2009: A Wrap-up of Goals Met and Also Those I Failed To Meet

So, another year has passed. What a trip! Last year I posted this post detailing my goals for the year. Let's see how I did!

Read at least 20 new books

For your viewing pleasure, I present the entire list of books that I have read this year. The list is 59 books long.

*denotes re-read
- most enjoyable reads in bold

MediaMaking - Grossberg, Wartella, and Whitney
Paradox of Choice - Barry Schwartz
High-Tech Heretic - Clifford Stoll
A Quick Guide to Analogue Synthesis - Ian Waugh
Issues in Advertising - Edited by David G. Tucek
Red Dragon - Thomas Harris
All Consuming Images - Stuart Ewen
Model - Michael Gross
Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
Finally Alive - Dr. John Piper
Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws - Wayne S. Wooden
The Faces of Homelessness - Marjore Hope and James Young
Killing Yourself to Live - Chuck Klosterman
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Fool’s Gold - Andrew B. Schmookler
The Wisdom Of Crowds - James Surowiecki
The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser
The Communist Manifesto - Marx & Engels
Culture Of Complaint - Robert Hughes
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs - Chuck Klosterman
Ideas of the Great Philosophers - William Sahakian
Principles of Biomedical Ethics - Beauchamp and Childress
Bowling Alone - Robert D. Putnam
Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller*
The Communications Revolution - George N. Gordon
The Myth of a Christian Religion - Greg Boyd
Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis
Trapped in the Net - Gene I. Rochlin
The Internet Church - Walter P. Wilson
The Passion of Jesus Christ - Dr. John Piper
A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon
Wild At Heart - John Eldredge
Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible - Karl Van Der Toorn
Generation Ecstasy - Simon Reynolds*
Don’t Waste Your Life - Dr. John Piper*
Fargo Rock City - Chuck Klosterman
The McDonaldization of Society - George Ritzer
Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
The Two-Income Trap - Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi
Chaos - James Gleick
Joy at the End of the Tether - Douglas WIlson
Culture Jam - Kalle Lasn
Nonviolence in Theory and Practice - Edited by Robert L. Holmes
Semantics - Sidney Shanker
Toxic Psychiatry - Peter R. Breggin
Lives of Master Swordsmen - Makoto Sugawara*
There Are No Children Here - Alex Kotlowitz
Winning PR in the Wired World - Don Middleberg
Being Digital - Nicholas Negroponte
Notes From a Small Island - Bill Bryson
Experiencing Poverty - D.Stanley Eitzen
The Death of Common Sense - Philip K. Howard
Hannibal Rising - Thomas Harris
Technopoly - Neil Postman*
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton*
This Momentary Marriage - Dr. John Piper*
Code of the Samurai - Thomas Cleary

If you are really interested, you can go through my blog posts over the last year and make rough correlations from certain posts to what I was reading at the time. I doubt you will have time to do this. I don't even have time to do this.

Read through the Bible in a year

Completed on 12/27/09! This was a really rewarding experience. Some books, like the prophets, dragged on a bit (I'm looking at you, Isaiah.) Others, like Genesis, still gave me new perspectives on stories I had read dozens of times before.

Not buy any new music

My iTunes tells me that I have added 612 new tracks to my library since 12/31/08. Some of these were gifts, but most were not. FAIL! I did get some really good stuff, though. Some highlights are:
  • Ki - Devin Townsend
  • Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw - Pelican
  • You've Come a Long Way Baby - Fatboy Slim
  • Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - David Byrne and Brian Eno
  • Silence Followed by a Deafening Roar - Paul Gilbert
  • Equinoxe - Jean Michel Jarre
  • The Man Who Sold The World - David Bowie

Double my blogs posts to 174

The side bar on your right will tell you how I did. Pretty sucky, I guess. Well, 132 is 75% of 174, so I get a C- on that one. But at least I didn't blogspam. I wrote when I felt like it and didn't when I was busy. A big part of my falling short is that I developed a serious interest in cycling over the summer, and spent most of my free time doing that. Looking back, some of my favorite posts from the year:

Memorize a list of logical fallacies

My hard drive crashed during the year, and I lost my web bookmarks. On top of that, I forgot all about this one. So, maybe a 50%.

