Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mouthwash and Micturition: A Love Story

For millennia, men have known that the key to getting laid is good breath and clean teeth. Now, it’s easy. We’ve got toothbrushes, Listerine, floss, and whitening strips. We weren’t always this lucky.

Egyptians are the first people that we know used mouthwash. They mixed water with honey, eucalyptus, peppermint, and cinnamon and swished it around in their mouths. Unfortunately, they didn’t spread their delicious oral hygiene technology and the Greeks were forced to come up with their own mouthwash. Being the genius philosophers they were, they decided to forgo plant-based solutions and drink piss.

What’s better is that even after the Greeks wised up and stopped pee-gurgling, the Romans kept doing it. Also, for some stupid reason the Romans believed that the best piss came from Portugal. I can only imagine this was caused by some sort of elaborate joke on Cicero’s part. The pee-fad became so widespread that at one time, the government actually levied a tax on imported Portuguese piddle.
To their credit, putting urine in your mouth will make your teeth whiter. The ammonia will eat off some of the plaque and gingivitis-causing germs. Unfortunately, it will also eventually dissolve the enamel and make your teeth fall out. Either way, they were swishing urine in their mouths. Come on, guys.

What really gets me about this is that way before the Romans were doing it, Hippocrates recommended using a mix of salt, vinegar, and alum. Modern research has shown that these ingredients would have gotten the job done pretty well. Conversely, modern research has also shown that this would not have been nearly as amusing.

Despite its use for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until the 1600’s with the discovery of bacteria (then thought to be weird little eels that lived in your mouth) that anybody really understood why mouthwash worked. For this, we have to credit Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch father of microbiology. Anton tried out a variety of mouthwashes consisting of things like vinegar, brandy, and coffee before discovering that none of these was a good enough antiseptic to kill off the bacteria living in enamel.

Two hundred years later, some British Baron made a carbolic acid-based antiseptic used for sterilizing surgical instruments, which had never been done before. His name was Joseph Lister. Some time later, some Americans thought they could get people to put the stuff in their mouths, and Listerine was born. Thankfully, since then there’s been no need for people to put urine in their mouths. But J.D. Salinger still did it! Really, he did. Salinger was a strong believer in “urine therapy.”

Friday, September 09, 2011

Teflon, The Synthetic Resin of Our Lives

What’s your favorite synthetic resin? If you read the above title and didn’t say Teflon, you’re an idiot. You know where I was going with that. Anyway, Teflon rules. Created by accident in the 1940’s, it revolutionized cooking, inspiring a generation of bachelors to actually wash their cookware instead of just throwing it away and buying new stuff.

Teflon’s not only used in the kitchen though. Besides its ability to repel water (stemming from its electronegativity and mitigated London dispersion forces), its low coefficient of friction and general non-reactivity make it ideal for use with highly reactive substances. In fact, one of the first uses of Teflon was in the Manhattan Project – it coated the inside of pipes where uranium compounds were held during enrichment.

It actually wasn’t until ten years later that someone decided to put it on a frying pan, which was then marketed as “The Happy Pan.” Since then, the polymer’s been used in a number of other “Happy” products such as armor piercing bullets and pyrotechnics.

On top of all these wonderful applications, Teflon is also known as the only material that geckos can’t stick to. Doesn’t that make you want to coat a fishbowl in it and throw that stupid Geico lizard in there? That’ll show him for originally using Kelsey Grammer’s voice and then switching to some English nobody. Seriously. Kelsey Grammer’s voice is like dark chocolate wrapped in velvet doing the backstroke in three fingers of fine Scotch. The new idiot sounds like Michael Caine’s effeminate nephew who’s just been kicked in the scrotum.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Don’t Bring a Knife to a Fist Fight

This man is dangerous.

Prompt:  What’s your most vivid childhood memory under age 12?
Suggested by:  Polly Nicklin Andres

The most vivid memory of my childhood is getting suspended from school in the second grade for throwing a knife at a kid.

It’s hard to tell if this is a real memory or if it’s just been recreated by telling the story, but I think I can pretty accurately recall what happened.  In short, another student at Martin Luther King Primary was chasing me around the playground calling me names, so I threw a knife at him.  Before you go thinking I was a badass seven year old, you should probably know that it was a plastic knife I found on the ground, I missed him by five feet, and the kid pushed me up against the basketball hoop pole and hit me in the stomach.  I started crying, as was my wont at the time, and a friend of mine went to get a teacher.  When she heard the story, I was taken to the principal and given one day of in-school suspension for possession of a weapon.  The other kid also received a day of suspension for punching me in the gut.

At the time, my parents saw the whole ordeal as a disgrace to our family.  They were, after all, both educators, and it was shameful for their son to be in trouble.  As such, they always punished me at home in addition to any trouble I got into at school.  I think this year the penalty for my misbehavior was the cancellation of my annual Halloween Party, which made me greatly distraught.  Actually, that might have been the punishment I received for writing my bus driver a note that read, “Dear Nancy, I hate you.  Sincerely, Ben”.  I’m not sure.  Regardless, I was sworn to secrecy about the situation, and I’m not sure if anyone else in our family has ever heard about it.

Anyway, I remember loving my in-school suspension day.  I was put in a closet-sized room with the kid who hit me and given my schoolwork for the day.  As I remember it, I finished the day’s worksheets and homework in a matter of minutes and promptly asked for something else to do.  The person in charge of the small, dark, clockless room went to get more work from my teacher, and I stared at the wall.  When she returned, she had a small stack of worksheets for me.  I completed these, too, and asked for more work.  She left again to get more materials from my teacher.  As I remember it, this happened all day long, until I had completed over two weeks of both homework and in-school activities.  I also remember being given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.  This was the only part of in-school suspension I did not enjoy.

Returning to my normal classroom the next day, I realized that, having already satisfactorily completed the day’s assignments, there was no incentive to pay attention.  I think I read, doodled, and stared off into space for the next two weeks of class.  I remember being extremely bored.  My teacher was not pleased.
Given, this memory may be exaggerated or just completely inaccurate. I have a notoriously terrible memory of most of my childhood, so I can’t be sure.

