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.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cool Beans, sir

A sound travels across a wet, chilly spring morning. It is the sound of an Australian tenor opera singer gargling garlic juice while ripping haute couture petticoats into bandages for the victims of a sudden and bloody European civil war. However, the scene is America and there are no vocalists of any nationality within range. The sound emitted from The Answer Phone's curious beverage maker. The insulated reservoir, which was apparently under a great deal of pressure, has split open. A shredded complex of bamboo lattice work once contained in the mysterious device has been blown across the counter, a set for a miniature production of Les Miserable's barricade scene.

An idea man ("an idea man, see? I deal in ideas, see?") with a bamboo cane, smelling of freshly paved highways and duck feathers, asks:

How did "cool beans" enter and establish itself in the American vernacular?

The Answer Phone is glad to answer your question. However, I am currently on hold with an important supplier's technical support line.

The irony of the situation is not lost on me, I assure you all.

I can fully dedicate myself to this question while I am listening to the droning asian hold music that is apparently the preferred choice for corporate image of this sort of business. I would not know, having never found it necessary to call them. The situation, however, is quite dire and so I am here, a phone on the phone. Tapping my fingers, drinking water. Plain old water. Nice pure clear water. The Universal Solvent. Just fine.

I will address as much of your question as I can until someone comes on the line to help me out with this situation in which I find myself bound up. Should I be interrupted before coming to a stopping place, it may be up to The Answer Phone Cloud to chime in and complete this answer. Please, if you are qualified, feel free to chime in.

And so: Cool Beans and the American Vernacular:

Upon landing on the Amerigan (as he preferred to call it until his dying day) mainland, Amerigo Vespucci came upon a large rodent grasping in its cute but clawed hands a small shell. He recorded in his letter to his Medici patron that the rodent then wandered off into the forest. Amerigo thought little about the incident until

Oh, hi there Komiko. Thank you for taking my call. I am calling from America... yes yes America. I understand. I I I understand Komiko. Yes, well, it is a special situation and I need your understanding. I am certain we can find a way. That treaty has not, as I understand it, yet been fully ratified by all parties...

(I am going to have to leave it at that for now. Once again, I call on The Answer Phone community to fill in the rest of this response.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

The News Conversation

I wonder if the text scrolling by on Fox News and CNN are having a conversation. Now it is my turn to ask the question. How would that dialog go?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Economics of the Idle

A boxy but good gentleman with a barely discernable foreign accent -- perhaps European, perhaps Japanese -- asks:

Hello Mr. Phone,

Driving into work today I got hopelessly stuck in traffic while listening to an NPR piece about the dire state of our economy. The story continued about how unemployment is through the roof and, basically, no one is working anymore. So my question is: if no one is working (except for me, of course) then why am I stuck in traffic on the way to work? Where are all these people going? Have they been conditioned, through years of work, to just get in their cars and drive between 7 and 9am every weekday morning?
Thanks for listening! PS- are you a rotary phone or a conference room-worthy, multi-lined digital jobby?

I would be a well built phone of classic lines and time-proven features, were I a phone. I am a man, all in all.

The economy functions on the collective random acts of a community. Looked at as a whole, these random acts tend to form patterns over time. Thus, it is possible to add "-ics" to the end of economy and write about it on chalkboards and poorly laid out periodicals. At the root economics is a collective prayer for logical predictable activity from people. Like drug prohibitions and speed limits, we can see that this prayer has not yet yielded compliance by the population. Perhaps it is time to give up.

Give up, my friend, give up on dire computations that may or may not correlate your traffic experience to employment rates.
  • As I squat on the sidewalk and rattle a few sparse coins in a tin cup I ask not what the larger patterns are and how they have affected me.
  • As I pace an empty board room idly wondering if my new tailored suits have come in from Hong Kong, I do not consider the correlation between unemployment trends and my ability to dress myself.
  • And when it comes time for me to pick up that severance check and head out the door of the shuttered factory one last time, it is not for me to compute the relationship between my situation and the trends that are tugged along by the persistent scroll of text at the bottom CNN and Fox News screens.

