ago. Now, I’m rattling them off fluently with my co-workers.

But, at the same time, I’m now taking on more and more responsibility for explaining the things that I legally can to clients who phone in (I’m not an agent, so can’t recommend plans, or quote prices, or that kind of thing), and the calls are becoming more frequent since we just sent out a massive mailing to let everyone know that it’s time to re-evaluate their Medicare Part D, which is the insurance that covers their prescriptions. Long story short, insurance companies change their formularies, or lists of drugs that they cover, every year, and announce the changes effective January 1st on October 15th. These can make huge differences in cost, especially if a plan suddenly drops a particular drug, or another one has a price increase for a certain tier.

Thus begins the AEP, or annual enrollment period, which runs from October 15th to December 7th. Have I bored the hell out of you yet? It’s actually a lot more fascinating than it might sound, and for me it’s a good insight into the monster we’d be up against with any attempt to make Medicare for All work, especially if it maintains its weird four-part structure.

This brings me back to the language thing, though. In essence, I’m helping people understand a foreign language that I’m only just learning myself, and when I’m on the phone I can already feel my personality change. For one thing, I speak a lot more slowly than I usually do, and my entire manner slips much more into friendly but neutral customer service voice.

And yes, it’s a lot different than my phone personality when I was doing customer service for the Dog Whisperer’s website or when I’m dealing with customers who call the ComedySportz L.A. office or box office because, again, those are different worlds and different languages.

I’ve also quickly learned to become much blunter with people who aren’t clients. It’s amazing how many sales calls the office gets, especially with sales people who try to do so in the guise of already having some sort of business or client relationship with the boss, and he taught me a great question to ask: “Are you calling to buy something from him, or to sell him something that will increase his business?”

Not that this will get them through, but at least I’ll take a message instead of hang up on them.

The real trick, though, is to not get caught up in the confusion that a lot of callers have — and they’re totally right to be confused, since this is either entirely new to them if they’re just turning 65, or because every so often there’s one sudden big change (like this year) and I’m dealing with a number of people anywhere from their mid-70s to mid-90s. A lot of them at that age don’t like change, so they just try to shut it out. Plenty of them don’t mind change and don’t shut it out, of course, but I don’t seem to get those calls.

The end result of it all, though, is that I find myself in the same split-personality world I was in way back during my first office job right out of college, before I went into that almost-exclusive entertainment-related career: normal person by day, creative freak show by night. Bilingual and bipersona, to coin a phrase. The secret is being able to switch back and forth.

Amazing animal adaptations to the human world

If you think that animals haven’t continued to evolve in the wake of having wound up in the middle of human cities and culture, then you haven’t been paying attention. Our friends — furry and otherwise — are catching up to us. And why not? Some of them try to emulate us as much as possible, while others are just really good at reading our body language. Others still are good at figuring out patterns independent of our behavior, while a final group doesn’t think much, but knows how to follow instinct.

Let’s start out with our emulators.

It’s a typical Monday morning as you make your way from your house on the outskirts of the city to the subway station for your regular morning commute to your office downtown. You get on the train and take your seat, armed with the newspaper or touch pad or smart phone as the usual distraction, when you notice a half dozen or so unaccompanied dogs casually enter the last car with you and, like any other commuter, take their seats. They sit or lie quietly as the train heads off for the city and, as you stand to get off at the central station, so do they.

This would be an unusual sight in most major cities, but to the residents of Moscow, Russia, it has become quite routine. In the twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changing face of this metropolis of nearly twelve million has forced its population of stray dogs to learn the ways of their human counterparts. By night, they live in the deserted industrial areas outside of the city, a canine population last estimated five years ago at 26,000. By day, they head downtown, where the people are and, more importantly, where the free food is, and they do it the same way the humans do.

No one taught the dogs how to navigate one of the world’s busiest subway systems. They have managed to figure it out on their own, and have also learned the concept of traffic signals. Stray dogs have been observed waiting for the light before crossing the street, and they aren’t just taking their cues from humans – they exhibit the same behavior when the streets are devoid of people. What they do take from humans are their lunches, and some enterprising dogs will use a well-timed bark to startle a hapless pedestrian into dropping their shawarma onto the pavement, to be snatched away by the successful hunter. When not using this technique, they will scavenge from dumpsters, or just hang out in busy areas waiting for the inevitable handout. They’ve also been known to exploit human psychology by sending in the cutest puppers in order to do the heavy-lifting of begging for the whole pack.

Yes, these dogs are playing us.

Why they have figured out these tricks is fairly obvious: their environment changed when downtown was revitalized and they had to adapt. How they do it, though, is another question, and zoologists are still studying them to figure it out. The dogs can’t read signs, so their subway navigation, which includes getting on and off at the right stops, is still a mystery, as is their ability to obey a traffic light on their own. It would be one thing if they had been trained – but they have not.