For the record, my second most vivid memory of this year is peeing my pants on the bus because someone dared me to.  Looking back, this may have been the start of my long-standing habit of peeing in inappropriate places.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It's Wine Rack Thursday!

Hello Friends!
Instead of writing a blog today, I spent too many hours designing this wine rack.  I bought a bunch of 1x4's the other day, and I'm going cut the notches for the bottles with a circular saw and my new Dremel tool and stain the wood dark brown.  The rack will sit up against the wall under my TV, hiding its cords.  Tell me what you think - I'm probably going to start building this weekend.

Update: it ended up looking like this.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Defining Hipster

Look at this fucking hipster.

Prompt: Define 'hipster' and 'scenester' and highlight similarities and differences between the two.
Suggested by:  Charlie Vogelheim

A myriad of social stereotypes pervade our culture, and for some reason, people like to fit into them.  Most are pretty easy to spot and define.  Goths are dark and disaffected, hippies wear tie-die and talk about peace, rednecks are “patriotic” and listen to country music, geeks like video games and Star Wars, and stoners love smoking (and constantly talking about) pot.  While there are certainly more intricacies to each of these subcultures, they can be demarcated relatively simply.  Harder to simply define, however, are hipsters. 
Few societal labels are as nebulous as “hipster”.  Yet, while arguments persist on what existentially constitutes a hipster, they’re notoriously easy to spot.  The best and most reliable way to spot a hipster is by his or her appearance.  While they have a variety of styles, some seemingly universal traits include skinny jeans, blank stares, and stupid fucking hair.  Apart from this, they try their best to look different, but in that difference you can spot their similarity. 
In addition, hipsters have definite places they hang out.  To find a hipster roost in Los Angeles head to Silverlake.  In Omaha, their nest seems to be the area around the Slowdown (which I’m told is now being referred to as “Nodo” [this is stupid]) and maybe Dundee.  In New York, I think their lair is in Brooklyn.  I don’t know.  I’ve never lived in New York, but I saw a lot of dudes wearing Keffiyehs there once.  Anyway, Hipsters have neighborhoods.
People have tried to define them beyond their style and geographic location, but I think most attempts have failed.  Hipsters are oft characterized as trying to be either “ironic” or “authentic.”  Despite the semi-paradox of being both, I don’t think that being ironic or authentic has much to do with being a hipster anymore.  At first, it probably did.  I imagine the first hipster was trying very hard to be ironic with the things he was doing.  He drank Pabst Blue Ribbon because he thought it was shitty (he was wrong).  He wore big stupid non-prescription glasses because they made him look goofy (they did).  He listened to obscure bands he didn’t really like just to seem different.  Over time, though, this charismatic proto-hipster had his style co-opted by people who didn’t have the mental capacity to understand his motivations – they were copycats appropriating a style that consequently lost its meaning.  It was mass-marketed and branded, just like every other style.  Just as the goths had Hot Topic, hipsters had Urban Outfitters, and their sub-culture was cashed in on.
Aesthetic aside, when it comes down to it, a hipster is best defined as someone who desperately wants to be cool.  Irony and authenticity are but tools on the hipster’s “cool belt.”   Unfortunately, “cool” is an illusive and subjective term.  What’s cool to say, Coolio, probably wouldn’t be cool to me.  Yet, among college educated middle-to-upper class Americans (who I assume constitute the majority of my readership), “cool” has a similar meaning.  The thing is, though, while a certain culture may agree on what’s cool, “cool” still changes over time.  That explains why the term “hipster” is so hard to nail down.  It’s always changing. 
It may seem like “educated middle-class twenty-somethings trying to be cool” is too broad of a definition for hipster.  It kind of is, because everybody’s trying to be cool to some extent.  The thing that separates hipsters from everyone else is that they’re trying really hard to make it look like they’re not trying very hard to look cool.  They wear, listen to, and use ridiculous and inconvenient things to try and seem unique and interesting.  Some people buy it.  More, however, find hipsters completely obnoxious.  Seriously.  I know a whole lot of people who fucking hate hipsters.  I certainly hate a lot of them.  I think this hatred stems from the disingenuousness of claiming to like things with the sole goal of looking cool – that’s what’s always pissed me off about them anyway.  I’ve legitimately liked mustaches, indie music, and Pabst Blue Ribbon for a long time; now I think twice about publicly rocking a ‘stache, listening to my favorite bands, or drinking a PBR for fear of being stigmatized as one of them.
In closing, it seems that hipsters piss people off because they’ve appropriated things some people actually like somewhat ironically just to seem different.  Further, they authentically seem to like things that are obviously awful.  While I can’t say that hipsters don’t actually like stupid crap like v-necks that go down to your belly button, I think that one day, someone’s gonna look back and ask, “why did ANYONE ever listen to fucking Animal Collective
P.S.  Charlie, I know I didn’t entirely answer the prompt you gave me.  I think scenester was an early term for hipsters that were really into the indie music scene.  They’re kind of the same thing now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Note from the Management

Hello All,

After reckless deliberation, I've decided that my original goal of writing five new blogs a week was too ambitious.  All this blog work has left me with little time to concentrate on my other writing projects, which I can assure you are numerous, wide-ranging, and in various states of incompletion.  This fact, combined with my customary laziness and lack of monetary incentive, has led me to reevaluate the focus of this blog.

Henceforth,  I'll be writing only three long blogs per week.  For now, I'll also be posting something short (like this) twice a week.  Due to my lack of will, focus, and free time, I may end up not even posting those.  If that happens, I'm sure that soon after this blog will inevitably die a slow and largely unnoticed death, just like its first incarnation.

In the meantime, keep sending me things to write about.  If you pique my interest, you may just save this blog and possibly... the world!  Probably just this blog, though.

