The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

American Graffiti…Graffitti…Graffitti…

August 23, 1996

Is it just me or is grafitti becoming a lost art? It used to be really creative. Great phrases like "Keep America Beautiful–Stay At Home" and "When the going gets weird the weird turn professional" made grafitti seem like a worthwhile occupation. Even spooky, cryptic ones like "I’m watching you" sprayed on a wall with no windows could brighten up my day, but then graffiti’s slow decline began. I knew it when I saw "Defy Medocrity!"–when graffiti writers couldn’t even take the time to consult a dictionary. Then it got worse. In a restroom someone had written on the wall "Smile!" Sure, it’s a nice thought. That’s the trouble. It’s too nice. Then in the elevator this morning I saw that someone had scratched into the wall "2+2=4". Well. I wonder what genius came up with that. I think it’s because grafitti has become too public. Look–we all have computers, we all have screen savers, and this is a kind of acceptable graffiti. Now the misfits of society don’t have to go outside–they only have to sit down at their computer. I’ve found a solution, though. I’ve become a screen saver grafitti artist. So far I’ve only done little things–no political staments, just things like an entirely black screen with tiny dark red letters that say "What are you lookin’ at?" or sixteen verses of Monty Python’s "Spam" song. Next I’ll move on to bigger things–like maybe a private listserv that distributes humorous articles to people once a week.


Our future technologies are in the hands of our children. The following are all quotes from 6th grade science exams:

"When you breath, you inspire. When you do not breath, you expire."

"H2O is hot water, and CO2 is cold water"

"To collect fumes of sulphur, hold a deacon over a flame in a test tube"

"When you smell an odorless gas, it is probably carbon monoxide"

"Nitrogen is not found in Ireland because it is not found in a free state"

"Water is composed of two gins, Oxygin and Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin. Hydrogin is gin and water."

"Three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes and caterpillars."

"Blood flows down one leg and up the other."

"Respiration is composed of two acts, first inspiration, and then expectoration."

"The moon is a planet just like the earth, only it is even deader."

"Artifical insemination is when the farmer does it to the cow instead of the bull."

"Dew is formed on leaves when the sun shines down on them and makes them perspire."

"A super-saturated solution is one that holds more than it can hold."

"Mushrooms always grow in damp places and so they look like umbrellas."

"The body consists of three parts- the brainium, the borax and the abominable cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five – a, e, i, o, and u."

"The pistol of a flower is its only protection against insects."

"The alimentary canal is located in the northern part of Indiana."

"The skeleton is what is left after the insides have been taken out and the outsides have ben taken off. The purpose of the skeleton is something to hitch meat to."

"A permanent set of teeth consists of eight canines, eight cuspids, two molars, and eight cuspidors."

"The tides are a fight between the Earth and moon. All water tends towards the moon, because there is no water in the moon, and nature abhors a vacuum. I forget where the sun joins in this fight."

"A fossil is an extinct animal. The older it is, the more extinct it is."

"Many women belive that an alcoholic binge will have no ill effects on the unborn fetus, but that is a large misconception."

"Equator: A managerie lion running around the Earth through Africa."

"Germinate: To become a naturalized German."

"Liter: A nest of young puppies."

"Magnet: Something you find crawling all over a dead cat."

"Momentum: What you give a person when they are going away."

"Planet: A body of Earth surrounded by sky."

"Rhubarb: A kind of celery gone bloodshot."

"Vacumm: A large, empty space where the pope lives."

"Before giving a blood transfusion, find out if the blood is affirmative or negative."

"To remove dust from the eye, pull the eye down over the nose."

"For a nosebleed: Put the nose much lower then the body until the heart stops."

"For drowning: Climb on top of the person and move up and down to make artifical perspiration."

"For fainting: Rub the person’s chest or, if a lady, rub her arm above the hand instead. Or put the head between the knees of the nearest medical doctor."

"For dog bite: put the dog away for sevral days. If he has not recovered, then kill it."

"For asphyxiation: Apply artificial respiration until the patient is dead."

"To prevent contraception: wear a condominium."

"For head cold: use an agonizer to spray the nose untill it drops in your throat."

"To keep milk from turning sour: Keep it in the cow."

Good morning, good morning, good…

August 16, 1996

I was in one of those health food stores the other day looking for some twinkies. Honestly–I figure anything with a shelf life of twenty-five years has got to be good for you. Twinkies are so full of preservatives that, if you eat enough, you’ll probably be just as well preserved as they are. Of course, your skin will probably look a little like fiberglass, and you may make a funny squeaking noise when you walk, but twinkies are the health food of the future. Why? I’ll come back to that. I didn’t find any twinkies, but what I did find was diet tea. Diet tea. Take a moment to let that sink in. It’s not as though it was some kind of prepared, fruit flavored tea that, in its regular form, is so full of calories that you might as well eat a handful of sugar. No, this was dry, leaf tea in the little flow-through baggies. Now, normally tea has about three calories anyway–and I may be estimating upward there, so I can only imagine what diet tea has. Maybe it has millicalories or something goofy like that. Honestly, a world that has to have diet tea is a world too obsessed with health for it to be healthy. No one’s going to think they can eat a great big custard doughnut and compensate by drinking diet tea. What they’re going to think is that, if things are so bad that even regular tea is fattening, they might as well say, The heck with it, I’ll just have a twinkie. Pretty soon this’ll catch on. People will begin to understand that indulging yourself once in a while is healthier than living on a 72-calorie-a-day diet, and maybe–just maybe–the health food stores of the future will have a pastry counter with a sign that says, "Hey, you’ve worked hard. Have a twinkie."