Produce a piece of ambient music that I like

I got close, I think. But I gave my keyboard back to my parents in June, and haven't touched ambient music since then. A large part of that is lack of interest. After reading Outliers I realized that if I truly want to be good at something, I have to dedicate a LOT of time to it. I decided that making music wasn't something I wanted to pursue even fractionally.

Give away five Macs

This flat out did not happen. The reason for this is that after reading Cliff Stoll's criticisms of computer technology, I realized that kids don't need help being exposed to computers. They can learn to use them well on their own. Hence, this post about computer education. And this one. I did, however, supply three (or four :-( ) people with bicycles, which I am happy about.

What a year! I feel that I learned and grew a lot as a person, and am excited to see what this year will hold. Last year I didn't know I enjoyed cycling so much; what will I learn this year!?


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Rate This, Quantify That: Last.Fm and Cyclocomputers

Some of you may be familiar with Last.Fm, the music tracking portal that keeps a record of your musical tastes and recommends you new music. It also offers a downloadable program that plugs into your iTunes and allows you to see, in detail, the breakdown of your music listening habits. This data can be shared, so your friends can know what you have been listening to as of late. Tracking listening habits? Sharing data? I realize that this has all the making of a follow-up article to this post critiquing iTunes, but it is not. This one has to do with quantifying experience, and how that quantification is commonly seen as an end rather then a means.

I used Last.Fm regularly until this summer, generating just short of two years’ worth of data. The top thirty or so of my most reguarly-played artists are in the following chart. If I never told you before that I liked David Bowie, well, now you know.

(click to enlarge)

Everything I played on my iTunes and iPod was tracked, which I thought was going to be exciting, until I realized that tracking what I listened to became more important than actually listening to it. I had some music on both my G4 and my Quicksilver G4, yet I rarely ever used those machines as jukeboxes because they were not online. If the music I listened to wasn’t recorded (pardon the pun) somehow, I effectively perceived it as having never been listened to. What mattered was what was in the dataset. This is significant because we as a society tend to worship data.

Excessive quantification, meaning the quantification of things that cannot or should not be quantified, is a sign of over-reliance on technology. What Last.Fm did for me was not just keep track of what I listened to, but rather provided a way for me to, quantifiably, show that I loved certain artists more than others. That I like Joe Satriani’s music more than Steve Vai’s is obvious, not just because I have eight of Satch’s CDs to Vai’s three, but because Vai is trailing Satch by 288 “points.”

The thing is, I don’t need a computer to tell me that I listen to more Satch than Vai. I already know! I was the one listening! Moreover, the computer can be misleading by showing that I “like” Yngwie Malmsteen more than I do Jason Becker, which is undeniably false. Malmsteen only has more “points” because I’ve been listening to the four CDs (pared down from like eight or nine) I have of his since right out of high school. I bought Becker’s Perpetual Burn a year-and-a-half ago, and it’s brilliant. (The same can be said of my enjoyment of Jean-Michel Jarre, whose 125 plays all came from the only album of his I have; Oxygène.)

But I am straying from my main point, which is that data is something to be used. I recently started budgeting. I have a spreadsheet with a bunch of numbers on it that tells me how much money I have spent and how much I have saved and how much I will likely use next month. To keep a budget simply because you enjoy entering and manipulating numbers would be a strange hobby indeed. I collect data for something else, not just for the sake of collecting it.

One of my hobbies, cycling, is rife with the quantification of performance. Maximum output, generated wattage, drag coefficient, gear ratio, cadence, distance travelled: these are all data points that help a cyclist measure how well his or her body is performing. So many recreational cyclists get all caught up in measuring this stuff, but for what? For whom is this data important? For professionals, who need to get the most out of their body and bike. As a recreational cyclist, I ask myself, Is this important? Does distance matter if I enjoy my ride? If I am miserable, yet in my moments of extreme discomfort happen to generate the most power, will that be good for my psyche? What really matters? What matters is that I get exercise and have fun at the same time - otherwise I risk ending up like this guy.