I call on you to stop driving yourself mad with economics and adopt Economology. With Economology we can think of ourselves as separate from the economy, just as when we study herpetology we are separate from newts. My morning tea is ruined if it is always a self-conscious act that proves or disproves an economic theorem. I would rather that I am a newt in someone else's study and they are a newt in mine.

While this is not the best discipline to work from to derive actionable scientific results, let's be frank. The result we desire is happiness. Let's choose a school of thought based on what can create more individual happiness. On that criteria, the dismal science certainly falls down.

I apologize. I try to only create one new science every six months and I have just surpassed my quota.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

He wants to want.

A dark room containing a desk, ordered piles of paper, a coat rack with two broken prongs, and an electronic kitchen contraption labeled with Japanese characters. The windows, rapped by excessive wind and rain, click and rattle in the spirit of a happily employed union worker toiling in a Soviet propaganda film.

The door opens. A figure, backlit by the storm-ridden gloaming, enters along with a rush of wind. He strides into the room, removes his hat and coat, then shakes the loose water from them. After hanging them on the coat rack, he sighs and approaches the kitchen contraption. It beeps a short tune when he presses three buttons and turns a dial. A murky, steaming liquid pours out of a spout into a ceramic mug with the name "Betsy" printed on it.

The Answer Phone puts the steaming mug on the desk, twirls a fountain pen open, and begins to write.

Dear Answer Phone: Why do we have to start with "I want to..." when, say, we're thanking the committee that planned the meeting that is finally ending?

When I am called upon for public speaking engagements (please feel free to contact my agent with inquiries) I prepare myself through a rigorous series of trials of the soul. The first act is to don a frilly bustier and a pair of denim work pants. After panhandling for three hours, I take my earnings to a fine Greek small plate restaurant where I am well known. I spend all of my begged money on feta and octopus skewers.

For the next phase, I have had a walk in cooler installed at my office. I strip myself naked and lay down on the floor of the cooler for a night. In lieu of a blanket, I unroll a spool of thread across my body.

Upon waking, I make a gruel from boiled sandstone and Kobe beef which I eat with chopsticks.

At this point I am ready to either speak in front of people or participate in a reality TV show. Without anything but circumstantial evidence, I am convinced that successful public speakers who have any degree of self awareness participate in similar acts. I have heard accounts that Barack Obama's breath is often earthy and I have seen Michelle pluck a bit of thread from his hair just before he went before the cameras.

Even after this carefully designed regimen my mind swims as I approach a dais, podium, rostrum, or armored car. As I open my mouth for the first time, I feel the vast possibility of the moment and the likelihood that it will all go wrong.

In my mind is a pool of concepts, things like "Bride and groom good mostly but don't mention their lost loves from youth," or "Policy of truffle subsidy really the best we can do right now until the southern contingent gets shut out of the convention or gets bought off with concessions on cotton protectionism." Between that reservoir and the minds of the audience is my mouth. It is a poor tool. I could come across as so much gibberish or be misinterpreted entirely.

There in that moment, moistening my lips and taking in a preliminary breath, I am filled with a desire to get it right. And so, when I start, I start with "I want."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Answer Phone will rise.

Like good bread, you must have patience and timing. The Answer Phone has been working on professional development these last few days, so he has not been able to brew the magic tea and give the questions what they deserve. He will return.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Changing Math

The Answer Phone has been branching out into areas of knowledge that he was not particularly strong on previously. After taking some post doctoral seminars in Heady Math, he was very glad to encounter...
A white lab coat, its pockets containing ancient nautical navigation tools and a pair of plastic harachi sandals, who asks:

Why does good change take so long, whereas bad change happens overnight?