Enjoy this week’s offering.


How Not To Die: The Dumbest Deaths in Recorded History

Attila the Hun

One of the most notorious villains in history, Attila’s army had conquered all of Asia by 450 AD–from Mongolia to the edge of the Russian Empire–by destroying villages and pillaging the countryside.

How he died: He got a nosebleed on his wedding night

In 453 AD, Attila married a young girl named Ildico. Despite his reputation for ferocity on the battlefield, he tended to eat and drink lightly during large banquets. On his wedding night, however, he really cut loose, gorging himself on food and drink. Sometime during the night he suffered a nosebleed, but was too drunk to notice. He drowned in his own blood and was found dead the next morning.

Tycho Brahe

An important Danish astronomer of the 16th century. His ground breaking research allowed Sir Isaac Newton to come up with the theory of gravity.

How he died: Didn’t get to the bathroom in time

In the 16th century, it was considered an insult to leave a banquet table before the meal was over. Brahe, known to drink excessively, had a bladder condition — but failed to relieve himself before the banquet started. He made matters worse by drinking too much at dinner, and was too polite to ask to be excused. His bladder finally burst, killing him slowly and painfully over the next 11 days.

Horace Wells

Pioneered the use of anesthesia in the 1840s

How he died: Used anesthetics to commit suicide

While experimenting with various gases during his anesthesia research, Wells became addicted to chloroform. In 1848 he was arrested for spraying two women with sulfuric acid. In a letter he wrote from jail, he blamed chloroform for his problems, claiming that he’d gotten high before the attack. Four days later he was found dead in his cell. He’d anaesthetized himself with chloroform and slashed open his thigh with a razor.

Francis Bacon

One of the most influential minds of the late 16th century. A statesman, a philosopher, a writer, and a scientist, he was even rumored to have written some of Shakespeare’s plays.

How he died: Stuffing snow into a chicken

One afternoon in 1625, Bacon was watching a snowstorm and was struck by the wondrous notion that maybe snow could be used to preserve meat in the same way that salt was used. Determined to find out, he purchased a chicken from a nearby village, killed it, and then, standing outside in the snow, attempted to stuff the chicken full of snow to freeze it. The chicken never froze, but Bacon did.

Jerome Irving Rodale

Founding father of the organic food movement, creator of "Organic Farming and Gardening" magazine, and founder of Rodale Press, a major publishing corporation.

How he died: On the "Dick Cavett Show", while discussing the benefits of organic foods.

Rodale, who bragged "I’m going to live to be 100 unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver," was only 72 when he appeared on the "Dick Cavett Show" in January 1971. Part way through the interview, he dropped dead in his chair. Cause of death: heart attack. The show was never aired.

Aeschylus

A Greek playwright back in 500 BC. Many historians consider him the father of Greek tragedies.

How he died: An eagle dropped a tortoise on his head

According to legend, eagles picked up tortoises and attempt to crack them open by dropping them on rocks. An eagle mistook Aeschylus’ head for a rock (he was bald) and dropped it on him instead.

Jim Fixx

Author of the best selling "Complete Book of Running," which started the jogging craze of the 1970s.

How he died: A heart attack….while jogging

Fixx was visiting Greensboro, Vermont when he walked out of his house and began jogging. He’d only gone a short distance when he had a massive coronary. His autopsy revealed that one of his coronary arteries was 99% clogged, another was 80% obstructed, and a third was 70% blocked….and that Fixx had had three other attacks in the weeks prior to his death.

And finally there’s Lully, one of our favorite 16th-century composers, who wrote music for the king of France.

While rehearsing the musicians, he got too serious beating time with his staff, and drove it right through his foot. He died of infection.

Look out! He’s got keys!