The omnipotency of data is so prevalent is our society that we seldom question it. After all, data and information make things efficient, and who doesn’t want to be efficient? That depends on who you ask. Ask Socrates, and you’ll hear that efficiency is a problem for the common man, for the peasants and slaves. Trimming things down so that they require less thought is not a pursuit for the philosopher. Ask a man riding the Giro d’Italia, and he’ll tell you that it is everything.

Pro cyclists aside, we must ask, Does efficiency make us more human? Does reducing performance to numbers, eliminating uncertainty, and quantifying experience lead to more caring, sensitive human beings? Does the ability to direct your friends inquiry to a Last.fm list make for more conversation, or less.

And what’s result in comparing music lists? Do we not start to judge who is the “better” music fan, or who is the most avid listener of a preferred band? Are we more content afterwards, or less? Quantification leads to comparison, and comparison breeds resentment. After all, machines are made equal. Humans are not.

I want to listen to music to hear Klaus Schulze’s (at #2) brilliance, and I want to cycle because the wind feels good as it rushes by. I want to bask in custom synth textures and make wild guesses at my speed as I go downhill. What I don’t need, or want, is a sheet to keep track of playcounts or a fancy-schmancy cyclocomputer. Humanity, I feel, is better off without them.


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Shaping How We Listen to Control What We Buy

MP3s are nothing new in 2009. In fact, they’re boring. Most of us have probably been using them since middle school, ripping CDs to our computers and creating a digital music collection that allowed us to listen to our music anywhere, any time, and in any order. We smiled with joy as we looked over our iTunes libraries; no more weighty CD collections to lug around and have stolen!

But what if we missed something? What if we overlooked the peculiarity of being able to listen to multiple tracks by multiple artists out of sequence from their original album format? Maybe we lost something when we all went digital.

Of course, mixing songs into a playlist is not new. Radio stations have been doing it for close to a century, DJs have been creating personal mixtapes for some decades now, and compilation albums have been sold by the millions. All of these examples, however, work under some sort of restriction - radio has but a small sample of radio singles to choose from, and compilation CDs and mixtapes, at least good ones, were arranged and mastered to make a pleasurable holistic listening experience. The tracks were mixed and matched, yes, but usually by a professional with a greater theme in mind.

The mass marketing of CD burners brought to us the ability to create a personal mixtape, and we as a society entered a transitional period where we still conscious of our partaking in the deconstruction on the musical “album,” but, excited by the newfound ability to share custom mixes with friends, staved off thinking about potential consequences.

We often think that new technology can only bring good things, when in fact the introduction of any new technology results in a dynamic give-and-take process. As author Neil Postman writes in his book Technopoly,
“Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological...One significant change generates total change. If you remove caterpillars from a given habitat, you're not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions for survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that had none.” (p.18)
MP3s weren’t just a new player in the music environment for which CDs had to make room. They weren’t a new form of the CD. They not only allowed you to pick and choose which songs off your CDs you wanted to listen to, but they redefined how music is made, marketed, and consumed. MP3s made possible online music download stores like Napster, iTunes, and AmazonMP3. For the first time, buying just the single off an album was available to the masses.

This had a profound impact on the whole music market, but in particular on the pop, rap, and rock genres. It pushed them away from making a solid cohesive album and towards focusing more on producing a catchy hit single. In more and more cases now, the album is just used to market the single. Overall quality can suffer, because a successful single will sell a mediocre album. Consider a hypothetical example of Lady Gaga:

