The Strange Trade Secrets of Christmas Tips

I tend to both despise tipping as it’s practiced in modern America and to do it excessively because all other options would make me a terrible human being. This is not, I think, an uncommon sentiment, at least among people who stop and think about it for a moment.

So it’s in that mindset — already grumpy at the institutionalized passing-on of wage costs from the employer to the customer, and further aggrieved by its current seasonal tie-in to a religious holiday mutated and metastasized into a ritual of consumption — that I have to admire whatever genius thought up the Christmas card (with handy return address) left by the newspaper deliverer around the holidays.

holiday-tippingFor those of you who have never received a physical newspaper delivery, the system works something like this: year-round, you see more or less (generally less) of the person who puts the newspaper on your doorstep, or at least flings it in that general direction. Come Christmas time, you’re expected to find this person and tip them a little bonus cash by way of gratitude for an undeniably thankless job, adjusted up or down depending on how close to the doorstep the paper actually gets most days.

Since the odds of your delivery person catching you face to face on any given day in December are already not great, even before you start ducking back inside to avoid them when you see them coming down the street, most deliverers nowadays will leave a nice holiday card along with the paper some day in late November or early December, with their home address printed in nice, clear letters on the envelope and often on the inside of the card as well. Hint, hint, hint.

At this point you, unless you are a terrible person or your papers have just straight-up gone missing for most of the year, reply with a card of your own that contains at least $20, and maybe more if you’re conspicuously living the good life. (Remember, they see your house every day, and have a pretty good idea how flinty you’re being if you lowball the tip. If starving writers like me are coughing up $20 from run-down apartments in the city, people with sprawling suburban lawns should probably aspire to do a little better than that.)

It’s a neat and efficient way of cutting out the random-chance-encounter element, and I really have to wonder how that particular trade secret got spread. Like, do the paper deliverers say to the new guys, around the water cooler or whatever they have, “Oh, be sure to do the Christmas card thing for Christmas tips!” And just what does the cost/benefit analysis work out to once you balance the cards and envelopes against the inevitable jerkwads who don’t tip?

I marvel at this deeply entrenched system, and wonder how it first came to be. Is the initial author of the Christmas card with return address scheme remembered in his profession as an innovator, perhaps even a savior? Should we pause to shed a tear for the database workers who, rather than delivering physical papers, organize and hotfix the streaming of online subscription news services, and who will never see a holiday tip unless they steal it directly from your bank account using your payment information? Am I overthinking this just a tiny bit? Whatever — tip your delivery person, if you get a paper delivered. They’re making it easy on you.

Five Years of Blogging at the Void

ma101-logo-geoffrey-cubbageDo you know, I almost missed this year’s blogoversary?

That’s not what the cool kids are calling them now. The cool kids now don’t even have blogs. But here we are, five years after the first post went live on what was, at the time, supposed to be a blog about writing fiction. (Years later I expounded, honestly I think, on why that was a terrible idea.)

I sometimes feel like WordPress has changed more than I have over these last five years. The design changes; the content stays about the same.

That’s not a bad thing. I like my content, by and large. I’ve perhaps grown more critical, leading to more and more posts discarded as not quite good enough for the public (which has led in turn to less updates), but the ones that survive usually strike me as relevant. Sometimes even a little important, who knows? At least two (the one about street harassment in World of Warcraft and the one about Belle Knox’s Wikipedia page) prompted action elsewhere. I can legitimately claim to have changed the face of the internet, and not just as a citation on Wikipedia’s “Hot Toddy” entry.

Not bad, for a pro bono gig by a guy who thinks “pro bono” is giggle-worthy.

It’s a mark of professional growth, I think, that the blog is becoming more of a professional liability than an asset, but I don’t plan to take it down or stop posting any time soon. Quod scripsi, scripsi. Call it a useful safety net for my sanity: it prevents me from taking a job with any outfit so hopelessly conservative that they’re going to hold, say, a post about a porn star’s historical relevance against me.

Here’s to five years, in other words, and perhaps to five more. Who knows what the internet will even be like by then? Perchance I’ll be beaming my dick jokes directly into your brain.

