Sunday, December 30, 2007

News: Entertain Me!

To me, there is nothing like sitting on the couch with a nice big, hot cup of coffee and a newspaper. It's a mystery to me, but for some reason it can be very relaxing to be able to sip a steaming cuppa and read the news: usually morbid stuff like how many people died in what tragedy in which part of the world.

I remember that when I used to have a TV at home I would watch the news as a form of entertainment. Sure, I rationalized that I was "informing myself" about world events. But, get real, it was enjoyable to sit and munch on a cheese-topped cracker and listen to the newscasters report on things that only happen to other people.

It is for this reason, I also used to like listening to the news on the radio. Talk-back radio was especially fun because you got to hear regular people air their opinions on how leaders of foreign countries should shape their policies towards other foreign countries. When it comes to foreign affairs (especially someone else's), everyone is an expert.

The Internet has brought a whole new dimension to the news. If the regular news isn't entertaining enough, you can now amuse yourself with made-up news (ala The Onion) or with news of people doing stupid things (News of the Wierd).

One of my favorite books "Chronicle of the 20th Century", is a compendium of newspaper-like articles spanning the 20th Century. The articles in the book include happenings from around the world, but have a focus on Australia and its involvement in world affairs. A marvelous gift from my parents-in-law.


There are serious articles about world wars, political upheavals, tragedies and famine. Then there are nostalgic pieces covering social, cultural and sporting issues (like the fact that Kaarlo Makinen of Finland won the gold medal for wrestling in the Bantamweight division in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games). The inside front cover of the book is a map of the world as it stood in 1900. The inside back cover shows a map of the world as it stood in 1999. It's really quite interesting to see how events moved those lines around.

The great thing about this book is that you can pick it up at any point in the 20th Century and then just go with it and follow the articles through time. The articles themselves are not original newspaper articles. Each piece is written using the style and terminology of the day, with the knowledge of the time. It is absolutely fascinating. Break out the beer and sunflower seeds and I can sit for hours, and relive Israel's miraculous birth and survival or immerse myself in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Whichever way you look at it, it's funny how news, no matter how stupid, inspiring or horrible, keeps us entertained. So next time there's an earthquake, tsunami, economic crisis or upset in international one-day cricket, boil the kettle, make yourself comfortable and enjoy yourself.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Center of Attention

Why is it that some people seek to be the center of attention? There are some situations where being the focus is expected (as the bride at your wedding, for example) and there are times when one should stay out of the limelight (for instance, when you are being investigated for fraud).

As a kid, the best way to seek attention was to either win an award or throw a tantrum. Both tactics worked for me. As an adult, I have noticed that it becomes more and more difficult to be the center of attention. Winning awards is harder to do and throwing tantrums is not nearly as effective as I would have hoped, so I have discovered.

In my opinion, the more successful attention seekers in a social scene are those with a really good sense of humor. Witty people tend to attract others. Everyone likes a good laugh, especially if the person telling the joke or the story tells it well. On the other hand, it is a bit dangerous because you can lose your audience just as easily as you got them. A few bad jokes, botched punch-lines, mistimings or even a heckler or two can be devastating to your reputation. Remember, you don’t want to be a stand-up-comic. You want to be a people magnet.

Below you will find hints and tips that I compiled to assist those who would like to try to use humor to become the center of attention. Keep in mind that there are no free steak knives and no guarantees…

Firstly, you have to make sure that you have a good balance between how much you speak and how much someone else in the crowd speaks. You don’t want some guy telling a long and involved story about an accounting problem he solved, “…and then I realized that I’d put the wrong amount in the debit column! Can you believe it?!" Hilarious. You will lose your admirers in less than a second. On the other hand, you need to create the illusion of a conversation. People need to feel wanted.

When and how much to laugh is also a tricky thing. On one hand, you want to encourage people to gather around you. Laughing is a great pull-in for passers by. But laughing too much at your own jokes can make you look foolish. Especially if they can tell that you are faking it. Practice faking being genuine. It helps a lot.

