Saturday, June 29, 2013

Biased Blow-by-Blow - Tour de France Stage 1


As I’ve blogged before, there’s a benefit to bike race coverage that is far from unbiased and fair.  Sports fans have their favorites and so should commentators.  So I woke up early this morning to give a blow-by-blow account of today’s Tour de France opening stage.  I gave this account to nobody, because my normal audience apparently wasn’t online.  Well, if they thought this would be a humdrum sprinter’s stage without any real excitement until the last kilometer, they guessed wrong.  Read on for a blow-by-blow account of one of the most bizarre Tour de France stages in decades.

Biased blow-by-blow – Tour de France Stage 1

As I join, the British Eurosport commentator (Declan, I think) is saying “Omega Pharma know how to marshal a run-in” and “I’m not so very fond of this team’s livery.”  And now, “We’re going to take a break, as the cows munch on their buttercups.”  So different from American football announcers whose most flowery language is something like “This ball club knows how to get the job done and move that ball up the gridiron.”

The great thing is, even when the announcers take a break, the coverage continues.  It’s just quiet and I can decide for myself what’s going on.

My feed has already died, two minutes into my coverage.  Okay, “Refresh” is my friend.

Now they’re showing footage of some weird watercraft with a crazy parachute-like sail.  I guess it’s like an ultra-light, a hang-glider with raft attached.  Presumably it’ll lose control and crash into the peloton at some point.  Why else would they be showing it?

My cat is now polluting her cat box, rendering my work area uninhabitable.  Thank goodness for Wi-Fi ... if she’s done #2 I’ll have to relocate.  I wonder if the Hotsy Totsy Club would show this race?  It’s certainly the kind of bar that would be open right now.

The whole peloton is together now.  It’s 18K to go.  They’re riding along the coast of Corsica.  My kids were astonished to learn that the race starts on an Italian island.  (My older daughter reads almanacs all the time and needed no explaining about what Corsica is.)  I was equally astonished that anything I could say about the Tour de France would be even remotely interesting to anybody in my family.

This feed isn’t very hi-res.  The faces are just blurs, like those weird plastic faces of the schoolkids in “Pink Floyd The Wall.”

Whoah, somebody ran right into the fencing!  It’s Johnny Hoogerland.  He looks okay, but is probably embarrassed, not just to have crashed but to have a name like Hoogerland.  At school they probably called him Boogerland.  Oh, wait, “Booger” probably isn’t an international term.  That said, this is the same guy who crashed into a barbed wire fence a couple years back; one more crazy mishap and “Hooger” will become a verb meaning “to crash into something.”  I may start using it now, actually:  “Man, I hit this huge bump on the descent and for a second thought I was going to totally Hooger!”  It has a nice similarity to “auger” so the phrase “Hooger in” also presents itself for consideration.

Cadel Evans is right near the front.  His teammates are keeping him safe.  I’ll bet you thought I was going to say “henchmen,” didn’t you?  Naw.

It’s another crash!  I hope nobody blames the race promoters, because it happened on a dead-straight section.  If Andy Schleck had gone down he’d surely complain about unsafe conditions.  Hesjedal is involved!  By which I mean he has been part of this general Hoogerage.  What was he doing so far back, in the chaff of the pack?

Oh man, the Orica-Greenedge bus has gotten stuck under the finish line banner!  They’re afraid to move it because it might tear down the finish banner.  Some wily teamwork from this team, I expect ... an ingenious strategy to confuse the other teams with a totally screwed-up final sprint.

It’s crazy, they officials have shortened the stage by 3K because of the stranded van!  The new finish line is the banner declaring 3K to go!

This has thrown the teams’ strategies into chaos.

Cannondale is at the front going for broke.  Orica Green-Edge is right up there, surely all according to plan.  They must have studied the parcours 3K from the finish and mapped out their approach perfectly.

The new finish line isn’t exactly on a straightaway.  Terrible place for a finish, and of course none of the timing equipment, photo-finish cameras, etc. will be set up. 

The bus is suddenly freed!

Oh man, there’s been a huge pileup!  It was all chaos because they abruptly announced they were putting the finish line back to its original spot, and a bunch of dudes stacked.  See?  It’s just like talking on a cell phone while driving—your attention cannot be properly shared between sensory inputs.  Chavanel seemed to hit the fencing.  Sagan is down, Cavendish is down!

“Goodness gracious me, what a mess!”  says the Eurosport commentator.  I wonder what it takes to get a British announcer to cuss?

It’s a bizarre situation.  Andre Greipel is standing on the side of the road, presumably with a mechanical issue.  So many big favorites aren’t represented in the lead group now.

Shimano-Argos is bunched at the front, so you know the normal order has been totally thrown out the window. 

They’re on the final stretch, a ton of white Shimano-Argos jerseys.  There’s a bit of a climb here and it’s really sludging things up.  Can I coin a verb?  To sludge?

Steegmans has launched early!  It’s a totally crazy move!  He’s totally flying even though his handlebars are like stupid touring bars, Randonneurs, from the ‘80s! My mom had those bars!

Oh man, it’s not to be, they’ve overhauled him.  I’ll bet they just couldn’t stand to see those horrible handlebars up the road.

“Goodness me, it’s a hellish run to the line!” says Declan.  There, he cussed!

It’s a Shimano-Argos guy who wins!  I never even learned his name!  It’s like a bridesmaid somehow body-checking the bride right off the altar!  And his helmet, cosmetically, is the equivalent of a bridesmaid dress—that is, it’s deliberately ugly, the kind with no vents anywhere!  Absolutely nuts.

Okay, the winner was Kittel, who seems to have been named after a brand of cat food. 

A bunch of Cannondale riders come over the line, pretty far after the winner.  I’m guessing the officials will give all the riders the same time (well, except Hoogerland).

Kittel looks so happy, I almost can’t bear to make fun of his name and his helmet.  What kind of jerk am I?  But enough about me.  This is Kittel’s first Tour victory and he is beyond stoked.  I’ll bet he finds that Orica-Greenedge van driver later and shakes his hand!

They just showed the super-slo-mo of the sprint, and man, Kittel really had a great sprint—he blew by several other dudes (none of them the favorites, of course, as the favorites were still untangling themselves 3K behind).

This feed has crapped out several times during my coverage.  I am not amused.  My free entertainment should be flawless!

They’re saying that the big crash happened before they restored the original finish line, which means it was within the final 3K of the finish at that moment, so even though it was more than 3K from the actual, ultimate finish line, all those riders should get the same time.  If the race officials don’t come to this conclusion, you can well expect a mass mutiny from the guys who crashed.

“I expect Cavendish has had the stuffing knocked out of him, but we’ll surely see him in contention on the final Corsica stage in two days’ time.”  I guess this Declan guy isn’t so bad.  I use that stuffing expression all the time, having come across it in a British book about race mechanics, but I don’t actually get to hear it all that often.

It’s unbelievable how chaotic everything is.  They’re having to kill lots of time because it’s impossible to sort out all the jersey winners, I expect.  In all the confusion nobody seems able to come up with Kittel’s first name.  The cyclingnews blow-by-blow guy hasn’t found it yet.  I need a bigger monitor so I can have the start list up here.  Hang on.  Okay, it’s Marcel Kittel, of Germany.  He is so happy.

The podium girls are in yellow and black.  I think it’s supposed to be a Powerbar theme, but it makes me think of Livestrong.  Surely this cannot have been anybody’s intention.