Onward to Year Six!

“The Fifth Element” Was Ahead of Its Time — And Ours

Fifth_element_poster_(1997)Man, what even happened to movies since the 90s?

I know, I know, aging Millennial bitching about not being the cool young kid anymore. But I went back and watched The Fifth Element the other night (for those of you that weren’t around back then, it was a 1997 cheesy sci-fi blockbuster, and let me just say how terrifying it is to me that you’re old enough to read and understand these words), and man was it good.

Not like, A Good Movie good. The Fifth Element will never be A Good Movie. But it was a good movie, you know? And it had everything that you don’t see on-screen in blockbusters now.

Seriously. In no particular order: female orgasm (via tactfully offscreen cunnilingus). Realistically bad cops and military — not Dr. Strangelove caricatures; just a bunch of blunt instruments who only know how to do one thing, and keep doing it over and over again regardless of whether it’s what the situation calls for or not. More people of color than I’ve seen in a movie not specifically about minority culture or history for literally decades now, doing everything from being the President to being baggage handlers (just like in, you know, the real world, but not the world we see in movies most of the time).

That fantastic “Sleeping Beauty” moment where Bruce Willis kisses the sleeping Milla Jovovich, who wakes up, puts a gun to his head, and tells him “never without my permission.” We believe his abject apology, too — he feels sincere when he says “You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong to kiss you.” And not just because of the gun, although it’s pretty awesome that she doesn’t put it down or appear particularly forgiving even after he apologizes.

And don’t let’s forget Chris Tucker’s character Ruby Rhod, who was basically the walking definition of genderqueer: we don’t know what they’re identifying or presenting as; they’re just doing their thing and being sexy. Sometimes in a dress! Sometimes not! The clothes aren’t the point or the problem. It’s awesome.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie, either in terms of cinematography or representation. It’s a classic Bechdel test failure, with a classic Strong Female Protagonist (TM), who we’re told is a godlike alien “perfect being” but who needs a couple of old white men to plan her every move in saving the universe. She barely even speaks, has trouble walking for half the film, and needs Bruce Willis to come save her from a guy with a gun despite having martial arts directly programmed into her brain (this two years before Keanu Reeves knew kung fu in The Matrix, mind you). And yes, the perfect being decides to manifest itself as a young, skinny white woman, despite coming from what appears to be a race of intergalactic steampunk hedgehogs.

But it’s still a blockbuster that wasn’t just ahead of its time in the racial and sexual diversity of the world we see on-screen. It’s ahead of our time, now, seventeen years later, and that’s a thought so depressing it might just take another underrated 90s classic to cure. Cookie’s Fortune, anyone?

Let’s Get Mad About Inadequate Infrastructure, Not Backpacks and Wide Stances

MTATwitter and Tumblr have been full of self-righteous commuter nannies for years, but according to BuzzFeed, a New York MTA spokesperson is now promising an official campaign against that perennial transit scourge: people who take up too much space on the train or bus.

Pause to think about that one for a moment. Overcrowding on public transit is clearly a problem, at least on some lines and at some hours of the day. Faced with that problem, the MTA is spending taxpayer money…to chastise taxpayers about how they’re sitting.

Not to run more busses, or build more train lines, or improve the seats themselves, mind you. To tell you, the commuter, how you’re Doing It Wrong.

If you’re lauding this as a good thing, congratulations: you’re blaming individuals for an institutional failing! The name of the game is Divide and Conquer, and you’re losing.

Are there assholes who take up space they don’t need to on public transit? Sure. (There are also very large people, people with bad joints, homeless people who carry all the property they own in this world wherever they go, and lots of other people who can’t help taking up space.)

Would a campaign to get the assholes to scrunch in a bit make a measurable difference in rush hour overcrowding, even if it achieved 100% Asshole Penetration? No. (Although if Asshole Penetration is a thing you’re into I can recommend some good stores.)

And would any of that matter if cities ran enough public transit to actually meet public demand, with — dare we say it — spare seats built into even peak hour estimates? Again, no.