August 9, 1996

People say that, in Tennessee, you practically have to hit the instructor before you can fail a driving test. Well, as we all know, there are exceptions to everything, and I’m usually it. To this day I’m still legally a pedestrian. Maybe I just have bad luck with instructors. To illustrate my point, here’s one attempt at getting my license: I arrived early with my mother’s Camaro, a nice, small car that I’d been practicing with. I went through the written test, the eye test, and anything else they could think to throw at me, and then failed the driving test before we even got out of the parking lot. Why? The car’s horn didn’t work. Seatbelts, brakes, windshield–all those life-saving devices were in perfect condition, but driving a car without a horn is just too hazardous. They were going to fail me, but I pleaded that I’d be able to get another car, and they grudgingly agreed. Three hours went by. I watched people dent the cars next to them, drive in the wrong lane, ignore stop signs, and get their licenses. Finally my father showed up with his Cadillac, a car I’d never driven. Now, with my limited driving experience, this was kind of like learning with a sailboat and being given a battleship. Now, everyone who’d ever taken a driving test at this place had been finished in ten minutes. Because it was late in the day, because the instructor didn’t want any more work than she absolutely had to have, I got taken on the first ever forty-five minute driving test. Most of it went well, but at one point the instructor suddenly decided she wanted me to turn in another direction even though I was in the wrong lane heading quickly toward a red light with another car just close enough behind me in the other lane that I couldn’t easily change lanes. Well, I sped up, cut off the other car, went slightly off on to the shoulder, and, fortunately, remembered to stop at the red light. Naturally I failed–for brushing the shoulder with the right front tire. Now you know why Sri Lanka is my home-away-from-home: cars there are about as common as blizzards. Enjoy this week’s offering–it’s about people who make even me look intelligent.


How Not to Rob a Bank

The following is an excerpt from Tim Clark’s "How Not to Rob a Bank" Here are some easy lessons gleaned from the experiences of a number of would-be robbers.

PICK THE RIGHT BANK
You don’t want to make the same mistake as the fellow in Anaheim, CA, who tried to hold up a bank that was no longer in business and had no money.

STUDY YOUR HISTORY
Don’t try to stick up the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. Jesse James tried it 111 years ago, and the townsfolk took just seven minutes to kill two and capture three of his gang. Nobody tried again until 1984, and the customers chased the guy down. They’re tight with their dollar, those Minnesotans.

SPEAK TO THE RIGHT TELLER
One robber in Upland, CA, presented his note to the teller, and her father, who was in the next line, got all bent out of shape about it. He wrestled the guy to the ground and sat on him until authorities arrived.

DON’T SIGN YOUR DEMAND NOTE
Demand notes have been written on the back of a subpoena issued in the name of a bank robber in Pittsburgh… on an envelope bearing the name and address of another in Detroit….and in East Hartford, Connecticut, on the back of a withdrawal slip giving the robber’s signature and account number.

DON’T ADVERTISE
A teenage girl in Los Angeles tried to distract attention from her face by wearing a see-through blouse with no bra while holding up banks.

GO EASY ON THE DISGUISE
One robber, dressed up as a woman with very heavy make-up, ran face first into a glass door. He was the first criminal ever to be positively identified by lip-print.

TAKE RIGHT TURNS ONLY
Avoid the sad fate of the thieves in Florida who took a wrong turn into the Homestead Air Force Base, drove up to a military police guardhouse and, thinking it was a toll-booth, offered the security men money.

BE AWARE OF THE TIME
Or the chagrin of the bank robber in Cheshire, Massachusetts, who hit the bank at 4:30 PM, then tried to escape through downtown North Adams, where he was trapped in rush hour traffic until police arrived.

CONSIDER ANOTHER LINE OF WORK
Bank robbery is not for everyone. One nervous Newport, RI robber, while trying to stuff his ill-gotten gains into his shirt pocket, shot himself in the head and died instantly.

BE STRONG
Then there was the case of the hopeful criminal in Swansea, Massachusetts, who, when the teller told him she had no money, fainted. He was still unconscious when the police arrived. His getaway car, parked nearby, had the keys locked inside it.

It’s been a quiet week in Colombo…

August 2, 1996

Howdy folks. Although I wasn’t able this week to spend a little time in my hometown away from my hometown, Colombo, Sri Lanka, I did hear about some excitement at City Hall there where they’ve installed their first elevator. Needless to say, I felt bad about some of the disparaging remarks I’ve made about elevators in the past. Let me set the record straight, though: for all the bad things I’ve said, I really have nothing against elevators, and might even count some of them as close friends. Every morning in the elevator in my building I see the little warning sign that says, "In case of emergency, use the stairs." Not only is this helpful information, it reminds me that one of these days I should find out where the stairs are. And who hasn’t, as a guest in a hotel, been tempted to press every single button before getting off in the lobby full of tired, sweaty tourists? The elevator I ride every morning always rattles a little bit when it’s going up, and I’m hoping that, one of these days, I’ll get someone who’s claustrophobic in there and, as soon as the rattling starts, I’ll grab the walls and scream, "We’re all gonna die!!!" Here is what generally frightens me about elevators: people with names like Joe Billy and Bubba are responsible for repairing them. By themselves, most elevators will do just fine, but you know these guys–they can’t resist the urge to tinker. And sometimes they have to do it while you’re in the elevator. If you’ve ever been in an elevator that’s stuck, you know that thirty seconds is like thirty minutes. Once a friend of mine got stuck in an elevator for an hour–I don’t want to imagine what that was like. He used the emergency phone to call Security for help after fifteen minutes, and waited. About a day and a half went by. He called again, and got the same operator he’d talked to before. She apologized profusely and said, "I forgot all about YOU!" It’s a lucky thing he was trapped in a small metal room.

Enjoy this week’s offering–another story about someone making technology work for them.