The coverage has ended and I’m into “Tour de France Extra.”  Sean Kelly is being interviewed live.  He looks absolutely the same as he did in the ‘80s.  “To hear suddenly on the race radio that the finish line has changed again ... I think there was a lot of panic in the peloton,” he says.  “Shimano-Argos took advantage of the situation ... it was a dream day for them.”  Yeah, like one of those weird dreams where your dog can talk, and everybody is in pajamas.

The points competition podium girls are in bright apple green, like the points jersey, of course, but also continuing my bridesmaid dress conceit.  It’s not a great color for any woman but they’re pulling it off somehow.  Pure professionalism.

They’re showing the replays of that final sprint.  I love it when it’s a good, close win and the winner couldn’t have predicted his success, and thus doesn’t have some overly complicated victory salute.  Just a classic arms-up.

Kittel gets the white jersey for best young rider.  The podium girls for this have Kelly green trim on their white dresses, which is sartorially inexcusable but also somewhat necessary because they can’t afford to be mistaken for brides.

Okay, this color-coordination of podium girl dresses has got to stop.  White dresses with red polka-dots?  I haven’t seen such gross fashion misconduct since Sha Na Na appeared on “Hee Haw” back in the ‘70s and sang “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”  That I remember this should tell you how much it scarred me.

Word has come down that the bus incident was ultimately a result of politics.  The French union responsible for sorting out such matters went out on strike because any work involving the finish line banner is supposed to be done hours before the finish, and the request to disentangle it from the van’s roof came during their cigarette break.  They were apparently offended at the suggestion that they interrupt their normal routines—almost as offended as a French waiter is when a stupid American tourist actually wants his order taken or something.  All this must come as a relief to the van driver, who will ultimately be thought of as a mere pawn caught in a deadly game.

(Yes, that whole preceding paragraph was pure fiction, unless I’ve accidentally stumbled on the truth.)

Kittel is being interviewed, but he only speaks German.  The British announcer is pretending to translate:  “I wasn’t sure during the race that I could win.  It was very confusing toward the end.  I am very surprised to be in yellow and I would like to thank my team.”  I’m sure that what he’s saying actually bears no resemblance to this.  I’m going to “translate” it myself:  “What, a bus got stuck under the finish line?  I didn’t know that!  I thought I just dropped all the sprinters in the final kilometer!”

Oh, he’s speaking English now.  “The team did a great job, they kept me out of trouble, so big thanks to them.”  Wow, I guess that British announcer really does speak German!  And amazingly, Kittel actually is claiming absolutely no knowledge of the situation with the bus!  I wonder what he thought happened to Cavendish, Greipel, et al?

The moral of the story?  Put away your race radio and focus on what you’re doing!  It obviously worked for Kittel, and I trust I don’t need to spell out the smartphone analogy....

They’re interviewing some Lotto guy and he’s predictably disappointed about how things went.  But I really want an interview with that bus driver!  Think back to the very first thing I heard this morning from the Eurosport commentator:  “Omega Pharma know how to marshal a run-in.”  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for the actual race marshals....

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cure for Hiccups

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and intimations of substance abuse.


This post, simply enough, is about curing the hiccups.  I examine the existing literature on the topic (okay, some of it), point out the flaws inherent in traditional cures, and then unveil my simple remedy, which works 100% of the time and is demonstrably superior to all others.

In a perfect world, I’d have a research staff large enough that at any given time one or more researchers would have the hiccups and could test out these methods.  Instead, since I barely have one researcher (and he’d rather write than conduct research), I’ll have to settle for citing personal experience.

What causes the hiccups?

The answer is, who cares?  Okay, that’s not much of an answer, but then it was a rhetorical question to begin with.  Sure, there are plenty of explanations afloat, usually involving the vagus nerve, the diaphragm, and/or the esophagus,  but these explanations are about as satisfying as the Big Bang Theory—that is, not at all.  Suffice to say, everybody gets the hiccups, some people more often than others, and that’s just the way it is.

Okay, there is a valid reason for understanding what causes the hiccups, which is  to avoid getting them in the first place.  But I’m convinced that avoidance is a fool’s errand.  My older daughter used to get the hiccups a lot while she was still in the womb.  If, in utero, she’d gotten the hiccups whenever her mom did, we’d be on to something.  But there was zero correlation, and I cannot imagine that there’s much overlap between what goes on in a uterus and what goes on in the outside world.  Hiccups just happen.

The consumption cures

No, by “consumption cures” I don’t mean cures for tuberculosis.  I’m talking about the hiccup cures that require you to consume something.  There are two main websites I’ve consulted for this post:  “Reader’s Digest” and “How Stuff Works,” and they both start off with a classic remedy:  eating a tablespoon of sugar. 

I first came across this cure in “Dynamite” magazine when I was about nine; it promised that sugar would “kick the hics right out of your system!”  I found that sugar did work, but then my mom put the kibosh on it for health reasons, pointing me toward red wine vinegar instead.  (Coincidentally, vinegar is the second suggestion “Reader’s Digest” gives.)  Vinegar does work, but it’s not very pleasant.  In fact, when (at age nine) I recommended it to my brother Max, he reacted violently to the vinegar, running from the kitchen and simultaneously coughing, hiccupping, and crying.  The vinegar did end up curing his hiccups but he was really ticked.  (My older daughter will use it in a pinch, but she hates it too.)

“How Stuff Works” recommends an antacid.  This seems like overkill.  How about Benadryl, so you just sleep through the hiccups?  Or maybe heroin, would that work too? 

“Reader’s Digest” goes on to recommend peanut butter, honey, powdered cocoa, dill seeds, and hot sauce (though not all at once—these are  discrete remedies). 

Hot sauce is a laugh, because “How Stuff Works” tells you to avoid spicy foods.  (Never mind that avoiding something is a preventive measure, and this was supposed to be a list of cures.)  Many times I’ve gotten the hiccups from spicy salsa, but it’s absurd to avoid an entire cuisine on that basis.  Say you’re going out to eat with friends or family, and everybody wants Mexican:  are you really going to say, “No, we can’t do Mexican, I might get the hiccups”?  Yeah, right.

The problem with all these cures is that hiccups can strike at any time, and any place.  It’s just not practical to carry around dill seeds or vinegar with you.  You need a cure that travels with you all the time, even in the bathtub.

The water cures

Remedies abound that involve drinking water, usually with some weird twist like drinking upside down, or trying to put your mouth on the far edge of the glass.  I’ve watched my kids try many variations of this, none of which seem to work and most of which make a mess, particularly if a hiccup occurs during swallowing. 

My older daughter has tried drinking through a paper towel (which turns out to be one of the “Reader’s Digest” recommendations) and says it works, though her mom put the kibosh on it for health reasons.  It does seem likely that there are chemicals (bleach, perhaps?) in paper towels and you wouldn’t want to ingest them.  Now my daughter drinks water through a coffee filter, which her violin instructor recommended.  (“If there’s one thing you can’t do when you have the hiccups, it’s play the violin.”)  This seems like a fine solution, except a) coffee filters cost money, and b) once again, you’re not always going to have them around.

The scare technique

I don’t know how this “scare away the hiccups” myth got started.  I’ve tried to scare the hiccups out of a great many people and it never, ever works.  For example, a couple decades ago I had a girlfriend who got the hiccups constantly, and it drove me crazy, so one day while we were walking along the sidewalk, she hiccupping as usual, I suddenly screamed as loud as I could.  It wasn’t a terrified type scream—more of a James Brown type scream—but it certainly packed a punch:  she screamed too (the terrified type scream), and then started crying, and kept hiccupping through it all.

