Friday, November 30, 2007

Just Past New York

Of all the goods and services in a free economy, there's none quite as bizarre as parking.

Say you put twenty-five cents into a meter: now what have you purchased? It's not like renting a gym locker, where you'd be paying for the secured nature of that empty space. Parking spots aren't protected by anything except some white lines on the ground. That's right, your three-dimensional space is secured by a two-dimensional boundary.

Oh, and by the way, that space you rented? You don't get to just do whatever you want with it. You couldn't, for instance, put a quarter in the meter and then lay down to take a nap. You can't bring a table along with you, set it up in the parking space, and eat dinner. That space is for cars, and nothing else. You are renting completely unsecured empty space that can only be used for one purpose.

Alright, fine. So you park your car in the space, and you get to use it for an hour. But only if you don't leave! If you move your car from that space for even a second, anyone else can park there. Where else does this happen in life? It would be like mailing your rent check, going to work, and when you get home some other guy is there with all his stuff*. And he doesn't have to leave. And you don't get your rent money back.

So if you're not getting any sort of security for your space, and you can only do one thing with it, and no one holds it for you if you leave, then what does the quarter buy you? What does your rental mean? It means that for one hour, they WON'T ticket you.

You are paying someone money so that they won't charge you more money. What a service.

*Some of that guy's stuff is probably hanging a little over into your neighbor's house.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Yeah, twelve.

So here I am, writing about air travel.

It's one of the oldest gags in the book. Pick any working comedian and I guarantee he'll have an airplane bit. That and a donut bit. Planes and donuts, the litmus test of humor.

And why those two things? I guess when you spend more than an hour in a small seat with a bunch of people you don't know, trying to read a book over the sound of enormous jet engines and waiting for a light to go off so you can get up and use the bathroom, your mind tends to wander. Engineers sit there and analyze the design of the airplane, accountants guess how much the people around them make, and comedians exaggerate the absurdities of this shared daily experience.

But donuts? That I don't have an answer for.

First of all, I need to admit that flying seriously creeps me out. Airports are the only place in the world where George Orwell's dark vision of the future has come absolutely true. Everything is white and sanitary, there are security check points and all the food comes in little rationed packs. And the whole thing is exactly like a "1984" government, just a big system to sort people and control what they do. When you arrive you check in so they can assign you a number on a piece of paper, and you've got to carry that paper around, get the guard to look at it and mark it with his pen, and you'd better not lose that piece of paper with your number on it or you're screwed. You, and only you, can carry that paper from the place where the guard is to the gate you've been assigned. Now sit down and don't let anyone else handle your bag. The icing on the paranoid socialist cake is the "HAL 9000" voice constantly reminding you of the current threat level, and how you'd better not have more than the allowed ounces of fluid in your bag.*

On my flight out, I was seated next to a child. There was also a child on the other side of me, across the aisle. There was also a child in the seat behind me.

I'm not joking. Sweet Lord I wish I were joking. I was annoyed, angry, and trapped in a cliché.

"Oh please, please just take off so I can turn my mp3 player on." And at that moment I looked down at the device, and understood why the fine people at Creative called their product line "Zen."

But this brings up an interesting point. Parents are allowed to hold a child on their laps during airplane flights. So, conceivably, an adult's arms are strong enough to hold a small child securely in place if there's turbulence or a fiery crash. And if that's the case, shouldn't we be able to do away with seat belts in favor of the "hold on real tight" method?

No? Well then I guess the seat belts aren't really about safety, they exist just to make people sit down and stay out of the way. Like the little piece of paper, it's just another form of control.

"Your stewardesses will be by shortly with your soda and pretzel rations. The in-flight movie today will be the 'two-minutes hate."

*Is this a legit security concern, airline? Or are you just trying to sell more sodas at the gates? Come on, fess up.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lumber for Wool*

Ever since I heard Tycho desperately explain to Gabe (23:00) why "Settlers of Catan", a game in which excitement is derived mostly from raw good exchange rates, is "awesome," I've been wondering why I like playing it so much. In a lot of ways I find it totally frustrating:

-You can lose because, even though you're on the best statistical numbers, "4" gets rolled fifteen times in a row and you never get any resources.

-You can lose because the person in last place isn't paying attention to the score and makes a big trade with the guy who's one point from victory.

-You can lose because you ate all the M&M's. That part isn't in the rule book, either. It's not a formal game mechanism. But if there's a bowl of M&Ms on the table and you eat them all, someone could get mad and place the robber on you, and you'd be screwed. Full of delicious candy coating, but screwed.

Yet I keep coming back to Catan, convinced that this time I've figured out the unstoppable strategy. So I own the computer version. I'm jealous of Xbox 360 owners and their online edition. I'm crossing my fingers that the PS3 or DS will get the game eventually. And then one day it occurred to me:

Isn't this what gambling addiction is like?

I mean most casino games are just as ridiculous. A guy spins a ball around a wheel to see where it lands. Someone rolls some dice to see if certain numbers come up. You pull a lever to see if the right combination of fruit appears. It gets dumber the more you think about it. You might as well be losing because you ate too many M&Ms.

Yet people keep coming back, convinced that this time they've figured out the unstoppable strategy, ready to put down more money just for the chance to try it again. Gambling is so much like "Settlers of Catan" that it's scary.

And then one day it occurred to me:

Isn't that what baseball is like?

I mean baseball is just as ridiculous. A guy throws a ball and another guy tries to hit it with a stick. If he doesn't, he's out. And even if he does, he's probably out. But he MIGHT hit a home run! Just like the little ball MIGHT land on 32, and just like I MIGHT roll an 8 and get 4 ore that I can trade to my 2:1 port for some clay, that guy MIGHT hit the ball a certain distance and score a point. It gets dumber the more you think about it. The "team" might as well lose because a machine came up cherry-cherry-lemon.

