Friday, January 30, 2009

Back At The Trough Already?!?

Have you heard? The Wizards of Wall Street, that same bunch that mismanaged the wealth of the American nation to such an extent that they drove the country to the brink of a second depression (hey, somebody had to finally say it!) and dragged most of the rest of the world with it in the process, the same bunch that had to come begging to the U.S. taxpayer for over $700 billion in survival money, have just given themselves huge bonuses. Yes, that's right, the New York State Comptroller has reported that Wall Street brokers collected a total of about $US 8.5 billion in bonuses for 2008, and that's not counting stock options.

When asked to explain themselves, these self-entitled stuffed shirts had the nerve to sulk about the fact that this year's bonuses were, in fact, down 44% from what they received in 2007. It apparently hasn't occurred to them that this just underscores how obscenely overpaid they've been for the past several years.

What I can't figure out is exactly what these bonuses are for. Do these brokers get a percentage of the money that they lose? Or has the bar just been set really, really low? ("Well, Jenkins, your goal was not to lose more than $50 billion last year. I see that you only lost us $20 billion. Nice work, my boy!") It seems gross incompetence is richly rewarded these days.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said that it's unclear whether any taxpayer money was used in paying these exorbitant bonuses. Well, it's pretty clear to me, Mr. DiNapoli. Of course taxpayer money was used! The purpose of the $700 billion bailout was to keep the banks and insurance companies for which these fat cats worked (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) afloat. That means that, without that money, there would have been no financial organizations from which to collect these bonuses, and that money came directly from the American taxpayer. Wall Street has, in fact, taken the rescue money and stuffed it into its pockets.

Then there's this blog called "Dating A Banker Anonymous", in which some of the wives of these pompous pampered parasites cry about the many sacrifices they've had to make since their husbands flushed the economy down the crapper I do grant that this blog may, in fact, be the most delicious example of poker-faced sarcasm it has ever been my pleasure to read. I certainly hope it is. If these women are, in fact, serious, they make the Desperate Housewives look like June Cleaver.

Most galling of all is that some of the pigs at the financial trough apparently feel slighted by their reduced earnings this year. A poll of 900 financial industry employees reported that 46 percent of the respondents felt that they deserved more. What they deserve, in fact, is to be fired, the lot of them, immediately and without further compensation. They should be glad that nobody's making them personally financially responsible for the losses that they incurred.

To his credit, President Obama was reportedly as outraged as I at this news, calling it "shameful", and "the height of irresponsibility". Hopefully, what we are witnessing here is merely the washing away of the last remnants of the scum that has choked the life out of America these past many years.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Moby Dick

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" is widely regarded as one of the classic novels of our age. There are a number of books on my "Must read before I die" list, and "Moby Dick" was among them. About two years ago, I managed to cross it off the list. I found it to be one of the most tedious books I've ever labored through.

Don't get me wrong. "Moby Dick" does have its moments. I do find its main premise, "Whaling captain allows his obsession with vengeance to cloud his judgment with disastrous consequences", to be thought-provoking. The problem is that the book could have been trimmed down to about a third of its length without losing any of the essential story or premise.

Aside from being a writer, Melville was also a whaler and his love of the sea and of whaling is evident in the lavish detail with which he describes every aspect thereof. This might be appealing to the reader who shares Melville's love of whaling. To a certain extent, it's even interesting to those of us who have no special interest in whaling. For my part, by the time I got to Melville's detailed description of the whale-line that's attached to the harpoon, to which he devotes an entire chapter, I found myself mentally repeating the words of King Arthur from Monty Python's "Holy Grail".

Melville: "With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line."

Me: "Yes."

Melville: "The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapoured with tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope's durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss."

Me: "Yes I, see."

Melville: "Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold."

Me: "Be quiet!"