This question gives me an opportunity to exercise a new discipline that I have created. I have found that many, like this apparent Renaissance gent, desire to apply modern quantitative analytics to ancient qualitative questions. A lesser answering device would simply turn this question over to the ghost of Aristophanes -- good friend of mine, though he still has ghostly lower GI problems that make his company difficult to stomach.

However, I have developed a new manner of math that is uniquely suited for this purpose. Malgebra leverages the capabilities of ninth grade algebra to resolve pressing social and personal issues. With malgebra, we can explore topics that have no answer suitable for our post-Newtonian minds and achieve the reassurance we feel when we find something to the left of the equal sign.

Let us start out by stating the problem in an equation:

That is, Good Change, over time is less than Bad Change over time when Change equals the union of Good and Bad.

Now, using simple algebra, we can reduce the question to a less daunting line by getting rid of those pesky fractions and that weird set theory crap:

Now, apply a made up algorithm to test the equation:

If Gc = Ghandi then Bc = Subway Five Dollar Footlong Television Ads.

Thus, Change = Leader of massive social change + Advertisements that allude to penis length.

As a result, we can be assured that for every skull-drilling advertisement for affordable but undelicious food, there will be a man with an undeniable smile who refuses to eat until his people are free.

Are you following me?

At this point malgebra allows us to step free of the chalkboard and think for ourselves. We can see that the proponents of unappetizing food, due to the values that allow them to feel comfortable in their contribution to the world, have no problem foisting noise and visual pollution onto their customers in an effort to leak more money from them. We can see that their lack of respect for aesthetics and the quality of life of their fellow humans drive them to unconscionably push brain-ripping narrative and poisonous jingles onto the public.

As a result, a single man refuses to eat anything -- no matter how low in calories and affordable it is -- until those in power realize the sensibility of the obvious outcome.

And so:

Subway sandwiches --> One good man who can change the course of history.

To further refine our computations, I cracked in to the Subway information services department. Between the advent of the FDFL campaign and November fourth, Subway has sold 423,000 sandwiches.

With this we can determine the proportion of bad change required for good change to occur.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


A grown man holding a small boy by the heels and swinging him back and forth (they are both laughing joyfully) asks:

What is the effect of magnesium on loose stool?

I don't like to think about poop. I suppose you do. There are a lot of people who enjoy the dissonant feelings evinced by poop thought. It is a triumph of the self over the social to ask an authority -- or faux-authority -- figure about poop. Congrats. You have done it. Now I am in a position to deal with your poop. That kid you are swinging by his heels is laughing at me. Fantastic .

I have never exposed poop of any kind to magnesium. I am not sure why one would want to do such a thing. Poop is perfectly fine when it is moving smoothly and predictably away from me. I would rather not move closer to it.

I did extensive research for this post, none of it involved getting any nearer to poop than I have to be in my normal life. Instead, I sought an authority. Upon inquiring with the Wise Daniel Charles H., My own understanding of the value of poop expanded massively. Daniel knows a lot about subjects that will always make his character critical in the third act. Should we need to understand weather patterns, identify planes in flight, or utilize LED lights in an unconventional way, DCH is the go to guy.

He is also very clear about poop.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sometimes the Question is Wrong

A Repeat Customer leaning against the counter and hassling the doorman asks:
If 3/3 and 7/7, are you still monkey faced?

No. More a cute but wise marsupial. Go ask Stuff White People Like or Fuck You Penguin.
This phone is not dada. It is not nihilist. It may be superior to you but it will never leave you in the dust.

Our answers are not for folks who are in a big hurry to leave the drowned world behind, their softer-brained acquaintances tilting their heads to one side trying to figure out superior sounding nonsense "comedy."

That is the wrong question. It takes little effort to make bad nonsense. Good nonsense takes work. Don't presume that you can pull it off in a couple of minutes before you leave for your ignominious office.

This is not the place for nonsense. We do not have the time to do it right.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Value of a Good Education

A young fellow busy painting the ivory tower beige asks:

Which university has the best genetics program?

