Archive for May, 2012

Pointless Wars Have Made Memorial Day Really Awkward

Today is one of those days where the title is the thesis and vice versa: pointless wars have made Memorial Day an awkward holiday to celebrate.

It’s not so bad if you’re a fan of quietly contemplating old graves or memorials. A solemn and silent thank-you to some long-dead Civil War or World War Either-One vet is a comforting historical touchstone for people who never lived through those times. There the soldiers were; here we are. Ne’er the twain shall meet. Whatever ambiguities there were at the time have largely been smoothed out in popular memory, until most of us can at least say “I’m glad you did your part, whatever it was” to those old dead.

Dealing with this generation’s troops is harder.

Our country has been at war quite literally since I was in high school (ten and a half years for those that don’t have my graduation announcement handy). Wrap your brain around that one for a moment before we go on with this essay — everything you’ve done for the last decade was done, technically, in a state of war. Didn’t notice much here at home, did you?

This real and ongoing conflict (“living” seems like the wrong term, under the circumstances) makes it a touchy dance down a fine line to memorialize the dead of a decade ago while some of the people they shipped out with are still fighting today. Which do you honor, the history or the present? Memorial Day was meant for the historical perspective, but we cannot, dare not, trivialize the living.

One solution I do not like at all is the rah-rah, flag-waving , 4th of July lite Memorial Day. Yelling “Thank you for your service!” at anyone in uniform overlooks the massive, criminal waste we’ve made of their service. Buying a trooper a beer does not make that waste better.

But “Thank you for your good intentions; I wish we had created a structure wherein your obvious patriotism could have been put to meaningful domestic use instead of wasted abroad” is an awkward sentiment to try and unpack in a crowded bar.

I’ve always wondered how different our recent history might be if we’d created a civil service to match the military. Imagine sending our movie-poster-handsome recruiters out to the high schools to solemnly tell the boys and girls that it’s their time to do their best for Uncle Sam and apple pie by joining the WPA or the CCC. But we phased those out, and left the military as the only government employer that recruits straight out of the cradle.

So here we all are with a Memorial Day where the waste of the living’s ongoing efforts is every bit as heartwrenching as the memory of the fallen. Imagine the good they could have done (both groups) here at home.

It’s sad. So you get a sad post now that I’ve had a few days to toss these thoughts around in my head. Aren’t you all glad?

Modern Things I Just Don’t Fucking Get: Shower Gel

I’m thinking about making this a recurring feature, so be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think of MTIJDFG as a regular on the blog.

So. Modern Things I Just Don’t Fucking Get. What the hell is up with shower gel?

I don’t get it. (The title sort of implies that.) Soap is so easy to make we invented it by accident. You can manufacture it in your bathtub if you want to. And if you don’t feel all arts-and-craftsy? That’s fine. Go pick a bar up for like seventy-five cents. Less if you buy in bulk.

Shower gel is not easy to make. Most are petroleum products, making them non-renewable, and for an extra “fuck you” to Mother Earth they come in non-reusable plastic (more petroleum) containers too. I am not a granola-munching hippie by any means, and live and eat in largely irresponsible and unsustainable ways, but at least it’s because it’s convenient.

Shower gel? Not convenient. The funky, focus-group tested bottles with their textured finger grips and fuck-all knows what else are huge, they crack and leak if you look at them funny, and the gel itself is so inefficient (petroleum gels resist breaking down in water, which is why they stay gels in the bottle so nicely) that you end up dumping half the bottle in your hand just to get a bit rubbed into your skin. And it costs orders of magnitude more than the smaller, longer-lasting, more environmentally-friendly bar soap that we’ve been using for the last 5000 years.

I don’t get it. It’s one of those products that there’s just no argument for. If you’re buying it, you got suckered.

Wasteful, crappy, unsustainable products as a staple of American life don’t really phase me anymore. They’re par for the course. But we’re usually buying them because it’s the easier option. What the hell is easier about shower gel?

Stop using that stuff. Go take a couple quarters and buy a bar of Dove. I can send you the quarters. Leave your address in the comments or something.

All right then.

Remembering to Walk the Blog: Why I’m a Cat Person

I live life to the extreme. When America takes a four day weekend, I take five, because that’s just the kind of guy I am. Extreme.

Of course, this has a deleterious effect on the blog. I’ve come to refer to posting as “walking the blog” lately — a daily task that involves a chunk of your morning and, inevitably, dealing with some shit. And holidays I tend to walk the blog pretty late in the day.

This is why I’m a cat person, or at least a cat owner. In disposition I am the archetypal dog person: big, easily excited, and prone to slobbering and putting my dirty feet on the furniture. But we own cats instead, and it is in large part because I am so lacksidasical about walking the blog.