Melville: "The whale-line is only two-thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, you would not think it so strong as it really is. By experiment its one and fifty yarns will each suspend a weight of one hundred and twenty pounds; so that the whole rope will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons. In length, the common sperm whale-line measures something over two hundred fathoms. Towards the stern of the boat it is spirally coiled away in the tub, not like the worm-pipe of a still though, but so as to form one round, cheese-shaped mass of densely bedded "sheaves," or layers of concentric spiralizations, without any hollow but the "heart," or minute vertical tube formed at the axis of the cheese. As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody's arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub. Some harpooneers will consume almost an entire morning in this business, carrying the line high aloft and then reeving it downwards through a block towards the tub, so as in the act of coiling to free it from all possible wrinkles and twists."

Me: "I order you to be quiet!"

For all of his experience with whales, Melville seems somewhat misinformed about their nature. He devotes an entire chapter to the argument as to whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, as this question had apparently not yet been resolved when "Moby Dick" was written, back in 1851, at the end of which he reaches the erroneous conclusion that a whale is, in fact, a fish. So then, not only is "Moby Dick" unnecessarily long and tedious, it's also factually wrong in places.

Melville also takes great pains in familiarizing the reader with the many different types of whales there are to be found in the oceans of the world. I can't help wondering whether he might not sound a little like the character of Private Benjamin "Bubba" Blue from "Forrest Gump" if he were to recite them aloud; "The Sperm Whale, the Right Whale, the Fin Back Whale, the Hump-backed whale, the Razor Back Whale, the Sulphur Bottom Whale, the Narwhale..."

Melville's writing style is very uneven. While most of the book takes the form of a narrative, certain chapters read more like a play, such as Chapter 40, entitled "Midnight, Forecastle", which begins:



Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies!
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain!
Our captain's commanded.—
1ST NANTUCKET SAILOR. Oh, boys, don't be sentimental; it's bad for the digestion! Take a tonic, follow me!


Our captain stood upon the deck, A spy-glass in his hand,
A viewing of those gallant whales That blew at every strand.
Oh, your tubs in your boats, my boys, And by your braces stand,
And we'll have one of those fine whales, Hand, boys, over hand!
So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail!
While the bold harpooner is striking the whale!

MATE'S VOICE FROM THE QUARTER-DECK. Eight bells there, forward!

2ND NANTUCKET SAILOR. Avast the chorus! Eight bells there! d'ye hear, bell-boy? Strike the bell eight, thou Pip! thou blackling! and let me call the watch. I've the sort of mouth for that—the hogshead mouth. So, so,


Star-bo-l-e-e-n-s, a-h-o-y! Eight bells there below! Tumble up!

DUTCH SAILOR. Grand snoozing to-night, maty; fat night for that. I mark this in our old Mogul's wine; it's quite as deadening to some as filliping to others. We sing; they sleep—aye, lie down there, like ground-tier butts. At 'em again! There, take this copper-pump, and hail 'em through it. Tell 'em to avast dreaming of their lasses. Tell 'em it's the resurrection; they must kiss their last, and come to judgment. That's the way—THAT'S it; thy throat ain't spoiled with eating Amsterdam butter.

FRENCH SAILOR. Hist, boys! let's have a jig or two before we ride to anchor in Blanket Bay. What say ye? There comes the other watch. Stand by all legs! Pip! little Pip! hurrah with your tambourine!

On first reading this chapter, I had to check the cover to ensure that I hadn't accidentally picked up the wrong book! It's as though Melville couldn't decide what kind of work he wanted to create. The world should breathe a sigh of relief that, in the end, he eventually went mostly with the narrative because, as a play, "Moby Dick" would make the Greek epics of yore seem like a Vaudeville sketch.

And take this excerpt from Chapter 42: "The Whiteness of The Whale"; an entire chapter devoted to pondering the color white:

"Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood."

Had I submitted this as an twelfth-grade writing assignment, my English teacher would have circled that entire paragraph with a big red marker and scrawled the words "run-on sentence!" across it, yet that same twelfth-grade English teacher saw no conflict in presenting this to his students as an example of a classic work of literary genius.