Genetics can be deduced. In fact, all genetics research is the process of deduction. Sure, some schools have more fancy lazer isotope isolation typers and older lab coats who have managed to genetically make monkeys with trapezoidal heads. These buttons and shoulders are fun to rub. However, one's education should not be defined by the furniture in your classroom so much as the thoughts that it jars loose in your head.

If you are going to go to school at the age of 19 and presume that you are going to be a geneticist, you may in fact become a geneticist. However, you will be a divorced, droopy geneticist who is simultaneously agoraphobic and claustrophobic, forever hemmed in to medium-sized rooms and wondering if you could have been a decent river guide.

When I was 19 I did not want to answer questions. I was entranced by interior design. It was a time of great revolutionary decor. Oh, the things New York was doing with wallpaper! A heady moment in the history of furnishings as well. I wanted to be a part of it. However, at the urging of The Answer Gram, I took a liberal arts undergraduate degree. Between the ages of 19 and ...ahem... now, I have come to see the world differently. Interior design faded quickly in importance, like a cheap floral print false wainscot. Now, it's all questions.

I still have a yen for design. If you drop by, I will show you my Answer Room, decorated in a manner that is inspired by Steve Jobs and young Mick Jagger. Imagine a space sparse and white, with no sharp corners or harsh lines. Then sneeze red velvet, bourbon, and leather tap pants all over it. This is where I sit and write answers. This is where I make the magic.

Friday, January 16, 2009

That's Not a Question, Answer Phone!

I was emptying out the recycling bin because my birthday is garbage day this year. I had to work hard to untwist the lid of an old peanut butter jar and it emitted that awful stale wood smell that I knew would come.
At the bottom of the bin I found a Christmas card from last year. Gar and Trick put an aphorism in their cards and I often appreciate them. That must be one of the reasons that this one was on my fridge for about a year until I put it in the bin. I opened it up and read the note a couple of times through, then decided that I was still not ready to throw it away. The card goes back on the fridge for another few months.
I was still thinking about it while I hauled the bag of used kitty litter to the garbage and then went back to get the bucket of dog shit bags. I upended the bucket into the trash while uttering my usual silent thank you to garbage men for making life easier and less smelly. They are Christ figures to me.

After pouring another cup of coffee I texted the Chrismas quote to a few people and thought "Happy Birthday to me."

"There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way."
--- Thich Nat Han

Monday, January 12, 2009

Midwest Exvasion

A tumbleweed, flattened by a speeding tractor trailer headed for Mexico, asks:

What is the boundary of the great plains?

Physicists tell us that all matter is made up of particles. They have been spending their time making up names for ever smaller bits that they say compose every little thing. They claim that there is an irreducible part of everything and that they need some more funding to work up a name for it.

That is possibly true of most everything. I don't know. I am not a physicist today. However, the Midwest is not made of matter. It is a smooth flowing substance that blankets the middle of America. It is made up of the coughs of sickly dogs, the tread of a fat man leaving a factory at 5 pm, of recipes using marshmallows and ketchup.

This substance has collected for millenia on the salinizing soil across the belt of a supine America. There is archeological evidence that woolly mammoths played dart ball and that ancient peoples of the region preferred bland food and unoffensive, repetitive conversation.

Now, with commercial farming and long straight highways, the substance of the midwest is spreading. It sticks to wool sweaters and is packed into suitcases that pass through O'Hare. The Midwest drifts free now throughout North America and the world. Pockets have collected in the Pacific Northwest and California. There is a rich vein in Florida.

Physics also tell us of entropy, of heat loss. That everything settles down over time. Computer models have shown that The Midwest will continue to spread, eventually covering the entire globe. The people of Saudia Arabia will start drinking instant coffee. Chinese will take up bland Protestantism. Garrison Keillor's books will be translated into every language of the earth.

