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September 30, 2002

Books: Culture Jam

A third of the way through Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge -- And Why We Must (a book only slightly longer than its title) I was ready to write it off. Which came as a surprise, since the author, Kalle Lasn , also founded Adbusters, which I quite like. But the first 100 pages of Culture Jam suffered from something I used to call Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome.

Later I discovered that this ugly bit of sociological hoohaw has an official name: Groupthink. But when I was in college, "Everyone Outside Of This Room Is Stupid Syndrome" seemed the perfect moniker for the phenomenon. It would start with someone wondering aloud about the cause of a social ill, and end with the entire class denouncing "Them" for their boneheadedness. "The reason television programming is so bad is because the American public just swallows whatever crap they dish out!" would be announced, to a chorus of head-nodding. Or "We can build all the bicycle lanes we want, but the masses are too dependant on their cars to ever use them!" Or "We understand the value of the old growth forests, but society at large is more interested in cheap burger and unlimited napkins!" The Public, Society, Americans, They -- everyone not sitting here and participating in this very discussion is responsible for whatever problem we currently face. If only the People Outside Of This Room weren't so darned Stupid, everything would get better.

That's an apt summary of the first half of Culture Jam. Worse, Lasn writes most of it in second-person, so it's really more like: "Everyone Outside Of This Room Is As Stupid As You".

A Day In Your Life:

8:00 AM: You are biting into a hash brown patty at McDonalds. The grease shines on your chin like baby oil. You are reminded of your childhood ...

9:30 AM: You are pushing a cart down the aisle of your neighborhood supermarket, past pyramids of shiny apples and peppers .. what you don't know: these vegetables were pumped full of chemicals to enable them to grow in poor soil and survive the voyage to market ...

6:00 PM: The frozen dinner you're about to heat up in the microwave looks virtually the same as the meal you had on the airplane last night

It goes on and on like this. You, the reader, are a mindless drone. God alone knows how you wound up reading this book -- presumable a bookcase fell on you, and, as you lay trapped beneath its weight, you are skimming the pages of a volume that lies open before you.

This whole section is filled with so many contradictions that it's almost self-negating. People will always be hopelessly enslaved to advertising, and yet we should work to help them think for themselves. People who eat whatever they want are rampant consumers and should be condemned, but those who watch their weight have been suckered by the Ideal Body-Size Myth. People who spend their days in front of a computer are losing touch with reality, and if you want to learn more about the problem you can visit us online at www dot adbusters dot -- you see the problem?

The truth is that Lasn has about 100 pages worth of stuff to say in this book, and the first half ain't it. In fact, the first ten chapters (each of which clocks in at about 6 pages) are essentially the same essay, each with a different wording but all driving home a point (unchecked consumerism = bad) that anyone who is voluntarily reading the book already knows. Worse, he offers no remedies for the problems he lists, content to just sadly shake his head at the state of America. It's like listening to your grandpappy go on and on about how much better things were in his day.

Fortunately, Lasn does offer some hope in the latter half of the book, where he outlines some concrete steps that the reader can take to wean themselves off the corporate culture. But even here he has a lot less to say than he has pages to say it in. Don't be so concerned about being "cool". That's good advice, if so-broad-to-the-point-of-being-useless. Ride a bicycle to work. Okay, yeah, that's fine. Circulate an online petition. Uhhh, hmm. Liberate some billboards. What the - Liberate some billboards?! What about credit cards? Don't you think one of the first steps in counteracting a consumer culture is to teach people the true costs of a life lived on debt? Lasn apparently doesn't - credit cards are never once mentioned. What about donating to public television and public radio, or using public transportation? Where's the practical advice about how to stop junk mail and end phone solicitation? Sadly, Culture Jam mentions none of this. But it does give you the ad rates for CNN in case you want to produce an anti-consumer commercial and put it on the air. All the tips tell you how you can go directly from being part of the problem to being one of those intolerable people who self-righteously boast about knowing the solution.

I can't believe I'm panning Culture Jam, actually, because I honestly agree with 93% of what Lasn says. And I think he's a great guy - Adbusters has done more good that I ever will. But this book is not the anti-consumer guide that it purports to be. It's more as if, instead of really wanting to solve the problem, Lasn just wants to invite you into the room to join the others for grousing and self-congratulation.


Grammar Tip of the Day: Refrain From Using Dodectuple Negatives
Stoned Guys ... On the Bus!
SGotB#1: I heard that when we attack, uh, Iraq, you know, we're gonna drop so many bombs in three days that no, no one is, is never, nobody is never, none, no one is never [inhales] so many bombs that no, no, no one is never going, never, no one is never going to fuck with the US again.
SGotB#2: Shit!
September 29, 2002

Excuses, Excuses

There was no post on Friday. You may have noticed. Instead you get a rare Sunday post and a bevy of excuses.

First off, I was suffering from Post Dentist Stress Disorder. My visit with Sgt. Scrape went exceptionally well, actually -- I don't think he ever had more than 14 metal objects in my mouth at any given time -- but I was profoundly unnerved by how much he knew about me. When you graduate from high school your permanent record is apparently transferred into your dentist's custody. And he, my dentist, made a point of mentioning every fact he knew, perhaps trying to create a sense of intimacy (similar to the supermarket checker who, after looking at my credit card receipt, says "Have a great day, Mr. Baldwin!" -- something which invariable makes me want to punch him intimately in the nametag). "So, Matthew Scott Baldwin" the dentist said, tipping the tray so that all of his tools fell into my open maw, "how's your programming job going? You programmer. And the house search? Did you find a house? A house on 1765 46th Ave. NW, perhaps? You know, I've been looking over your Internet Explorer's history file, and I can't say I approve of all these sites you've been visiting..." etc, etc.

So I was already a bit on edge when I got up Friday and discovered that I was on the wrong end of a write-in campaign orchestrated by my arch-nemesisesses, the Wiccans. There had never been any bad blood betwixt the Wiccans and I before, (perhaps because I alone, of all Earth-based bloggers, refrained from mocking the Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 Amazon reviews), but it seems that one of them stumbled upon a review of a game called "Witch Trial" I had written several years ago. Details of the game were then posted to pagen.ws, along with my email address and exhortations to "drop me a line". I'm so totally not making any of this up.

That's how I came to be besieged by almost four angry emails. For example:

Are you insane? Can you be anymore insensitive?..do you think this dark moment in America's history is funny? Apparently you do because, although I can see the dark humor in this (in terms of what YOU think is humorous), I can't begin to understand what kind of sick mind you must have
Sooooo, yeah! I dare say that's enough said on that subject. (Goddess knows I'm already going to get another three angry emails, what with my careless conflation of Wiccans and Pagans, here). Suffice to say that finding a coven in your Inbox before morning coffee does not a pleasant Friday make.