Regards and Cheers,

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bonesman Begins

Part One of Five

Prompt:  Write a fictional piece about what it was like with George W. Bush in the Skull and Bones.
Suggested by:  James Moore

It was a shame that the Yale campus was so lit up at night; the two young men in their dark cloaks would have looked much more mysterious without the harsh light from the lamps along the pathway.  Nevertheless, they moved silently through the quad, their faces covered by oversized hoods.  They walked deliberately, as if each step was more important than the last.  They had business to take care of.  They were Skull and Bones, out to tap their newest member.
The men’s furtiveness was out of the ordinary; tapping for secret societies was usually a public affair.  Dozens of eligible juniors, hoping desperately to join one of the illustrious senior societies, gathered on Branford court each April waiting for a current member to tap them on the shoulder, signaling an invitation to join their ranks.  Two senior members of a society going to a single student’s room for a private late night tapping was extremely rare.  In this case, though, it was necessary. 
That afternoon, their newest inductee hadn’t shown up for tapping.  Normally, the organization would have taken this as a snub and selected a new member from the waiting list.  At an emergency meeting this evening, some members had proposed this course of action, but it was eventually decided that due to the nature of this particular situation, choosing a new member was not an option.  This student was a legacy, as deeply rooted as any the society had seen.  His father, a recently elected congressman from Texas, had been a member, as had his grandfather, a recently retired Senator from Connecticut.  Despite his less than sterling reputation at the college, George W. Bush was fated to join the Skull and Bones, whether he liked it or not.
The two cloaked men approached the dormitory.  They weren’t quite sure what to expect.  Why hadn’t he showed up that afternoon?  Was Bush making a statement with his absence or was he just uninterested?  While many of the members were acquaintances with Bush, none knew much about him.  With a feeling of uncertainty that was atypical in Bonesmen, they entered the building.  Walking through the halls of the old building, the young men received a variety of laughs and jeers.  A hundred years before, students would have been scampering out of sight in the presence of the cloaked seniors; even a decade ago none would have dared challenge the dominance of a man with a Skull and Bones pin.  The sixties had clearly taken their toll on the organization’s authority over the student body. 
The Bonesmen were unfazed by the younger students’ churlishness.  Though their fellow students no longer paid them the respect they were due, the men took solace in the fact that with the benefits Skull and Bones provided, one day they’d have power and wealth their classmates could only dream of.
They arrived at Bush’s room.  As was their custom, one of them rapped four times on the door, pausing meaningfully between each knock.  Muffled sounds came from the room.  The Bonesmen waited.  More sounds came from inside – mostly fumbling and cursing.  The door swung open.  Standing behind it was George, half clothed and fully drunk.  He grinned and laughed.  “Evenin’, y’all!”
The seniors entered the room, hustling Bush back and closing the door behind them.  They were at once overcome by the smell of stale beer and staler urine.  “Whoa there,” said the young legacy, “you don’t have to be all pushy.” 
The senior member pulled out a scroll from inside his cloak.  “George W. Bush,” he read, “like your father and your grandfather before you, you are hereby tapped for initiation into the arcane mysteries of the illustrious order of Skull and Bones.” 
George chuckled.  “Quit pullin’ my chain, fellas.  Tapping ain’t til Saturday.  What’s this about?”
The men looked at each other.  “Seriously?” one whispered to the other.  His partner sighed in exasperation.  “George, today is Saturday.”
“Bullshit, you fucker.  It’s Thursday.”
“Today is Saturday.  Tapping was this afternoon.”
“Hell.”  Bush sat down on the floor, confused.
The Bonesman continued reading from the scroll.  “You shall report to The Tomb, the safe haven of our society, as the sun sets on the morrow, bringing with you only the clothes on your back and a symbol of your allegiance.  Until then, you shall break contact with all your fellows, keeping inviolably secret what has passed at this meeting.”
George looked up at them, then returned his gaze to the floor.  He stuck his hand into a pile of dirty clothes; when he brought it out it was holding a bottle of whiskey.  In one quick motion, he uncorked the top and took a swig.  “What?”
The cloaked men turned to each other in private conversation.  “Jesus Christ.”
“I’m not reading that again.”
“You have to.”
“Screw this, Roger.  There’s no way this guy is going to hack it.”
“Do you have any idea how furious the Russell Trust will be if we don’t let him in?  They’ll take away our funding!”
“Fine.  Let’s just make sure he knows where to be tomorrow.”
They turned back to Bush.  He was fast asleep on the dorm floor, smiling like an idiot.
“God, God dammit.” 
The next morning, George W. Bush woke up feeling mildly dehydrated.  He stumbled into the bathroom in his underwear and looked in the mirror.  Written on his chest in perfect mirror-image calligraphy were the words, “Skull and Bones.  Tonight at Sundown.  You’re an asshole.”  As a look of recognition came across his face, the newest member of one of the most elite secret societies in the world giggled like a little girl.

To be continued…

Monday, June 06, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Time

These are my friends, Bill and Ted.

Prompt:  If you had a time machine and could go to any time period and talk to anyone where would you go and who would you talk to?  Things to consider:  A. the Butterfly Effect.  B. Delorians.  C.  Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Suggested by:  Sarah Fink