I will be camping out in the Marianas Trench. Join me and the last hold outs of coastal America.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Deep Space of Syntax

A seraphim with bad taste in Jazz asks:
Dear Answer Phone: What is the correct written grammatical usage thingy of the ellipses? Is it sans spaces (...) or with spaces (. . .)

And what does this have to do with "elliptical" speech or statements?
And, in your opinion, is it true that you are only close friends with someone if you feel superior to them? Thanks Answer Phone!

An ellipsis is the face of the ineffable in punctuation. As such it should be used with some care. Punctuation is rhetoric and rhetoric is the measure of power. Applying an ellipsis (please note that I am trying to oh so subtly correct your question. Whilst it contains three dots, a punctuation ellipsis is singular. I certainly know the pleasure of unconventional pluralization and am wont to say "process-eez" instead of the far less pretentious "process-ez." I revel in any opportunity to use data in the singular as well. I feel that you share my appreciation of latinate conjugation, which is why I am sending you a cigar box containing shiny stones and feathers.) is a massive theological act. It opens a window to infinity for the reader, one not always that easily shut. Take care with your quiver of ellipses for you may find yourself responsible for raving maniacs who roam the land looking for a lost datum.

An ellipsis is the plank that you make your reader walk, forcing them to stare down at the briny unknown. There is a story about the early days of Intel in which their campus was a couple of mobile buildings on Hillsboro, Oregon farmland. The only thing of value they had was their intellectual property. To this day, they are known for their paranoid secrecy. When giving a tour to an outsider, a hired security gaurd held a board in front of a doorway to prevent prying eyes from seeing what was behind him. That gaurd is an ellipsis. He is fodder for the imagination. Perhaps he protects a Willy Wonka-esque wonderland or perhaps a room of horrors. Probably it was just a wan fellow staring at a computer screen.

Be cautious with your ellipses, jazz man.

Use no spaces between the periods when ellipsing. There is enough deep space vaccum within that mark already.

Ellipses and ellipticality are only related in the way that Captain Crunch and Saved by the Bell are related.

In answer to your last question, no.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Answer Gram in the News

The Answer Gram was recently featured on the Oregon Public Broadcasting show Oregon Art Beat. Watch in wonder as he flummoxes the host with his rapier ramblings and literate loquaciousness.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Words That Are The Same But Different

Jill from the center of my heart asks:

Why, oh why, does the English language contain apparently contradictory phrases that actually have the EXACT SAME MEANING? It has never made sense to me that the phrase "I could care less" means the same as "I couldn't care less." Or, to be more colorful, "I could give a furry rat's ass" means the same as "I couldn't give a furry..." well, you get the idea. Evidence of the further decline of intelligible English? Customary evolution of colloquial slang speaking habits? Please, Answer Phone, this question keeps me up at night.

It is aggravating, to be sure, when a statement inverted equals the statement. I personally wish that "inflammable" meant that something would not burn. Instead, the definition of inflammable is... flammable. Certainly there have been fatal misunderstandings due to this arrangement. But hey, it is a dangerous world. There is certainly a paucity of certainty.

I am not alone in my tendency to utilize slang that bridges cultures. I get a little bit street with my lingo in a manner that is ironic, honorific, and jealously imitative. When I hew to my cultural and ethnic background, I would probably say, "I am up for going to the water slides with you, Jethro." However, when I want to flavor my conversation with a little extra spice and can not think of a Saturday Night Live character to imitate, I will say that I am "down for a trip to the waterslides." Once translated to the most neutral language possible, the meaning of being up and down are the same.

And I admit that I have been troubled by this. It undermines the very value of language. If down can be up, then what is the point of talking at all?

There is no point in talking. Talking is merely an activity we do while creating facial expressions. Writing is just a mnemonic for those facial expressions. If you are lucky enough to have Recurrent Respiratory Pappilomatosis or some other situation that requires fits of voice rest, you will find that it is quite possible to get around in the world with simply facial expressions and hand signals. In fact, it simplifies human interaction by cutting down on nuance. Nuance is an opportunity for misunderstanding.

