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.