This isn’t the only example of animals adapting to the human world. The next group are the pattern seekers, who use repetitive and predictable cues to figure out how to safely navigate the space in order to feed.

In Japan, crows have been observed exploiting roads and traffic in order to crack nuts that they can’t themselves — but the most remarkable part of this is that they use the traffic signals to tell them when it’s safe to go into the road to fetch the good stuff.

Next is the animal to exploit humans by using instinct over intellect, although ultimately a bit of both: Clever Hans, a horse that appeared to know how to do simple sums and count, until it was determined that what the horse was really doing was reacting to subtle human emotions given away as the horse approached the answer. Hans could literally tell when he’d hit the right number via tapping his hoof until the humans reached maximum excitement, by which point he’d learned that “Decrease in excitement means stop.”

At least this is a few orders of magnitude above the animal that reacts strictly by instinct, with no intellect involved — the “avoid that moving shadow and get out of the light” reaction common to cockroaches, who are far less intelligent than horses. They don’t think about what they’re doing or why. They don’t have the brain capacity for that. Instead, they just automatically skittle away from things perceived as danger. This is a very common behavior among animals, and in fact extends all the way down to single-celled organisms, which will also instinctively and automatically swim away from chemical signals that they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

That’s how survival and evolution work, and it’s how life on Earth evolved from being mindless single-celled organisms that only know “swim toward food, swim from trouble” to the complex primates that seem to be top of the food-chain for the moment and, at least for now, have developed our technology far enough to start to fling ourselves out into the solar system.

And that process is also how we inadvertently help all of our domesticated animals to evolve, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that as we develop more technology and empathy, our companions develop more empathy and intelligence. Sure, I don’t know whether it’s us or our pets getting smarter, or if it’s a mutual act, but whichever it is doesn’t matter. The only important part is that we seem to be increasing the emotional bond between ourselves and our animals that are above the purely instinctual level, since most of that latter group seem to be nothing but pests.

Maybe this will lead us to a meatless world, or at least one where all of our meat is grown in labs or fabricated from plant products. If you’ve never seen dancing cows, happy goats, laughable lambs, pet pigs, or even redeemed raccoon and frisky ferrets, you should. The more I learn about animals, the less I want to eat them.

Accentuate the positive

While I was trying to find an image file on my computer that was going to be the basis for an article about something my grandfather invented, I instead ran across a bit of video I shot just over 11 years ago. (Never found what I was originally looking for, though.) To give it some context, I shot the video on a camera that I’d just bought around that time as an early Christmas present to myself. The reason for that was because a gig that had started out as a “two day only” temp assignment in the middle of the previous July had turned into a full-time job that lasted over a decade by the end of that October. I shot the video over the course of a work day that was also the day of our office holiday party, my first with the company.

It was strangely nostalgic to see all of my former coworkers again. In fact, out of everybody in the video, only two of them made it with me all the way to the end, when the company self-destructed. But that’s not what this story is about. It also brought up the feels because that particular office — the first of four which the company occupied during my time with it — was long since converted into a Target Express, a sort of mini-version of the bigger stores. I visited it once, and bought a DVD about twenty feet from where my desk had been.

But, the point of the story: In this video, I was interviewing coworkers and narrating and I was once again reminded of how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I hear it coming from anywhere that isn’t inside my own head. This is not at all uncommon. In fact, when I googled it, I only had to type “Why do people hate” before it auto-filled with the rest of the question — “the sound of their own voices.” Basically, when you talk, the sound you hear isn’t coming through the air. It’s coming directly through the bones in your ear, so the voice you hear is probably deeper and richer.

In my case it’s even weirder than that. The voice I hear in my head lacks two things that are very obvious when I listen to it recorded. One: I’m a lot more nasally than I think I am. Two: I actually have a noticeable accent, although I really can’t place it. I won’t count one other bit as three, though, because it’s true of everyone — the voice outside my head is probably half an octave higher than the one in my head.

The other noticeable thing, to me at least, though, is that despite being gay I absolutely do not have “gay voice.” And yes, that’s a thing. And despite being Californian, I do not have surfer dude voice or Valley guy voice either. I also exhibit none of the vowel shifts that are apparently part of the “California accent,” whatever that is. Another complication is that, since the entertainment industry is centered here, the standard accent of film and TV is also pretty much how Californians, particularly of the southern variety, talk.

But, to me, the non-California accent I apparently have is really baffling. Well, at least the part about not being able to place it. I was born and raised in Southern California and so was my father. However, his parents came from Kansas and my mother was from Northeastern Pennsylvania. As a kid before I started going to school, I spent a lot more time with my mom. Meanwhile, my dad’s accent was clearly influenced by his parents despite his growing up here.