Suppose her latest single, “Bad Romance,” was released on the Internet and reached the ears of 50 million fans (about twice the population of Texas) who sent a link to nine friends each, exposing 500 million to a really catchy hit single. Now, if a mere 20% of those people bought the single, Lady Gaga would make $100 million. If just 1% of those who bought the single went on to buy the (mediocre) supporting record, The Fame Monster, it would go platinum. This is simple math, and online music distributors like Apple want to get as big a piece of market pie as they can. The more copies of “Bad Romance” that iTunes sells, the more money Apple makes. It is Apple’s best interest, then, as music marketers, to shape the listener’s consumption habits in a way that will make them more accepting of singles. The sale of the album would just be a bonus. The seamless integration of iTunes with the iTunes Store (introduced in version 4) fosters this acceptance. (That iTunes is marketed as music management software is a telling sign. Managing a few hundred CDs? Not that hard. Managing a couple thousand singles? Well, for that you need a computer program.)

Starting in version 4.5, iTunes had a feature called Party Shuffle (now renamed iTunes DJ), an option that let you to listen to your entire music library in random order. This feature was not new per se, as the hundred-disc changers of the 90’s often included such features, but it did take that idea into the realm of the virtual music library.

In iTunes 8, however, a whole new feature called Genius was added. The idea behind Genius was to take the wisdom of crowds, the collective listening preferences of all iTunes users, and harness it to make recommendations, in the form of playlists, to individual users. One could pick any track in his or her library, hit the “Genius” button, and iTunes would compile a playlist culled from the entire music library based on the listening habits of users with similar tastes. It’s an interesting idea, but only useful if you want to listen to music without context or continuous narrative; in other words, a collection of singles. But not all music, obviously, is singles.

If I’m listening to the first movement of Beethoven’s Eighth, the odds are astronomically higher that I would want to finish the whole symphony rather than skip to Mozart to Handel to Haydn to Liszt. The same can be said about any track off of Radiohead’s OK Computer, Steely Dan’s Aja, Devin Townsend’s Infinity, or any other album that provides a seamless listening experience from start to finish.

The iTunes Genius in itself is not a bad thing, but it is important to realize that not all music falls under it’s umbrella. Apple is out to make money, and selling more singles results in more money. Cultivating a userbase who is accepting of these singles, then, is the raison d'être of Genius. From this viewpoint, that iTunes is pushed as a music jukebox for everyone, when in reality it has several features (iTunes DJ, Genius, the Store) that, at least in my view, clearly promote the consumption of commercial-radio-friendly music, is disconcerting.

We are no longer in an environment with caterpillar MP3s; we now have mature, elegant, butterfly music distribution systems. For those who enjoy the endless parade of pop singles, this is a welcome paradigm shift. For others, like me, the marriage of music marketing to the shaping of consumption habits is a reason to be wary. If continuous exposure breeds familiarity, then using iTunes could result in a decline in demand for holistic album experiences. If diversity in music is to be preserved, it is important that we be aware of technology’s subtle influence on artistic expression.

(Image from paradigmshiftstudio.com)

Thankfully, there are those who are aware and involved in a movement to keep the album experience alive. My friend Dan has extensive experience with the underground metal community, and writes,
“[T]here has been a big push in the underground communities (both in metal and alternative/indie music) to refuse to allow their albums to be released on iTunes, with many bands choosing even to release albums on vinyl (Bon Iver and The Raconteurs come to mind at the moment for good examples of this). I also know that many underground punk bands have been doing this for years, with some of them at the dawn of the 90's even resisting the rise of the CD by using vinyl. Examples of this are The Circle Jerks, Lars Fredrikson and the Bastards, as well as Helmet.”

The Raconteurs, of course, are one of Jack White’s - the man notorious for still recording on reel-to-reel machines - side projects. I still can’t tell if he uses those machines for legitimate musical reasons or just to separate himself from the pack by generating a faux-nostalgia over archaic equipment. Regardless, he is indeed known as a staunch proponent of vinyl. I wrote an article a while back about the resurrection of vinyl, and, judging by Amazon’s vinyl Hot Releases page, it seems that vinyl is still doing pretty well. It’s worth noting that the irony of Lady Gaga’s album being available on vinyl is not lost on me.