Hold a drink. A glass in your hand is a great tool for helping you to limit your arm movements so you don’t look like a monkey on drugs when you tell your stories. It is also useful for when you pause for special effect. Whether to look contemplatively into your glass, to take a long slurp or a short sip is a matter of judgment. It all depends on the effect you want to create. Whatever you do, make sure the glass is only one-third full – and don’t gesticulate wildly or you will spill the contents on one of your audience.

Eye contact. This is very important. Nobody likes a person who tells jokes while looking at their shoes unless, of course, you are an actuary. On the other hand, don’t hold anyone’s gaze for too long. You will lose the rest of your audience. Make a point of looking at everyone in your audience, except for the person about whom you are telling the joke. That would be a bad idea.

Be cool. Wear clothes that make you look sophisticated yet comfortable. Half-sitting on a stool while half-leaning at the bar is a perfect pose. You seem cool and relaxed, especially with a drink in one hand. Think James Bond, but funnier.

If people start to leave, and you are down to five people, excuse yourself and walk right up to another group of people. Fake knowing someone in the new crowd, if you must. You don’t want to be left surrounded by only a small group of people and you want to be seen to know others, too. If you are in the unfortunate situation where you are left with only one person and that person leaves, definitely do not shout across the room, “Hey, did I ever tell you the one about the…” It is doubtful that the person will turn around and say, “Oh, no, you didn’t! Please, you must tell it to me now!” You will instantly destroy the reputation you worked hard to build up.

If you have a bad night, don’t despair. As they say in showbiz: “no publicity is bad publicity” Take that any way you want.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Semi-Intelligent Gifts

It is that time of year again when all good little children write down their wish lists and hope for the best: firetrucks, footballs, fluffy bunnies. However, parents' shopping lists this year featured a $300 robotic dinosaur called Pleo, who, incidentally, is the most popular toy of 2007 (at least according to some website or other, which probably makes it true).

According to the blurb:

"This techno dino is equipped with sensors (35 in total) throughout his tiny body, allowing Pleo to react instantly to sight, sound and touch. They also make Pleo capable of expressions and reactions. They also make each Pleo unique. As Pleos learn, Ugobe says, they begin to form their own distinct behaviors and personalities developed from their environment".

From the sounds of it, Pleo is better than a real pet because you can go away for a vacation and not have to worry about it. You can just leave it sitting on the shelf, scowling for two weeks. Imagine its joy when you return. Either that or it will greet you with a lop-sided smile, enticing you to come close so that it can open its cute little mouth and bite your head off.

The sentence "As Pleos learn, Ugobe says, they begin to form their own distinct behaviors and personalities developed from their environment" is very interesting. The sadist in me would like to see if one can give Pleo a multi-personality disorder. In fact, I wonder if we can use Pleo for social and psychological experiments. Instead of forming groups of willing human subjects to undergo psychological tests, we can simply have piles of Pleos, ready to risk irreversible psychological damage for the greater good.

Learn from his environment? I can't think of anything more dangerous than leaving the poor, cute little robot alone with five-year-old children. What will he learn from his environment? To throw tantrums, hit siblings and pull hair? Great. That's all any parent needs, a toy that thinks he is a child. Now, where have I seen this before?

Pleo isn't the only semi-intelligent robot on the market, although he might be one of the cutest.

How about the WowWee Alive Elvis Animatronic Robot: ""...a lifelike singing and talking bust of the best selling solo artist in U.S. history." - just the King's head and shoulders? No stepping on his blue-suede shoes.

Then you have Robo Robbie: "Robo Robbie is a simple toy by any means, and you can tell by its price ($18.89) and design. In essence, Robo Robbie is a walking, talking, and dancing robot that shoots harmless foam discs from its mouth as well." A foam-spewing toy? I don't get it.

For those futurists out there who think that today we are building the technology that will eventually take over the world, I suggest you sit back, relax and wait another fifty years. I don't think Pleo, a singing head and Robo Robbie are quite up to world domination. Well, at least it doesn't mention it on the box...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Biodegradeable

I'm all for saving the environment. We have spent thousands of years messing up this planet. It's time to right the wrongs, stop plundering the planet get the place back in order. It's time we cleaned house.