KABINDA, ZAIRE–In a move IBM offices are hailing as a major step in the company’s ongoing worldwide telecommunications revolution, M’wana Ndeti, a member of Zaire’s Bantu tribe, used an IBM global uplink network modem yesterday to crush a nut.

Ndeti, who spent 20 minutes trying to open the nut by hand, easily cracked it open by smashing it repeatedly with the powerful modem.

"I could not crush the nut by myself," said the 47-year-old Ndeti, who added the savory nut to a thick, peanut-based soup minutes later. "With IBM’s help, I was able to break it." Ndeti discovered the nut-breaking, 28.8 V.34 modem yesterday, when IBM was shooting a commercial in his southwestern Zaire village. During a break in shooting, which shows African villagers eagerly teleconferencing via computer with Japanese schoolchildren, Ndeti snuck onto the set and took the modem, which he believed would serve well as a "smashing" utensil.

IBM officials were not surprised the longtime computer giant was able to provide Ndeti with practical solutions to his everyday problems. "Our telecommunications systems offer people all over the world global networking solutions that fit their specific needs," said Herbert Ross, IBM’s director of marketing. "Whether you’re a nun cloistered in an Italian abbey or an Aborigine in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, IBM has the ideas to get you where you want to go today."

According to Ndeti, of the modem’s many powerful features, most impressive was its hard plastic casing, which easily sustained several minutes of vigorous pounding against a large stone. "I put the nut on a rock, and I hit it with the modem," Ndeti said. "The modem did not break. It is a good modem."

Ndeti was so impressed with the modem that he purchased a new, state-of-the-art IBM workstation, complete with a PowerPC 601 microprocessor, a quad-speed internal CD-ROM drive and three 16-bit ethernet networking connectors. The tribesman has already made good use of the computer system, fashioning a gazelle trap out of its wires, a boat anchor out of the monitor and a crude but effective weapon from its mouse.

"This is a good computer," said Ndeti, carving up a just-captured gazelle with the computer’s flat, sharp internal processing device. "I am using every part of it. I will cook this gazelle on the keyboard." Hours later, Ndeti capped off his delicious gazelle dinner by smoking the computer’s 200-page owner’s manual.

IBM spokespeople praised Ndeti’s choice of computers. "We are pleased that the Bantu people are turning to IBM for their business needs," said company CEO William Allaire. "From Kansas City to Kinshasa, IBM is bringing the world closer together. Our cutting-edge technology is truly creating a global village."

And now for something…

July 26, 1996

Is it just me or do elevators have minds of their own? Honestly, I’ve never met an elevator that didn’t seem designed to irritate people. Not that some of the people help–how many times have you run down the hall only to see some grinning businessman wink at you right as the doors close? What a thrill it would be to see someone like that get his tie caught in the doors, but elevators have an instinctive sense about who has enough money to have them taken apart and sold for scrap. They also know when you’re in a hurry–that’s when they creep along while you have visions of snails leaving you in the dust.

That’s also when they stop at every single floor even though there’s no one there, which is how elevators laugh at us. This didn’t happen in the old days. No, there was a time when uniformed men stood by the panel and made elevators behave. Those brass buttons and red coats concealed hammers and wrenches and other elevator training devices. Sometimes in fancy hotels you can still hear a whip crack and a stern voice shouting "DOWN!" But, sadly, elevator obedience is a dying art. In our enlightened age the struggle for elevator freedom has its greatest achievements behind it, although technology promises new and exciting things. Many elevators now have voices, so that while we might not know where we are, we at least know where we’re going. Someday new innovations will ensure that, in the event of a breakdown, we can talk to the elevator, rather than each other.

That’s the view from my office this week. Remember, Freethinkers Anonymous is brought to you by the Freethinkers’ Institute in Columbo, Sri Lanka, conveniently located between Papadum’s Pizza and McDonalds.


DUBIOUS ACHEIVEMENT AWARDS — BRITISH DIVISION

The following is from the British Sunday Express giving Gongs (medals) for dubious distinctions.

Tortoise Trophy

To British Rail, which ingeniously solved the problem of lateness in the InterCity express train service by redefining "on time" to include trains arriving within one hour of schedule.

Rubber Cushion

To John Bloor, who mistook a tube of superglue for his hemorrhoid cream and glued his buttocks together.

Crimewatch Cup

Gold star: To Henry Smith, arrested moments after returning home with a stolen stereo. His error was having tattooed on his forehead in large capital letters the words "Henry Smith". His lawyer told the court: "My client is not a very bright young man."

Silver star: To Michael Robinson, who rang police to deliver a bomb threat, but became so agitated about the mounting cost of the call that he began screaming "Call me back!" and left his phone number.

Bronze star: To Paul Monkton, who used as his getaway vehicle a van with his name and phone number painted in foot-high letters on the side.

British Cup

To the passengers on a jam-packed train from Margate to Victoria, who averted their eyes while John Henderson and Zoe D’Arcy engaged in oral sex and then moved onto intercourse … but complained when the pair lit up post-coital cigarettes in a non-smoking compartment.