Vinyl or no vinyl, the countermeasures taken by bands against the MP3 takeover succeed only because of the Internet, the very device that exacerbates the problem. This is the ecosystem which must be balanced. One one side we have singles dominating popular music, and on the other we have bands who resist and sell their albums to dedicated fans via a website. The masses who want the singles are appeased, and the fans, equally, have a place to gather. It is these fans, with their chant of “A new delivery method doesn’t render an old one invalid!”, who are crucial in maintaining that the two live in harmony. For just like Huxley warned in A Brave New World, the danger lies not in our old system being dominated and forcibly repressed, but in it being appraised and portrayed as useless and thus discarded.

So keep your MP3s, iPods, and iTunes. And keep your CDs and LPs. Find the unique contributions of each one and maximize them. For they are not only important as storage mediums, but as representations of a consumer mindset. Make room in your musical ecosystem for both, and enjoy the fullness that each brings to the diversity and taste of the music market.



Life Lessons From The Car Business

If you’ve read some of my other posts on this site, you know that I spent some time, eleven months, to be exact, working in the car business. I learned a lot of lessons during my time there, some more valuable then others, but none more meaningful than how wrong it is to judge others. Not only are you usually wildly inaccurate in your preconceptions, but in constructing them you also build yourself up to be someone you are not. This is a lesson I still haven’t fully learned yet, though perhaps I will never fully get over being judgmental.

In America, where who you are is so often tied to what you drive, what you drive is seemingly of paramount importance. Nowhere is this mentality more evident than among car salesman. The minute you drive onto a car lot, the salesman busy themselves with evaluating who you are and what kind of car you might buy, as if they’ve known you for years. Are you driving a beaten ‘93 Taurus? You’re buying a Hyundai or a Ford Focus. Do you have a notebook in your hand in which you compare prices and features? You’re looking for something Japanese, probably a Subaru. Old and driving a Cadillac? You plan to keep buying American, and what model of car isn’t really important as long it looks nice and has enough trunk space for two or three golf bags.

It’s been two years since I held that job, and I can still rattle off stereotypes like that so fast I scare myself. And this kind of stuff goes on all the time. There was a simple rule that I used to go by when appraising what people bought: If their new car had fog lights, the buyer was competent and well-off. Fog lights usually only come on the top-end models of cars; hence, whatever the car, if it had fog lights, I could assume that the person knew why they wanted that specific car, and that they wanted the most car for their money. Unless their new car was already a base-model subcompact, I judged the customer could do better by downgrading to a smaller car with more options (like fog lights). Quality tends to be higher. Oh, and always buy Japanese.

It was with this mentality that one day I found myself preparing a Dodge Caravan for a customer I had not met. (My job was of the cashier-checkout sort. I made sure the customer’s car was good to go and walked them through their final paperwork.) This Caravan had zero options. Nothing. Not even automatic windows, And it was a Dodge Caravan, which tend to be at the bottom of the minivan genre in terms of quality. I could not have been less impressed with this customer’s choice and available cash.

All that changed, though, once I sat down with the customer. Instead of a overweight, lower-class white mom with unruly children, as I had expected, I was met by a smart, competent, father of five. Throughout the course of the paperwork I learned that he was a minister of a small rural church, and that this was his first new car in over ten years. I tried to concentrate on being prompt and courteous, but inside I could not have been more ashamed of myself. I identified with more characteristics in this man’s life then perhaps any other customer I had encountered, yet a half-hour before I had been joking with one of the detailers about how cleaning this car was barely worth our time. I was a horrible human being.

In an earlier post I talked about how missionaries always drove vans, and how as kids we always bragged about them. At that moment, sitting at that desk, I looked at the man sitting across from me and felt like I had practically grown up in his family. He wasn’t looking for a fancy car, because he had more important things to care about, like serving God. In all likelihood he was more concerned about being grateful to God for providing for his needs, just like my parents were and still are, than about impressing others. And there I was, judging a person’s worth by what they owned.