There are things that one can do to facilitate this: drive eco-friendly cars (or ride a bike), recycle glass, plastics and paper, and buy environmentally friendly toothpicks (see: Spirit of Nature).

But there are some environmentally "friendly" products out there that make no sense at all. Take, for example, scented plastic bags used for disposing dirty diapers. Living in a household with small kids, I understand the whole nappy sack thing: you want to keep the smell in the bag. I relate to that. So why would you want to buy biodegradeable nappy sacks? Your Huggies won't biodegrade for a thousand years, yet the nappy sacks take only 60 days to turn to dust. What a great invention! I suppose that 60 days is long enough to get the sack out of your house and into landfill. That might be okay for you, but think of future generations!

In a thousand years archaeologists will excavate our current rubbish dumps to determine what sort of society we lived in. And what will they find? Dirty, bagless nappies! Their conclusion will be that we were an unhygenic society that disposed of dirty nappies without enclosing them in a scented bag first, like any normal futuristic parent would. Of course they wouldn't know that we first wrapped the nappy in a bag because it degraded 1,000 years ago (less 60 days).

So by using this product, you are actually destroying the reputation of an entire generation of people. We will be viewed in the same light as those from the middle ages who thought it was physically dangerous to wash yourself.

In fact, the whole biodegradeable business is a disservice to our society. If you buy all the biodegradeable stuff out there on the market, in 60 days there will be no evidence that any of that stuff actually existed! Let's say that we all go pro-biodegradeable to "save the environment" - there will be nothing left for future archaeologists to find.

Now that I think about it, how do we know that what we dug up from 1,000 years ago is really indicative of that society? What if they were really an advanced culture? What if they actually used only biodegradeable products and all the evidence of their society disappeared 60 days after use? What if the fragments of clay utensils that we found are really museum pieces that they found in their excavations of societies that existed 1,000 years before them?

It is therefore irresponsible to use cutlery made from corn or disposable plates made from sugarcane. It would be a travesty of history to buy biodegradeable pencil sharpeners or biodegradeable refridgerators.

Give future historians a chance to learn the truth - and keep those 1,000 year old nappies away from me!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Call Centers in the Caribbean?

I read in Business Week Online that India is losing business to the Caribbean. According to the article, the number of Caribbean call center employees jumped from 11,000 in 2002 to 55,000 in 2007. That‘s pretty cool.

North America has discovered that the Caribbean Islands are full of hotels. Hotels deal with grumpy customers. Senior Management contends that people who deal with grumpy hotel customers would make great call center staff. A good solid business argument - and a suspicious one.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had a choice of traveling first-class on business to Calcutta or Barbados, I think that Barbados would win. Do I want to spend time in busy, dusty New Delhi, or would I prefer to wear board shorts and do business on white, sandy beaches in the Bahamas? Would I want to eat curry in a sweaty restaurant in Bangalore, or drink dacharies by the pool in Aruba?

Of course, doing business in the Caribbean has its drawbacks, too. One of them is if the Caribbean Islands cease to exist. I guess that would be bad for business. What I mean is, when global warming gets serious and Jamaica disappears below the depths of the rising sea waters, the Indian business option suddenly looks much more attractive. Unless they can build a huge water-proof retaining wall, Haiti will be history. Cubans will have to become Scubans (okay, that was bad, but I couldn’t resist).

But despite the threat of total environmental disaster, with regard to the India vs Caribbean call center issue, those tiny Islands with great weather and five-star hotels will win every time. You see, I believe that people often make decisions based on what they want to do, rather than on what is the right thing to do. If people based their decisions on what is correct rather than what they want, then nobody would drive motorcycles, drink, smoke or vote for inept governments.

So next time you call to reserve a seat on an airplane, or call to complain about your phone bill, or phone to cancel your subscription, don’t be surprised if you hear reggae music in the background. Hey, mon, get your dreadlocks out of my curry – I mean coconut…

Monday, December 17, 2007

English Lesson

It says somewhere that one of G-d’s greatest gifts to us is the ability to forget. That way, pain and suffering don’t stay with us forever. Memories of bad experiences fade with time. The cost of this all, as you well know, is that good memories also fade away. We forget details of places, people and events. Sometimes we even make up our own memories in place of the ones that we forgot. Have you ever had a conversation that went something like this:

“Yeah, I remember. It was a big blue boat with white writing on the side. How can I forget?”
“Actually, it was a small white boat with blue writing on the side. You were three at the time, how can you possibly remember?”
“No, I’m sure of it: big, blue with white writing!”