Most “dog person/cat person” arguments tend to revolve around disposition. “Oh, they’re so stupid and slobbery” meets “Oh, they’re so finnicky and aloof,” and so on. Me, I take a more practical approach.

The dog has to be walked. Come 10:00 AM on a Monday morning, that dog does not care whether I got to bed at 11:00 PM and slept the slept of the angels or stayed up until 5:00 AM puking into the toilet (though he would probably be interested in the puking). Either I walk the dog or the dog craps on my floor.

The cats do not care about my sleep schedule. So long as there is food in the bowl I can go screw. They will greet me when I stumble out into the afternoon sunlight, greenish and throbbing. Possibly by puking in my shoes, mind you, but it will have nothing to do with me.

So: holiday weekends. Late blog posts. They go up in the afternoon or evening rather than the morning (or promptly at 12:00 AM, a standard I strive for and very rarely meet). And you can get away with that when you’re walking the blog — but not when you’re walking the dog.

Maybe if my computer pooped on my floor in the mornings I’d be better at prompt posting. Or maybe I just wouldn’t blog at all. Thoughts?

Closed for Memorial Day

No blog today. It’s Memorial Day — go do whatever it is you do for Memorial Day. Some people have ceremonies involving poppies or flags, and some people have ceremonies involving bratwurst and frisbees, and I’m not one to judge which is better.

We’ll be back with our usual shenanigans on Tuesday.

The Badlands: Every Libertarian Should Have to Visit

I love the Badlands dearly. Like Death Valley, it’s one of those places that delivers exactly what the name promises: bad land, miles and miles of it.

Beautiful, but useless. The land, that is; my guy friends up there are actually pretty handy.

The soil is dry, crumbly, and about equal parts clay dust and sand. Even the rocks are just very compact clay. Everything turns slick and washes away in the first rainstorm, and the little water you get immediately fills with sediment to the point where it’s undrinkable. If the sun and heat don’t kill you, and you don’t fall into one of the breathtakingly beautiful gorges, you’re likely to get trampled by buffalo or bit by a rattlesnake.

The warning signs started appearing at rest stops about twenty miles into South Dakota.

And best of all, it’s probably the least-regulated National Park you’ll ever visit. There are a couple trails for day-trippers (and my heart goes out to anyone who lives within day-trip distance of the Badlands), but most of the park is unimproved wilderness. The usual rules against trail-cutting, camping outside of designated sites, and so forth don’t exist, mostly because the landscape is so temporary that there’s nothing a few campers could do to erode it faster or slower even if they wanted to. Registering to camp there is quite literally on the honor system:

That’s all there is. You write your name and how many days you think you’ll be out there, and you hope that if you break a leg in a gorge somewhere the rangers will notice that you never checked out before you die of thirst (they won’t). From there on, this is your playground:

Unregulated, unrestricted, and basically still unsettled, since no one has ever found much use for the land even before it was a National Park. The Air Force used it as a bombing range for a while (you’re actually cautioned against using your cell phone or GPS in the southern section of the park, since it might set off unexploded ordnance), but other than “blow it up for practice” there’s just not much anyone has ever been able to do with the Badlands.

I like to think of it as the ultimate cure for the illusion of the rugged individual. Nothing makes you appreciate civilization (and ranger stations) like an environment that actively wants to kill you. The freedom of the park is awe-inspiring, and ultimately quite deadly if you don’t give up and head on back to safer, government-improved society once the water you packed in starts to run low.

Of course, the nearest human society is Wall Drug; maybe not our most shining example.

So if you’re ever near the Dakotas, swing on through the park. Take some lovely photos, buy the five-cent coffee at Wall Drug, and say hi to the buffalo for me.

But don’t linger too long. The name is in earnest.

There Is Nothing Sadder Than a Second-Place Marathoner

I run by necessity: when something that I will likely lose a fight with is chasing me.

But I recognize that this makes me something of a minority at my age, especially in running-obsessed Madison, where even the most granola-munching of hippies will break down and contribute a bit to global warming by sweating their way through the marathon, half-marathon, 5k, or other run of the week.

I try to watch this all with a tolerant eye. We all have our own perversions; what I like to do in my spare time is perhaps just as strange as this highly public form of masochism. And I suppose for the man who wins, all the long days of training, plus the bleeding nipples and the poop-stained shorts, might actually be worth it (I do say “man,” since lady marathoners are at least spared the bleeding nipples by virtue of sports bras).

But the man who comes in second?

Poor bastard.