I like time travel.  At least I think I do. I’ve never time travelled myself, but seeing people do it in movies has always made me envious.  I think I’d really enjoy going back in time and screwing with my past self.  Take note: screwing with, not screwing.  I read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago and I’m pretty sure I remember a scene where the main character goes back in time and blows himself.  I don’t think I’d be down with that.
Future-self fellatio aside, thinking about the complications and consequences of time travel is always interesting.  In my mind, there are a few basic scenarios of how time travel could work.  They are enumerated and evaluated below.
1.  Unchangeable Future – In this scenario, the future (or the time traveler’s present) is set and cannot be changed.  His actions sometimes seem to change the course of history, but it always corrects itself to end up exactly how it was going to be.  This is basically a waste of time unless you can gain knowledge of something in the past that would be advantageous in the present.
2.  Changeable Future – The time traveler can influence events in the past that will change the course of history.  In this instance, the time traveler can change his own life in the present by changing his past.  Think Back to the Future.  Unfortunately, in this scenario, shit can get real.  As Ashton Kutcher showed us, the Butterfly Effect makes this type of time travel extremely dangerous.  Despite its widespread use in movies and literature, changeable future time travel is not recommended.
3.  Space-Time Dilemma – In this one, if the time traveler comes into physical contact with himself, either he or the world will cease to end, as the same matter is not allowed to occupy the same space.  This happens in Time Cop.  Space-Time Dilemma time travel can be tied in with any of the other types.
4.  Alternate Universe – When the time traveler goes back, he creates (or enters) an alternate universe.  This seems like the most plausible way to time travel without bothering with the philosophical consequences of changing the past.  I guess it’s reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life.  Kind of.  Also, Lost, if that shit made any sense.
5.  Observational – The time traveler cannot change anything or interact with anyone.  He’s only allowed to observe the past.  I can do that with surveillance cameras.  This type of time travel is lame.
6.  Nonsensical – In this case, time travel makes no logical or coherent sense.  It is the best.  Our friends Bill and Ted have proven this.
If I had to choose a time travel scenario to use in my own journeys, I’d probably go with nonsensical for ease of use and sheer fun-factor.  I imagine scientists wouldn’t let this happen, though, so my second choice would be the alternate universe one, provided I could return to my regular present when I was done.
If I went back in time in this way, I have a few people I’d want to talk to.  I can think of many times I’d want to travel to, but my top choice would probably be late 1800’s America.  I’d shoot the shit with Mark Twain and then go play with electricity with Nikola Tesla.  Unfortunately, I doubt either of them would like me very much, so I’d go home disappointed.  If I could change the future I’d probably go to the past and buy a crapload of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Berkshire Hathaway stock.  If I’m ever really rich, assume that I’ve accomplished this.
Other things/people I’d like to see/meet in the past include dinosaurs, Leonardo DaVinci, cavemen, Atlantis, Aristotle, the Wild West, Benjamin Franklin, 16th century England, and Oscar Wilde.  I would also very much like to visit the future, but that’s another story.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Egg Day

Not a Chicken.

Prompt: In honor of Egg Day on June 3rd, which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Suggested by:  Claudia Deeb

The neopragmatic approach to philosophy asks that before you answer a question, you first ask, “Will knowing the answer to this question have any practical effect on your life or the way the world works?”  If the answer to that question is “no,” then it’s not a question worthy of an answer, except as a philosophical exercise.  The answer to the chicken/egg question, while interesting, has no substantive consequences, and thus, a pragmatist philosopher would not waste his valuable time working on it.  I, however, am not a real philosopher, and there’s nothing valuable about my time, so I’ll discuss it now.
It’s curious that this question still persists, as scientists have basically put it to rest.  With a little knowledge of evolution, it is easy to see that the egg came before the chicken.  We know that all evolutionary genetic mutation occurs before birth, thus, in the egg.  The creature that laid the first chicken egg obviously came before that egg, but was not itself a chicken; it was most likely a red or grey junglefowl.  Though this creature was not a chicken itself, it laid a chicken egg, and gave birth to a new species.  Thus, the egg came before the chicken.
Though the chicken/egg problem (like many philosophical conundrums) has been clearly solved through the scientific process, the thought behind it still provides a paradox.  This particular paradox is often known as a causality dilemma, or a case of circular cause or consequence.  Many philosophical questions fall into similar situations.  Queries like “Why is the sky blue?” and “If a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound?” have definite scientific answers, (namely, “A certain scattering of light through the atmosphere.” and “No, it only creates vibrations.  Sound is created in the ear.”), but the thinking behind them is still a point of contention. 
To boil things down to their philosophical roots we can always, like an annoying six year old, repeatedly ask “why?” until science doesn’t have an answer.  “Why is the sky blue?” will eventually become “why does anything exist in the way that it does?” and “If a tree falls…” becomes “Is there an objective reality independent of human observers?”  When we get down to these questions, science can’t help us – the big “why’s” are purely in the domain of metaphysics. 
Philosophers have been struggling with these questions for millennia now, trying to once and for all put these paradoxes to rest.  Despite their many approaches to each of these dilemmas, none has provided a truly satisfactory answer.  We must then ask if these questions are worth answers.  A pragmatist would surely say no.  Would knowing the nature of existence change your daily life?  Would there be any practical consequences if you learned that an objective reality existed independent of your mind?  I doubt it.
In this way, neopragmatism avoids philosophical hubris.  Anyone claiming to indubitably know the nature of existence is functionally saying, “I’m smarter than any philosopher who ever lived.”  The pragmatist, in turn, argues that these questions are likely not knowable, and even if they are, don’t have enough practical value to try and answer.  While it may seem like a cop out that pragmatists basically say, “who cares?” when asked deep questions, it leaves them free to focus more on searching for practical truths and answers of consequence.
In closing, I’ll leave you with an extremely important question that even the greatest philosopher may not be able to answer:  What the shit is Egg Day?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Faux News

This could be you!

Prompt:  Why is the conservative-right in this country so fucked up?  And why do they all watch Fox News like stunned sheep?
Suggested by:  Warren Wills