This is called misremembering. It’s not exactly forgetting, but it’s remembering incorrectly. We do this for all sorts of things, especially people:

“He was such a good guy.”
“Well, he evicted us from our house.”
“No, wasn’t that his brother?”
“I think you are misremembering.”

Misforgetting is another thing altogether. Misforgetting is when you forget something incorrectly. In other words, you thought you knew something and forgot it, but the reality is that you never knew it to begin with so you have misforgotten it.

“Um, I used to know how many liters of water evaporate from the Mediterranean Sea every year, but I forgot”.
“I think you mean the Black Sea. You never studied the Mediterranean region”
“Oh, yeah, I think you are right! I just misforgot”

Misforgetting can be useful. It can make you look wiser than you actually are. For example, you can be at a dinner party, blabbering on about stocks and shares and financial markets and then say something like, “Was it ACME Ltd that went up or was it Company X that did. It was so long ago, I don’t remember”. The fact that you never heard of either of these companies is irrelevant, you have simply planted the idea in your listeners’ minds that you, at one stage, knew all of the details but you just forgot. In other words, another definition of misforgetting is “lying”, but only if done on purpose.

Misforgetting is a great word. Not only because (to my knowledge) I just made it up, but because it will confound those who don’t know what it means:
“Hang on, didn’t you say that you used to know the code but you forgot it?”
“Oh, actually I don’t think I ever did. I must have been misforgetting at the time I said that”
“Um, well, that’s alright then, I guess…”

The word “misforget” is also a great word because it describes the combination of two mistakes into one. At first you forget, but then you realize that you forgot incorrectly. I don’t think there are too many words that can do that.

I suppose to “unmisforget” is to have once thought that you misforgot, but then you realize that you actually forgot correctly. Unmisforgetting can be a very satisfying experience. You can feel victorious that you unmisforgot something and set the record straight that you really did forget it correctly. This word trumps “misforget” because not only does it combine two mistakes into one word, but then, with the addition of only two letters, it corrects one of the mistakes.

Now you know why my wife doesn’t let me help my kids with their English homework.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Crash

On the way home from work the other night we passed the scene of a car accident. The vehicle in question had both its front and rear ends smashed in and it was positioned across two lanes. There were no other cars involved, although one could easily be mistaken considering the amount of broken glass strewn across the road.

It must have taken extraordinary skill to crash the car in such a spectacular way, especially since the road was dry, well lit, flat and very straight.

As we passed by, I glanced out the window and noticed the driver sitting on the road barrier. I know it was the driver because he was inhaling his cigarette smoke so deeply that, if he let go, the cigarette might get sucked down his throat. His foot was also rapidly tapping the floor. Two sure signs. What also struck me was that the barrier was twisted horizontally, creating a perfect place to sit. How convenient. Why not make the most of a bad situation, sit down and have a smoke?

Wait a minute, this sounds a little too convenient, don’t you think?

I never studied the skid marks, car wreckage, road barriers, paint scrapings or the satellite images, but I have a strong feeling that the accident happened like this: the driver was drinking a coke from an over-sized open cup while talking on his cell phone to a friend about a passionate subject like, say, sport. The increasing speed of the car matched the increasingly heated debate about the effect of brand-name sport shoes on performance. The friend then dropped a bombshell: the driver's favorite player just announced that he will be switching to a rival team. In shock, the driver fumbled his phone, which fell on the floor and slid under his chair, just out of reach. That’s when the driver swerved across multiple lanes and lost control.

The front of the car clipped the barrier on one side of the road and spun around, narrowly missing an elderly pedestrian, a child with a ball and a family of cute yellow ducks. In his panic, the driver couldn’t remember what a relative who had taken an advanced driving course in the 1970s once told him about how to come out of a spin: should I brake hard, pump the brakes, accelerate into the spin, turn into the spin, turn out of the spin, keep the wheel straight…? So he tried all options and managed to increase his speed as his car collided with the barrier on the other side of the road, ricocheting off it like an elastic projectile.