"Moby Dick" is not the most tedious book I've ever labored through. That dubious honor belongs to "The Stone Angel", by Margaret Laurence; a novel about the reminiscences of an old woman who had lived a very ordinary and, in fact, somewhat lacklustre, life. Reading that particular book was a little like visiting a senile old auntie who tended to prattle on and on about the same things at every visit. However, "Moby Dick" certainly ranks high on my tedium scale. Ever the glutton for punishment, I've now taken it upon myself to tackle "War And Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. Wish me luck.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Relish Tray

My first student job was at a local Holiday Inn where I worked as a porter. Porters, at least at the hotel for which I worked, do much more than just "port". Aside from helping people with their baggage, I also used to deliver room service orders, set up meeting rooms and halls, clean up after meetings and sometimes even help out busing tables, washing dishes and doing other things that weren't strictly in my job description. It was a good job for a young teenager because, being a bit of an introvert, it helped to bring me out of my shell and develop my social skills. The work was varied which, in my opinion, is better than performing the same monotonous task day after day, and my student wage was supplemented with tips, which is always a good thing.

The nature of hotel work, or any customer service oriented work, I suppose, is such that one soon collects some interesting stories to tell. Take, for example, the time that I delivered a room service order and saw a camera on a tripod pointed at a bed which I couldn't see except for the foot, because most of it happened to be around the corner that was formed where the room and entrance met. Now, I'm not the type to jump to lascivious conclusions. There are many reasons why someone might want to photograph a bed. Perhaps the occupant was a photographer hired to take photographs for a Holiday Inn brochure, or perhaps he was particularly impressed with how neatly the bed was made ("Hot diggity, ah've gotta git a pitcher o' this! They'll nevuh buhlieve me back home in Clanton Alabama!") Conversely, perhaps there was a nasty stain on the sheets or the bed was infested with bed bugs and the occupant was getting photographic evidence to strengthen his case for a refund, or at least a discount on the room. My point is that, during my tenure at the Holiday Inn, I saw a lot of things that gave me pause or caused me to do a double-take.

I also saw some people do some really dumb things. By "some people", I am referring to the hotel's patrons, my fellow staff and, of course, myself. Take, for example, the time that the Assistant Innkeeper asked me to deliver a relish tray to a group of people in one of the meeting rooms.

Being young and somewhat unworldly, I had never heard of a relish tray. Fortunately, I've always had a knack for inferring the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases based on their usage, or by gleaning the familiar from the unfamiliar. For example, the first time I ever heard the term "wanderlust", I reasoned that it must be a fusion of the words "wander" and "lust", both of whose meanings I understood all too well from my childhood days, when my parents would send me wandering after I surprised them during one of their lustful encounters and so I was able to infer the meaning of the term without having to actually look it up.

And so it was in the case of the mysterious relish tray which I'd been instructed to deliver. I immediately located a stainless steel serving tray, covered it in paper doilies, neatly arranged, and then pulled a large box of individually packaged condiments from the walk-in refrigerator that was located in the hotel kitchen. I next proceeded to carefully and artfully arrange relish packets in an ovular pattern around the outside of the tray. Always the conscientious one and wanting to go that extra mile to please the customer, I also added some mustard and ketchup packets as well, reasoning that some of the guests in the meeting room might appreciate an alternative choice to relish. Finally, for the "coup de grace" (French for "superfluous gimmick"), I added a centerpiece; a small vase containing a simple yet decorative floral arrangement in the center of the tray. This, I proudly wheeled down to the meeting room.

I knocked on the door and proudly announced "Your relish tray, sir!" when it was answered by a smartly-dressed gent in business attire. He watched in dumbfounded silence as I wheeled in my creation. Deftly placing the "relish tray" on a counter next to a tray of half-eaten sandwiches, I paused for only a moment and, when my greeter gave no visible sign of producing a tip, I diplomatically took my trolley and left the room, closing the door silently behind myself. "He was probably anxious to get back to the meeting," I reasoned. Surely they would take care of me later on.

When I returned to the lobby, the Assistant Innkeeper motioned to me to approach him with a beckoning finger. "What the hell did you just take down to Room 101?" he muttered under his breath as I dutifully approached.