While I agree that much of the conservative right in this country is completely fucked up, I don’t think they’re much more fucked up on average than the rest of our country – they’re just louder.  Liberals and moderates can be just as psycho, but they usually keep to themselves.  When I was interning in DC, almost every day I’d see the Code Pink ladies chase and harass someone where I worked, screaming, “war criminal!” and “who wants to die!?”  Okay, maybe the second one wasn’t Code Pink ladies as much as it was my friend Ron.  And it wasn’t in the Russell Senate Office as much as it was a McDonalds on the Las Vegas Strip.  My point here is Ron’s not a member of the conservative right, and he’s pretty fucked up.  Boom, relevance!
Back to our discussion of what makes conservative politicians and pundits so much louder than their liberal counterparts.  In terms of political tactics, conservatives can be much more dirty.  They distract from the real issues, distort facts, and throw ad hominem attacks like so much confetti.  The sad part about this is it works.  The American public is ridiculously misinformed about political issues, current events, and scientific consensus.  All it takes to realize that is to look at a few polls (or watch Leno’s Jaywalking).  By aggressively yelling and misinforming, conservatives are able to shape the political discourse.  When they’re done, people are so angry or confused that liberals don’t get a chance to present their points.  They spend so much time, money, and energy debunking baseless or irrelevant attacks on their policies and characters that they have none left for presenting their actual arguments.
I’m not saying that conservatives are the only ones using these dirty tactics.  They’re not; most politicians are smarmy. Liberals try it too, but they aren’t very good at it.  Maybe it’s because there’s a correlation between educational level and liberality, and educated people don’t take kindly to being dicked around and lied to, or maybe it’s because liberals have higher standards for moral political conduct.  I think it also has a lot to do with the media.
One of the largest problems with politics today lies with the news.  News media is how people connect with current events.  It’s not like 99% of us are able to go to political rallies, congressional hearings, or foreign war zones to find out what’s happening – we need someone to tell us.  We rely on them, then, to tell us objectively, to the best of their ability, what has happened.  News media used to be good at this.  There were journalistic standards and practices that made sure opinions were kept in the opinions columns and real news was objectively reported in a very clear and certain way.  When journalists presented false information, it was a big deal and they had to publish retractions and corrections. 
While many newspapers still do this and their journalistic integrity is for the most part intact, no one reads newspapers anymore.  To tell the truth, I probably haven’t touched an actual physical newspaper in over two years, (except when using it to make model landforms).  It seems most people get their news either online or via television.  Today, TV news is basically entertainment.  Discussing the intricacies of the “TV news as entertainment” is another whole topic, so just watch the movie Network and you’ll be relatively well versed on the subject.  Also, you’ll be mad as hell and you won’t take it anymore.
If we were to eliminate entertainment from news, though, other problems would arise.  What worries me is that if there aren’t (arguably entertaining) pundit shows like The O’Reilly Factor on television, people would be less informed about issues than they already are.  But then, maybe ill-informed is better than misinformed.  Not that it matters – news as entertainment is profitable, and thus, here to stay.
Rhere’s such a variety of TV news programming on today that you can almost always find a newsperson to watch who you know agrees with you.  This is dangerous.  Newspeople didn’t used to be there to make you happy.  They were there to inform you of the facts, whether you liked them or not.  Most of the time (even on Fox News), real news programs still actually present the facts.  The problem is, there’s less and less news programming and more and more punditry.  People now constantly confuse opinion reporting with fact reporting, resulting in the fucked-up-ness that was previously discussed.  Conservative people watch Fox News because they want to hear someone who tells them what they want to hear just as liberal people watch MSNBC for the same reason. 
So what’s the solution to this?  I think there’s one that’s fairly simple.  Someone should create an organization that objectively reviews news programs and holds them to certain journalistic standards.  If they meet the standards, they get to have the organization’s official seal of integrity on their program.  If they do bad reporting, focus too much on opinion, or have too high a rate of sensationalism and misrepresented facts, they lose that seal.  Over time, having that seal could be something prestigious that the public respects – hopefully people would be more inclined to watch news that was certified as such than the opinion pieces that spam the airwaves every day.   If you were arguing with someone and they presented facts from a news show without the seal of integrity, their argument could be more easily dismissed.  Or if they told you they didn’t watch shows with the seal of integrity, you could just not waste your time arguing with them.
As our only link to what’s happening in our democracy, news needs to be responsibly conveyed to the people.  People who appear on TV automatically gain authority through relative celebrity.  They need to use that authority responsibly and we need to hold them accountable. After all, I think we all know enough stupid and misinformed people in our daily lives that we don’t need to see them on TV, too.   

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Musical Arrangement

In case you didn't figure it out.

Prompt: Use the words from your favorite song, mix them up and write a short story using every word.
Suggested by:  Claudia Deeb

Author’s Note:  Today’s post is shorter than 500 words because it uses the words and only the words from my favorite song to tell a short story, as requested.  It took more time than writing 500 words normally does, so I deemed it acceptable for posting.

Tonight, I stopped to do a thing I only ever do in whispers. It’s as if he had turned to me, waiting for the company of that restless boy I’ve become.  Words, coming from time, echoing like the rains, hurry towards an old conversation. The men must hear the things I say.   Drums reflect the melodies I guide along into the night. Nothing hears me as I take some hundred or more frightened dogs down to that ancient lot. There’s this way they cry – as we do out of sure longing.
She rises above in that long, solitary flight.  As moonlit quiet or some wild Olympus hoping for salvation, she’s away to Kilimanjaro.  12:30; out in Africa, you drag some Serengeti to me.  It’s gonna grow wings, gonna take the stars.  What’s inside of you, there?  The cure or a man?  I know what’s right could never find that forgotten deep, but you bless as sure as some must seek. 

Author’s Second Note: If you don’t know the song I’ve rearranged, you’re missing out on a large part of life. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pot Talk


Prompt: What would California look like if marijuana were legalized?  Would it make a difference if it were dispensed by the government in small quantities without marketing it?
Suggested by:  James Moore