I get that they’re not usually competitive races like that. I get that it’s all about the process and the enduring and the zen and the comradeship or whatever other bullshit you tell yourself to get through hours of exhausted agony, but let’s be realistic about human nature here. Being the winner is sweet. Being the winner of something that hard is extra-sweet. I am as far from a “runner” as you can get, psychologically speaking, but even I would probably be able to forget the blood streaming down my burning nipples and the disgusting stains of various bodily functions dripping down my thighs for a few moments when I realized that I’d just broken that long-awaited finish rope.

I also can’t imagine anything worse than realizing that I’d almost broken that long-awaited finish rope, but that someone else did instead and I still have bloody nipples and poop in my pants.

Run for first. Or better yet, don’t run at all. Because there’s nothing sadder than a second-place marathoner.

Dear Wall Street Guys: Mark Zuckerberg Is Trolling You. Get Over It. Love, Me.

You’d think the hoodie would have tipped people off.

Say what you like about Mark Zuckerberg, he’s not stupid and he’s not a Wall Street type of guy.

This is important for a lot of reasons this week. Mostly its important because, in case you lived under a rock and hadn’t heard yet, Facebook is tanking as a publicly-traded company. And everyone wants to know why.

The coverage of this is mostly happening in publications like Bloomberg and Business Weekly. Most Americans know what an “IPO” is, at least enough to know that they don’t want to hear any more about this boring-ass business news and could we talk about something else now please, so it doesn’t really have a lot of purchase in the general public interest. But it is big news for people who wear suits and yell on their cell phones a lot.

And here is the thing those people still seem to be missing: this billion-dollar company everyone just invested in is run by a guy who does not think the way they do.

Facebook’s success story is actually fairly rare in business: it was a product that people genuinely wanted from the word “go.” The challenge was figuring out how to make money off that desire, rather than creating useless crap and figuring out how to generate desire (which is more the standard model). Advertising is Facebook’s revenue source, not part of its business expenses.

Creating something like that requires a certain instinct for the intangibles of human desire. Stock analysts and investors, by and large, do not like intangibles. They don’t graph neatly and you can’t do math to them.

Facebook’s stock price is plummeting as we speak. This is supposed to be a bad thing. But I wonder if the people reporting it as a bad thing have stopped to consider whether the man with the plan — the man who is already one of the 30 richest people in the world; who literally could not conceive of a need for more money and who does not keep score with money the way they do — actually gives a fuck.

Because I suspect he does not.

Entrepreneurs, by nature, like to try new things and keep moving on. Facebook is much more interesting at this point to the people who keep score with money than it is to the innovators and designers that built it. It is not at all inconceivable that the majority of this newly-public company’s executive staff don’t actually care how the IPO goes, and might have even gone so far as to make it deliberately confusing and uncertain for people who do still care about the company’s worth on paper.

You sort of have to wonder how they missed that really fundamental fact when they were investing millions of dollars of their clients’ money.

Your “Contact Info” Page Needs a Snail Mail Address Too

One of the many jobs I’ve worked these last few years included writing congratulations and thank-you notes to a wide range of people and businesses, which was actually kind of fun. I like writing letters. It was even one of the first things I blogged about, or at least I think January 2010 was near the start of things. The writing is certainly bad enough to be early on.

But anyway. Writing letters to businesses and people who had Done Good Things, which was fun. Trouble was you had to figure out where to send those letters, and a lot of people are surprisingly bad at giving you a way to do that.

I suppose people might not be aware of it, so today I’m putting it on the blog as a PSA: there are a lot of groups and individuals, from charities to angel investors to elected officials, who only send formal communications by snail mail. This is about equal parts tradition, needing a paper trail, and not wanting to give people an e-mail address they can write back to, emphasis on one or the other depending on who’s sending the letter.

So if you like getting recognized for Doing Good Things (unsolicited, I mean, by interested parties who noticed in the news and decided to send you a letter about it despite not knowing you personally), you need a physical address. Can be a business address, a PO Box, a c/o routed through your friend the paranoid who shoots at the mailman (just for laughs) — doesn’t matter, but give us poor office bastards something. Otherwise you’re not getting your hand-signed, assistant-written letter.

Observant readers will have already noticed that MA101 does not, in fact, have a mailing address posted anywhere, or for that matter even a “Contact Info” page. The reason for this is simple: I don’t want to hear from any of you.

Ha! I am, of course, kidding. Leave all the comments you want. I love you guys. But I do not do anything in the real world; this blog is never going to generate any kind of activity or win any kind of award that isn’t already entirely contained in the internet. E-mail will more than suffice for its needs.