"The relish tray that you told me to bring them, sir!" I replied. By this time, though, I could tell from his manner that all was not well. I'm quite good at reading people, you know.

It took some time to convince my boss that the whole thing was not, in fact, my idea of a smart-alec prank and that I truly didn't know what a relish tray was. It all ended well enough. I was escorted to the walk-in refrigerator and shown the relish tray which had, in fact, already been prepared earlier by the kitchen staff and which was, ironically, located on a shelf not far from the condiment box. This I delivered to Room 101. I even offered to let them keep the tray of condiments, but they declined, sending it back to the kitchen with me. I didn't lose my job over the matter although, oddly enough, I never received a tip for that particular service. Ah well. You win some, you lose some.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thinking Outside The #$@%!! Box

I'm a computer gamer. I've been playing computer games since my college days, circa 1983 or so. One of the first games that I ever finished was an old adventure game called "Demon's Forge". For those few readers who might be unfamiliar with computer gaming, a computer adventure game is a sort of interactive story in which the player is the main character. The computer describes a scenario, the player types what his or her character does next and the computer tells the player how the story unfolds based on the player's actions. For example:

COMPUTER: You're in a room full of gold and diamonds. There's a fierce dragon guarding the treasure.

PLAYER: Kill the dragon with my sword.

COMPUTER: The dragon's scales are impervious to your sword. All you did was make him mad. He opens his mouth and exhales a stream of fire that might have impressed you if not for the agony that it caused. The dragon has roasted you to a crisp.

Typically, games such as this are full of puzzles and obstacles. A large part of the game is spent trying to figure out how to get into rooms, unlock doors, get at treasure in hard-to-reach places, remove fair maidens' chastity belts and such.

"Demon's Forge" had a tricky puzzle near its end. There were three spheres which you needed in order to finish the game. To get to the spheres, you had to cross an evil looking bridge which began to crumble as you crossed it. As it turned out, the bridge was barely strong enough to support your weight, plus one of the spheres. If you picked up one sphere and carried it back across the bridge, the bridge collapsed behind you. If you picked up any more than one of the spheres, the bridge collapsed underneath you, and you plummeted to your death. But you needed to get all three spheres across the bridge. What to do?

Any ideas?




BLOG READER: "Pick up the spheres and run across the bridge really fast, before it can collapse underneath you."

No good. The moment you set foot on that bridge carrying more than one sphere, it collapses. You can't outrun it.

BLOG READER: "Pick up the spheres and jump across the bridge".

It's too far. You're not able to leap long bridges in a single bound, Superman.

BLOG READER: "Throw the spheres across the bridge and then walk over to where they are."
Nice try! Unfortunately, the chasm which the bridge spans is too wide and the spheres are too heavy. When you try to shot put one across, it falls short of the other side and disappears into the chasm.

BLOG READER: "Roll the spheres across the bridge and then walk over to where they are."

Another nice try, but here the game got a little stupid. It simply didn't know what the word "Roll" meant. That used to happen a lot back in those days.

Give up? Well, the solution intended by the creators of "Demon's Forge" was to cross the bridge whilst juggling all three spheres. That way, you're never holding more than the weight of one at any given time. The bridge still crumbles behind you, but you make it across with the three spheres, and it's on with the game.

Notice the word "intended" in the previous paragraph. I'm proud to tell you that I found another solution and, to this day, I'm pretty sure that it's a solution that the game designers themselves never thought of. What makes it even sweeter is that it takes advantage of a design element that was supposed to be a penalty.

You see, this particular game had logic that searched for foul language in your typed commands. If it found any, the game punished you by transporting you to a room full of mirrors. The mirrors disoriented you so much that you were unable to find your way out of the room, and the game was effectively over. The game didn't really end, mind you, but you could thrash around all you liked and nothing got you out of that room. Eventually, you simply gave up and started over, or reloaded a saved game.

The mirror room wasn't just a punishment, though. It was also a puzzle to be solved. While playing the game, you eventually found your way into the mirror room even if you didn't type any curse words. The difference was that, before you got to the mirror room, there was an axe that you could find and carry with you. If you happened to be carrying that axe once inside the mirror room, you could break the mirrors with the axe and then find your way out of the room, because you were no longer disoriented.