Since I moved here a few months ago, I’ve noticed a number of differences between Los Angeles and my previous abode in Orange County.  Given, I haven’t noticed as many as I did when I first moved from Omaha (I’m still scared shitless by the “severe tire damage” spike strips in parking lots), but I’ve definitely noticed some changes.  One of these is the insane amount of marijuana dispensaries I’ve seen.  Within two miles of my apartment lie The LA Cannabis Club, Venice Caregivers, Little Amsterdam, Beverly Hills Alternative Herbal Remedies, Robertson Caregivers, The Culver City Collective, and Kind For Cures (cleverly located in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant).  Altogether, there are almost a thousand in LA County alone.  They’re everywhere, each with a green cross in the window.  With this very public and very advertised sale of marijuana already going on, it seems insane to me that the stuff’s not legal already.
I know a ton of people with medical marijuana licenses, few of whom have any kind of medical issues that really need treating.  It seems ridiculously easy to obtain a license to smoke here in LA.  I hear you can get a weed prescription for PMS.  That qualifies about half the state to smoke legally.  The half without periods have plenty of other ways to qualify – headaches, lack of sleep, anxiety, whatever.  Someone even told me he had it for depression, which seems counterproductive.  The best use I’ve been told of, though, is marijuana being prescribed for herpes.  I really don’t see what good it’d do there.
On top of that, getting caught with illegal marijuana possession without intent to sell is only a hundred dollar fine in California.  That’s cheaper than a speeding ticket for going 5mph over the speed limit.  Hell, a ticket for talking on the phone while driving is over $300 after fines (which makes sense – it’s way more dangerous).  These lax regulations and slap-on-the-wrist laws seem to be doing everything but encouraging people to get high.
All this makes me think that if pot actually were legalized, not a lot would change for the average person.  It’s already amazingly available, easy to find, and hard to get punished for.  Not a lot of people would start the habit that hadn’t already.  It’d probably keep casual drug users safer; they wouldn’t have dealers pushing them to try harder drugs.  The real changes would come at the state level, though.  Prisons would no longer house thousands of small time weed-dealers, illegal drug trade would drop off, and the DEA would waste fewer resources on busting grow operations.  All in all, people would stop being secretive about something that’s more harmless than drinking a beer.
So, will marijuana ever become completely legal in California?  I wish I could say it would.  During the post-hippie movement of the 70’s, people were sure it d be legal within the next few years.  Throughout the nineties a number of propositions supporting legal marijuana failed.  Then this Fall in California, Prop 19, which would have effectively legalized and taxed the sale of marijuana to the public, lost at the polls.  It still seems ridiculous to me that this could happen.  I’ve heard only a few rational arguments against legalization, and most of them have been pro-illegal drug dealer.  The most public arguments I’ve heard are from people who assume that pot is inherently bad and its users are evil.  It seems no matter what statistics, data, or results you show these people they won’t support legalization.  If you ask me, it’s misinformed and ignorant people that are blocking legal use of marijuana.  It’s a shame that the system has to be the way it is in California – smokers with laughable prescriptions get all the benefits of legal weed and the government gets none. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Teaching Jurassic Park to Kindergarteners


Prompt:  Hey Ben, I haven't seen the movie Jurassic Park in a while. Can you refresh my memory and narrate the story please?
Suggested by:  Tim Sauer

It’s funny that Tim suggested this post the other day, as I’ve already narrated the plot of Jurrasic Park twice this week.  I’m teaching an after-school dinosaur unit to a bunch of kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays and this week’s class was about amber, bugs, and DNA.  They’re mostly kindergarteners.  It surprised me how many of them have actually seen Jurassic Park, seeing as how I was alive when it was released and hadn’t seen it until a few months ago.  Anyway, I’m going to try and narrate the movie like I do in my classes.  Every time you see “Q:” the children have stopped me to ask a question, or (more realistically) talk about something completely unrelated.

So, Jurassic Park is a movie about dinosaurs.  In the movie they make new dinosaurs and there’s a big park on an island filled with dinosaurs.
Yes, there were three movies.
Ask your parents.  Anyway, the movie starts with a man who found some amber, which used to be sap from trees.  This amber is special because it has a very old mosquito in it. 
Mosquitoes are bugs that suck animals’ blood.  So, they found a mosquito in amber, which used to be sap from a tree.  Does anyone know why trees have sap?
No, it’s not tree blood.  They make sap to protect themselves from bugs.  How would tree sap protect against bugs?
It’s not acid.  It’s sap.  It’s sweet.  It’s like what maple syrup is made from.
Yes, pancakes are good.  So trees make sap to protect themselves from bugs that want to eat them, like termites, which are little bugs that eat wood.
I doubt that termites ate your entire house, Noah.  Like I was saying, sap protects trees from bugs because they get stuck in it and can’t move.
I’m trying to explain what it has to do with dinosaurs.  Put your hands down for a few minutes and I’ll get to it.  So, over a long time the sap turns into amber, which is also called fossilized resin.  In Jurassic Park they found some amber with a mosquito in it, and the mosquito had dinosaur blood inside it.
No, it wasn’t in the mosquito’s butt.
Okay, I guess if the blood was kept in its abdomen it would technically be in its butt.  I think it’d probably be in the thorax though.  Good use of the word abdomen.  Well in the movie they took the dinosaur blood out and got the dinosaur’s DNA out of it.  Who can tell me what DNA is?
Very good.  DNA is like a blueprint for who we are.  In one little piece of our DNA there’s information on our whole body.
Yes, even our butts.  But DNA also has to do with our genes, which are different from the jeans we wear.
I don’t know why they’re the same word.  They’re spelled differently.  Anyway, there’s lots and lots of DNA in our bodies.  Dinosaurs had DNA, too.  All animals do because all living things have DNA.  In the movie they got really old dinosaur DNA from blood inside a mosquito inside some amber and used it to clone a dinosaur.  Who knows what it means to clone?
Not really.  What would it be like if there was a clone of me in this room?
Yep, there’d be another copy of me in the room.
Kind of like a twin, but a little different because it’d be made from scratch.  Do you think scientists can make clones today?
Actually, they can.  Has anyone heard of Dolly the sheep?
That’s not the sheep they feed the velociraptor.  It’s a sheep that was cloned.
I’m not sure; I think sometime in the 90’s.
We need to move on.  Okay, so they clone a dinosaur using DNA from a dinosaur’s blood they found in a mosquito that was found in some amber which is old fossilized tree sap.  They made a bunch of dinosaurs and put them in a park and invited some people to preview the park. 
No, it didn’t really happen.  It was a movie.  Okay, there are also two kids there.  This fat guy steals some dino eggs and Sam Jackson is all, “hold on to your butts.”
Yes, butts.  And then things go wrong and the dinosaurs escape and try to eat everybody, but most of the people don’t get eaten.  Also, Jeff Goldblum was there.
Don’t worry about it.
Yes, we’ll do a project now.  Everyone’s going to get a plate and some candy and we’re making an edible model of some DNA, then we’ll go outside and see which trees have the most sap and which have the most bugs.
No.  Gummi bears don’t have DNA.