The best way to describe my mom’s accent is Noo Yawk Lite. That is, while a lot of it was flat, there were certain words and vowels that just came out east-coasty. For example, a common household pet was a “dawg.” You dried your dishes or yourself with a “tahl.” The day after Friday was “Sirday” — which I think is unique to where my mom came from. Then again, apparently, the whole state has a ton of different dialects.

Meanwhile, the Kansas side contributed a very flat, plain, and tight-lipped manner of speech, and I certainly heard this quite often from my dad’s mom, since we visited her more often than my mom’s mom, who lived ten times farther away. And although my dad’s grandfather was German, I don’t think he had a lot of influence because great-grandpa died just before my dad turned 22, and my dad’s own father sort of abandoned the family when my dad was 12. (Long story. Don’t ask.)

And none of any of this explains the way I talk. Or tawk. Oddly enough, when I’m not speaking English, I’m pretty adept at doing a Mexican Spanish accent (casi pero no completamente en el estilo chilango), although that’s probably not all that weird when you consider that the major (but not only) Spanish influence in Southern California is, in fact, from the country that used to be most of California. On the other hand, when I speak German, it’s in total Hamburg Deutsch despite my German ancestors being Alsatian, mainly because my German teacher was from that very northern town. And, to be honest, I never met any of my German ancestors because they all died long before I was born — Sie sind alle gestorben bevor ich geboren werde.

To complicate things, when I’ve listened to recordings of myself speaking either Spanish or German, the most notable thing is that I am not nasally or half an octave higher at all. Or, in other words, my voice only sucks in my native language. Funny how that works, isn’t it? And the weirdest part, I suppose, is that none of that nasal thing happens in my head, even though, technically, nasal voice happens entirely in one’s head due to that whole sinus thing.

So, back to the beginning. When I speak my native language I hate the way I sound, but when I speak a foreign language, I don’t hate the way I sound. Then again, that’s also true when I’m performing onstage and playing a character. I just forget to play a character in real life, but maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a book by Dr. Morton Cooper, first published in 1985, called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life, which posits exactly this premise. Ironically, though, he specifically mentions the flaws in voices — like Howard Cosell’s nasality and Barbara Walters nasality, hoarseness, and lisp — as their strongest points. Although his references are dated, I guess he has a point, stating that, “These personalities have all managed to project voice images that are— however unattractive and displeasing to the ears— distinctive and lucrative.”

Then… maybe I should change nothing? Hell, if Gilbert Gottfried (NSFest of W) can get away with talking the way he does, maybe I’m onto something. And maybe it’s not so much a matter of changing my voice as it is changing my feelings about it.

And that’s really the takeaway here — surprise, this was the lesson all along. There are certain things we can’t really change about ourselves, like our height, our hair, eye, or skin color, our looks, or our voices. (Okay, we can change hair, eye, or skin color through dye, contact lenses, or tanning, but those are only temporary and, in some cases, really obvious.) But we are stuck with our height, looks, and mostly our voices, unless we want to go to the expense of physically altering the first two, or learning how to alter the latter.

Or… we can just learn to accept ourselves as we are, flaws and all, and realize that we do not have to be some perfect ideal media version of a human in order for someone to love us. And the part I intentionally left out of this up to now is this: Plenty of people have told me that I have a sexy voice. I may not agree with them at all, but if they think so, then that’s good enough for me. I mean, I got to be the Pokémon they chose before they threw their ball at me, right? And, in the end, that’s the only part that counts.

So… stop judging yourself for the flaws you think you see. Instead, listen to the flaws that people who love you clearly do not see.

Influences, influencers, the influenced

I seem to be slowly developing a following here, and it’s not all people I know in real life. In fact, it’s mostly not people I know in real life. And a lot of you seem to like what I’m doing, and I’ve gotten positive comments and messages, and I appreciate them all. This next sentence is going to sound like a mega-tautology, but here you go: I write what I write here because I’m a writer, and what writers do is write.

In other words, this all began as an exercise in keeping my chops up. When I started this blog, it was right after the end of a decade-long gig which involved, in part, ghost-writing a weekly column for a certain D-list celebrity. Since I was given a ridiculous amount of free-rein, I basically took their philosophies in one subject area and applied them to human psychology and self-improvement, and got to at least enjoy the praise vicariously. I made the words. D-lister got the thanks. Go figure.

So it’s nice to actually get the positive comments myself, finally.

But this also reminds me of my own adventure with a columnist. The Los Angeles Times used to run daily columns by a writer with the most generic of names: Jack Smith. When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the Times, and I used to read his column regularly, but one of them stuck with me. It was about the etymology of the word “undertakers,” and this sentence in particular, referring to the U.S. Civil War, jumped out: “…undertakers used to follow the armies like prostitutes, not to pleasure the soldiers but to embalm them.”