Besides, even if the scare method did work, it requires the action of another person, which means it relies on somebody else deciding to help you.  It’s not like you can ask somebody to scare you—with the element of surprise gone, what’s he going to do?  Pull out a gun?

The breathing “cures”

Respiration-related techniques are classics.  As a kid I tried holding my breath countless times and it never did a damn thing.  I’ve watched lots of other people try this one and it never works.  It just makes you look like an idiot, with your cheeks puffed out and your face all red and then you hiccup anyway.  Anybody who recommends this pointless, totally ineffective remedy deserves the hiccups he’ll still have after doing it.

To my astonishment, both “Reader’s Digest” and “How Stuff Works” recommend breathing into a paper bag.  Don’t they know this is how lowlife teenagers get high?  I have no idea whether or not this remedy works, nor do I care.  I’d rather have the hiccups than overdose on carbon dioxide and pass out.  What’s next:  curing hiccups by huffing model airplane cement?

The touch-based cures

My research did turn up two rather novel approaches for curing the hiccups.  The first is on WikiHow and goes like this:  “Press hard onto the palm of a friend/family member’s palm for 30 + seconds.  This gets rid of their hiccups if they are taken by surprise.”  I have several problems with this.  First, since when do palms have palms?  Second, even if it works, this technique doesn’t get rid of your hiccups; it gets rid of somebody else’s.  It requires the element of surprise, which you’re not going to get if you ask somebody to do it for you.  What are you supposed to do, tell them about it ahead of time and say, “If I ever get the hiccups, here’s what to do”?  And what if you get the hiccups on a bus or train, with no friends around?  My final issue with this technique is that it’s one of sixty-six methods listed on this website.  If any one of these actually worked, we wouldn’t need sixty-six of them.  WikiHow has about as much credibility here as “Cosmopolitan” with its perennial lists of bedroom man-pleasing techniques.

The second touch-based approach is described in the “Huffington Post.”  The author says, “Simply take the hand of the person afflicted and squeeze hard on the surface of the fingernail of the pinky finger for ten seconds. That’s it.”  Well, this is a fun and useful parlor trick, but once again it doesn’t seem to work on yourself; he goes on, “The jury is still out on whether the method can be self-administered.  I have found varying degrees of success using myself and my pinky as test subjects.”  This seems like a mealy-mouthed way of saying it doesn’t work on yourself.  And what’s the use of curing somebody else’s hiccups?  He doesn’t say anything about this requiring the element of surprise, but it would still be awkward asking a stranger on a crowded bus to squeeze the fingernail of your pinky.  It’s a little too close to “Pull my finger!”

(On a side note, the comments below the “Huffington Post” column are—as is so often the case—totally imbecilic.  Many readers attack the premise that a pressure point could affect the diaphragm, etc., seeming to miss that the writer himself distrusts accupressure, writing, “To me [this cure] is just magic.”  Besides, the author is an economist, so the reader is expected to take his theories on blind faith.)

The cure that actually works

The cure that actually works is most similar to the pinky trick.  I learned it back in the late ‘80s from my then-stepmother (who was the non-cruel type of stepmother).  She said it was a yoga thing based on pressure points.  (I am skeptical that this cure has anything to do with yoga because it works perfectly for me, yet I’m utterly incompetent at yoga.  Except for the corpse pose.  I could do corpse pose all day, and sometimes do.)

Without further ado, here is the anti-hiccup technique:  squeeze the last knuckle of your index finger between the tip of your thumb (same hand) on one side, and the last knuckle of your flip-the-bird finger on the other side.  I know that’s not very clear so here are a couple of photos:

You do this with both hands.  How long do you need to squeeze?  Well, that’s up to you:  simply for as long as it takes for you to realize that your hiccups are completely gone.  I guess I’d give it about ten seconds.  When I do this, the hiccups go away so quickly that there’s never even a second hiccup.  It’s brilliant:  immediate, silent, simple, and requires absolutely nothing but your two hands.

Alas, this cure doesn’t work for everybody.  I cannot explain why this should be.  My best guess is that the technique requires some very subtle fine-tuning that can only be acquired through trial and error.  I’m not talking about a lot of trial and error; I got this down almost instantly, as did my brother Geoff.  I taught it to all the deejays at a radio station I worked at, and one by one they learned the trick, every last one of them.  (I was their hero; the hiccups are a deejay’s worst nightmare.)

Maybe this cure is like using the touch-screen keyboard on a modern smartphone.  When I first got my Droid, I could barely type my unlock password—it would take me three or four tries.  I was convinced my fingers were just too stubby.  But soon enough I developed the same knack that all the other touch-screen typists seem to have and I’m surprised how fast I can go.

I (reluctantly) must report that this cure doesn’t work for my daughters, but then, their manual dexterity is highly specialized.  They can play the piano like the dickens but are helpless when it comes to a knotted shoelace or even a tangled jump rope.  The older one is being phased in to dishwashing duty and it’s painful to watch her try to scrub a pot; she couldn’t do worse if she used her feet.  So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you don’t have success with this technique, there must be something wrong with you.

(Full disclosure:  this technique doesn’t work for my wife either, but I haven’t discounted the possibility that she refuses to really try, just out of spite.  I can’t blame her ... it’s surely no picnic being married to me.)

Why does it work?

Look, I don’t know anything about pressure points or yoga and I’ve already admitted I have zero knowledge in, and zero curiosity about, the actual biomechanical cause of the hiccups.  I don’t know why this trick works and I don’t much care.

Could this cure be a placebo?  I haven’t ruled that out.  If it is, it’s a strong placebo.  (I think “Strong Placebo” would be a good name for a rock band, don’t you?)  I figure if a placebo is effective, don’t knock it!  (The medical community clearly feels the same way; check out this article about a study finding that knee surgery is no more effective than placebo-like “sham surgery.”)

I chatted about this cure with my brother Bryan the other day, because he can’t get it to work.  “Could be that I just don’t have the faith,” he said.  “But I want to believe, I really do!”  He noted that the cure works for his oldest son, so I asked, “If it requires faith, how could you have instilled that faith in your son if you lack it yourself?”  He replied, “That’s a curious question that I too have pondered.”

My advice

My advice to you is not to question this cure, and not to doubt it ... just do it.  It really does work.  What else are you going to do?  Carry around a little baggy of dill seeds wherever you go?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Teens, Texts, and the Marshmallow Test


I’ve blogged before about the nexus of parenting, dopamine, and social media, but have come to realize the problem is worse than I originally thought.  In this post I look at how social media and the popularity of cell phone text messaging are reshaping not just our behavior but aspects of our psychology.  In particular I’ll examine how the influence of electronic socializing may be significantly undermining the prospects of the next crop of adults.

Evolution of phone use

In the beginning we just had phones, one per household.  You reached your friend if a) he was home, and b) nobody else was using the phone.  So often the phone just rang and rang, or you dictated a message to your friend’s little brother, who most likely only pretended to take it down.  There was no expectation of recourse if your phone call didn’t reach its target.

Then we got call waiting  and the answering machine, which meant that if your friend’s little brother didn’t simply ignore your waiting call, or somebody didn’t accidentally delete your voice-mail, you had a pretty good chance of getting a call back sooner or later.

And then we got the cell phone.  For the first time in history our friends could expect to reach us at any time.  The phone wasn’t a household device anymore, but a personal device, so we could now hold our friends directly accountable for not answering or returning our call.  Sure, this device brought us freedom—from having to be organized, from waiting around at home for a call—but it also brought the shackles of greater accountability.

Finally, we have reached a saturation point with modern cell phones and smartphones:  our friends can now expect a response even when we don’t have time to talk.  Text messaging is tremendously handy for the person initiating the dialog, but can create a social burden for us when we receive a text.  Why?  Because somehow our ever-connected society has evolved to expect an immediate response whenever we send a text message.  The personal cell phone has become like the red phone in the White House.

Is this even true?

Okay, that’s a pretty strong generalization I’ve just made, and you’re right to question on what basis I made it. 

First, I have my own experience:  over the years I’ve received an increasing number of text messages even though I almost never respond.  I’ve had to train friends and colleagues not to rely on this mode of communication, by telling them flat out, “I never look at texts.”  They have come to accept this idiosyncrasy, much as you’d accept a friend being lactose-intolerant.

Meanwhile, we’ve all seen people, particularly teens but adults too, pausing in the middle of a face-to-face conversation to answer their cell phone or return a text.  Sometimes while texting they’ll pretend to still be listening to you while clearly losing the thread of what you’re saying.  This phenomenon has made it into a “New Yorker” cartoon, and my kids’ babysitter even committed this rudeness, seeming to forget I was her employer.

Of course such anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, so I turn to the testimony of a thought leader in this space, the YouTube artist sWooZie, who has created a video called “Textually Active” (subtitled “The art of text messaging and how people mess it up!”).  In this video, sWooZie codifies the impatience I’ve been talking about:  “You know what’s annoying?  People who take hours to text back, especially when they hit me up in the first place…  If you get busy, just say ‘In class - brb,’ or ‘@ work - brb.’”  (Thankfully, he doesn’t include “Driving – brb,” though many teens cite “not wanting to be rude” as their rationale for texting while driving, as described here and here.)

More insight from sWooZie

Poor response time isn’t the only issue sWooZie tackles; he also airs his grievance with replies that are too brief:  “The letter ‘K’ is only acceptable when somebody is stating a fact or looking for confirmation.  For example, ‘Hey, I’m in your driveway, let’s go,’ or ‘Hey, I’m on my way...’  If you text me the letter ‘K’ for any other reason, don’t be looking all confused when I show up in my Goku outfit ‘bout to bust a Kamehameha up in your grille!” 

But sWooZie’s greatest gripe is with people who don’t respond at all to a text: 
And then there’s those times when you’re sitting at home relaxing, checking your Facebook, and you see your friend update their status, like, “Ohh my gawwww!  Powerpuff Girls marathon on Cartoon Network!”  And instead of commenting on their wall you text them, because you’ve got special friend privileges, unlike their other 90 billion Facebook friends, and like two hours go by, and you ain’t heard jack, and you start thinking:  You know what?  I don’t even like stupid Powerpuff Girls!  Why’d I text them in the first place?  I seen you update your Instagram like two minutes ago.  Oh, you’re just gonna totally ignore me, like I don’t even exist.  Now I’m in a bad mood when I go to watch “Glee.”  My night is ruined.
Significantly, the ignored message that we see sWooZie send his Facebook friend is of a trivial nature:  “Lol. saw ur fb post. Bubbles FTW!!”  The content of this message isn’t important; what matters to sWooZie is what the exchange (or rather the lack of exchange) says about his social currency.  Each text he sends is a social overture, and each lack of response becomes, for him, a litmus test of his social standing.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against sWooZie.  Actually, “Textually Active” is a funny, clever movie, so much so that I almost wonder if sWooZie is doing something sly with it—a satire, perhaps, of the insecurity bred into us by this texting, social-media-obsessed culture.  Even if it is, the viewer response seems sincere and earnest.  To date, the video has received over 7 million hits, with over 100,000 positive comments and fewer than 2,000 negative ones.  A lot of viewers commiserate with him:  “SO TRUE MAN,” “We all been there,” “I know how you feel this happens to me and it SUCKS.”

One viewer comment on sWooZie’s video presents a compelling counterpoint:  “My texting peeve is when people over-exaggerate the emotional worth of a text and get all pissy when I don’t text even though I tell everyone that I don’t like texting especially when I am playing a videogame.”  This is a tricky matter, though, isn’t it?  Who is the ultimate arbiter of the emotional worth of a text?  And how is sWooZie supposed to know when his pal is playing a video game?  (Oh, right … Twitter.)

Texts as tokens

Ultimately, messages of 140 characters or less—unless written by a master poet—aren’t all that eloquent, and the rapid-fire, ultra-casual nature of the medium isn’t normally associated with deathless prose.  I’m no Facebook expert, but I gather it’s a pretty informal medium as well, with most of the value coming from immediacy, not eloquence.  All this social commerce, then, seems to emphasize the act of texting—the gesture of the text—above the content.  In other words, each text is more like a token, like social currency, than it is a real communication between two people.

A friend of mine had a reunion recently with a bunch of high school friends.  They all went out to dinner, and several of them were texting and tweeting and Instagramming throughout the evening.  Two of them posted the same photo of their dessert to their Facebook pages, and then one got all sore because her friend’s photo got more “likes.”  Later, the friend with the higher number of likes started to freak out because her cell phone battery was dying.  She eventually talked a bartender into charging it for her.  And for what?  Wasn’t the point of the evening the old friends who were right in front of her?  All these likes and texts strike me as the social equivalent of a morphine drip:  continual social affirmation, little bursts of dopamine, that become practically addictive.  The smartphone, though cordless, is like an umbilical cord.  Even when you’re in the presence of friends, the phone is a hedge against loneliness and obscurity.

And thus, modern socializing of the electronic sort becomes a matter of quantity over quality, with an emphasis on immediacy and ease.  People used to write letters, which were a lot of work, and which didn’t get a very quick reply, but these were deeper communications, and documents you might feel like keeping.  Now we have texts and tweets that are dashed off quickly, read in seconds, and then forgotten.  They’re the social equivalent of fast food:  no waiting, little cost, but not particularly nourishing.

So what?

By now you’re tired of this, and I realize I sound like a scold, and anyway what’s wrong with being impatient socially when our social media and texting technologies do seem to give us what we want?  Isn’t a wide network with casual shout-outs better than moldering away by ourselves somewhere, reading a fusty old novel, or knitting, or (gasp!) blogging?

The answer is, this widespread social impatience starts to look like a real problem when considered from a certain perspective.  I’m thinking of a psychological test performed over several years at a nursery preschool on the campus of Stanford University in the late 1960s, and described in detail in a “New Yorker” article from 2009.  As you shall see, this study considered a link between behavior and character that psychologists might do well to revisit with electronic socializing in mind.

Here’s how the test went:  a researcher would sit a child down in a chair and offer him a marshmallow, and a proposal:  if the child could sit in front of that marshmallow without eating it while the researcher left for a few minutes, the child could have two marshmallows upon the researcher’s return.  The goal of the experiment, initially, was to observe (via hidden camera) the mental processes that enabled some children to delay gratification, while others gave in and scarfed down the single marshmallow right away.

The real discovery of the experiment came when the man running the experiment, Walter Mischel, revisited his test results many years later, and compared them to more recent information about the subjects.  He “sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school.  He asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think ahead to their ability to ‘cope well with problems’ and get along with their peers.  He also requested their S.A.T. scores.”  

On the basis of the responses he discovered that those who as children failed to hold out for the second marshmallow—“low delayers,” he called them—were “more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home.  They got lower S.A.T. scores.  They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.  The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.”


According to a CTIA Wireless Association website, today’s average teen sends 60 text messages a day; the average teen girl sends 100 text messages a day.  Research reported here states that the average smartphone user checks his phone every six minutes, or about 150 times a day.  This compulsion, needless to say, is a learned behavior; after all, a generation ago there was no texting, and smartphones didn’t exist.  Modern technology is shaping our behavior.

Similarly, the behavior of the marshmallow test subjects was shaped by their circumstances.  For example, “when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto.  ‘When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,’ he says.  ‘And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself.  You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.’”  Sure enough, he and his researchers were able to teach these strategies to children and greatly increase their marshmallow delay time.  In other words, children can be taught patience.


Of course teaching children patience isn’t a new concept, but why should we even bother if we then give them smartphones and social media access that seem to be systematically teaching them impatience?  How can we expect teenagers to sit down and focus on their homework, their piano practice, or even their daydreams if they’re stopping every five minutes to check their smartphone or send a text?

For a lot of parents, it’s probably too late to intervene.  Trying to take away a teenager’s smartphone and Facebook would work about as well as Prohibition did in the 1920s.  But parents with younger children and preteens can take important steps now to prevent them from one day becoming slaves to their smartphones.

A few recommendations

For one thing, we can set the right example.  All the lecturing in the world won’t help if you’re tuning out your kid every five minutes to fire off a text of your own.  (And no, engaging in such behaviors doesn’t make you seem young and hip.  Your kids still think you’re a dork, and they’re right.)  I don’t text, and I don’t automatically put face-to-face interactions on hold just because my phone tells me to.

If I’m trying to write, I will tell my kids to leave me alone so I can concentrate.  (In a bit of wonderful irony, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston—from whom I once took a writing class—has admitted to once giving her young child a whole bag of marshmallows just to keep him out of her hair so she could write.)  Do my daughters follow my example?  Well, they aren’t begging for cell phones, and they love to write too.

Another thing we parents can do is to work extra hard on teaching our kids patience now, to try to ingrain it in them.  I’ve done this all my kids’ lives simply because a) kids are whiners, b) whining can be terribly effective, and c) I’ve always sought to keep the balance of power in my favor.  Years before reading about the marshmallow test, I accidentally developed a version of it myself.  At potlucks and barbecues, my wife and I set limits on how many desserts the kids can have:  they’re allowed one small and one full-sized treat.  (I know, this is probably too much.  I’m weak.)  Well, early on one of my kids had already selected her two treats when something even better came along, brought by a potluck latecomer.  On this basis she asked if she could please, please, please have a third treat.  DENIED!  I let her cry for awhile before taking the lesser dessert off her hands so she could get the good stuff.  (As an adult, and a scrawny one at that, I have no dessert limit.)

At the same time, I set an important new rule:  going forward, the kids had better wait awhile before making their selections, because when something better comes along there’ll never again be a Dad-fostered substitution.  This rule puts a special strain on my daughters’ delay capability, because there’s no guarantee of a better dessert later, nor that the current front-runner will still be available.  But my kids tolerate this policy, because they have no other choice.  And it’s remarkable how long they’ll wait around for a better dessert to show up.

My third recommendation for avoiding the crevasse of electronic socializing is both the easiest and the hardest:  don’t let your teens have cell phones or social media accounts.  The hard part here will be convincing yourself and your spouse that this is a reasonable policy.  My earlier post on this topic makes a case for this, so I won’t repeat myself, but I’ll add that the Ph.D. child psychologist whose lecture inspired that post doesn’t let her kids have cell phones or Facebook either, and I’m sure more authorities will come out against such enslavement as time goes on.

I don’t kid myself that this policy will go down easy with my daughters.  Sure, I’ll discuss it with them, but they won’t have an easy time persuading me.  The most predictable argument—“All my friends have them!”—will get them nowhere.  After all, the CTIA says that only 77% of teens 12-17 have cell phones.  That leaves 23% who don’t, which is a very spacious minority for my kids to occupy.  After all, our household doesn’t even have cable TV.

Just the other day my older daughter asked when she’ll get a cell phone.  (“I’m just curious,” she added diplomatically.)  I replied, “How about never?”  (Obviously “never” isn’t a straight answer; of course she’ll have a cell phone as an adult.  Maybe even sooner, if society evolves beyond its current phone-induced OCD.)   I challenged my daughter to make a case for a cell phone.

“Well, it could lead to greater freedom,” she said.  “I could go to more places by myself, and you and Mom wouldn’t have to worry.”  I told her that our merely knowing where she is won’t keep her out of trouble, and added, “Besides, if your parents can reach you whenever they want, that’s not really freedom at all.  Freedom is having enough trust that we don’t need to know where you are.”  The conversation continued for a good while, and I was pleased to see my daughter making good points and not just gagging on my Kool-Aid.  And the best part?  We had each other’s complete attention.  Nobody was dinking around with a phone.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

From the Archives - The Shirt


I had forgotten all about this little story until today, when memory of it popped into my head. All at once I remembered the night it chronicles, and I remember writing it, and I remember how I was initially pretty pleased with it, and I remember remembering it, years later, and wondering if it actually sucked. So this evening I found it, reread it, and decided it’s worthy of albertnet. Enjoy please enjoy.

The Shirt – January 13, 1992

This guy has got the Shirt. To say it’s nice is not enough, because this is not merely the kind of die‑hard, go-anywhere, versatile shirt that I’m wearing. I happen to think my own shirt is just fine, but that’s only because I know almost nothing about fashion. I know enough, though, to know that this guy has got the Shirt and I don’t. His Shirt isn’t practical, it isn’t versatile, it certainly isn’t economical—and so it is probably chic. (If a friend of mine came over to my place dressed chic like that, I’d call him a chick and send him home to change. But I’m on someone else’s turf ... I wasn’t even invited this party. I am here as someone’s date.)

With a strange reverence, I gaze at the Shirt, imagining the guy modeling it for himself in the full‑length mirror, deciding if it is to be the shirt for tonight. If he makes the slightest error in judgment, the evening is ruined. A shirt could as easily kill him as make him the center of attention. Before settling on this one he probably threw away—not just aside, but away forever—several shirts that have slipped quietly into fashion dysfunction (dysfashion?). And of course he never makes a mistake, anywhere in his outfit. He knows that the perfect Shirt requires the perfect pants, which begin with the perfect belt and descend lovingly down his legs, with perfect pleats and a perfect crease, down to crisp cuffs perfectly caressing the perfect shoes.

These shoes are the dope: the kind of extravagant Nigerian kid’s‑belly suede leather ones that you and I ignorantly laugh at in little shoe boutiques, whispering to one another, “What the hell are these shoes? And what are those tassels for?” until a salesperson approaches and says, with the most faintly masked disdain, “Can I help you?” We wish we had the nerve to say, “Yes, I was wondering how well these would hold up for bicycling. Would grease stains wash out easily?” but instead we apologize: “Just browsing. Well, see you later. Cheers!”

If I spoke the language of this party, I could perhaps bridge the cultural gap of my versatile shirt and strike up conversation, but alas I do not. The Shirt’s confident speech is laced with wonderful abbreviations like “CPA,” “MBA,” and “JD,” along with hybrid names like “Arthur Andersen” and “Deloitte & Touche.” As an outsider, I watch Rob, my date’s sister, try to parley his distinctive belt buckle, high heels, and earnest patter into an important business connection. That’s why he’s here; i.e., why my date did him the favor of letting him tag along.

(I do not ever wear high heels and am amazed that such a product exists for men. But then, there’s a lot about this world I do not grasp, so I know not to judge.)

“Do you know how I made my entrance?” the Shirt is saying. “I was at an important function, found a partner, and just tugged on his arm, just like this” (he tugs at the sleeve of Rob’s shirt) “and made my eye contact. I told him, look, I know what your company needs and I’ve got what it takes. Two weeks later, I was made an offer.”

Yeah, great, easy for you to say, you’ve got the Shirt! Rob fairly melts at this wonderful success story, his eyes probing the Shirt longingly, in real awe of his social prowess. The Shirt begins expounding the virtues of real conviction, not the assumed ambition that partners, recruiters, and personnel managers (the last resort) can see right through. Before my eyes, he is giving Rob an invaluable survival kit for the corporate world, and I only hope Rob can ingest it all at once. This is turning into an important party indeed! Two colleagues of the Shirt stand by, dressed very impressively but without that dear fashion perfection that would be so lucrative to their careers, their egos, their very beings.

As Rob begins the well-polished story of his own professional history, these colleagues fix their eyes on him as they would on a highway patrolman who just might be letting them off with a lecture: staring not at him, not through him, but towards him and at nothing. Rob deftly drops the hybrid name of his former employer, throws around some sophisticated business jargon, and then falls fatally into a crevasse by using some toxic phrase. I did not hear the phrase but it had something to do with phones. Rob realizes his mistake and abruptly stops talking. (He has been out of work for awhile and I sense that this isn’t the first time he’s cratered like this.) Unable to orchestrate an escape from the grave dug by his faux‑pas, he freezes up and almost seems to gasp for air.

The Shirt and his sidekicks deal humanely with Rob; soon the Shirt, after exposing for a moment his gold wristwatch, shrugs his shoulders, skillfully sending impressive ripples down the silk flowing over his chest, and says, “Well, fellows, I think it’s time to visit our favorite watering hole.” The sidekicks, who have long since stopped listening to anything said, shake slightly as if waking up from a light sleep, blink several times, and one of them says, “What?”

The Shirt grins. “Drinks, gentleman, down at Thomas Glintcock’s.” He shakes hands with Rob, emphasizing vice-like grip and eye contact, and says, “Be in touch now. Good luck.” He turns to me, having been introduced sometime earlier, extends his hand, and says, “Nice meeting you Darnell.” I fight the urge to temporarily confound his internal connection register by saying, “Certainly. I’ll contact you about that interview.” Instead, I flash my best knowing grin and attempt to turn the tide of our handshake so as to crush his hand instead of mine. It’s no good. Is this why they call it “the upper hand”? In pain now, I struggle to fathom who is supposed to let go first. It’s all so awkward, but also kind of exciting. Is this my first power handshake?

When the Shirt and his lackeys are out of earshot, Rob approaches his sister and me as he’s if a pro ball player meeting the press in the locker room after the big game. I can’t predict whether he’ll say “It was a good ball game and I gotta hand it to those guys, they really got the job done,” or “Did you see me out there!?” His expression is a mixture of fear and pride. Sure, he wasn’t flawless, but there he was, right in the thick of it, right?

My gaze wanders, though: I find myself drinking in, for the final time, the unmistakable prowess of the Shirt as he shrugs off a few more ambitious junior businessmen, having no more time to spread his success around among the little people. Rob is frantically recounting to his sister what he learned, and what his next step needs to be, and how she must find him a few more good connections and a few more important functions to attend. She replies, with splendid offhandedness, that she went to a basketball game with such-and-such person, who brought along such‑and‑such important partner. Rob chases down the shirt and gleefully announces this connection.

“Oh yes, James Masterson is a splendid guy. Very approachable,” says the Shirt. “How did you say you knew of him?” Rob mentions the basketball game. Flourishing a game-show gesture towards Robs’ sister, the Shirt says, with oily precision, “Well there you are! Go set it up. And good luck!” Then he is out the door, and with him the fashion presence I’d found so tingly.

Rob returns, and begins speaking far too quickly for me to follow him. I fix my stare in appropriate sidekick fashion and nod occasionally. Finally, he puts it to me: “What do you think?” Realizing my social inadequacy and total lack of business sense, I decide to just go random on him. “You know what I think, Rob?” I ask. “I think you should completely reinvent yourself professionally, and teach junior high school.”

Two pairs of jaws drop, as if these siblings were in a cutesy movie about twins. After a great deal of gasping, they simultaneously express their incredulity: “A teacher? What the hell for?” “Where did you get that?” This time my grin is unharnessed, uncontrolled, uncalculated. (I hope nobody saw me.) I put it to Rob that he could no more convince an Arthur Andersen partner of his love of accounting than convince a school principal of his love for kids. “I hate kids!” he snarls.

“Well, how much exposure do you have to accounting?” I ask.

“Two classes in college,” he replies.

“Did you like it?”

“No, I hated it,” he concedes, “but that was just because of the crappy professors.” I ask him to explain his sudden craving for accounting, and beyond “business environment” and “social interchange with clients” he cannot. He leaves to get a drink, and I wander into the kitchen and read the cartoons posted on the refrigerator. Rob’s sister does not join me.

Ten minutes later Rob finds me, his sister trailing behind. “I have an answer! I have the answer!” he cries. His sister chides him for blurting this out so loudly, but I let it go, interested in his breakthrough. “I wanna learn!” he cries. “I wanna learn accounting and Arthur Andersen is the firm I want to teach it to me.” I am very disappointed with this shallow attempt at epiphany. “Sure, of course you want to learn,” I say slowly, “but why do you want to learn accounting? Why don’t you want to learn about, say, educating kids?”

We leave the party. During the drive our silence is broken by sirens. Three honking police cars weave through the traffic and disappear into the night. “I wonder what happened. Maybe there’s a riot!” Rob says brightly. I shake my head. “No, I’ll bet it’s something more routine. Just some cops doing normal cop things.” Rob says, “You know, if I hadn’t gone to college, I’d be a cop. That’s my second choice. Accountant, then cop. Well, maybe it’s not my second choice, but it’s definitely up there.”

I hold back a smirk: the evening may yet be young! “Well, you know—” I begin, but Rob’s sister cuts me off. “No more! Shut up! Just stop!” So we stop. It’s just as well: I’m suddenly exhausted, and I’ll bet Rob is too. I stare out the window and it occurs to me that, out there somewhere in this beautiful nighttime city, the Shirt is still going strong.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

More War of Words


I’ve long envied syndicated columnists, because a) they make money from writing, and b) people actually write to them with questions and comments, from which the columnist can often wring a whole column.  He can get past writer’s block by performing a kind of alchemy, turning a mere reader’s humble feedback into literary gold.

Of course, this blog doesn’t bring about many useful comments.  The percentage of albertnet pageviews that have resulted in comments stands at 0.36%.  Occasionally I take on the role of the reader and write in myself (e.g., Ask Dr. Beer, Ask Dr. Pasta) but of course that’s cheating.  At other times, as with my recent “Grammar Wars” post, I write something provocative and hope for the best.

I was not disappointed in the case of “Grammar Wars.”  A friend of mine, Trevor, posted not one but two comments, comprising a number of contrarian statements.  (Ah, that last sentence was satisfying ... a boss of mine once argued that “comprising” cannot be used this way—that you can only say “comprised of”—and it hurt me to subjugate the truth of my position beneath the greater truth that you must not alienate the guy who controls your salary.) 

I have waited awhile before countering my friend’s arguments, to see if anybody would come to my defense (as happened with an incoherent and profane attack leveled at my British Faucet post).  Nobody has, though a mutual friend posted a simple “Wow,” most likely in response to the comments rather than the post.  Knowing that Trevor’s comments were deliberately (if playfully) pugnacious, I will give him the honor and satisfaction of a thorough rebuttal.

But first...

It’s tempting to get right to it, and if you’re growing impatient, just scroll down to the phrase “Shibboleths and marketing” right now.  But if you enjoyed “The Deer Hunter” and feel that all the pre-Vietnam exposition was worth the trouble, stay right here because I’ve got a couple of asides to get to.

First, I must point out that debating Trevor in a public forum feels a bit like an insurrection, like Obi Wan Kenobi deciding it’s time to give Yoda a real beat-down.  This is because for the first couple years of our friendship, Trevor and I observed a strict pecking order:  he was the star cyclist on our UC Santa Barbara cycling team, and I was the mere domestique (i.e., selfless helper).  It was I who nicknamed Trevor “Red Five,” after Luke Skywalker; I came upon this nickname while giving Trevor a lead-out, sprinting just ahead of him well before the line and pulling off so that he’d be in perfect position to win (“You’re all clear, kid!”).  Here’s a picture of one such lead-out, at the National Collegiate Championship criterium.  I’m the third guy, having already done my work and pulled off; the second guy, Dave, has just finished his pull, and Trevor is about to launch.  (Did he win this sprint?  Of course.)

One more thing.  You may be curious about the last thing Trevor wrote:  “[Heh.  For those of you who know Dana really well, this is the proverbial birthday cake covered in ants.]”  This comment establishes—in fact, celebrates—Trevor’s appreciation of how much I love a good showdown.  It refers to the tale I told him of a gorgeous, perfect chocolate layer cake I almost lost.  I grew up in Boulder, some 5,000 feet above sea level, where it’s basically impossible to bake good cakes, because they rise to much and become fluffy and tough.  So I was really excited about a cake my mom baked at my grandfather’s house in the Napa valley, down here at sea level.  To draw out our enjoyment, we put the cake one of those old-fashioned covered cake pedestals and went for a two-hour appetite-inducing walk.  When we returned, the beautiful cake was absolutely teeming with red ants.  They were all stuck in the frosting, either battling to get free or in the throes of a sugar orgy.  For a moment it seemed all was lost and I could have just wept.  But then anger took over, and I decided to get Keyser Söze on their ant asses and just eat the cake anyway.  It filled me with the deepest satisfaction to give those ants a terrible death, matching their rapaciousness with my own.

Shibboleths and marketing

“I've been duped!” Trevor writes in his first comment.  “Where’s the grammar?!  Shibboleths and marketing!”

Well, I can’t argue this point:  my “Grammar Wars” post was as much about spelling (“just desserts”) and pronunciation (“process-ease”) as it was about grammar.  In response to “where’s the grammar?” I can at least offer up the “who” vs. “whom” tale, because grammar is at the heart of that (specifically, the issue of whether a certain pronoun replaces an object or a subject).  I’m not willing to call that a spelling error because nobody spells who “whom.”  What would other misspellings be?  Whobever?  Whonever? 

Meanwhile, “shibboleths” really threw me.  This is one of those words that I always have to look up, and then after understanding and appreciating its meaning I promptly forget it, and then the cycle repeats.  The gist of “shibboleth” is judging somebody by how he speaks; in an Old Testament tale, “pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from Gileadites whose dialect did include such a phoneme.”  The consequences of mispronunciation were dire:  Gileadite soldiers would detain and quiz suspected Ephriamite war refugees, and “If anyone said, ‘Sibboleth’ because he could not pronounce ‘Shibboleth,’ then they would seize him and kill him.” 

This shibboleth concept is a nice way to explain why grammar, spelling, and pronunciation matter:  because whether you like it or not, well-educated people will judge you by these things.  So perhaps I should have called my post “The Shibboleth Wars.”  I’m not sure that would attract much of an audience, though.  It sounds to me like the name of the next installment in the “Star Wars” series, continuing along the descent-into-boredom trajectory set by “The Phantom Menace.”  But why does “The Grammar Wars” connote marketing in Trevor’s mind?  Is “grammar” a sexy word?  I don’t think so, and  I deny the suggestion that I deliberately duped Trevor the way a marketer would, simply because I give my blog post titles very little thought.  “War of the Words” probably would have been better, but it’s too late now.


Trevor argues quite rightly that “artisanal” is not only a legitimate word, but is a very useful one in identifying “that certain type of Bay Area hipster pretension that we love to hate.”  Most of the paragraph he devotes to this matter is useful and persuasive, and ties in nicely with his earlier mention of shibboleth.  But I cannot abide his opening sentence, “The suffix -al is perfectly fine and acceptable to form adjectives, nouns, and verbal actions.”  There is an admirable air of authority about this bold declaration, bringing to mind the breezy but ironclad rules set forth by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style.  Unfortunately, Trevor’s sentence is only sometimes true.  You can’t just slap “-al” on any old word you please; if you could, we’d have words like craftsmanal and mavenal.  Also, how do you form a noun using the suffix “-al”?  Were “bacchanal” and “finial” formed this way?  I think not.  And verbal actions?  What verb ends in “-al”?  Total, as in “I totaled my parents’ car?”  Okay, the more standard “corral” is a legitimate verb (and noun), but again, I doubt it was built out of “core” + “-al.”  Neither was “coral,” I might add.


Trevor has no problem with “process-ease.”  He suggests that this pronunciation often has a purpose:  to differentiate between the noun and verb forms of this word:  “Those who say process[ease] almost always reference the noun and not the verb.”  It’s sweet to think that people are this helpful, but a) in my experience people aren’t that helpful, b) the English language relies heavily on word order, not pronunciation, for meaning, and c) it would be pretty hard to confuse the noun and verb forms of this word anyway.  Can you think of a single example of a sentence where the meaning would be hard to distinguish through context alone?  “Tom processes the invoices carefully” is not likely to have anybody wondering, “What are ‘Tom’ processes, and what do they do?”

Now, one thing I didn’t so much as mention in my post is the matter of the “o” in “processes.”  Trevor suggests that somebody might say, “This device pr[aw]cess[es] widgets by different pr[oh]cess[ease] depending upon which buttons you press.”  Whoa, whoa, whoa. 

I don’t have a big problem with the long “o” in “pr[oh]cess,” it being a perfectly valid pronunciation and the norm in the UK.  (I fact-checked this with a British friend of mine, and though he validated that he’s heard only “pr[oh]cess” over there, he was quick to add that he can’t speak for the whole nation.  This is exactly the kind of timid priggishness America’s founders came here to escape.) 

I sometimes say “pr[oh]cess” myself, though only when talking to my kids (and mimicking the British female robot voice of a talking ATM from which I first heard this pronunciation).  But I don’t think I could bring myself to say “pr[oh]cess” in other situations because, to my mind, a British pronunciation from the mouth of an American smacks of affectation.  I grow increasingly aware that a British accent, especially in business, connotes intelligence, sophistication, and global savvy.  Many years ago I worked with a customer who, to my surprise, turned out to be an idiot despite his strong British accent.  It didn’t seem possible for an idiot to speak that way.  Since then I’ve been less naive and have discovered that a British accent doesn’t actually guarantee intelligence or education.  In fact, I’m suspicious now when I hear a British accent; I ask myself, “Could this person have risen this high in corporate America for no other reason than that cool accent?”

With all this in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to hear an American saying “pr[oh]cess,” and the kind of American who strives to sound fancy and intellectual by saying “process-ease” is exactly the kind who would affect the long “o.”  But I cannot imagine there’s anybody who mixes the British and American pronunciations in order to help differentiate between noun and verb forms, as Trevor suggests with “pr[aw]cess[es] widgets by different pr[oh]cess[ease].”  This kind of mix-and-match usage would be almost as absurd as the flat-top mullet I talked a barber into giving me back in the 1980s.  I know it’s impossible to prove a negative, but I hope to God there aren’t really people out there mixing British and American pronunciation of a word within a sentence.  If anybody reading this has heard such a thing, let me know.  (If there’s anybody reading this at all.  Hey, you, there in the back ... wake up!  Have you heard this kind of British/American pronunciation mash-up?)

I wish I could stop now—I feel like I’ve eaten three or four large pieces of ant-infested cake—but I’m not done yet.  I still have to deal with a sentence so inflammatory I almost wonder if it was consciously designed to sacrifice logic and Truth for the sake of pure provocation:  “The noun [process-ease] is frequently used in some quasi-scientific context and the [ease] is consistent with the pronunciation of the plural forms of analysis, neurosis, prognosis, and so on.”

First of all, citing the frequency of a pronunciation is no justification.  Should we also accept “nuke-yoo-lar” and “ree-la-tor” just because lots of people pronounce “nuclear” and “realtor” that way?  And how does “some quasi-scientific context” deserve my support?  To me, “quasi-scientific” brings to mind disgraceful ideas like the Atkins diet (don’t even get me started on that). 

As for the second part of that statement, the “process–ease” pronunciation only seems consistent with words of Greek origin like analysis, neurosis, and prognosis.  As the American Heritage Dictionary points out, “’process’ is not of Greek origin, and there is no etymological justification for this pronunciation of its plural.”  Proceeding from analysis/analyses to process/process-ease is no more valid than saying “gen-WEE-nee” for “genuine” while pointing to “linguine” as justification.  And we don’t say “van-EE-ah” for “vanilla” even though you could claim it’s consistent with the pronunciation of “tortilla.”

Spaces after a period

Trevor goes on to write, “And since we're bringing it, do my poor eyes deceive me or are you adding two spaces after every period? From Robert Bringhurst’s ‘The Elements of Typographical Style,’ which I highly recommend:
In the nineteenth century, which was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design, many compositors were encouraged to stuff extra space between sentences. Generations of twentieth-century typists were then taught to do the same, by hitting the spacebar twice after every period. Your typing as well as your typesetting will benefit from unlearning this quaint Victorian habit.
At first blush, this instruction seems compelling.  I have blogged at length about how the limitations of early typewriters have created the terribly awkward QWERTY keyboard that society is still bound to.  Having put forth the considerable effort required to abandon that layout, I would be happy to switch to a single space after each period, if I were to agree that this practice was based on a long-ago design principle that is now defunct.  What I’d like to ask Bringhurst is why compositors were encouraged to add extra space.  What is meant by “dark and inflationary” age?  What is the link between the behavior and the equipment?

I do add two spaces after a period, because I was taught to do so by my junior high typing teacher, Mr.  Todd.  This wasn’t his idea, of course; it was right there in the textbook.  The idea is that the extra space helps the reader identify the end of a sentence.  Sure, we have a period for that, but periods exist within sentences, too (e.g., when you see an abbreviation like Mr.), and, given how fast people read, two indicators is arguably better than one.  Thus, it is not obvious to me that there’s anything quaint or obsolete about this practice.  Meanwhile, given the sacrifice Mr. Todd made for his students—he lost most of his hearing because he shared a classroom with thirty roaring Selectric typewriters for so many years—I feel compelled to honor him by continuing to put two spaces after a period.

The American Heritage Dictionary

Trevor comments, “Oh, and the American Heritage Dictionary? Total crap. I looked up ‘irregardless’ in it, found it, and then threw it away. ‘Bungled affectation’ is only legitimate if you can successfully defend ‘irregardless.’”  When I quoted this dictionary in my original post, I was almost sure I’d draw Trevor’s scorn, as he’s lambasted this dictionary before.  In terms of eliciting a response, dangling this citation out there was practically entrapment. 

I’d say that before we go picking on this dictionary, we should establish whether or not it’s the sole offender.  I consulted the Webster’s Unabridged Third New International Dictionary and it also defines “irregardless,” however briefly:  “adv [prob. blend of irrespective and regardless] nonstand : REGARDLESS.”

So it looks like Trevor, if he maintains his position, will have to throw out Webster’s too—but I suspect he wouldn’t discredit this noble dictionary, since (I happen to know) Trevor highly regards Vladimir Nabokov, whose favorite dictionary is Webster’s, as described here.  (This discussion, of a barbed public dispute that Nabokov had with the critic Edmund Wilson, reminds me somewhat of this very post, except that for Wilson and Nabokov the stakes were high.  After all, those two actually had readers, and relied on their literary reputations for their livelihood.  In comparison, what you’re reading here is trivial, all in good fun.)

Here is Nabokov with his beloved Webster’s dictionary.  (Not shown:  the word “irregardless,” which is most certainly in there.)

Frankly, I think the American Heritage Dictionary does a much more thorough job than Webster’s does with “irregardless,” by providing a useful commentary about it:

The problem with a dictionary simply leaving the word out is that it leaves arguments unsettled.  Let’s suppose Trevor gets in an argument with some idiot about whether or not “irregardless” is a word, and together they look it up in Webster’s.  The idiot may feel that he has won, because the word is in there, and “nonstand” doesn’t do much to discredit it.  Now suppose they look it up in Trevor’s Oxford English Dictionary and it’s simply not there:  this doesn’t provide closure on the issue, any more than the lack of “artisanal” in my American Heritage Dictionary does.  Isn’t it better to include “irregardless” in order to fully disparage it, rather than just leaving the matter open to endless moot debate?


There’s no real conclusion, of course—there can never be.  I’m sure I’ve left myself vulnerable, in these 3,000 words, to further assaults on my own grammar, rhetoric, and reason.  I don’t have a proofreader, nor the time to scrutinize my work for typos.  There are even logical flaws that I can’t bring myself to fix, like saying “I decided to get Keyser Söze on their ant asses.”  This statement practically begs the reader to say, “Obviously this is an allusion to ‘The Usual Suspects’ and the bit where Keyser Söze’s enemy is holding Söze’s family hostage at gunpoint, and how Söze shoots his own wife and child just to show his opponent how illusory his leverage really is.  But ‘getting Keyser Söze on their ant asses’ is a ridiculous metaphor, as merely eating ants is nowhere near as bold as killing your family, particularly given that eighty percent of the world’s population eats insects on a regular basis.”  (Ha!  Beat you to it!)

There is, however, one more thing I’d like to point out.  You may be under the impression that I consider Trevor an opponent in a verbal “war.”  In fact, that’s not at all the case.  The real opponent is the guy who couldn’t care less about proper language (or worse, the guy who “could care less” about proper language) and who, when confronted with a question of spelling, grammar, or style, simply says, “Whatever.”  Such flaccid, passive word slobs are the real enemy.  Their apathy wages a silent war on our language, with precision, order, and grace all hanging in the balance.