Real businesses cannot get by like that. It doesn’t matter if you’re well-funded start-up using nanotech to make better window glass for cars or an old lady peddling kitty boutonnieres made from recycled milk bottles. If you have a physical presence, have an address for it somewhere on your website.

Otherwise I can’t send you nice things.

It’s All Uphill From Here…or Was That Downhill?

Anyone else have trouble with this one?

“It’s all downhill from here” = bad thing. “Things are going to get worse,” essentially. Similarly, we talk about groups or places as “going downhill” when the quality declines.

But you can’t exactly say “It’s all uphill from here” to imply that things are going to get better. An “uphill struggle” is one that’s continually hard, because going up hills is hard. “It’s been kind of uphill” is a bad thing, not a good thing.

I think the moral of this story is that hills are pretty much always bad. Maybe we can cut the directional modifiers out of our idioms entirely and just refer to bad things as “hilly.”

These things weigh heavily on my mind, Monday mornings.

Drink Classier: The Difference Between “Neat,” “Straight Up,” and Other Useful Cocktail Terms

It’s been a while since I overtly advocated alcoholism on this blog, but for a time there it was one of Misanthropology101‘s biggest draws, so let’s get back to basics today: today we are going to teach you how to sound like less of an idiot in bars.

I can even tie this vaguely into writing if you want, since it is all about word choice and how small changes in one word can alter your entire order, or something.

Neat or Straight Up?

Both of these mean “simple” in a most English language uses, and that confuses people.

  • Neat is the one that’s actually simple. It means the liquor ( just a single type — you don’t order cocktails “neat”) is poured into a glass and handed to you at room temperature. Neat.
  • Straight Up or Up (same thing) means the drink is chilled with ice (shaken or stirred) but then strained and served without it. The drink will be cold and very slightly watered down (which is good for most liquors, so don’t get on your high horse about it ruining the taste).

There’s not really a good mnemonic or logic to why one’s “neat” and the other’s “up.” Maybe remember that the bartender has to “upend” the shaker for a drink served up? For all I know that’s the actual etymology (and if it’s not, it might be a fun folk etymology to start — you heard it here first!).

In any event you want to avoid using just the word “straight.” Some spirit drinkers use it to mean a “straight pour,” i.e., a serving of liquor poured neat, while other people will use it as a shorter version of “straight up.”

Your bartender should be able to figure out what you mean from context (someone asking for a 12 year Scotch “straight” probably doesn’t want it shaken over ice and strained), but avoid the confusion. Say “up” or “straight up” for drinks chilled with ice and strained, and “neat” for drinks poured at room temperature.

“On the Rocks”

This one’s the easy one. Pretty much everyone of legal drinking age should already know that it means “with ice.” It’s used more with spirits than with cocktails, since most cocktails only have one “proper” serving method and the bartender already knows them. You don’t have to ask for your Tom Collins “on the rocks” — that’s how it’s going to come anyway.

There are a few cocktails with more than one serving option, however, so if you’re in doubt and you definitely want ice in your glass, go ahead and throw “rocks” onto the end of your order.

“With a Twist”

A twist is a small peel of citrus, usually lemon unless you specify something else. Properly done, it will be peeled directly off the citrus in question above your glass, so that the oils from the skin spritz into your drink.

You shouldn’t have to order this unless it’s unusual for the cocktail you’re drinking. Asking for a sidecar with a twist is just being a jerk. The bartender already knows it takes a twist. Save this one for when you’re ordering custom cocktails (and tip accordingly).

Backs, Bombs, and Chasers

  • A back is a glass of a complementing drink that comes with the main order. As the name implies, it’s meant to be drunk “behind” your actual drink, so sip the cocktail/liquor and then the back. If it’s a big drink, alternate sips (a Bloody Mary with a beer back, sometimes called a BMW, is a good example). If it’s two shots, slam one and then the other (Pickleback, etc.).
  • A chaser also means an accompanying drink with the main order. There’s argument as to whether it’s actually any different from a back at all, and for practical purposes it isn’t, but generally speaking a chaser will be a shot that’s slammed all at once either before or after the drink, while a back is sipped along with it and might not necessarily come in a shot glass.
  • A bomb is a chaser that you drop or pour straight into the main beverage. These often involve elaborate ceremonies (sake bombs), and in some cases may require you to drink the entire beverage quickly before the bomb does something screwy to the chemistry of the drink and ruins it (Irish Car Bombs).
  • Many men like to drink their boilermakers bomb-style, but don’t call it a bomb. A glass of beer served with a shot of whiskey is always just a boilermaker  – or “a shot and a beer,” slurred into something like shoddunabeer – regardless of how it’s drunk.

Hope it helps.

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