Yet people keep coming back to the TV, chips in hand (see what I did there?), convinced that this time their team has an unstoppable strategy.

When I hear a baseball announcer talk about how a certain player has a .300 batting average against left-handed pitchers named Larry on days of the week that start with "T," it makes me think of craps tables, and of development cards.

*This is the proper way to offer that trade. At least once in every game someone says "I have wood for sheep!" and the table breaks into laughter.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Sam versus the nice, well-intentioned people: Part 2

-Hi Sam, how are you?

-I'm good.

-Just good?

-What's wrong with "good?"

-Nothing, I guess. But that's all? You're just "good," you're not "great?" Is something wrong?

-So you're saying that if I'm not "great," then something is wrong with me?

-Well, no, but I just thought . . .

-It used to be "fine."


-"Fine." That's what I would say when people would ask me how I was. But I had to stop using that word, because every time I said it someone would respond "Just fine?!!" It was like "fine" suddenly meant "I got mauled by a bear today." That's how people reacted.

-Well yeah, fine isn't very good.

-Actually it is. In fact that's exactly what it means. As in "fine wine" or "the finest things in life","refined," it does mean "very good," that's the definition. But somehow that wasn't enough, and I had to step up my response to "Okay."

-Just "Ok?"

-Yeah, that's exactly what everyone said, "JUST OK???" I should have known better. I mean if "fine" meant "I got mauled by a bear today" then "Ok" must mean that the bear was riding a shark. And that's why I started saying "good." But now even that's not enough.

-Why does this bother you? Aren't you glad that people are concerned about you?

-But they're not. Saying "how are you?" doesn't count as genuine interest. It's a greeting. It's a way to acknowledge someone, that's all.

-That may be how some people use it, but when I say it I'm really interested. I seriously want to know how you are.

-Well, then, you are a crazy person. You are ignoring the way the rest of humanity uses that phrase and expecting everyone to divine your own interpretation. You are going around asking your acquaintances a deeply personal question, the answer to which is as nebulous as the depth of the human soul, a complex state woven of mixed emotions, spiritual conflict, and physical comfort. You are expecting to have real, intimate connections with nearly everyone you meet and you're willing to sit and wait while each person details all the aspects of his life for you.

-Yes. That's right. That's what I'm doing.

-And you don't think that's weird?


-Even though some people are naturally quiet and reserved, and aren't be comfortable with your level of interest.

-I think those people would be better off if they opened up a little.

-Well then let me ask you a question, on behalf of all of us: What do you want? What's the thing we can say to indicate that we're mostly the way we always are, generally happy and dealing with life's little troubles as they come, experiencing our ups and downs but still enjoying the ride. Content to not ever be completely content, and a little glad that the sun always rises, that all things pass, and that the universe does not depend on us being in the best mood ever?

-There isn't anything you can say. I won't accept some vague response. I want to know how you are, I want a real answer.

-Ok, then.

I am wonderful. I am amazing. The very experience of being Sam, in this moment, is more enriching than you could possibly imagine and to try and conceive of it would shatter your grip on reality. What I once called my hopes and dreams are now fulfilled, yet completely insignificant when compared to the magnitude of each day of my life. I am so healthy that I'm developing superpowers. I'm so at peace that I can see the foundations of space and time swirling around me. My emotions are passionate like fire, but I control them the way a fencer wields a blade. I am the immovable object AND the irresistible force, reconciled in a single entity. I am joy incarnate. I AM faster than a speeding bullet. I AM more powerful than a locomotive. Here I am, rock you like a hurricane.

- . . .

- . . .

-Whatever, Sam.


-Yes, whatever. Live in your quiet, antisocial world. Be a grumpy old grouch who never talks to anyone. Whatever. It's fine with me.*

- . . . "Just fine?" :)

-Oh, shut up.


-And one more thing, Sam.


-Carebear stare . . .



Friday, November 2, 2007

Have you ever wasted time watching old commercials on YouTube?

In the early 90's, AT&T released a famous series of "You Will" TV ads which described how emerging technologies, especially the internet, would provide us with all kinds of everyday conveniences.

Some of these predictions, like RFID toll badges and GPS navigation systems, are eerily spot-on with modern day, and others are pretty close to reality, like distance learning with video-over-IP.

So keep in mind that I gave AT&T some credit before I openly mocked their few big misses.

1. Have you ever borrowed a book, from thousands of miles away?

Ooooooo, swing and a miss. I mean we have all kinds of books on the internet, but the interface never looks like an actual book. That would be like inventing the first car, and instead of a steering wheel you give it horse reins.

2. Have you ever unlocked your door with the sound of your voice?

Well, no. See that would require me to buy an expensive electronic system, and I can just buy a standard key lock for minimal fee. Also I'd be locked out anytime the power goes off.

3. Have you ever tucked your baby in from a phone booth?

What is this "phone booth" you speak of? I could use my cell phone in a restaurant booth, does that count?

But more importantly, what kind of world are you imagining, AT&T, where parents aren't regularly at home to take care of their infant children?

4. Have you ever watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?*

And there it is again! A bunch of kids, completely unsupervised, watching whatever movie they want to! Man, AT&T has got a thing about absent parents. I think maybe the company has some personal issues it needs to work out before going forward with these internet plans.

If only we could go back, make a new commercial, and ask the early 90's some questions they really weren't ready for:

-Have you ever lost an entire afternoon, just by looking at your friend's photos?

-Have you ever looked up someone's phone number, and immediately heard an obnoxious song playing?

-Have you ever had a crappy, unknown band ask to be your friend?

You will, and the company that will bring it to you . . .

*Well yeah, it's called Bittorrent.