As the scenery went by anti-clockwise, the driver realized that when the car finally comes to a halt, possibly upside down, he will have to be at the scene for some time. He then stopped groping under his seat for the phone so he could concentrate on maneuvering the car to impact the barrier at just the right angle. He managed to point the car at the barrier and flatten the metal sufficiently so that it would serve as a seat where he could wait comfortably until the tow-truck’s arrival.

Just a hunch.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Truth About President Bush

I have to admit, watching clips of President Bush messing up his speeches is funny. I don’t know why that is. I mean, poor guy, it seems that every time he stands behind the microphone it is a disaster waiting to happen.

“…and if you are working hard to put food on your family…”

Granted, he is a very visible President. He attends lots of functions, gives lots of speeches and he is likely to make a mistake every now and then. Nobody’s perfect. I’m sure that every President before him made the occasional slip. Bush has been in power for nearly two terms, so he has ample opportunity to make a mess of it.

“..I know that human beings and fish can live together peacefully…”

Okay, but then you can say that every President faced the same challenge. It just so happens that President Bush botches it more often than others. Or that could just be the media picking up on his shortcomings.

Ostensibly, the President of the United States is supposed to be the most powerful man in the world and the fact that he seems to be unable to construct a sentence should be quite disturbing for the American people.

I wonder if you put together a compilation of President Bush Senior’s gaffs, whether it would fill a five-minute time slot on the David Letterman show.

“…is our children learning?”

Now, isn’t it obvious to anyone out there that if you were George W. Bush’s PR director that the right thing to do would be to limit his public appearances? I mean, if you can’t prevent him from becoming entangled in the English language, at least minimize the opportunities for damage. But George W. is out there: on television; giving press conferences or holding impromptu road-side speeches. You can barely shut the man up. Sounds fishy…

After much thought, I have concluded that there could only be one possible explanation: Bush is America’s ultimate weapon against terrorism.

The American people are using their own President to soften the enemy. If the bad guys think that the President of the United States of America is dimwitted, they will get sloppy and the US will catch them before they can perpetrate their acts of terror. Pure genius. George W. Bush is the world’s best actor. He makes all those mistakes look real. His well-rehearsed goofy facial expressions really work. They fooled the US public into doubting the President’s intelligence, they will certainly fool the terrorists.

Behind the scenes, I bet that the President is sharp, articulate and very smart. I bet that the major decisions regarding US policy originate from behind that big desk in the Oval Office. I bet that Bush is no fool, not by a long shot. I bet that he is the cleverest and most conniving politician the US has ever seen. He is shrewd and cunning, using his Texan background as the basis for his apparent awkwardness. Bush generates this public image of a nice guy, just trying to keep up with the world; one who can barely say his own name, let alone spell it. It is a deception, a ruse, a trick, an act.

“…Fool me once and, uh, er, shame on…you. Um, er, fool me once and you can’t fool me again”

It is the greatest con ever and you have been fooled.

[Late update: link to a collection of Bush Bloopers]

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sweat

When you think of a real man, do you think of a middle-aged professional with graying hair, wearing a power tie and a fancy Rolex, working in a big office building with a doorman and marble floors; or do you think of rough-faced cowboys breaking-in wild horses, or muscled workmen on a rig surrounded by huge pipes and oversized spanners? Does the word “bloke” conjure up images of sophisticated, educated and refined gentlemen smoking long cigars in the club, or of tall, strong, sweaty men doing the jobs only real men can do?

Sport is also manly. I’m talking about well-built blokes with bowling-ball biceps who put their bodies on the line because they only play to win. No pain, no gain. If you aint sweatin’, you aint workin’.*

Let’s face it, there is nothing more manly than doing hard, physical work and getting sweaty. I’m not talking about perspiration – that’s too delicate a term. I’m talking about sweet, salty, gritty, sweat. Men love to sweat. It’s true. Here’s an example: what happens right after a tough football game? The players don’t just shower and go home. No. They go to the locker rooms, get into a huddle, sweat-against-sweat, belt out the team song, slap each other on the back and then, maybe, they’ll go and have a shower before hitting the pub. None of this “Ooh, don’t look! My face is flushed, better go powder my nose” business.

Go into any boxing club and the first thing you will notice is the pungent smell of years of sweat oozing out of the floor-boards. The boxing club is real man-territory. Punching bags, boxing rings, barbells. There’s no room for mercy. You either train until it hurts, and then some, or you get out. Coaches yell insults and instructions, but the boxers obey because they know that the coach’s job is to make them into the leanest and meanest. Leave your Blackberries, MP3s and mobile phones outside because the boxing club isn’t powered by rechargeable lithium-ion, but the raw energy of men being men.

What about the gym? How can you consider yourself a real man if your face isn’t contorted in pain as you conquer that weights machine? How can you show yourself in public if you cannot claim victory over the treadmill? How can you live with yourself if the rowing machine gets the better of you? Push it and work it until you succeed.* That’s what I’m talking about. Real satisfaction.

Even if you are not a well-built muscle-dude, you still understand what I mean. It’s about proving yourself to yourself - showing yourself that you've got what it takes. You can do it. Sweat is the physical symbol of getting a hard job done. That’s why real men don’t run to the shower. Sweat, my friend. Sit in it, revel in it, enjoy it - sweat is your trophy. You deserve it.

*Note: watch it, injured men don’t count!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Welcome to the New You

Identity Theft is a crime that claims more and more victims every day. Personality aside, your details are a large part of who you are - your family status, your health, address, telephone numbers, income and so on. The age of technology, where your personal information is stored electronically, has given rise to this new phenomenon. If someone can tap into that database, they have the ability to virtually become you (in many senses of the term). This is only possible because the security of the information is at the fickle mercy of technology, organizational policy, budgets and the expertise of the database administrator.

Identity Theft sounds like a bad thing. But it aint necessarily so. Here’s why:

I figure that the medical condition that troubles the majority of people today (whether they know it or not) is depression. Everybody has gripes, complaints and dissatisfaction. I’m not talking about complaints about lousy service at the local grocery store; I’m talking about complaints that have a marked effect on your life: career issues, parenting problems, essential household appliances breaking down at the wrong time of your financial cycle etc. These areas of discontent lead to various levels of depression, depending on your personality.

My proof for this is as follows. It seems to me that one of the biggest growth industries in the last twenty years is “therapy”. In the good old days people used to learn to deal with their problems on their own. We used to be strong, tough, resilient. People used to work it out (or, alternatively, go to a public place to take out their frustrations with a semi-automatic, but that’s not my point). My point is that “therapy” (the art of being paid for listening to other people moan about life) has become a popular method of getting out of dealing with your problems the old-fashioned way: by thinking.

So I figure that I’ll do you all a favor and give you some advice that will save you hundreds of dollars a month on therapy: if you don’t like who you are, become someone else.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, becoming someone else (in my unscientific opinion) is today’s second-fastest growing industry. All those people who can’t afford therapy have decided that it is better to simply leave their old self behind and become someone else.

Let’s put it another way. Someone mentioned recently that people no longer repair their broken printers. It is usually cheaper to just buy a new one. Let’s apply the same logic to people. If you feel all broken down and that you can’t go on just find a better alternative and discard the old you.

I know (hope) that I’ll get lots of comments from therapists who will say that each person is an individual personality with something to offer the world and that they are worth saving. Translate that: each client is an individual billable account with weekly appointments that are worth, at least, $100 per hour.

Listen to me, people, save your money!

I’m not advocating theft. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you break the law. I’m simply offering a cheaper and more fun way of dealing with your problems. Don’t bother reinventing yourself because there is probably a better person out there who you can be, instead. Hey, anybody want to swap?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

My Theory on Gifts

Everyone knows that buying a gift for your spouse can be a dangerous undertaking. If you buy her jewelry then you have to make sure it is exactly the color and style she likes - otherwise it shows that you haven’t been paying attention. If you buy him any type of clothing, no matter what it is, he will think you are unimaginative.

A popular grumble is, “what do you give a person who already has everything?” This person already has so much stuff that he will not appreciate a gift which merely adds to his collection of material possessions. So the only option left is to buy him something that is not a material possession, like charity in his name, or maybe a consumable (bottle of wine, a cake, batteries for his MP3 player) or, say, an experience (theatre tickets, a meal at a fancy restaurant) and so on.

If you can’t find the right gift, you can always blame it on the manufacturing industry. Look, the fact is that we each have a birthday every year, but inventors and manufacturers can’t think of and produce enough new stuff each year to cover for all the birthdays. Try using this logic on the people you love. I’m sure that this compelling argument will win you friends.

Then there are gifts that you absolutely shouldn’t give:

Socks (unless you are the in-laws)
Anything that implies the other person is fat
Anything that will be useful for you only and not the recipient
Anything to do with plumbing
Any type of musical instrument (to a child)
A single one-way ticket to anywhere
It’s the thought that counts. True story: I once invited a friend over for a meal and he brought me the most unique gift. He said the following, “I bought a gift for you to thank you for inviting me for dinner, but I ate it. It’s the thought that counts, right?” I obviously should have made dinner earlier, like right after breakfast.

Gift-giving is a slippery slope. It turns out that the more you know a person, the harder it is to buy them the right type of gift. There are a few reasons for this:

1)You have already given this person a number of gifts over the years and you are running out of ideas;
2)The “flowers and chocolates” option will no longer suffice;
3)You need to maintain your reputation as a good gift-giver; or
4)You feel compelled to pay a minimum amount of money for the gift so you won’t look cheap.

So it stands to reason that the longer (and better) you know someone, the more likely you are to buy the wrong gift. Therefore, I propose that we set a new rule: if you know someone for more than, say, three years you do not have to give them a gift. I mean, better to spend the money on people you don’t know. It’s much harder to go wrong.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Snippets of Conversation

One of the most often used opening scenes in movies is when the camera follows a man walking along a street. The man inevitably crosses the road, enters a shop or gets into his car just as the main characters appear. The camera stops moving so that it can concentrate on the main characters, leaving the man in the opening scene to move off camera, never to be heard from again. He was merely an excuse for the camera to get from its starting position to where the main characters are located.

I wonder what the "opening scene man" is thinking as he plays his part. Is he measuring his strides? Is he trying desperately to walk the route without tripping over? Well, he certainly isn't trying to remember his lines. After all, the "opening scene man" never talks.

It could be that the "opening scene man" is not thinking anything in particular. Perhaps he is a professional "opening scene man" who has done this opening scene many times and just wants to finish it so that he has enough time to get into character for his next opening scene for another movie in another sound studio somewhere else.

But, really, the "opening scene man" is just an irrelevant snippet of the movie. He plays no important role, his presence has no effect on the plot and he is only there because the viewer needs to get perspective before the movie starts. But that is precisely why the "opening scene man" is vital to the film. Without him you won't easily be able to determine the time-period in which the movie is set, the location and so on. Without the "opening scene man", the start of the movie would be like walking into the middle of a conversation without knowing the context.

Have you ever done that? I mean, have you ever walked into the middle of a conversation but you don't have a clue what the background to the conversation is? A variation on this theme can often be found in movies, especially if one of the characters is walking through a party scene. Inevitably there will be a group of people in the background listening to someone tell the end of the joke. The audience in the film laughs raucously and the viewers are left wondering what the joke was. Sometimes it ruins the whole movie for me, especially if I spend the rest of the film wondering what could possibly have been so funny.

If I come across good ones, I collect them and write them down. Some of them are very amusing. Here are a few:

"...even though it's short, he puts it on at night"
"...so stop breathing"
"...then the doctor said, "Oh, I thought it was a fish!"
"...or your head will feel like an inflated latex watermelon"

Actually, I picked up this gem today "...It's very dangerous. I mean, all you can do is eat the peach". For hours I wondered what they could possibly have been talking about. I guess I'll never know.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Pink Elephants

The title of this blog is "Pink Elephants", although it has nothing to do with pink elephants. But since I am afraid of a visit from the KGB, I thought I'd better don the proverbial fake mustache and give this post an innocuous name. I'm sure the KGB internet crawlers are prowling for articles just like this one.