The reality is that on any given bus or train car, you might be losing — upper end estimate here — as many as three or four viable seats to jerks taking up more space than they need to. That sucks, but changing it will not make crowded cars less crowded. Occasional, individual space-wasters are not the root cause of overcrowded busses and trains.

The problem is an underfunded infrastructure that can’t possibly meet demand, and that has been built from the ground up to prioritize personal cars over mass transportation. You could lock every public transit commuter’s body into a precisely measured sheath for the ride, and it still wouldn’t turn “not enough busses” into “enough busses.”

It’s no surprise that the MTA wants a campaign against leg-spreaders and backpacks, because that actively encourages you, the taxpayer, to be pissed at someone that isn’t the MTA. But you’re a sucker if you fall for it, and you’re a sucker who’s choosing to blame someone who can’t solve the problem instead of someone who can.

Solving it costs money, of course. Self-righteousness, as always, is free.

“Warcraft” Character to Lose Metal Bikini; Keep Slave Rape Backstory

Th-th-th-that’s feminism, folks!

Actually it’s not even as progressive as the headline implies. There’s nothing official to suggest that the popular MMORPG World of Warcraft will be replacing any metal-bikini armor models any time soon. But their lead story designer, Chris Metzen, did say in pimping (word choice deliberate) the gender-balanced character selection of Blizzard’s new game Overwatch:

“We’ve heard our female employees. My daughter tools me out about it. She saw a World of Warcraft cinematic of the Dragon Aspects, and my daughter was like, ‘Why are they all in swimsuits?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.'”

So bravo, cheers, clapping and champagne all around! Blizzard has Admitted That It Has a Problem. Kind of hard to deny, when this is one of the most powerful characters in the fictional universe, and in fact what pretty much all the major female characters look like, give or take some color variations in armor and skin tone:


That is, of course, one of those bikini-wearing girls Metzen’s daughter objected to: Alexstraza the Life-Binder, an ancient shapeshifting dragon who apparently likes to appear as a nearly-naked redhead, and whose backstory in the Warcraft universe includes being imprisoned, raped, and forcibly bred so that one of the factions could have evil dragon monsters in their army. That’s been part of the Warcraft story since Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness way back in 1995:

Mighty chains of adamantine steel bind the most powerful creature in all of Azeroth – Alexstrasza the Dragon Queen. Captured and ensorcelled by magiks contrived by the Dragonmaw clan, the great Dragon is kept in a constant state of weakness and pain. As the unwilling slave of the Horde, the Queen is closely watched as she lays her precious eggs. The Dragonmaw clan then raises her young to fight for the Horde – slaying the whelps when they become too powerful to be properly controlled. Constant efforts are made to break Alexstrasza’s will in an attempt to master the control of more mature dragons.

Of course, back then no one had explicitly stated that Warcraft dragons were sentient creatures with human-level or better intelligence (although it seems pretty heavily implied), and the whole “Aspects of Blahdeblah” concept that Alexstraza eventually became part of wasn’t even a glimmer in an underpaid fantasy writer’s eye. That came about much later, under the auspices of Metzen himself, who re-wrote a lot of Warcraft’s draconic history but apparently liked the forced breeding part enough to keep it.

(Fun fact: you can still play as a member of the same “Horde” faction that enslaved Alexstraza, and her current in-game incarnation will give you quests and cheer you when you do a good job like any other NPC. What’s a few decades of continual rape between friends?)

No word from Metzen yet on how his daughter feels about daddy’s slave-rape storyline, or the general lack of female lore characters in the upcoming expansion, but it’s nice to know he’s working on the bikini thing. Or at least thinks someone should be working on the bikini thing, maybe, someday.

Here, everything is awful and depressing, but cheer yourselves up with this photoshop of one of Warcraft’s male heroes in the default female armor style:

varian-in-female-armor-warcraftHe seems ready for battle, doesn’t he?


Want to Test-Read a New Fairy Tale?

No misanthropy or media studies today, my darlings: for once, MA101 needs to go back to its roots as a platform for my modest writing ambitions.