Then it was off to visit the in-laws, who inconveniently live over in Spokane. If you're not familiar with Washington State, the whole "Seattle ~ Spokane" thing this may require a bit of explanation. You remember that Batman villain, Two-Face? Washington is exactly like that. You have the Cascades mountain range right down the middle of the state, and the two sides are (1) complete opposites and (2) always at war at each other and (3) played by Tommy Lee Jones in the motion picture. Western Washington is liberal and urban; Eastern is rural and conservative. Western Washington is constantly socked in by rain; Eastern Washington is plagued by perpetual drought. Everyone in Western Washington is hooked on heroin; everyone in Eastern Washington is addicted to methamphetamine. And driving from one side to the other is like going through the looking glass. It's fun to set your radio to some random frequency and listen to the metamorphosis as well as watch it: you start off listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," you traverse Central Washington to "Todo mi Amor (Es Tuyo)" and, by the time you arrive near the Idahoian border, you are yee-hawing to "Be My Baby Tonight".

That's where I spent the weekend: hanging out in an area where they have more cattle than Starbucks. My In-laws live in an honest-to-god log cabin, accompanied by the World's best dog, the World's toughest cats, and a guinea pig named "Slim Shady". (Slim Shady and I have an odd relationship, owing to the fact that I ate scores of guinea pigs while living in Bolivia. It's hard to view a critter as both an adorable pet and a potential entree.) As always, I found hanging out in the middle of nowhere to be a profoundly mind-clearing experience. Plus, Pa-In-Law, as usual, got off a couple of excellent wisecracks:

Ma-In-Law: You see that Chinese restaurant? It looks so run down that we never even considered going there until last month. But we finally tried it, and it turns out to be quite nice inside. They even had a pianist who played while we ate.

Pa-In-Law: Unfortunately, the only song he would play was "chopsticks".

How obvious is it that I don't really have a point, here? Anyway: I've returned to Seattle and the yeti is back on track. I haven't done many reviews for the past few weeks, but expect that to change as of tomorrow.

September 26, 2002

A Pedestrian Observation

Today I saw a man walking across the street while trying to simultaneously scrape some foreign substance off the bottom of his shoe. He would take a step with his right foot, sharply strike the bottom of his shoe on the pavement twice, take a quick step with his left foot, and then repeat the process.

I was pretty bummed when I realized what he was really doing, because at first I though he was doing a merry, impromptu jig. You just don't see enough of them merry, impromptu jigs these days.


The Three Rs

Read this, write them, and do the math.

Update: My email to Jennifer Dunn, Washington State Representative:

"If peaceful efforts to destroy Iraq's weapons or to bring about a regime change fail, then I have decided to authorize any means necessary to accomplish these goals. Military force should always be a last resort." So you have written on your webpage, and I commend you for this position. But I fear that the Congress is poised to cede its decision-making capabilities to the Executive branch, by approving a war resolution that hands the Bush Administration a foreign policy carte blanch.

I do not believe that the White House shares your philosophy of only utilizing military force as a last resort. Waiving your responsibility as a Congresswomen to serve as a check and balance to the Bush Administration's warmongering is therefore tantamount to reneging on these principles that you hold dear. I hope you'll have the courage and the integrity to stand up for your convictions, and ensure that Congress continues to have a voice in the planning process of this momentous decision.
Respectfully Yours,
Matthew Baldwin
"Warmongering" and "renege" were probably a little over the top, but, whatever. Steal, rewrite, use.
Update: Senator Patty Murray Responds!
Dear Friend:
Thank you for contacting me by email. This is just a short note to let you know that my office has received your message. If you are from Washington state and ...
Yeah, that's about where I stopped reading ...
September 25, 2002

Politicians Accuse Politicians of Playing Politics With Politics

Politicians in Washington D.C. today denounced other politicians for using political issues for political gain. "The politicalization of politics has got to stop," railed one such politician. "The manner in which my opponents are turning political issues into politics smacks of partisanship." The criticized politicians, meanwhile, pointed out that the accusing politicians were politically motivated politicians, whose charges of political politicalization were made in a conspicuously political way. "The American people will see through this blatant attempt to play politics with the politics of politics-playing," predicted one. While no one knows which party will come out ahead in this public relations skirmish, it is clear that both groups are profoundly stupid.

[ link | News]



Down In The Mouth

I have a dentist's appointment tomorrow. I hate the dentist. The thing I dislike the most about going to the dentist, aside from the dentistry, is that I learn unpleasant things about myself. Like the fact that, apparently, I never floss. And that if I were to be captured by The Enemy and tortured, I'd confess everything inside of 60 seconds.

The Enemy: Where are your loved ones hiding?

Me: I'll never tell!
The Enemy: Okay. Before we begin I'm going to put this tube in the corner of your mouth; it will gently vacuum up any excess saliva that --
Me: Basement of Pizza Hut, 65th and Harrison Ave.
At least in the old days I would get prize for making it through my visits without shrieking. Did you? The "Children's Dentist" I was dragged to as a child had two big things going for it: (1) the dentist would wear a surgical mask which made the lower half of his face look like a big cartoony basset hound (this was a lot less nightmare-inducing than it sounds), and (2) after all the unpleasantry you would get to root around in a big cardboard treasure chest and pick out a toy -- a small plastic sword or a fake hook-hand -- from amongst the hundreds of previously passed-over packages of sugarless gum. (I'm not sure what the deal was with the pirate theme; perhaps because, at this point, all you could say was "Arrrgh arrr arrrghr.") Sure the toy was inevitably some cheap piece of crap that would break the first time you hit your sister with it, but even that would be better than the "Remember to Brush!" emblazoned $0.65 toothbrush they give me now.
The first person who starts an "Adult's Dentist" practice is going to make a killing: knowing there's a treasure chest full of Nirvana mix tapes, Warcraft III demo disks and girlie magazines (or IKEA catalogs, for the ladies) waiting for you at the end would make any dentist visit more bearable for we Gen X'ers, where X > 29. Million dollar idea, right there. I'd do it myself, but becoming a dentist would leave me with no excuse not to floss.
September 24, 2002

Three Things Recently Said to Me

Ninety year-old neighbor: "When I was little girl I was out walking with Brownie, the big, hairy dog that I had grown up with. We walked by a lake, which I think was the first time I'd ever taken Brownie by the water. Well, Brownie saw someone swimming and went crazy! He ran to the edge of a dock and leapt into the water and charged right at the swimmer. I didn't know what to do, and everyone on the beach thought that Brownie was going to kill this person, so I panicked and jumped into the water after him.

"Just before Brownie got to the swimmer he looked back, saw me, and turned right around. He grabbed my dress in his teeth and towed me to shore. I was soaked and mortified so I took Brownie straight home.

"When I told my father what had happened, he laughed and said 'Didn't you know? Before we got Brownie he was a lifeguard. He was trained to sit by the lake and rescue people who were drowning.' I had no idea! I was very proud of him. But I never took him to the lake again."

Friend who, along with his two-year daughter Juniper, spent an entire afternoon visiting: "When we left your house and began to drive away Juniper said 'I'm hungry.' I said, 'but we just spent two hours eating at Matthew's house!' And she said 'Who's Matthew?'"

Recently wed acquaintance: "We told my new inlaws that I was hoping to get pregnant soon, and my new father-in-law looks at me and says 'Remember: grass won't grow on a well-worn path.' What the hell does that mean?!"


Pump Up The Volume

I love how the commercials on tv are, like, twice as loud as the programs they interrupt. "Stayed tuned and find out who Melissa chooses, next on Fifth Wheel. THINKING OF REFINANCING!? NOW'S THE TIME!!!"

What a great idea! I'm going to do this from now on, double my volume whenever I am engaged in self-promotion.

Me: Hey, how are you doing?

Girl at Party: Fine, thanks. And you?
Me: Doin' alright. I'm Matthew, by the way.
Girl: Nice to meet you, Matthew. I'm Cheryl.
Me: Pretty good party, huh? I noticed you were over here looking over Paul's CD collection. Are you a big music fan?
Girl: Uh-huh, totally.
Me: I'm a huge music aficionado myself. I mean, I DON'T LIKE THAT POPULAR CRAP THEY PLAY ON THE RADIOS, I'M INTO INDEPENDENT MUSIC!!
Girl: I, uh, whoa. Yeah, uh, Indie stuff rules. So do you like, ah, The Strokes?
Me: Not any more, but I USED TO LIKE THEM BEFORE THEY SOLD OUT!!
Girl: Oh, right. But the video is cool.
Me: I wouldn't know, since I DON'T HAVE A TV!! Hey, that's a nice jacket you're wearing.
Girl: Oh yeah, you like it? I got it at a thrift store, believe it or not.
Me: I buy a lot of my stuff from thrift stores too, SINCE I REFUSE TO PATRONIZE McCORPORATIONS LIKE THE GAP!!! I AM AGAINST GLOBALIZATION!!! AND SUVS!!!!
Girl: Do you realize you are shouting?
Me: You may have SEEN ME ON THE NEWS during the Seattle WTO uprising. I was THE GUY WITH THE BIG PUPPETS!! Or maybe you saw MY ARTICLE DENOUNCING THE WTO that was PUBLISHED IN THE SEATTLE ANARCHISTS QUARTERLY ZINE!! As a matter of fact, I'm using that essay as a starting point for THE SCREENPLAY THAT I AM WRITING!!
Girl: People are starting to stare.
Me: It must be my STARTLINGLY GOOD LOOKS!!!! HERE'S MY PHONE NUMBER!!!
Hey, that reminds me: this post was MENTIONED IN THE GUARDIAN, ENGLAND'S SECOND LARGEST NEWSPAPER!!!!!!!!!!*. Thanks to Rory for the scan.
* Several readers have informed me that the "England's second-largest newspaper" bit is a lie. I have informed several readers that I don't care.
September 23, 2002

The Morning News

Your daily dose of yeti wisecrackery is available today at The Morning News.

September 20, 2002

T.G.I.P.J.F.!

I like my job okay, but the lack of team spirit around the office is a total drag! We have a Community Group that's always organizing fun events for everyone, like Bowling Nites and Margarita Mondays and Yard Work Wednesdays, but no one ever goes because I guess they are too cool or something. And the worst part is that the people who don't go are the SAME PEOPLE who always complain about low morale(!!). IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHY THERE'S LOW MORALE LOOK IN THE MIRROR PEOPLE!!

For example, today was Pajama Day. And did ANYONE else wear their PJs to work?? Noooooooo! And it's not like people didn't have enough notice: the memo announcing Pajama Day went out WEEKS ago! At first I kinda wished that I had brought a change of clothes, but the more I think about it, the prouder I am that I'm the only one who wore pajamas. (Although I don't actually own any pajamas, so I just came in the boxer shorts and "Chicks Dig Unix" t-shirt I slept in last night.)

Even though it's just me, I think Pajama Day has really raised morale around here, because I've been hearing a lot more laughter in the halls today. And I think that more people will participate the next time we have something like this, because they see that I'M not afraid to play along in the interest in a funner workplace. Hey, SOMEONE'S gotta be a morale-boosting-leader around here, and it might as well be ME!!

Update: At my supervisor's urging I reread that memo, and it turns out that today is actually "Performance Review Day". Isn't that awesome?! I'm going before the evaluation panel in 20 minutes, and I think they are going to be BLOWN AWAY by my team spirit! Wish me luck!!!


The Follicles Follies

Today I saw a kid who had made what can only be regarded as a Poor Hairstyle Decision. (I am qualified to judge, as, alas, I am something of an authority on the subject of Poor Hairstyle Decisions. You could legitimately refer to me as "Matthew Baldwin, P.H.D.") The youth possessed exceptionally curly hair, and had some sort of reverse-mohawk thing going. It looked as if he had let the thing grow into a 'fro of considerable circumference and then shaved it short down the middle, leaving two spheres o' hair attached to either side of his head. I dunno what the intended effect was supposed to be, but my first impulse was to infiltrate the Death Star and rescue him.

September 19, 2002

Fear the Brown

Remember those halcyon days of childhood, when you would while away your sixth-grade recess quietly reading on the corner of the playground, and then three 12 year-olds so overdeveloped that they were eligible to vote would materialize and say "Hey Matt bald one. What's it like to be bald, Matt bald one?" and grab your copy of Encyclopedia Brown Cracks The Case and start tossing it from person to person while you leapt to your feet and ineffectually flailed your yarn-like arms around for a bit before breaking down into tears and running away? Boy, I'm sure remembering those days, as several agencies have conspired to play this childhood classic on me right now.

I will come as no surprise that Malfeasant #1 in this modern-day game of Keep Away is UPS. I mean, come on: just look at those guys. Yes yes, I too have seen the commercials where the huge, strapping UPS men go from house to house, playing with children and giving insulin shots to hypoglycemic puppies. But let's face facts: six years ago most of these "Men in Brown" spent their days delivering shipment after shipment of wedgies to playgrounds around the nation. So when I tracked my package on the UPS website and found it listed as "delivered," I should have realized that "delivered" was a Secret Bully Code Word meaning "Oh man, are we ever gonna make you unhappy, Matt bald one".

That evening I searched in all the places where UPS typically leaves packages -- on the front doorstep, on the back doorstep, at the neighbors, in the culvert -- with a dawning awareness of my chumphood. Needless to say, it was nowhere to be found. The following morning I called the UPS office, and the guy on the other end of the line explained that they shipped my package to my old address, an apartment that I haven't lived in for four months. "Was it addressed to that address?" I asked. No, Guy On the Phone replied, it was addressed to my current address. Most people, having stated "we were clearly told to do X but we then did Y" would then go on to
explain why this happened. But Guy On The Phone, apparently worried that he had already revealed too many details of the Secret Society of Incorporated Bullies, left it at that. When pressed on the point -- "Why, when the package was addressed to my new address, would you send it to my old?" -- Guy On The Phone said, and I'm quoting verbatim here, "Mummr mrrm computer wrhhmw mmumblrh printer, invoice hrrm." He then went on to helpfully point out that since somebody at my old building had signed for the package, there was nothing they could do. "Could you at least tell me who signed for it?" I asked. Sure, he replied: it was received by "Other". When I asked him to please burst into flames he was, alas, less accommodating.

And so the game was afoot. I drove to my old building, a 45 minute commute from my current residence, and asked my ex-neighbors if anyone had accepted a delivery. I finally got the lady in #103 to admit that she had signed for it. So you have it? No, she said, I gave it to the guy in your old apartment, #102. Okay, that doesn't make a whit of sense, but at least I know that the guy in #102 has it now! No, she said, he was planning to give it to the landlady. Okay, that doesn't make a whit of sense either, but at least I'm terribly frustrated now!

I knocked on #102 but there was no answer. I then decided to leave him a note. Did the lady in #103 know his name? No, of course she did not. Why on Earth would she know the name of the man she handed my $200 package to?

I called the landlady. "Please landlady," I said, "do you have my package?" She knew not of what I spoke. "A package?" I explained, "From UPS? It's probably cubic or rectilinear in shape? And cardboardy in color?" Oh that package. She shipped that package back to UPS. Yes. Yes, of course she did.

I called UPS again. "You know that package you just told me you don't have?" I asked. "You wouldn't happen to have it, would you?" Why, of course they have it, it's right there. "Great! Where are you, I'd like to come pick it up." Oh. Well, it turns out that when UPS says they have your package "right here" they mean it is "not here". Specifically, they mean it is "way the hell out at a UPS 'convenience center' located in small town exclusively populated by UPS employees and errant packages, 40 minutes from the nearest freeway and only open during Lent."

This is where I gave up and resorted to Plan B: breaking out into tears and running away.

Not that I care! I didn't want that stupid package anyway! You bullies can keep it, you big dumbheaded dumbheads! That said, I would like to finish that Encyclopedia Brown book at some point. So, Danny Hamilton, if you're reading this, could you maybe send that back to me someday? Please use the Post Office, thanks.

September 18, 2002

Putting the 'Arrrh!' into 'Repartee'

Here's a joke I just made up:

What does Hillary Clinton say on Talk Like A Pirate Day?

"Avast, right-wing conspiracy!"

"Talk Like a Pirate Day" is tomorrow.

[ link | Humor]



Okay, You Talked Me Into It

Overheard.

Guy 1: What's up with you and Lannie?

Guy 2: Ah, we ain't together no more. She was too wild. The last thing I want is a wild woman.

Guy 1: Really? That's the first thing I want!

[Both laugh unroarously.]

Guy 2: Me too, brother. Me too.

September 17, 2002

Lovely and The Punk

I've just boarded my bus, which is rapidly filling up. The Punk across the aisle, however, is stubbornly refusing to move his bag from the seat next to him. He is staring sullenly out the window, so at first I assume he's just self-absorbed and has forgotten that his backpack is preventing others from sitting. But then I notice that, by some sixth sense, The Punk knows when someone is about to ask him to move his stuff; at these moments he abruptly turns to the interlopers and scowls, until they opt not to speak and continue down the aisle.

Suddenly, a lovely young lady boards, one of those girls that are so obviously unaware of their own allure that they are doubly attractive in the eyes of others. Everyone watches as she saunters down the aisle like a bride in an impromptu wedding, except for The Punk who is busy glaring at pigeons and wondering what he should get tattooed onto his tongue.

Lovely sees the spot next to The Punk, does a charming little skip, grabs one of the support poles and starts to swing herself into the seat. But then she sees the bag, somehow arrests her motion, chirps a "whoops!" and resumes walking towards the back of the bus. The Punk, meanwhile, who has turned towards her with his Angry Youth face in place, manages to look surprised and then delighted and then crestfallen all in the space of a second. He scoops his bag into his lap, but it's too late. A moment later an middle-aged man occupies the vacant seat, but The Punk offers no protest, as he's now craning his neck, scanning the back of the coach and trying to locate his lost opportunity. It's a Sophoclean tragedy in one act.

That was last week. This morning The Punk was again on my bus. He was sitting with his bag on his lap, leaving the adjacent seat free, a testament to the civilizing influence of women.


Free Willy 4: Seriously, Willy, Get The Hell Out Of Here

MEAN AQUARIUM SCIENTIST: What are you doing? Get away from that big red button! That opens the underwater gates to the killer whale holding tank!

JESSE: You can't hold Willy, Mean Aquarium Scientist! Willy needs to be free!

[JESSE presses button. CUT TO: underwater shot of gates opening. WILLY passes through gates to ocean.]

Jesse: Go Willy!

[WILLY leaps into air while JESSE pumps his fist. WILLY continues out to sea. WILLY stops and reconsiders. WILLY returns to holding tank.

JESSE: Go Willy! Go!

[WILLY leaves holding tank, circles around twice, returns.]

JESSE: C'mon Willy! Go! You stupid whale. Go!

[WILLY looks at JESSE, doesn't move.]

MEAN AQUARIUM SCIENTIST: Willy's not going anywhere, you fool.

JESSE: But animals need to live their lives in the wild, they way nature intended!

MEAN AQUARIUM SCIENTIST: Uh-huh. Yeah, I'm sure your parents spend their days hunting elk and digging for roots the way nature intended. Tell you what, we'll let Willy decide. Hey Willy, do you want to live your life "the way nature intended" or do you want free fish and unlimited medical care?

[WILLY looks thoughtful. CUT TO: JESSE looks frustrated.]

JESSE: Go Willy!

[WILLY makes bored whale noises.]

[ link | Movies]


September 16, 2002

Share the Wealth

Great Grandmother of Cher, there's a brief article about me at Salon.com and defective yeti has been MetaFiltered. Why? Because of the Internet community's insatiable yen for more people who blog about their cats? No, ostensibly because this lil' bit o' the funny somehow turned into One Of Those Things That People At My Office Are Forever Forwarding To Me With The Subjectline "Monday Funnies LOL!!!!". The real reason, of course, is simply because I won The Great Weblog Lottery. Like a regular lottery, The Great Weblog Lottery confers upon some undeserving schmoe a veritable windfall for no fathomable reason. (Although unlike a regular lottery, said schmoe cannot then purchase a miniature golf course).

The windfall in The Great Weblog Lottery is publicity, which is to a blogger's ego what nitroglycerine is to a campfire. But if I learned anything from the Spider-Man movie it's that with great power comes an inability to hook up with Kirsten Dunst, along with a wheelbarrel full of guilt. So despite the fact that 94% of my new visitors never made it through the first paragraph (see above), I would kindly ask that the remaining 6% please check out some of the equally worthy blogs listed below; blogs that are little-known but just as deserving of an increased readership.

Dog Door of Death
Kafkaesque
Clark Hornbell
Bruce Hartman
Kenneth Hunt
Speedy Snail
Jerry Kindall
Amphiskios
Organic Mechanic
If you know of a relatively unknown but nonetheless enjoyable blog, feel free to mention it in the comments. (In fact, here's one from the comments that I am hereby adding to the list: Mimi Smartypants.)

P.s. If I win the actual lottery none of you bastard is getting a dime, so don't even ask.

September 13, 2002

Ask the Answer Guy!
Dear Answer Guy,
Why is Friday the 13th considered bad luck? Thanks, Curious in Kansas
Great question, Curious! The belief that Friday the 13th is unlucky dates all the way back to 1923, when a supposedly unsinkable ship called "The Titanic" hit an iceberg while enroute to England and went to the bottom of the sea, killing over 1000 people. The disaster occured on Friday the 13th, and that day has been considered bad luck ever since. -- Answer Guy
Update: Marcus Sandison writes:
?? why are u talking about the titanic like noone's ever herd of it? didnt u see the movie? i guess not because if you had you'd know that it sank in 1912. also it sank on sunday the 14th.
Thanks for writing, Marcus. Yes, some scientists believe in an alternate theory of the Titanic (that it sank in 1912) and I should have mentioned this in my original reply. But my essential point still stands: Friday the 13th is considered unlucky because of the many disasters that have fallen on that day, such as the sinking of the Titanic and the attack on Pearl Harbor. -- Answer Guy
Update: Aaron writes:
What the hell, dude? Pearl Harbor got bombed on December 7th, everbody knows that. And it took me, like, 5 seconds on Google to find out December 7th, 1941 was a Sunday. It's called "research" -- you should try it, sometime.
While that may be "true," Arron, I find it disheartening that readers such as yourself seem determined to find small inconsistancies in my reply, instead of focusing on its overall truth. Friday the 13th is rightly feared because so many bad things have happened on that day. I could name a lot more, but, if I did, you all would probably jump all over me with your "that happened at 12:03 am so it was technically Saturday!" nitpicking. Needless to say, I stand by my original answer. -- Answer Guy
Update: Anna Eoin writes:
The Titanic was sailing from England, not to it. Didn't you see the movie?
Look, people: Answer Guy is a free service, okay? You're not paying a dime for these answers, so quit your bitching already. Or start your own goddamned column if you're such a genius. How do you like that answer, Smarty McKnowitall? -- Answer Guy
P.s. I'm right about Friday the 13th! If you don't believe me, try reading a book sometime, moron.
[ link | Humor]



The Bad Review Revue
swimfan: "It would be great to see this turd squashed under a truck. " -- Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE
"Stealing Harvard has one extraordinary virtue for a Tom Green movie: It doesn't star Tom Green. What a fabulous breakthrough! Not since Stravinsky stunned the world with The Rite of Spring has someone unveiled an aesthetic shocker of such epochal dimensions." -- Stephen Hunter, WASHINGTON POST.
Master of Disguises: "Pants and wheezes and hurls itself exhausted across the finish line after barely 65 minutes of movie, and then follows it with 15 minutes of end credits in an attempt to clock in as a feature film." -- Rogert Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
"As a child, I thought pure hell meant eternal agony in the flames of Satan. Now I know it's looking down at your watch and realizing Serving Sara isn't even halfway through." -- Desson Howe, WASHINGTON POST
fear dot com: "I feel guilty and somehow unclean. And all I did was watch it." -- Eric Campos, FILM THREAT
September 12, 2002

September 11, 2002

Firestorm: World's Dumbest Hero

I read a lot of comic books when I was younger, including some of the worst ever invented. Cloak and Dagger. Blue Devil. At one point I even started collecting Power Pack, fer crissakes. But even amongst such illustrious company, Firestorm: The Nuclear Man still stands out as the one of the most spectatularly ill-conceived heroes of all time.

For the uninitiated, Firestorm was a major DC character back in the 80's: he had his own monthly series, was a member of the Justice League of America, and even appeared on the Superfriends from time to time. He also had the world's most ridiculous power. But before I describe this ability to you, let's briefly discuss the scourge of "Power Inflation," shall we?

Power Inflation occurs when a superhero has a nebulous or poorly-defined set of abilities. Take, as a counterexample, Green Arrow (or "Hawkeye" if you will). Here you have a guy who can do one and only one thing: shoot arrows really, really well. Writers can try and spice up his series by adding a bunch of crazy new missiles, like the Boxing Glove Arrow or The Arrow That Makes A Delicious Tamale Pie, but ultimately the main character is the same arrow-shooting dude issue after issue after issue.

Then, on the other hand, you have characters like "The Flash". The Flash has what seems to be a fairly unambiguous power -- he can move really fast -- but Power Inflation eventually caught up with even this dynamo. At first all he did was run around and disarm crooks before they could fire their guns. But then writers began to allow him to do all sorts of other stuff, like run on water and run up the sides of buildings (on the premise that gravity wouldn't have time to affect him before he reached the other side of the pond or the rooftop). Then someone announced that The Flash could vibrate his molecules so quickly that they (the molecules) could pass unhindered through solid matter. And it was all downhill from there. Given the ability to "vibrate his molecules" at different frequencies, Flash was suddenly able to travel to other dimensions, to travel through time, to swim in lava, etc. Furthermore, writers kept stepping on his acceleration pedal, to the point where The Flash was a light-speed-moving molecule-vibrating time-traveling force of nature.

You can see how this could be a problem for a writer. First of all, the average length of a Flash comic should really only be one panel, as he wraps up the entire story in .00000056 seconds. Second, they had to keep introducing more and more powerful villians just to keep things interesting. One day they just gave up on standard villains and introduced "Reverse Flash," who was just exactly like Flash except -- and this was the crucial distinction -- bad. (You could tell he was bad because his costume was the opposite colors of The Flash!) Reverse-Flash became Flash's arch-nemesis, and so now you had these two guys with the exact same powers duking it out month after month, making the whole thing about as interesting as a fist fight in a parking lot.

Eventually they did what they always do when Power Inflation gets out of control: they killed the hero and started over. After The Flash kicked the bucket a new Flash took his place, this one with a speed limit. (The new Flash could only run at the speed of sound and couldn't do any of that new-fangled molecule vibratin'). Later they killed Superman, and then resurrected him all humble and stuff; Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) -- who, by this time, was pretty much invicible with his Magic Ring O' Kickass -- went berserk, after which they brought in a new, inexperienced, depowered Green lantern to take his place; Heck, they even bumped off Green Arrow and replaced him with someone who could shoot arrows less really really well.

Okay, so: Firestorm. "Firestorm: The Nuclear Man's" power was "the ability to rearrange the atomic structure of matter". That's right. He would point his finger at a gun and the gun would turn into a Rubix Cube. His "weakness," supposedly, was that he couldn't affect organic matter, meaning that he couldn't just turn a jaywaker into a mango. But he could (and did) "rearrange the atomic structure" of the air around bad guys so that they were suddenly standing in a cloud of sleeping gas or a giant iron cage. And the prohibition against organic matter didn't extend to his own body, so he could rearrange his own molecular matter to turn into, you know, whatever -- a tank or huge butterfly net or The Flash. Oh, and he could fly. And he could alter the density of objects, including himself. And he could shoot bolts of nuclear energy. And absorb radiation and explosions, theyby rendering them harmlessly. He was, in short, "Firestorm: The He Can Do Anything He Damn Well Pleases Man".

He reminds me of no one so much as this guy

The writers of Firestorm eventually just threw up their hands and said "Ahhhhhhh, okay: he's a God," at which point he became even more powerful (although I dunno how -- maybe he could now flawlessly filter spam or something). And then a bunch of stuff happened after I stopped reading comic books. And now he's an alcoholic underwear model. I kid you not.


Flee Circus

Check out the caption for this AP photo Why is "flee" in scare quotes? I'm no expert of fleeing, but I don't think those folks are just pretending.

September 10, 2002

Craneflies: It's What's For Dinner

Speaking of tasty snacks, the advent of fall can only mean one thing in the Baldwin household: a tenfold increase in insect consumption. Our home tends to be one big moth-attended rave all year 'round, and autumn brings a steady influx of delicious-and-nutritious craneflies, to the great delight of our cat. As Louie sees it, nature has provided him with an unlimited supply of winged kitty treats: they are the same size and consistency as the storebrand snacks, plus they have a satisfyingly crunchy outer shell, plus they swoop provocatively around the room before allowing themselves to masticated! It's win-win, unless you factor in the insect, in which case it's "lose-win-win".

As Louie is strictly an indoor cat, this is the only hunting he gets to engage in. But he couldn't be prouder of his kills. He will often come trotting into the room with his tail in the air and half a dozen legs sticking out of his mouth. Or we will find him in a corner somewhere, picking his teeth with antennae. I suspect that, at some point, Louie was bitten by a radioactive spider, thereby gaining the proportional appetite and diet of a spider.

September 09, 2002

Stuplimity

Speaking of vocabulary, I'd like to propose a new word, one that the English lexicon desperately needs. The word is "Stuplime" (stü-'plIm),and means "Something so resoundingly stupid as to be sublime." You know, like Slamball, or the label on Prestologs that says "Warning: Flammable."

E.g.: "defective yeti: Taking Stuplimity To The Whole First Level"

Please integrate "stuplime" into your vocabulary forthwith.


Minors in Possession Tried As Adults, Released
Minors in Possession Tried As Adults, Released

The lead prosecutor of a local Minors In Possession case announced today that the two defendants, aged 14 and 12, would be tried as adults, and then immediately dismissed all charges against them. "We're not going to go easy on these delinquents just because they're underage," state's attorney Helen Chandler told the judge in this morning's hearing. "We intend to try them as adults, so that they may be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." After a moment's reflection, Chandler added, "Come to think of it, though, I certainly don't object to adults having a drink now again, and therefore withdraw the charges." Earlier this month Chandler made headlines by charging a man and a woman, aged 34 and 37, with Statutory Rape after opting to try them both as children.

[ link | News]


September 06, 2002

Vocabulary Bookmarks

Here's something vaguely cool.

As I read books, I try to jot down any words I encounter with meaning unknown or unclear to me. Later I look these words up, in the hopes of Increasing My Word Power and allowing me to understand novels written by Don DeLillo. That's the idea, anyhow. Back in the good old days I would write unfamiliar words on the inside of the back cover, but now that I have become a Cheap Bastard and get all my books from the library this is no longer an option. For a while I lugged around a small notebook for this purpose, but it didn't take long to lose that. And I've often thought about carrying a Palm Pilot to record words, but the downside with this plan is that it would require me to carry a Palm Pilot and then I would be a dork. What to do?

Well, this is my newest cockeyed scheme. I whipped up some bookmarks, printed them onto card stock (which turned out to be unneccesary -- regular weight paper works fine), cut them out and now use while reading, one per book. Each section on the bookmark has three fields: the first for the word itself, followed by a small dash where you can write the page number where you found it. Below this are two lines where you can either write the definition or the context in which the word was found. Each section also has a small box in the upper-right hand corner.

This is how I'm using them. I record unknown words as I read, look them up after I've finished the book and write the definitions down in the space provided. Then I tape the bookmark to the side of my computer monitor. Whenever I manage to use one of the words (in email or whatever) I check the box to reflect this fact. In this way I do all three of the things that I have found are necessary for me to retain the memory of new words: looking it up, writing it down, and employing it in conversation.

*shrug* I dunno, it might work. The bookmarks are pretty useful, but my use of them is currently desultory at best. (Woohoo! Checkmark!) Here's a PDF file of the bookmarks if you'd like to try this system for yourself.

Update Email:

Let me get this straight: You're a dork if you use a palm pilot, but not a dork if you design and make your own bookmarks?
He may have a point. But I'm going to steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it.


The Friday Five

I see the Friday Five on blogs everywhere, but I have never done it myself. Well, this morning sc4mk1d@hotmail.com sent me today's list and asked me to do it and send him my replies. I'm not one to turn down a request from a fan, and I figure I might as well post my answers here for everyone to enjoy. So here you go!

  1. What is your biggest pet peeve? Why? When you're sleeping, and the corner of the fitted sheet comes off. It's a total drag to get out of bed to fix it, so I just sort of do that hop, you know, where you try and pull the sheet back over the corner of the mattress while laying in bed? And you can never get it back on, or, if you do, it just pops right back off again? I hate that!
  2. What irritating habits do you have? I don't spellcheck my email very often. I also talk too loud, sometimes.
  3. What is your credit card number? Expiration date? 4899 0010 7091 1842, expires 08/04
  4. What are your favorite passwords? Oh, I've always liked "secret" (get it?). For my email I use "eeeeemail" because it's easy to remember, and my password at the office is "iH8work". Everywhere else I just use my last name backwards ("niwdlab").
  5. What one thing can you never see yourself doing that other people do? Skydiving. Also: flossing.
Thanks sc4mk1d -- that was fun!

[ link | Humor]



They Shall Never Take Our Remaining Freedom Away!

Terrorists shall never deprive Americans of their essential liberties.

The Bush Administration's strategy for ensuring this, apparently, is to leave us with none left to lose.

Discussion at Metafilter.

September 05, 2002

Movies: The Kid Stays in the Picture

There's nothing worse than getting trapped on the wrong end of a braggart's soliloquy, getting the rundown on all of his accomplishments and listening him recount every disappointment like it was the most important event in the annals of history. There's just nothing worse. Unless. Unless said braggart (a) has enough charisma to make his own biography enthralling, and has (b) accomplishments and (c) disappointments worthy of boast. Robert Evans has all three in spades.

The Kid Stays In The Picture is a documentary -- unless by "documentary" you mean "an objective examination of a subject", in which case it's not even close. The Kid is necessarily subjective, because the focus of the documentary is also the guy who wrote it, and is also the chap who narrates the events as they unfold before our eyes. In other words, the guy has practically made a movie about himself. And yet, somehow, he pulls off this monumental bit of self-promotion. It helps that, if Robert Evans knows anything, it's how to make movie.

Evans started out a nobody, an actor with extraordinary good looks and very little else. But good looks go a long way in Hollywood, and he eventually wound up in a few films of note. Well aware of his limitations as a thespian (i.e., he couldn't act), Evans made the jump to movie production, and soon wound up with Rosemary's Baby on his resume. From there he rocketed to the top, eventually funding a string of blockbusters including Love Story, The Godfather and Chinatown. Everything went swimmingly until the 80's, when he got hooked on cocaine and found himself ensnared in a series of scandals. But Evans managed to crawl his way out of even this cellar, and continues to produce films to this day.

It's impossible to tell which aspects of his own life Evans has embellished (or which elements he has downplayed -- funny how he doesn't dwell on his productions of Popeye and The Phantom). But after a while you find it hard to care: the story is so masterfully told that you eventually just shrug your shoulders, decide that it's all "true enough," settle back and enjoy the yarn. And to his credit, Evans seems acutely aware that much of his success is attributable to dumb luck. I spent the first 30 minutes of The Kid resisting Evan's charm, wondering why the hell I had blown eight bucks on this when I could have gone to the local pub and, for the price of a Bud Lite, listened to some random sot at the bar recount his life story. The difference, I finally realized, is that Evans isn't some random sot -- he's an extraordinary sot and a first-rate storyteller. The whole thing comes across as one of those urban legends told to you by a savvy friend: you suspect it's mostly bullshit, and you're pretty sure the teller himself suspects it's largely bullshit, but the story's so good you want to hear it anyway. Full of humor, drama, and Hollywood glitterati, The Kid Stays in the Picture may also be largely bullshit, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

[ link | Movies]



American Idol is Over Already?!

What the -- American Idol is over already?! Ah man, I was just getting into it. At first I thought it was kind of stupid, you know, how so many people were getting killed in such a small town? But one day I just decided to go with it, and after that I was totally hooked. Angela's great (although I don't know when her character found time to write books!), I like Sheriff Metzger a lot, and the endings always surprised me. But then, today, someone tells me that the last American Idol episode was yesterday. What a bummer.

Oh well, at least my other favorite show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is still on the air. I love dolphins!

September 04, 2002

The Kitties Upstairs

Kitties!Photo taken from the balcony of my last apartment, looking straight up.


Lactose Intolerance

Story told to me by my mother:

"When I was pregnant with you, your father and I took prenatal classes to learn how to care for a newborn. And in the class with us was this couple who were very young and obviously from a rural area. The husband, especially -- all this guy needed was a piece of straw sticking out of the corner of him mouth and he would have been the very picture of the Country Boy.

"So one day we learned about breastfeeding. And at the end of the class, this young guy raised his hand and said 'But what do we do if we're not going to breastfeed?' And the teacher looked surprised and said 'You're not going to breastfeed your child? Why not?' And the kid replied 'We can't, because my wife is allergic to milk.'"

September 03, 2002

Rapture Snarls Morning Commute

Rapture Snarls Morning Commute

SEATTLE -- Morning traffic ground to a halt this morning after The Rapture left dozens of vehicles abruptly unoccupied. At 8:38 AM an estimated 47 faithful Christians floated through the tops of their cars and ascended to heaven, leaving their abandoned automobiles to touch off accidents and pileups throughout the region. Although towtrucks were immediately dispatched to the affected areas, the traffic on all major Interstates had not yet resumed as of press time. Mayor Greg Nichols assured Seattle residents that he was doing everything in his power to return things to normal, but many commuters found themselves frustrated by the standstill. "Of all the days for Christ to return, he had to pick a Tuesday," complained commuter Janice Fent, who had been struck in traffic for nearly an hour. "The secretary brings donuts on Tuesdays, and if I don't get to the office by 9:00 all the good ones will be gone. What, he couldn't return on a weekend? You'd think Christ, of all people, would have shown a little courtesy." When asked about the impending Tribulation, when God will come to earth to pass judgement on non-believers, motorist Calvin Aniello replied "You want Tribulation? Check out my supervisor if I don't make it to this 10:30 meeting."

[ link | News]



Movies: The Good Girl

Oh, so you don't wanna see The Good Girl because is stars Jennifer Aniston? Well, I got three rebuttals for that argument:

Three movies, each starring an actor I don't particularly care for, each excellent in its own way. (Yes, even Galaxy Quest. It's hilarious. Seriously.) Plus, we've already seen a preview of Aniston's performance, as the put-upon waitress in Office Space. This, combined with the fact that Good Girl is by the same team that brought us Chuck & Buck (Mike White, writer; Miguel Arteta, director), got me into the cinema.

Like Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl is not a cheerful movie. In fact, the word "bleak" sprung to mind about halfway through and stuck around through the end. Which isn't to say there aren't some laugh-out-loud moments -- a couple of times my guffaws echoed in the near empty theater -- but I was chuckling mostly because I was surprised that they managed to cram any humor into this story at all. Aniston plays Justine, a run-down clerk at the Retail Rodeo, a woman who hates her job, hates her husband, and isn't too keen on life itself. She probably shouldn't be flirting with her 22 year-old misfit coworker -- both because she's 8 years his senior and because he is consumed by sullen melancholy that he calls himself "Holden" in honor of Catcher in the Rye -- but Justine sees him as a kindred soul, someone as unhappy as she. They eventually wind up together, but they never seem to especially like each other -- they've just joined forces to dislike the world as a team. The problem is that they are coming at their misanthropy from different angles: Holden is overly idealistic, viewing himself as a tortured genius and others as dullards who don't "get him," while Justine is utterly pessimistic, convinced that life has already passed her by. Well, the real problem, I suppose, is that depression and adultery are not the world's solidest foundations for a fulfilling relationship.

Both the clumsy affair and its muddling consequences feel achingly real. Aniston is as far removed from her Friends persona as possible, with an expression of perpetual exhaustion and a voice filled with weariness. Even her motions seem bereft of energy. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal (who starred in Donnie Darko and looks like a store brand Toby Maguire) manages make Holden come across as both wild-eyed and sedate. And John C. Reilly, in the role of Justine's husband Phil, stumbles blearily through the film as a poster boy for those warning that pot will renders you witless. Only the character of Bubba -- Phil's workmate and best friend -- seems contrived. But in a movie so unrelentingly realistic, the offbeat buddy is not an unwelcome addition.

I've been wondering where this year's knock-me-down-fantastic films are, the Mementos and Mulholland Drives. Everything I've seen in 2002 has been "good but not great," and The Good Girl is no exception. That said, it's the best I've seen all year (tied, perhaps, with The Endurance). Last year I might have dismissed it and pointed you to Ghost World instead. This year I recommend it highly.

September 02, 2002

Labor Day

Sure, you can squander your Labor Day celebrating Labor -- "Woohoo, I sit behind a computer screen for nine hours a day!" But me? I prefer to celebrate the Labor Saving Mojo of Simple Machines!

Let's ramp up with the Inclined Plane! About as simple as a Simple Machine gets, the Inclined Plane converts a small amount of force applied over a long distance into a large amount of force applied over a short distance. You dig? Imagine you have a 500 lb. box. It's unlikely that you could lift this box onto a 6 ft' ledge unaided, but you could probably push it a ways. So you set up a ramp (that is, an Inclined Plane) which begins 15 ft. away from the ledge. So what we have here is a triangle, with one side of 6", a second side of 15', and a hypotenuse of the square root of (6^2 + 15^2); i.e., the square root of 261; i.e., 16.12' (thanks Pythagoras!). You still have to expend the same amount of energy as you would to lift the box straight up 6" (actually a bit more, because now you have to overcome the friction of the ramp), but now you can apply this force over a distance and over a period of time -- sort of like paying a $2000 monthly mortgage for 30 years rather than coughing up $300,000 all at once.

Everybody enjoys a Screw! The Screw is simply an Inclined Plane wrapped around a cylinder, and it converts rotary motion into forward motion. Instead of pushing something up an Incline Plane, the screw allows you to push the Inclined Plane into the something -- imagine each turn of your screwdriver as a push on that box. Thinking up a nail was no great feat, if you ask me; but the brainiac who came up with the screw was a friggin' genius.

The Wheel turns me on! And speaking of things I'm glad someone invented ... The Wheel and Axle is, in essence, a rolling Inclined Plane. And why is it useful? Well, you'll recall that (a) the more surface contact two objects have the more friction you'll encounter when you try and move one, and (b) a circle only touches a tangential line at a single point. So moving an automobile forward with only four points touching the pavement (i.e., the four spots where the rubber hits the road) is a helluva lot easier that trying to move the thing forward with its entire underbelly scraping along the pavement.

Update! Reader Henry Stafford calls me to the carpet: "Ummm...you should do some googling on surface friction. Surface area has zero effect on the friction between two objects. For example, take a deck of cards lay it flat on the table, and push it. Now stand it up on one side (the deck of cards should still be in the box - did you just make a huge mess?) and try to push it across the desk. If you have properly calibrated finger-pushing-force sensors, you'll find you need the exact same amount of force to push the boxed deck of cards, whether it's on edge, or laying flat. A wheel is great because it isn't sliding at all, not because it's surface area is small." I strongly suspect that, unlike myself, Mr. Stafford actually knows what he's talking about. So listen to him, okay?

Wheels can also be given teeth and function as Levers -- that, my friend, is what we in the weblog business call a "gear". And what, pray tell, is this this mysterious thing called a "Lever"?

We're all pulling for you, Lever! The lever kinda does the same thing as an Inclined Plane: converts force over distance into increased quantity of force. Or it just changes the direction of force. It all hinges on the fulcrum, which is the point at which the lever pivots. Take a seesaw. Here we have a lever with a fulcrum at the exact center, so the machine just changes the direction of force (one kid goes down pushing the other kid up). That's your first-class lever right there. A second-class lever is one with an off-center fulcrum (such as a crowbar), allowing you to move the end farthest from the pivot point a greater distance to move the side closest to the fulcrum with greater force. The closer the fulcrum is to the end of the lever, the greater the multiplier of force. So with, say, a bottle opener -- where the fulcrum is just millimeters away from the end -- you can push your end down a long way and pop that bottle cap right off. Without levers we couldn't open microbrews, leaving us to consume naught but canned beer and Budweiser. And that's why the Lever is one of the most important tools in the Simple Machine repertoire.

I can't think of a good pun for the Wedge! The wedge converts downward force into lateral force: that is, when you strike the top of a wedge, the force you apply is redirected so that it is perpendicular to the blade. If you hit a log with an axe (which is essentially just a wedge on a stick), the downward force of your swing is instantly converted into outward force radiating from the blade, thereby splitting the wood in two. Or when someone pulls up on your underwear with great force, that effort is converted to lateral motion, pushing your buttocks outwards. Okay, this paragraph is bringing back a lot of repressed memories so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.

Bully for the Pulley! Hey, here's another use for the Wheel. A pulley changes the direction of force -- you pull down on the lanyard and the flag moves up the flagpole. If you connect a series of pulleys, you can lift a heavy object using less force -- the trade-off, as always, is that you must apply your lesser force over a longer distance. It's pretty sure I just misused the word "lanyard," there, but it's okay -- no one read down this far!

Ready for some slightly less simple machines -- like, you know, the Space Shuttle? head on over to How Stuff Works.