That is why I am proposing National Silence Day. On NSD language will be kept to an absolute minimum. Radios will go silent. Televisions will be muted or merely have suggestive instrumental music over great nature documentaries.

NSD would be a great time to deal with important relationships in your life. Have coffee with your estranged uncle. I wager you will not be able to disagree using only hand motions and smiles. Inevitably you will resort to personal contact, touching on the shoulder and the like.

Words are fun playthings and fantastic weapons, but they are indefinite tools. As toys, I think of them as the Fisher Price popper that has been popular for generations. It is not a lawn mower or a vacuum cleaner although its use is similar. The Popper does nothing produces nothing changes nothing. And kids love it. Just like they love language.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thanks for Asking

I have finally received my wish: worthy questions. Rest assured that I will answer them in the order that they are received. As my life settles down, I am certain that my rate of response will increase. Currently, a quality response takes 1.2 days per question. Please keep your faith in The Answer Phone.

Monday, January 5, 2009


A shoebox filled with curious film reels and snow globes asks:
How many people who use the word quixotic have read Don Quixote De La Mancha and, furthermore, is that dishonest?

People who use the word "quixotic" and do not then giggle at themselves are not so much dishonest as just weighed down by degrees in English. They may not actually recall if they have read Cervantes' book(s). However, they have definitely written a paper on Phallic Imagery and the Crone Archetype in Cervantes in which they wrote about Quixote with casual familiarity.

Should someone have started as a declared major in English and then graduated with another, more parentally-approved degree they will instead suggest that someone is "tilting at windmills."

Of greater concern with any appellation of quixotic is the possibility nee probability that it is used with a negative connotation. When "quixotic" is slapped on the conversational table, the first image to anyone's mind -- after wondering where the English degree came from -- is the windmills. An old, awkward man poised to shatter himself on uncaring structures. Quixotic is used as a warning that the next time we will refer to the subject as a laughingstock.

The original book(s) are a whole lot of paper. The windmill episode is a short segment toward the end of the first book, after Don Quixote has been battered by many an imaginary opponent and subjected Sancho to many a lecture on knighthood. Should someone who has not read the book ask someone who is pretending that they have read the book, they will say that "It is a book about a guy who pretends to be a knight and looks like a goofball because he is always pretending that windmills are giants and ugly peasant girls are princesses. He falls down a lot and gets his teeth knocked out. It is not as funny as 'Tyler Perry's House of Payne,' though. Did you see that episode where his kid is getting ready for a date and he is trying to make a Jello mold of his old dog? That is some funny stuff."

Note the desperate misdirection.

On the other hand, should someone actually have read Cervantes, even should they have only read the original, first book and not deigned to read the commercially corrupt second novel written years later to protect the integrity of the first in an era where no copyright law existed and lesser writers had taken to creating sequels to the original novel, they will look down at their cappuccino for a second as if they were remembering something an old friend once said to them. A friend who has since passed away. Then they will look up with an apologetic expression because there is simply not enough time to explain to you all the lovely intricacies of the masterwork.

"Put simply, Quixote is the story of a man made irrelevant by the modern world who fashions a rich narrative for himself. He is constantly bruised and mocked by the harsh contemporary society and culture that he must interact with, however he regains his dignity by maintaining his own ethos. While his body and social standing are repeatedly wounded, Don Quixote's narrative consciousness thrives. It is a story of a man who sacrifices his relationship to modern society in the name of a cohesive life"

And so while quixotic is often used to simply describe bold and foolish, it is an unfair use of a term which would be better applied to acts of transcendental dignity.

Friday, January 2, 2009

You have questions

The Answer Phone needs questions. This mountaintop is freaking cold and sitting cross legged hurts my knees. When I drink green tea on an empty stomach I get flushed and sometimes throw up. I am not being a guru for my health you know... I am doing it for my ego. Ask me a question so that I don't turn my talents to nefarious endeavors like trying to get a post in the Obama administration.