It stuck with me enough that I eventually wrote an entire play about undertakers, a prostitute, and the Civil War, called Noah Johnson had a Whore… (Later productions would try to drop the last three words from the title only for me to learn an important lesson: As offensive as they might seem, those words effin’ sold tickets.)

Anyway… this was the first full-length play I ever wrote, the first of mine ever produced, and I wound up starting at the top. It won an award from and was first produced by South Coast Rep, which is basically the Center Theater Group of Orange County. In other words, big time. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget and, to this day, I happen to have one of the 19th-century style wooden coffins from that production sitting in my living room as a coffee table as a constant reminder. (Note: Yes, coffins and caskets are different.)

But… to quote another produced play of mine, “I do digress…”

Because my play won a contest and turned out to be a big deal and got a lot of PR at the time, SCR reached out to the Times and Jack Smith to get a comment about the whole thing, since he had given me the idea in the first place. And not only did he respond, but he came down to see the show, I got to meet him, and then he wrote about it in another one of his columns.

Yeah, talk about an ultimate fan-boy squee moment. It was all really overwhelming for a baby playwright. And then the show closed and life went on.

Jump cut: About 2010. An old actor friend of mine remembers one of the plays I wrote not long after Noah, but had long since abandoned. Called Bill & Joan, it was about a fateful night in Mexico City in 1951 in which the writer William S. Burroughs shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head and killed her in front of horrified party guests in what may or may not have been a game of “William Tell” gone horribly wrong. I was inspired to write it because Burroughs was one of my early influences as a writer. Unfortunately, right around the time I started to shop it, David Cronenberg released his film version of Naked Lunch, which infuriated me on two fronts. First, it really had nothing to do with the book (and mostly de-gayed the entire thing). Second, in order to come up with a plot, they did the whole “Bill shoots Joan” storyline, which killed the market for my play.

But… the actor who had read one of the young roles ages ago remembered the play and was now old enough to play the lead, so he got in touch, we pitched to his theater company and… they turned it down on the first pass. (This particularly hurt because one of the artistic directors at the time was French Stewart, whom I have always admired the hell out of.) But, persistence paid off, so we tried again the next year, with a new artistic board (they change every year by design) and ta-da!

So the play opened at the beginning of 2014, to coincide with the centenary of Burroughs’ birth. Bonus points: His birthday was the day after mine and, as we found out in pre-production, his wife’s birthday was the same as mine. Whoa!

But the best and trippiest part was that this whole process became a collaboration between me and my younger self. I hadn’t looked at the play in years, so looking at it again effectively put a third pair of eyes on it, even if those eyes were still mine. When I’d written the play, I was the same age as one of the hustler characters Bill lusted for. When it was produced, I was only a tad older than Bill was when he killed his wife.

Combine all of that with an amazing director, dedicated production staff, and a killer cast, and I think that the whole thing turned out well. But the icing on the cake came after the Burroughs estate sent a spy to see the play, he reported back that I had plagiarized Bill’s words, and we got a cease and desist. This being small theater in L.A., that notice came after we had closed, so the one producer who was and is a major asshole dumped it on me. I replied by just sending them the play, and the ultimate vindication came from James Grauerholz himself.

If you don’t know who he is, you don’t know your Burroughs. He was a fan who wound up being Bill’s secretary and personal assistant in the 1970s and stuck with him to the end, and hence became executor of the estate. In other words, he is William S. Burroughs’ living representative on Earth. It’s not even clear whether they were actually ever lovers. Honestly, probably not, but Jimmy is the fiercest protector of Bill’s legacy.

And his response to reading my play? (Which didn’t quote Burroughs, but just made shit up in his style.) Paraphrased: “There is no plagiarism here. We give you our blessings to produce this play.”

So on the one hand, I’m really flattered to realize that I duped some people into thinking I quoted a literary idol instead of wrote in imitation of his voice. On the other, I am super honored that Hand of God told me, “Yes, oh yes. You can do this. Carry on.”

And that’s a lot of words to get around to saying this: If you appreciate a writer’s work, let them know. We are solitary creatures who do not trust feedback we get from friends and family, because with rare exception, they will tell us we’re brilliant. (If you have a friend who will tell you to your face that something you wrote sucked, hang onto them, because they truly are a friend.) But when the compliments come from strangers, they are the best kind of validation.

And if you are a writer yourself, then  just hang on, do what you do, and trust in yourself until someone else says, “Hey… I like this.”

Because nothing feels better than that.

Image: From the Sacred Fools Production of Bill & Joan; Betsy Moore and Curt Bonnem

5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only twelve years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843. Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo. Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress! You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that. Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies. However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt