Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Answer Phone on the Move

In light of the trend towards corporate consolidation, The Answer Phone has been asked to share space with The Word Weevil. It is not so bad. Bruno San Rafael has been most welcoming, and the din from the Woke With A Song crowd is only disturbing half the time.

Look to http://wordweevil.com/home for all your Answer Phone needs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Getting "good and hurt," and health care.

A gent on the rise asks:
How did "cool beans" enter and establish itself in the American vernacular?

Cool beans makes no sense, nor should it be desirable. And yet two generations have used the phrase to mean something like "it is good." This translation is rough and captures the sympathies of cool beans about as much as the translation of the hip hop phrase "Word" provided by Newsweek: "I am in agreement with you."

Like all good, difficult to parse idioms, cool beans were originally a drug reference. However, for a phrase to become as ubiquitous as cool beans has become, it needs
  1. Some false etymology that is comfortable for the mainstream. For instance, we can predict that "butthole surfers" is not going to take off as a moniker.
  2. A reason to achieve heavy usage.
Cool beans can mean that "it is good" because cool beans are harmless. Cool beans will not burn your mouth. As for a use, cool beans became available at the beginning of an awful time in America, a time that we are still living through. Our national nightmare of False Safety.

Around the 1960's, as the brains of adults were getting calcified to Cold War fears, America started to really learn about liability. Since a father could not point his finger at the person who was rather ridiculously threatening to dispatch the entire human race, he would instead displace his fear and anger with over the top rage at a shop keeper who did not put up a sign saying, "Don't let kids play with these knives."

This amalgamation of American fathers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s wants to provide for the his family the most certainty of health and well being that he can, but is experiencing a massive cognitive dissonance. You see, while he intellectually knows that people in the world capitals are gettting ready to destroy the world and ruin his life, he looks around and sees comfort and stability. It would drive anyone's decision making capacity into the realm of logic so flawed that it is merely a rationalization.

Rationalization can often be called out by the public consciousness. For instance, it is pretty easy (and mighty enjoyable) to look upon Octomom and diagnose her glaringly flawed logical constructs.

Since this cognitive dissonance was as universal as the appeal of drinking straws, there was not a loud enough public opinion to point it out. This is how conventional wisdom forms.

I provide an example:
Person 1: Wow, what a strange day. My dear child was knocked silly by a penny dropped from a high rise building. What a freak accident. Turns out it he will be OK, and his father and I used it as a teachable moment. Now he is reading up on Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Funny world, eh?

Person 2: Funny, you say? I don't think that it is such a laughing matter. I have heard of at least one other person on the planet who has been struck in the head by currency dropped from a tall building. This could be a global pandemic, a trend which I have identified and will call attention to. Surely you, person 1, are a caring parent and would not want your child to live in a world where coins are falling willy nilly. We must take action!

Person 1: I don't know that I would think of this as an epidemic. I mean, you just said that one other person you may have heard of. Sure, it happens, but is it really something that we need to worry about? Let's worry about thermonuclear annihilation -- or the take over of our health care policy by for profit entities.

Person 2: (Thinking about those larger problems makes me feel small and useless, subject to forces beyond my control. I cannot live my life in that dark place, so I am focusing on changing this piddling little thing. So instead of answering your question with anything like a logical response, I will instead say) What kind of a parent are you? You must really hate your baby. You should give it up to an Albanian orphanage where it will be safer.

Person 1: Wow, that is offensive. I suppose I best side with you or be publicly shamed constantly. OK, so what is to be done about it?

Person 3: I have developed a material that disperses into a toxic gas when it achieves a rate of 9 meters per second, just below terminal velocity. By promoting your paranoia I could sell it to the government to make coins! Let's raise the alarm!

Person 1: I will feign worry until I become truly worried! And then the press will report on my faux worry and policy will be implemented and products and services will be provided in response to my worry, real or imagined. As a result, other people will quickly learn that the worry is a social standard and will thus adopt it without any self analysis.

Person 3: I will finally be rich enough to insulate my family from worry!

And so it goes. Huge decisions are made for the populace based on anecdotal evidence and emotional appeals. We have established an unstated premise which can not be verbally rebuked:

We Can Make The World Safe. We Should Make The World Safe.

Like any such precept, it does not hold up in the light of day. We can not make the world safe. People are going to get hurt and killed every day. It is not that shocking, unless you live in denial.

Now, this country is engaged in a "debate" about health care. A massive unspoken gap between sides is the belief that it is bad to not heal everyone. As is totally obvious to anyone who has studied economics, or even anyone who has ever wanted something they can not have, we do not have infinite health care to go around. For more information on this blatant truth, check out the sage of health care reform.

The debate we are currently having is the wrong debate. It is "how can each individual be made totally safe and cared for?" Look around -- the argument against public options, single payer, and nationalized care is that care could be rationed. Sounds so nasty. Yet health care, as it is a commodity, is not infinitely available. Otherwise, each American would wake up with a GP, a naturopath, and acupuncturist, a podiatrist and an X-ray technician at the ready by their bed.

That would make for a lot of intramural tiffs anyway. You would never get any sleep. Point is, health care is rationed now and will always be rationed.

  • Who do you want to decide how that is accomplished? Your vote or a CEO trying to increase his profit margin?
  • How will we decide what to do? Through relaying anecdotes and emotional appeals or by hard facts about how well the status quo is working -- and how well national plans actually work?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fear of a Black Discourse

One of those men who is vaguely familiar to everyone he meets asks:

Is Black now preferable to African American? And is there a place for Utopianism in the political discourse?

What handy questions you have proffered. Here I am, reading your note while drizzling HFCS-free sweetener on my spelt and quinoa pancakes. Just after reading your query, I took a sip of my low-acid, region-specific coffee.

Black coffee. I prefer my coffee black. I need not pause to consider the implications of the color of my coffee. I simply prefer it without any additional ingredients most times. That is my preference, which can sometimes change. I am, as I have recently been reminded of, human. I have whims. My beliefs sometimes change. I can be moody.

To a less perceptive answering device, your two questions seemed largely unrelated to each other. However I have found that, in these two apparently asinine pseudo-intellectual questions you have raised a larger, deeper question about the underpinnings of our socio-political lives. You have asked "how does the perception of an individual affect political outcomes?" The questions say so much about the asker, my friend. I raise my cup to you. Forgive me if it is now tepid and half full.

Now, let me connect the dots for the rest of my readers.

The first question, "Is Black now preferable to African American?" Should be trite to any vaguely aware individual. Over the last several decades, groups have tried to control the syntax used to describe them. Negro becomes black becomes African American. Homosexual becomes gay becomes queer. Many folks outside of the group grow aggravated trying to be conscientious. This is due to a critical misperception: that these standards are unanimously adopted. Looking closer at these shifts in naming rules, they are the will of an organized sub-group. It is their preference and they lean the shoulder of some sort of public relations machine into the public boulder to push us all towards their preferred taxonomy.

And why? We all want to know why we have to do search-and-replace operations on all of our documents to prevent our innocuous tracts from looking like hate speech. Why was the phrase that was acceptable yesterday unacceptable today?

It is about mood. The shared mood of a named group. Their need to change names is a legitimate desire to re-imagine themselves. However, the larger social group may not be aware of the underpinnings of the name change. We do not share their mood.

This is where the questioner’s second question comes into play. He asks, “is there a place for Utopianism in the political discourse?” For our purposes, let’s define utopian as “easy group living.”

Most thinkers believe that a shared mood would make it easier to achieve utopia. Many utopian (and dystopian) novels, film reels, graphic novels and what-all suggest the same. The difference between the utopian and dystopian version is always pretty simple:
  • Utopian: “Why not share the same mood? The value difference is so minimal and we can prevent conflict.”
  • Dystopian: “But I want tater tots instead of fries!”
As I have often said, those who are not able to even order dinner together will not be able to resolve their conflict.

The utopian folks are always strolling around in a struggle free life, usually wearing some sort of robe and moving their arms stiffly. They tend to not move their necks. Instead they turn to you by twisting their shoulders. Then a rag-tag group of individualists come in with their shorter, sexier robes and their ability to turn their heads freely. With a well placed speech and some sort of wizard-behind-the-curtain act, the rag-tag individualists ruin everyone’s pleasantness.

To announce that your organic subgroup requires a new name is a powerfully utopian idea. You are asking the larger community to share your mood, to understand your feelings about labels. While it may be misplaced energy, while it may be highly intrusive to the larger socio-political discourse, it is a profoundly hopeful act. Even if the announcement is done with militaristic spite, the act is an attempt to share your consciousness with your neighbors.

We must make a place for utopian thinking in our political discourse. Otherwise we wake up without any hope. Hopelessness is known to make the coffee taste bitter.

Excuse me. I am right now without any coffee and need a refill.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


A beautiful spring morning, birds chirping and road construction crews doing their morning stretching routines. The younger members cut their calf extensions short to start oiling their concrete saws. They are anxious to start the season off, these cacophonous heralds of spring.

In a dark room, shutters pulled, a shaking hand puts down a handkerchief and reaches over to the end table for a thick, aluminum pen.

Dear Editor;
Thank you for your concern over my well being, or at least that is what I ascertained from your letters inquiring about my tardiness in providing answers. I have returned to my base and am currently recovering from a nasty spell of some sort of tropical ailment. I understand that the questions are piling up and I will turn to them as soon as I recover.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009


A Sienna colored photo of a woman looking away from the camera but thrusting a daisy at the lens asks:

Will I ever forget this guy? Seems like the only way is to be angry and I don't like myself much then.

Darling, I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to get to your important question. As you may know, I have extensive training and proven experience in a broad array of disciplines, from Greek poetry's use of iambic trimeter to the horticultural practices of middle lattitudes Soviet era farmers and the political result of those practices. I have tuned my mind in such a way that in normal circumstances my acuity is greater than Thich Nat Hanh and The Dalai Llama combined (measured on the Lowendahl Acuity Scale).

As you may also know, I am currently on a business trip. There is an important piece of equipment required for high-level answering which I need to replace. I landed in this steaming city a couple of days ago. My initial inquiries into my important equipment cost me a few days of inquiries in return from some certain specialized law enforcement personnel. I was quite impressed with their diligence. This city's youth are certainly in perfect safety from those who would encourage them to selectively misuse interesting substances.

As you may have collected from the previous post, I have not really been feeling myself. At times I am quite collected. On some days, such as today, I rise here in my open air thatch hut to the sound of melodious bird and monkey song. I take in the air and stroll down to the local market to make a breakfast of local fowl and monkey. Perhaps a little fruit. Then I spend the days continuing my inquiries into specialized equipment.

On other days, such as yesterday, I wake terrifically early to the growls of the nocturnal predators kept at bay by irregularly fired propane cannons. I reach my sweaty hand out and grip the corners of the sheets and gauge their tensile strength with three quick tugs. After recording that number in a base 5 system developed by Buckminster Fuller's nephew, I attempted a complex origami piece with the sheet, ignoring the lack of the necessary rigidity of a cotton sheet.

It is a vain way to start the day, as you can imagine. Yesterday it all went downhill from there. I found myself splitting a meal of Mission brand macaroni and cheese, augmented with some imported feta, with a retired political figure no longer welcome in his homeland. His conversation was not as interesting as you may think, what with his breadth of experience. He is a bit of a broken record. "The uninformed masses require a strong hand..." blah blah blah.

So thank you for asking this solitary, selfish question. Thank you for asking of me, a man on a mission to raise the level of public discourse to include the seams and knots that connect all disciplines and issues, a question about your personal issue whose relevance to others would be only extrapolated in an exceedingly unscientific manner.

In addition, it is fantastic for you to ask me a question which I can be pretty sure you have already answered. That in fact, it is not a question but a postcard to the world that lets us all know that you have broken through the thick crust of daily life and are experiencing deep feelings, largely unadulterated or moderated.

So, in answer to your question, it is not truly possible for the human mind to forget. It merely catalogs items to rarely used links. This man of yours will eventually be relegated to small corners of your memory. Memories of this gent will only be brought out in reference to Serge Gainsbourg and shallots in a certain context.

Getting to this state, as columnists who specialize in this sort of advice tell me, takes time. Until then, you have a rare opportunity to exercise emotional thought over premeditated socialized action. I recommend following that where it leads. Should that lead to public acts of rage, then so be it. Any police record generated from an act of pure emotion is absolved in my book.

Go to it. I personally have to get to it today; it seems that a lady in the next village knows of a relative who is capable of fulfilling my order, so off I go to have a meeting.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Buttons

A well-coiffed ragamuffin asks:
Why isn't there a Moot button on all office phones? I think it would be handy during conference calls.

A fine question. I am answering it from this fine airport waiting lounge while I wait to board a plane. And I am doing fine, just fine. I can see outside and the rain is carving chunks of sky out and I can see that the plane is arriving. Fine. Just fine. Everything is fine here.

Your question is strangely prescient. While we did not call it a moot button, I have done work to develop a similar technology. However, it seems that the world is not yet ready for your moot button.

I recall my days working in research and development at a large international organization which I am contractually obliged to avoid naming. I do recall those days. We were like cats in the window, staring at the taunting blue jay that was just out of reach. I woke in the morning just a-raring to get to the office and start churning out research, or perhaps development. I seem to recall that it was research on Mondays and Fridays and development all other days. I could be wrong. It was all a delight, just a delight I tell you.

We, me and Andy, the fellow with the peculiarly long left pinky, had developed some algorithms which would allow for contextual language disposition. We were inspired based on a meeting that we had attended. After an hour long conference, Andy and I compared our notes. Yes we did. Compared them. Apart from the doodles (Mine were a little bit neater. His pinky sometimes gets in the way when Andy draws.) we had both captured only one actual note.

Stop leaving paper coffee cups and empty cigarette packs on the basement steps.

We realized that the hour-long meeting was largely, well, moot. Everything that was said was patently obvious.

Yep. There is the ticket person. Yep she just might announce boarding any time. All my bags are packed, I am ready to go. Standing here outside your door.

Yep. So Andy and I got to thinking. If we routed all inter-office communications through the Cray, did some contextual matching, created a dynamic category engine, and put every little timestamped tidbit into a database, we would have a record of what we knew. Of what, if stated in a meeting, would be, as you put it, moot.

Then, all we had to do is run some real-time voice-to-text software, compare the output to our new database, and see what kind of matches came up. Yup. that is what we did.

The results were mind expanding. An average meeting is 90% moot. 100% mootness occurs with shocking frequency, particularly in scheduled weekly meetings.

Now, I was going to stop there. File a report and call it good. But Andy took the Moot Engine (I call it this in honor of your question, for we were not so concise. We called it the Contextual Importance Relevance Identification Device.) yes he took the Moot Engine and wired it to some supercharged noise canceling headphones. When statements were flagged as moot, Andy's headphones would essentially put the room on mute. He would mute the moot.

Passport is right here. I have my passport. Will tell them it is for business. I am traveling for business. Research. Consultation with local experts in their field. Yes. Got it. Atlas, good to have. Map of city. Right here. OK. doing fine. Might have to cut the answer short a bit, but doing just fine.

Poor Andy. He knew not what he did. He lived in a silent world, devoid of human voice. He found that even his own voice was muted. Taking this as a challenge, Andy strived for relevance. It is a difficult row to hoe, having a monitor that will cut you off should you say something redundant or obvious. It did not take long for Andy to condition himself to speak only relevant and new statements.

As you can imagine, he was checked into a rest home with exhaustion after two months of constant pertinance. An undisciplined human mind just can not sustain that.

We scrapped the Moot Mute project after poor Andy got sent away, yes, sure enough we did. Yup. The world just is not ready for constant relevance. We need space filler, white noise, pleasantries, and statements of the obvious. Our life must have chorus and refrain as well as verse. So do not do as Andy did, and enjoy the moot.

My gate is boarding. I must go.