So, while it’s an abbreviated approximation, that’s pretty much how it goes down.  I hope I adequately related how difficult it is to get through the plot of that movie while teaching science and fielding the questions of a dozen six-year-olds.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tabula Rasa

Prompt:  Ben, there have been tornados like crazy here in Missouri. In Joplin, hospitals, high schools, and hundreds of homes have been leveled. In this tragic time, please offer us some inspiration by describing what you would do if your current neighborhood and city was unexpectedly destroyed by a tornado or probably more accurately an earthquake. Would you rebuild or would you cut your losses and move somewhere completely new?
Suggested by:  Tim Sauer

It seems that every place in the United States has its own set of natural disasters.  On the West Coast there are earthquakes, fires, landslides, volcanoes, and tsunamis; in the Midwest and South there are tornadoes, floods, and droughts; the mountains have avalanches; the Gulf and lower East Coast have hurricanes; the northwest has snowstorms and heat waves.  There’s really something for everyone.
Each year there’s some big news-covered event in the US that destroys homes and displaces or kills large numbers of people.  This year it’s the tornadoes that have ripped through Middle America.  Like the trees and building foundations in these areas, peoples’ lives have been uprooted by the storms.  Many have nowhere to go; no property left and no investments to fall back on.  Their lives have been forever changed.
The silver lining on the funnel clouds, though, is that they provide a chance to start over.  For some, this means rebuilding – making your town or city better than it was before.  Take the example of Greensburg, Kansas.  In 2007, an EF5 tornado tore through the town, destroying 95% of its structures and killing eleven residents.  Instead of abandoning what was now little more than a pile of rubble on the plains, the survivors started rebuilding, with the added goal of creating a completely Green town.  Since the disaster, every new building in the town has been LEED Platinum certified, and all power comes from renewable resources.  Greensburg is an inspirational example of how catastrophe can bring people together and spur them to make their community better.
For others, natural disasters provide a different way to start over – they give the opportunity to get up and go.  With few material possessions weighing them down, people are free to leave and settle anywhere they want.  It seems many people in New Orleans took this approach after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – the city’s population has dropped over 25% since the levees broke.  While it’s hard to know if those people’s quality of life has increased since then, I like to imagine many of them were able to reinvent themselves and escape lives they found less than fulfilling.
Is one of these options better than the other?  I don’t think so.  Whether one chooses to rebuild or move on, natural disasters inarguably provide a clean slate, and that’s what’s important.  While these calamities can claim both lives and property, they give back a fresh start, which can have immense value in itself. 
I sometimes wonder what I’d do if my home were destroyed.  I think the most impactful factor in my decision would not be the things and places I’d leave behind, but the people.  While I’ve never been particularly tied to a place I’ve lived, I’ve most definitely been tied to the people I’ve loved.  In that way, I think it wouldn’t be completely up to me if I stayed in a place after it had been destroyed; it would be up to the people I care about.  Even if rebuilding seemed like a Sisyphean task, if my friends and family needed me, I’d stay. 
Of course, my reaction would also depend on the extent of the devastation.  If everyone I knew was dead, you bet your ass I’d stay and build a brave new world from the ashes of the apocalypse.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Plea/Bargain

This post is special - it does not start with the underlined word "prompt."  I'm not writing a regular post tonight.  Instead, I'm asking you for more suggestions.  Right now I only have suggestions from three people, one of whom has already had two blogs written.  I'd like more diversity in my promptors.

You see, having lots of topics to choose from lets me write what I'm in the mood to write.  All the topics I have right now are either intense and thought provoking or take more time and effort than I have.  Another night they'll be just what I'm looking for.  Right now, not so much. 

Cut me some slack and send me some things to write.  Remember, I'll do whatever, so get creative with it.  I'd prefer if they're not about me.  Instead, just request information on a topic you'd want to know more about or a story you'd like to read.  Or you can just tell me to stop writing, but that'd be a dick move, so I'd prefer if you just stopped reading instead.

I apologize for my failures, but it's been a long day (I worked out twice) and I have to get up and drive to Beverly Hills at 6am tomorrow.  So forgive me today's post and I'll consider not taking Memorial Day off.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Worst Post Yet

If I ever see someone curb a dog, I will cry.

Prompt:  Yo, what do you do with your days these days? Besides write things and make comics?
Suggested by: Brennan Wallace

If this prompt had been suggested a month ago, my response would have been notably more depressing.  Now, I’m employed and I have things to do.  Kind of.  I work for a company that does in-school gifted education and after-school science enrichment programs in elementary and middle schools throughout LA.  While far from full-time, it’s a lot of fun and it pays the bills.
Other than that, most of my time is spent putting off the work I want to do writing things or making comics.  This procrastination includes reading, watching movies, watching old tv shows, and listening to music.  I really enjoy the distraction of entertainment in its various forms.  That may have something to do with why I want to work in the entertainment industry.
Right now I’m sitting at a coffee/tea shop near my apartment drinking coffee and (obviously) writing this blog.  I’m feeling particularly uninspired this morning, so this will not be one of my better posts – in fact, it may be my worst - but something’s better than nothing, right?
Probably not.  I can think of lots of situations where nothing would have been much better than something.  For one, it would have been way better if When In Rome had never been made.  I may see how many consecutive posts I can have where I make digs at When In Rome.  Maybe I’ll just change the name of this blog from “Deeb Thoughts” to “When In Rome is Still a Bad Movie” and every day make a new post about it.  Or maybe that would be ridiculously lame. 
Anyway, I was saying that something may not be better than nothing.  In terms of maintaining a level of quality on my blog, not writing this post would most certainly be better than posting it, but I have deadlines, which are notorious for shooting down the quality of what I write.  But they are often the only things that get me to write at all, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.  Also, I already missed my deadline on Friday, but I was real busy, so get off my back, chump. 
As you may have noticed, this is more freewriting right now than me writing anything of substance – anything… substantive.  That’s one of my favorite words, but I don’t get to use it a lot because it makes me sound pretentious.  Another one of these words I love is “recursive.”  It’s useful more than you think it’d be. 
It’s frustrating when you can use big words to more efficiently explain yourself but you’ve got to dumb them down so you don’t sound like an ass.  On the other hand, it makes what you’re saying more accessible and avoids many of the problems found in the dense and inaccessible world of academic writing.  There’s always a trade off.
Well, I’ve almost hit five hundred words, which was my goal for these blog posts.  I even wrote out the number “five hundred” to get that extra word in there.  I hope you weren’t too disappointed in this literary diarrhea.  Diarrhea is a word I aspire to be able to spell without spell check.  Someday, diarrhea, someday.
Jesus, I haven’t shown something this rambling and awful to the world since my Sophomore year of high school when I had to do daily essays in English class.  Suffice it to say I’m embarrassed enough for all of us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Ben Commandments