Flying Cross

To Percy the Pigeon, who flopped down exhausted in a Sheffield loft, having beaten 1,000 rivals in a 500 mile race, and was immediately eaten by a cat. Alas, the 90-minute delay resulting from finding his remains and handing his ID tag to the judges relegated Percy from first to third place.

Lazarus Laurel

To Julia Carson, who as her tearful family gathered round her coffin in a New York funeral parlour, sat bolt upright and asked what the hell was going on. Celebrations were short-lived, due to the fact that Mrs. Carson’s daughter, Julie, immediately dropped dead from shock.

Silver Bullet

To poacher Marino Malerba, who shot a stag standing above him on an overhanging rock — and was killed instantly when it fell on him.

The view from my office…

July 19, 1996

Well, folks, the view from my office this week was going to be Screen Savers, or Don’t Leave Your Computer Unattended When Chris Is Around, but yesterday there was an emergency in the building. A construction worker spit in one of the smoke alarms, and suddenly sirens were sounding, the fire lights were flashing, and a pre-recorded message was crackling over intercoms I never knew my office had. "Attention! An emergency has been reported in the building! Please walk to the nearest stairway exit!" Naturally everybody ran to their offices to grab their valuables and anything else they could carry. "Do not take the elevators," droned the voice as everybody came out carrying post-it notes, coffee mugs, keychains, and Walkman stereos and headed straight for the elevators. Thinking that this was one of the few times when following instructions would actually be a good idea, I actually took the stairs. Naturally I got caught, one flight down, behind two suited gentlemen who blocked the stairway like cholesterol blocks an artery. Today was the first day they were wearing their new wingtips, and they were having trouble with the laces. Although ninety nine times out of a hundred these alarms turn out to be false, I was in no mood to tempt fate, and was about to fix their shoelace problem with my penknife when the pressure from behind–the five or six other people who decided to take the stairs–got the human clot moving again. Finally I made it out of the building and pushed my way through a crowd gathered two feet outside the door. "I wonder if it’s a bomb," someone muttered. I decided to get farther away from the building–if someone really were going to blow up the hair salon or the Japanese restaurant I didn’t want to be among the spectators scattered across the county. I’ve never understood why people stay right by the building when there’s possibly a fire or a bomb threat–no one should be that dedicated to their job. The last time there was an alarm in the building, I was somewhere else eating lunch. When I came back, a group of about thirty people was standing on the sidewalk staring straight up. No one said anything, and for all I knew, someone was dangling something out of their office window and drawing a crowd. I went back to my office and worked for about half an hour, when my fellow employees came back. They gathered around my office. "Where were you, Chris?" I said, "The safest place I could possibly be."

Enjoy this week’s humor from the internet..


YOU KNOW YOU ARE ADDICTED TO THE INTERNET WHEN…

  • You find yourself typing "com" after every period when using a word processor.com

  • You turn off your modem and get this awful empty feeling, like you just pulled the plug on a loved one.

  • You start introducing yourself as "Jon at I-I-Net dot com"

  • All of your friends have an @ in their name.

  • You can’t call your mother….. she doesn’t have a modem.

  • Your phone bill comes to your doorstep in a box.

  • You laugh at people with 2400 baud modems.

  • You move into a new house and decide to Netscape before you landscape.

  • You tell the cab driver you live at: http://123.elm.street/house/bluetrim.html

  • You actually clicked on the above link to see where it led to.

  • You start tilting your head sideways to smile. 🙂

  • Your spouse says communication is important in a marriage….. so you buy another computer and install a second phone line so the two of you can chat.

  • You begin to wonder how on earth your service provider is allowed to call 200 hours per month "unlimited."

…..AND THE #1 CLUE THAT YOUR ARE ADDICTED TO THE INTERNET IS……..

At the crack of dawn…

July 12, 1996

Yesterday I noticed that the building across the street from my office is having its roof retarred. It’s amazing how fascinating something like that is when you really have to work. Even more interesting was the observation of the behavioral patterns of that strange and unusual creature known as the construction worker (aedificatus ignoratus). It’s generally assumed that this creature is of low intelligence, but I’ve argued within the zoological community that there are actually construction workers of very high intelligence. They’re hard to spot because they camouflage themselves so well, although some of the distinguishing features would be a lack of blackened gums, ears which are not clogged with wax and dead flies, and glasses. Why would there be such creatures? Simple: anybody can write a thesis on the hierarchical social structure of an extinct tribe on a large island just off the southwest coast of India, but not everybody has the upper body strength to lift a hundred pound bag of concrete in 90 degree heat. Why do I believe such a creature exists? Because I have proof. Years ago (sometime between the days when the streets of my home town were mostly dirt and travelled by barefoot men in overalls and Nixon’s resignation, at which time the streets in my home town were mostly paved but still travelled by barefoot men in overalls) I worked for Planetoxic Trucking Inc. I had the prestigious title of Customer Service Representative, and came into contact with many of the company’s more colorful employees. On two separate occasions, I actually talked to truck drivers who had Ph.D.s. Two! As if one wasn’t weird enough! Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience. I can’t look at a gathering of construction workers spitting and rubbing their armpits without wondering if there isn’t a chemist or a literary critic among them. That one there, with the thoughtful look on his face–he could at this moment be contemplating the semiotics of Hopi linguistics and its ramifications for…no, wait–he’s just scratching his……never mind.