I’m looking for test readers willing to read through a 32,000 word novella and return their thoughts on the reading experience in a fairly timely manner.

The Deets:

This is a whimsical, slightly surrealistic story about a young girl who becomes the prince in a fairy story. With fairyland itself coming apart for reasons no one seems to understand, it doesn’t work out quite the way it’s supposed to.

It’s novella-length, meaning you could read it in one long sitting or several short ones. Either will work. It’s a single, contiguous story: no multiple acts, no jumps in time or “moving line on a map” transitions, and no straying outside the experiences and perceptions of the main character.

It’s also going to be a bitch to sell to anyone, but that’s my problem, not yours. If you’re interested in reading such a thing, and you think you could get through it and fill out a short response sheet for me in a two-week window, let me know! There will be thanks, gratitude, similar reviewing services in return as needed, and drinks on me if you’re ever in the area as payment, at least one of which has cash value.

Contact info, if you don’t have it, is just my first name and my last name, separated by a period, at the ubiquitous Gmail. Though if you didn’t know that already I’m surprised (and flattered) that you’re interested in my fiction writing projects.

Meet the New Gridlock, Same as the Old Gridlock

gridlockMuch beating of breasts and wailing this morning, no? (Or crowing, depending on your partisan flavor — the beating of breasts works either way, though.)

Unfortunately for both sides, the serious problems causing harm to real Americans these days are, for the most part, structural rather than discrete. With a few exceptions, a single policy or piece of legislation is not going to make much substantial change in any individual person’s life.

The people building the larger structures of policy-making are still bought and sold on both sides of the aisle. The system of getting them there is still inaccessible to you and me. And now that they’re there, the seats that flipped from Democrat to Republican will go right on doing what they were doing already: spending your money on blowing people up in countries you will never visit, and reflexively opposing anything domestic because writing laws is hard and sometimes it makes people angry enough to vote (no matter how difficult you make it for them).

If you’re worried about what’s coming next from the Republican-controlled Congress, don’t be.

Obamacare repeal? Almost certain to go through the House, for something like the 40th time. Then it dies to a Senate filibuster, or, if Republicans in the Senate finally do away with the filibuster (unlikely, with the 2016 Senate race geography favoring Democrats in much the same way this year’s favored Republicans), Obama’s veto. And that’s the end of that, since there’s not much else Republicans can do, short of presenting an alternative so functional it pulls in enough Democrats to make up a two-thirds majority.

Impeachment? The lunatic caucus will probably force articles past a weepy, reluctant John Boehner. That’s bad news for Republicans in the Senate, since they would have to put Obama on public trial for real, provable crimes, and the only ones he’s actually committed are related to torture, spying, and assassinations, which Republicans support. Trying him for those would basically undo the consequence-free war machine that they depend on to keep the military industry dollars flowing in their home states; trying him for anything else would be a humiliating public failure without even the comedic appeal of talking about blowjobs this time around.

Gun control? They could hardly make federal regulations weaker. Nothing to lose there, and Democrats weren’t able to make any changes when they held the majority anyway.

Abortion? Still thankfully protected by Roe v. Wade, not that that’ll stop the Jaybus Caucus from splooging a few blatantly unconstitutional bills out there onto the House floor. Once the Senate and Obama’s veto power wipe up the stains, all that’s left are fundraising letters for Democrats in 2016.

Military action? We should be so lucky as to have a Congress that actually votes on sending our military into battle. The lives and treasure get spent either way. And as you may recall, the last time Congress voted to authorize military force, a wave of anti-war Democrats promptly swept their way into the majority.

So long story short: nothing’s gonna change. Any proactive policies are still going to come through executive action, because flawed though some of his ideas are, President Obama is still one of the few people in Washington who believes in trying things, rather than opposing things. The Republican party can’t govern at the federal level, but that’s been true for the last four years, and a Senate majority doesn’t add much to their obstructionary powers.

It does add to their governing powers, if they choose to use them. A Republican Congress could, in theory, craft laws that appeal to a minority of conservative Democrats and a broad enough spectrum of American voters to make a veto unappealing. But they won’t.

So meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


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