God uses Roman numerals.
Prompt: If you could rewrite the Ten Commandments, what would you change?  Add, delete, but keep it at ten.
Suggested by:  Tony Deeb

If I could rewrite the Ten Commandments and change anything, I’d have let Charlton Heston carry a gun.  Moses screaming, “Let my people go!” with a loaded firearm just seems so right.  In all seriousness though, I know my father was talking about the Ten Crack Commandments, and I honestly wouldn’t change a word.  Biggie had that shit on lock.  In all even more serious seriousness, this isn’t an easy prompt to answer.  It requires serious thought about ethics, which is most certainly my least favorite branch of philosophy.
As almost all of my readers are non-religious, I’ll list the original Ten Commandments here for you to peruse.  They are as follows (as copied from some Christian website):
ONE: 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'

TWO: 'You shall not make for yourself a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.'

THREE: 'You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.'

FOUR: 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.'

FIVE: 'Honor your father and your mother.'

SIX: 'You shall not murder.'

SEVEN: 'You shall not commit adultery.'

EIGHT: 'You shall not steal.'

NINE: 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
TEN: 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.'
As you can see, the first four are all about God.  He really doesn’t want you worshiping anybody or anything but Him.  The last six are about man’s relationship with other men.  My interpretation of them is as follows: be respectful of your parents, don’t murder people, don’t slam other people’s spouses, don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be jealous. 
I remember hearing a sermon in church what must have been more than six years ago where the Dean (I attended a cathedral) said that each of the Ten Commandments was basically an expansion on “You shall not steal.”  I don’t remember exactly what the explanation of this was, but I think it went something like this: Believing in and worshiping another God is stealing God’s worship; so is using his name in vain and not keeping the Sabbath holy.  Not honoring your parents steals from them the respect they deserve for bringing you into this world.  Murdering is stealing someone’s life, adultery is stealing someone’s spouse, lying is stealing the truth from someone, and coveting is stealing… let’s say… satisfaction from the life you have.  That stuck with me and I thought I’d pass it on.
All in all, the Ten Commandments seem like pretty good rules to live by.  What bothers me is that there are only ten, and they’re very specific.  I find it strange that God didn’t have room for things like “don’t rape,” “don’t torture,” or “don’t hold slaves,” but thought “don’t do too much shit on Saturdays” was worthy of a spot on the list.  Of course you can always argue that it was a different time, but then, it’s God, so it shouldn’t really matter what the time was.  I don’t see how biblical ethics can be relative.
Now, if I hadn’t been requested to, I wouldn’t make a list at all.  As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m a pragmatist.  In my view, the concern of ethics is to find what individual behaviors are best for achieving some sense of the common good.  This position doesn’t much lend itself to one all-inclusive list of commandments for living a right life, because it’s not concerned with things being inherently right or wrong.  Right behaviors, in a pragmatist sense, are behaviors that best promote the common good.  These behaviors can change in different times and places.  This somewhat utilitarian view of ethics ends up arguing that morals are relative, which I don’t have a problem with.  Many people do, however, and I don’t like arguing with them, hence my general dislike of ethics as a study.
All that aside, I think there are a few rules that are good to live by.  For one, the Golden Rule (Do unto others…), is pretty solid.  It applies to most situations where an ethical decision needs to be made about how to treat a fellow human.  Another I’d add would probably be something along the lines of, “don’t contribute to creating a world you wouldn’t want to live in.”  This covers societal and environmental ethics the same way the Golden Rule covers interpersonal ethics.  Of course, people have differing views of what they’d want done to them or what kind of world they’d want to live in, so these aren’t perfect.  Since I’m not pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy, I’ll just leave that alone.  Also, since I’m not pursuing a graduate degree, I’ll call my form of ethics “Neo-Pragmatic Non-Douchebaggery.”
So, those two basic rules would probably constitute my general ethical philosophy.  In terms of “do what works to promote a good society,” I think those two rules work pretty well.  The prompt, though, asked for a list of ten things, so I’ll leave the general rules behind and give you my list of then ten specific things I’d command people to do if I was in the commandment business.
1.  Don’t steal.
2.  Don’t murder.
3.  Don’t betray people’s trust.
4.  Don’t use people.
5.  Don’t cause people unnecessary pain or discomfort.
6.  Be respectful and reverent towards all life.
7.  Be honest.
8.  Be conscientious.
9.  Be the person you think you should be.
10.  Be better than you were yesterday.
Put me on a motivational poster, bitch!  To be honest I felt completely pretentious typing those things; it was a little embarrassing.  I think it’s because I don’t believe that in coming up with those I’ve done anything anyone else couldn’t do.  Everyone knows what it is to live a good moral life – they often just choose not to and then come up with excuses through philosophical justification.  Who am I to tell anyone else how to live, and who is anyone else to do so for that matter? 
I believe in an ethics of personal responsibility.  All of ethics basically comes down to “don’t be a douchebag.”  I like to think that everyone is capable of knowing when his actions constitute douchebaggery.  I guess it’s a sign of the immorality of the times just how many complete douches I’ve encountered in my life.  I'm sure if everybody who reads this spreads the good word of Neo-Pragmatic Non-Douchebaggery, the world will be a better place to live.