That’s the view from my office, folks. Enjoy this week’s offering, and let’s hope that Dave Barry is enough of a Freethinker that he doesn’t mind that someone sent me an excerpt from one of his books. This piece is so funny I didn’t feel right keeping it to myself.


DAVE BARRY ON COLLEGE

College is basically a bunch of rooms where you sit for roughly two thousand hours and try to memorize things. The two thousand hours are spread out over four years; you spend the rest of the time sleeping and trying to get dates.

Basically, you learn two kinds of things in college:

1. Things you will need to know in later life (two hours).
2. Things you will not need to know in later life (1,998 hours).

These are the things you learn in classes whose names end in -ology, -osophy, -istry, -ics, and so on. The idea is, you memorize these things, then write them down in little exam books, then forget them. If you fail to forget them, you become a professor and have to stay in college for the rest of your life.

It’s very difficult to forget everything. For example, when I was in college, I had to memorize — don’t ask me why — the names of three metaphysical poets other than John Donne. I have managed to forget one of them, but I still remember that the other two were named Vaughan and Crashaw. Sometimes, when I’m trying to remember something important like whether my wife told me to get tuna packed in oil or tuna packed in water, Vaughan and Crashaw just pop up in my mind, right there in the supermarket. It’s a terrible waste of brain cells.

After you’ve been in college for a year or so, you’re supposed to choose a major, which is the subject you intend to memorize and forget the most things about. Here is a very important piece of advice: be sure to choose a major that does not involve Known Facts and Right Answers. This means you must not major in mathematics, physics, biology, or chemistry, because these subjects involve actual facts. If, for example, you major in mathematics, you’re going to wander into class one day and the professor will say: "Define the cosine integer of the quadrant of a rhomboid binary axis, and extrapolate your result to five significant vertices." If you don’t come up with exactly the answer the professor has in mind, you fail. The same is true of chemistry: if you write in your exam book that carbon and hydrogen combine to form oak, your professor will flunk you. He wants you to come up with the same answer he and all the other chemists have agreed on.

Scientists are extremely snotty about this.

So you should major in subjects like English, philosophy, psychology, and sociology — subjects in which nobody really understands what anybody else is talking about, and which involve virtually no actual facts. I attended classes in all these subjects, so I’ll give you a quick overview of each:

ENGLISH: This involves writing papers about long books you have read little snippets of just before class. Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland.

Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby-Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English.

PHILOSOPHY: Basically, this involves sitting in a room and deciding there is no such thing as reality and then going to lunch. You should major in philosophy if you plan to take a lot of drugs.

PSYCHOLOGY: This involves talking about rats and dreams. Psychologists are obsessed with rats and dreams. I once spent an entire semester training a rat to punch little buttons in a certain sequence, then training my roommate to do the same thing. The rat learned much faster. My roommate is now a doctor. If you like rats or dreams, and above all if you dream about rats, you should major in psychology.

SOCIOLOGY: For sheer lack of intelligibility, sociology is far and away the number one subject. I sat through hundreds of hours of sociology courses, and read gobs of sociology writing, and I never once heard or read a coherent statement. This is because sociologists want to be considered scientists, so they spend most of their time translating simple, obvious observations into scientific-sounding code. If you plan to major in sociology, you’ll have to learn to do the same thing. For example, suppose you have observed that children cry when they fall down. You should write: "Methodological observation of the sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a casual relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrimatory, or ‘crying,’ behavior forms." If you can keep this up for fifty or sixty pages, you will get a large government grant.

Where did THAT come from?

June 27, 1996

Folks, you’re getting this week’s edition a little early because I’m going to be out tomorrow. It seems that the last time I re-entered the U.S. and went through Customs, I took the form they gave me and under "Are you carrying any illegal or dangerous substances?" I wrote, "What did you have in mind?" You know how bureaucrats are–they just got around to actually processing the form the other day, and now they’ve called me in for a few questions. Of course, I may not make it to the interview, because when I leave work, I completely forget how to read clocks. It’s because of this hate-hate relationship I’ve always had with alarm clocks. It’s bad enough that someone had to invent them in the first place, but to make matters worse, some genius in the last ten years or so added the most useless device ever conceived: the snooze button. For those of you who don’t know, a snooze button shuts off the alarm and then makes it come on again sometime between one and ten minutes later (determining any regularity in the snooze delay has baffled modern science.) Now, if your alarm goes off and you decide you want a couple of extra minutes of sleep, the snooze button is wonderful. If you’re like me, though, once you’ve hit that button you can’t get back to sleep because you know that at some indeterminate moment the alarm is going to be screaming you again. You have to hit the snooze button four or five times before you get those couple of extra minutes of sleep, and by that time you’ve built up a resistance to the alarm so those extra couple of minutes turn into an extra couple of hours. When you awaken to your boss screaming at you from the other end of a telephone line, the day is pretty well shot and you might as well go back to bed.

My advice: keep something between yourself and the alarm clock, something guaranteed to get you up and moving. As for me, I keep my wife there, and I’d like to take this opportunity to say Happy Anniversary. Thanks for giving me a reason to get moving every morning for the past three years.

Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re all saying, "Chris must be getting soft in his old age." Well give a guy a break once in a while–it’s a big job being the illegitimate son of Lenny Bruce and Sylvia Plath. Enjoy this week’s offering.


A story from the mid-1930s, U. of Edinburgh medical school, second-term human physiology course, Prof. Kenneth Ivors, Instructor:

"Good morning, class. Before we begin today’s lecture, I should like to discover how well ye have been tracking the previous material.

Miss MacMaster, will ye stand?" {She stands.}

"Can ye tell me, which organ of the body achieves 10 times its normal size when it is excited?"

{She stammers, reddens, says nothing.}

"Ye may sit down. Mr. Campbell, can ye answer that question?"

"It is the pupil of the eye, sir."

"Vurra good. Now, Miss MacMaster, I have three things to say to you: One, you have not done your homework, Two, you have a dirty mind, and Three, you’re in for a big disappointment."

Let’s all celebrate!

June 21, 1996

Today officially marks the 87th Freethinker Edition. I’m celebrating this special event because by the time I get to 100 I’ll have run out of ideas. Actually, I don’t know how many this is, it could be somewhere in the millions for all I know, but, what the heck, let’s celebrate anyway. And as part of the celebration, I’d just like to say–Sri Lanka! Now that that’s out of the way…To celebrate the official 72nd Freethinker Edition, I offer a tribute to the place where I get most of my ideas. The men’s restroom in my office building is not exactly the sort of place you need a guided tour of, but very few people know how much drama takes place as men engage in difficult and complicated rituals. Gone are the days when men would retire to their own private tree painted to look like tile with a piece of bark under their arm. No, men are actually now forced to interact with each other, to sometimes perform duels that end in the winner taking the last available space while the loser stands back and does his best to look completely indifferent while contemplating what sort of engineering feat would be required to dam up Niagara Falls. In less crowded conditions, there is always the difficult question of whether to stand and face the tile or take advantage of a few minutes of restful contemplation. Of course, sometimes circumstances determine one over the other, but many men like to at least pretend that they have a choice in the matter. Many apparently prefer to stand, though, and weak-bladdered advertising executives have taken advantage of this to place advertisements exactly at eye-level. For places without advertisements, there is always the question of whether or not to talk to the others gathered here, to shift the focus of attention away from the task in hand, so to speak. I’ve learned more about global climate patterns and political science while trying to disguise my amazement at the amount of coffee I drank than I could ever learn in years of study. The final question is, of course, whether or not to wash our hands. Actually, there is a third school of thought–there’s the guy who brings in his portable shaving kit and spends twenty minutes placing as precisely as he can those eleven–no, ten, damn bristle brush!–hairs over his scalp. Most men, I promise, are more concerned with hygiene here than anywhere else. The slob who is still wearing yesterday’s breakfast on his shirt has probably washed his hands. In fact, the only reason we might consider not taking the time is because, well, we never know who we’ll be shaking hands with.


Me again–after all that do you really need anything else? Besides, we’re celebrating the 112th Freethinker Edition. I just wanted to say that a lot of you asked about the name and phone number that I forgot to edit out of last week’s edition. The name was my boss, and the phone number was her office. Be sure to give her a call and tell her what a good job I’m doing. And while you’re at it, tell her you’re with the FBI.

Feeling Friday!

You do a lot of stupid things when you work in an office. It’s not just because of boredom, either–something about the environment just naturally drains the intelligence out of people. It’s not that we necessarily make stupid mistakes, although all of us do, but sometimes we’re compelled to do stupid things. (At least, I am, and maybe I’m the only one. Maybe I’m now confirming suspicions I’ve planted in all of your minds already, but I’m in an office now, so I can’t help it.) The closest thing to compare it with is when you’re really drunk, and you wake up the next morning to find your bed surrounded by those toys they give kids in fast food places. The difference is that in an office we’re completely aware of what we’re doing, but feel compelled to do it anyway. I have a two and a half pound ball of rubber bands. I’ve written the first six chapters of a novel on Post-It-Notes. Once, though, I wasted part of an afternoon doing something that tops everything: a co-worker brought in a pink stuffed hippopotamus to decorate her office (no rude comments, now–I work with people who think aluminum cans are an essential part of tasteful decor). So I, having too much to do to get anything done, took a large ball of string I’d made and decided to see if it would reach the ground floor from my office window (I work on the seventh floor). Naturally I decided to use the pink stuffed hippo as a weight. Unfortunately I forgot that I hadn’t tied the first foot or so of string on to the rest of the ball, so the hippo’s lifeline suddenly slipped out of my hand and he made a quick trip to the bushes by the front door. Undaunted, I decided to try again, this time with something disposable–a pencil. I had just reached the sixth floor when a hand reached out and grabbed the pencil. I reacted like any fisherman would–pulling with all my might, and hissing at my now hippo-less co-worker to get me some scissors before this unseen person shouting “Hello! Hello! Who’s up there?” turned out to be the Human Fly doing a little side work for building secuity. The string was cut, I hid the ball of string (in case they did an office-by-office search), and….well, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I spent the rest of the day working. The hippo? Oh, he ended up on the menu at Taste of Colombo.

Hey, let’s have a meeting.


There are two major kinds of work in modern organizations:

1. Taking phone messages for people who are in meetings, and,
2. Going to meetings.

Your ultimate career strategy will be to get a job involving primarily No. 2, going to meetings, as soon as possible, because that’s where the real prestige is. It is all very well and good to be able to take phone messages, but you are never going to get a position of power, a position where you can cost thousands of people their jobs with a single bonehead decision, unless you learn how to attend meetings.

The first meeting ever was held back in the Mezzanine Era. In those days, Man’s job was to slay his prey and bring it home for Woman, who had to figure out how to cook it. The problem was, Man was slow and basically naked, whereas the prey had warm fur and could run like an antelope. (In fact it was an antelope, only nobody knew this).

At last someone said, “Maybe if we just sat down and did some brainstorming, we could come up with a better way to hunt our prey!” It went extremely well, plus it was much warmer sitting in a circle, so they agreed to meet again the next day, and the next.

But the women pointed out that, prey-wise, the men had not produced anything, and the human race was pretty much starving. The men agreed that was serious and said they would put it right near the top of their “agenda”. At this point, the women, who were primitive but not stupid, started eating plants, and thus modern agriculture was born. It never would have happened without meetings.

The modern business meeting, however, might better be compared with a funeral, in the sense that you have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else. The major difference is that most funerals have a definite purpose. Also, nothing is really ever buried in a meeting. An idea may look dead, but it will always reappear at another meeting later on. If you have ever seen the movie, “Night of the Living Dead,” you have a rough idea of how modern meetings operate, with projects and proposals that everyone thought were killed rising up constantly from their graves to stagger back into meetings and eat the brains of the living.

There are three major kinds of meetings:

1. Meetings that are held for basically the same reason that Arbor Day is observed – namely, tradition. For example, a lot of managerial people like to meet on Monday, because it’s Monday. You’ll get used to it. You’d better, because this kind account for 83% of all meetings (based on a study in which I wrote down numbers until one of them looked about right). This type of meeting operates the way”Show and Tell” does in nursery school, with everyone getting to say something, the difference being that in nursery school, the kids actually have something to say.

When it’s your turn, you should say that you’re still working on whatever it is you’re supposed to be working on. This may seem pretty dumb, since obviously you’d be working on whatever you’re supposed to be working on, and even if you weren’t, you’d claim you were, but that’s the traditional thing for everyone to say. It would be a lot faster if the person running the meeting would just say, “Everyone who is still working on what he or she is supposed to be working on, raise your hand.” You’d be out of there in five minutes, even allowing for jokes.

But this is not how we do it in America. My guess is, it’s how they do it in Japan.

2. Meetings where there is some alleged purpose. These are trickier, because what you do depends on what the purpose is. Sometimes the purpose is harmless, like someone wants to show slides of pie charts and give everyone a big, fat report. All you have to do in this kind of meeting is sit there and have elaborate fantasies, then take the report back to your office and throw it away, unless, of course, you’re a vice president, in which case you write the name of a subordinate in the upper right hand corner, followed by a question mark, like this: “Norm?” Then you send it to Norm and forget all about it (although it will plague Norm for the rest of his career).

3. But sometimes you go to meetings where the purpose is to get your “input” on something. This is very serious because what it means is, they want to make sure that in case whatever it is turns out to be stupid or fatal, you’ll get some of the blame, so you have to escape from the meeting before they get around to asking you anything. One way is to set fire to your tie.

Another is to have an accomplice interrupt the meeting and announce that you have a phone call from someone very important, such as the president of the company or the Pope. It should be one or the other. It would sound fishy if the accomplice said, “You have a call from the president of the company, or the Pope.”

You should know how to take notes at a meeting. Use a yellow legal pad. At the top, write the date and underline it twice. Now wait until an important person, such as your boss, starts talking; when he does, look at him with an expression of enraptured interest, as though he is revealing the secrets of life itself. Then write interlocking rectangles like this: (picture of doodled rectangles).

If it is an especially lengthy meeting, you can try something like this (Picture of more elaborate doodles and a caricature of the boss). If somebody falls asleep in a meeting, have everyone else leave the room. Then collect a group of total strangers, right off the street, and have them sit around the sleeping person until he wakes up. Then have one of them say to him, “Bobo, your plan is very, very risky. However, you’ve given us no choice but to try it. I only hope, for your sake, that you know what you’re getting yourself into.” Then they should file quietly out of the room.

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