Fox News has Putin winning a landslide victory of 306 seats of a possible 450 seats in the lower house. That's only 68% of the vote. What's more, overall, Putin won 61% of the vote. Fox News calls this a major win.

Well, Fox, I disagree. This is not a triumph for Putin, it is a disgrace. It is utterly despicable that a former Major in the KGB managed to only convince 61% of the people to vote for him. Vladimir Putin should be ashamed of himself.

According to news articles from before the elections in the former Soviet Union, factory workers were being forced to vote in favor of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, on pain of unemployment. This obviously wasn't enough.

It is true that compared to, say, the Hamas Terrorist Organization, who managed a frightening 58% of the people to vote for them, 61% sounds like a lot. But compare it to the late Saddam Hussein with a perfect score of 100% of the votes, Putin's achievement looks rather thin.

In the good old days of Communist Russia, everybody knew that the elections were predetermined. It wasn't a hidden fact and nobody was expected to take the results seriously. It was all a fate a compli. Today, they make a big show of the democratic process with politicians and regular people alike, casting their votes. They celebrate that more than one competitor is allowed on the ballot. But we all know it is rigged, so why bother going through the motions? What purpose does the ruse serve?

However, the fact remains that even with the prospect of bodily harm and other such threats, Putin still couldn't get a larger majority of the people to vote for him. A star KGB pupil like Putin has the potential to coerce at least 85% of the voting public to to vote for him. 61% is a dismal failure, not a glorious victory. His KGB instructors are probably very disappointed. Look, Putin has all of the tools and techniques at his disposal but did not use them to good effect. I mean, it's like copying an assignment your brother did for the same class a year before, only you get a lower grade than he did.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Are Museums Outdated?

According to 24 Hour Museum News 15,462 people visited the Coal Mining Museum for England in August 2004. Between April and August of the same year, 2,118,518 visitors passed through the turnstiles of the British Museum.

While these statistics are almost as old as some of the exhibits, one wonders why so many people go to visit museums. I mean, in this day and age, everything you want to know about any subject - including History - can be found on the internet. If you want to know about Christopher Columbus, go to www.columbusnavigation.com If you want to know about Australian explorers, Burke and Wills, go here:www.burkeandwills.net.au If you want to learn about Herod, Wikipedia will help you out.

Do you think that you will learn something extra by being in the same room as a wax replica of an original reconstruction of an ancient tool, based on either fragments of iron and crustacean fossils or some book-worm-historian's educated (best) guess of what life was like way back when?

Do you think that by going to a museum and standing face to face with inanimate objects labeled with glossy tags and well-written explanations on embossed card will give you more information than a Google search of millions of articles, worldwide?

Are the closing times, noise-police, do-not-touch signs, overpriced gift shops and crowds of people worth the mortgage-your-house-to-get-in entrance fee?

So why did 331,605 people visit the Kyoto National Museum in 2005 or an unpublished number of people visited the Frank and Jane Clement Brick Museum in any given year?

The answer is simple. People like to collect things, and the museum is the one place that people can go to see what the government, organizations or private individuals have spent their time accumulating: dinosaurs, machinery or, surfing memorabilia.

We are pack-rats by nature. And we like to hold on to things for so long that others will pay good money to come and see that well-presented pile of stuff. Pictures on the internet don't (yet) give you the full sense of how much stuff of one kind can be displayed in a building. But walk up those steps, through the rotating door and into a museum, the reality of what your tax-dollars have been spent collecting over the past thousand years really hits home.

So next time you find yourself sitting at your computer taking the virtual tour of The Museum of HP Calculators, stop and consider for a moment whether you are really treating yourself to the full experience. Get in your car, hop on a bus, take a train, tram or bicycle (or some ancient method of transport from, say, the era of the Empire of the Great Qing) and get over to your local museum. They've spent millenia collecting things, you may as well go and see them.

This blog post was written in response to a challenge to write about why people visit museums.