Now here's the important thing: The mirror room was on the other side of the bridge from the spheres. Also, you got to the mirror room before you got to the spheres. When I reached the bridge, I crossed it, picked up all three spheres, and then typed "F--- off!" cackling evilly. (For those of you who can't figure out what the first word should say, just check the screen shot above). Sure enough, I was immediately transported back to the mirror room and the spheres were transported with me. Since I had already solved the mirror room earlier, the mirrors were already broken and I was able to get out and, since the mirror room was on the other side of the bridge, I had effectively crossed the bridge successfully. As an interesting footnote, when I returned to the place where the bridge was, it had collapsed, even though I hadn't crossed it a second time. Incidentally, I wasn't aware of the intended solution when I came up with my own. I only learned of the juggling solution later on.

My favorite computer gaming moments have been those in which the game that I was playing surprised me, usually by doing something unexpected or by being "smarter" than I gave the program credit for being. In this particular case, I like to think that I surprised the game or, rather, its designers.

Are you a computer gamer? Do you have any favorite or memorable gaming moments? If so, I cordially invite you to share them with me and whoever else reads this blog by posting a comment.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Gay Pride, Straight Shame

I wanna do every woman I know
I wanna do it to them in their clothes
I wanna make it with them, don't you know
I'm a heterosexual man
It's just a problem with my glands

These partial lyrics from "Heterosexual Man" by The Odds must serve as my sordid confession to the world. I'm straight. That's right, I'm attracted to members of the opposite sex. I don't drink zinfandel, I couldn't coordinate a room to save my life and I don't own a single pastel-colored shirt. I've never seen "Brokeback Mountain", nor am I inclined to see it because, frankly, the idea of two cowboys playing "Buck the Bronco" makes me more than just a tad queasy.

I understand that our society has become much more accepting of alternative lifestyles. I accept that my Neanderthal attitudes toward sexuality have no place in these enlightened times. I can only conclude that there's something seriously wrong with me.

I have tried to see it from the other side; to walk a mile in their slippers, as it were. I've spent hour after hour watching The W Network, I've tried wearing AussieBum briefs. I've even purchased several issues of Ty Pennington At Home for godsake! But for all my efforts, I can't deny that I still prefer bouncing breasts over pulsating pecs, soft, full lips over chiseled chins, slender waists and ample hips over washboard abs.

Until now, I've maintained a convincing facade, mind you. Take this "buddy picture" that my best friend, Mart, and I posed for several years back. You have to admit, we certainly look convincingly gay! I'm sure I don't need to remind anyone who has read this blog in the past about the indiscreet moment between my boss and myself that I included in my recent Deadwood Society post. However, closer examination will reveal just how uncomfortable I looked with his affectionate overtures.

Going back even further, there's this picture of myself in my "Project People" disco getup. Sure, the truth of the matter is that it simply happened to be the costume used by the group at the time, but I look like I actually like it, don't I? Ah, but I'm afraid it was all for show.

Gays and the gay movement have had a significant impact on our society. Some of our most respected performers and artists are (or were) openly gay, or at least bi. Just look at Elton John (sorry - "Sir" Elton John), Clay Aiken, Freddy Mercury, Cole Porter and even Leonardo Da Vinci, to name but a few. Television programs such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" help the fashion-challenged such as myself. Movies such as "The Crying Game" or the aforementioned "Brokeback Mountain", which won three Oscars and was nominated for five more, bring the gay lifestyle out of the shadows of the closet and into the limelight. Homosexual couples are now getting married in record numbers, even as heterosexual couples increasingly forego the nuptial formalities and simply live common law. Heck, the Gay Pride movement even sports its very own rainbow-colored fag - I mean flag!

Everywhere I look, I see unmistakable evidence that gay's the way. Queer is here. Yet, even as I see the light, I cannot change my ways. Like the Village People once said,

I am what I am
And what I'll be, I'll be