I drove home that night a different person from when I had woken up. Before, it was easy to play the labeling game with the salesmen. Now I didn’t care. Before, I put stock in what I drove. Now it was a car that got me from A to B, a gift God had given me that I didn’t deserve. I drove slowly, the realization washing over me that nothing I owned was a credit to my own success. Everything around me was put there to show me God - to teach me lessons.


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Thanksgiving Thanks

Things I am thankful for this year.

-Parents who call me.
-Books for learning from
-Money for food
-My job, in this economy
-Working bicycles
-People to bicycle with
-Enough insulin
-A warm apartment
-Ample clothing
-Good health
-My church

All these things may seem may seem rather ordinary and boring, and I might agree, if you were only looking at them separately. But for all of these things to converge on one person? God is clearly blessing me.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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The Fleeting Value of Professional Sports When Viewed Through The Lens of a Traveller

As a kid, I was a huge sports fan. I watched sports whenever possible, played sports, and talked sports to whoever would listen. During my kindergarten and early elementary years I liked Japanese baseball, and followed teams like the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, Orix Bluewave, Seibu Lions, and Kintetsu Buffaloes with enthusiasm. Unlike in American sports, where a city or state owns a team, Japanese sports are sponsored by companies - the Yomiuri is a major newspaper, Orix is a financial firm, and Kintetsu and Seibu are both railway conglomerates. Sumo was another favorite sport, and for the first two weeks of every other month my family and I would crowd around the TV during the 5-6pm hour to watch the great wrestlers duke it out with one another. Participation in soccer during my later elementary years paved the way for interest in the Japanese soccer league, or J.League for short. Favorite teams included the Yokohama Marinos, Kawasaki Verdy, and Kashima Antlers. Sometimes my private soccer club would play the elementary prep teams of these clubs, who were always formidable opponents.

During this time I also followed American basketball with a passion, the Chicago Bulls being my favorite team to follow. Every morning I would tear through the newspaper to find the sports section and read up on the happenings in the NBA, halfway across the world. If the paper happened to run a picture of MJ, it was a glorious day for my scrapbook.

Card-collecting was another way I was in-touch with sports. I collected baseball, basketball, and occasionally football cards throughout elementary, but only basketball card collection continued throughout middle school. Basketball cards were a way for me to stay close to my American roots, and I took great pride in my collection. A far as I knew, the Japanese card-trading scene was non-existent, and I saw trading cards as a uniquely American thing.

Interest in following sports slowly waned beginning in high school. I still played sports, but just didn’t care about sports as a whole as much. I had other interests, I guess, like music, cars, and computer games. I went to see the occasional game, but as far as memorizing stats and removing newspaper articles, that had ceased.

I had a brief love affair with European football (Arsenal woo!) in the past few years, but for the most part I have avoided following sports too closely. This year I tried to follow the international Formula-1 racing circuit, but lost interest half-way through June.

All this to say, really, that the more I think about it the more I can’t help but opine that following sports with enthusiasm is merely a construct of increased proximity - a mild form of nationalism, as it were. Right now I live in Minnesota, whose Vikings are 9-1. I don’t really care about the Vikings, yet find myself caught up in all the excitement over their new-found success. Come Monday I inevitably wander over to NFL.com to see how they fared the previous weekend. ‘They’re in MY city, and them doing well reflects well on me,’ I poorly rationalize. Why should I care?

If passionately following sports is indeed a mild form of nationalism, then it all seems very silly to me, a third-culture kid. I’ve seen kids crazy about J.League, teens going nuts over the NBA, college kids raving about their favorite English footy team, and adults getting uproariously drunk and high-fiving over a touchdown against those worthless Packers. It’s all the same everywhere. And what difference does caring about sports make, if indeed you’re only excited about the sport because of it’s proximity to your residence? When you move a lot, like I have, it becomes rather tiring to have to start all over again with a new sport or team to match each new city. Teams win, teams lose, and over the long run it seems pretty pointless and of fugitive disposition to get excited over the present state of a team. Equally useless is reminiscing over how good your football team was ‘back in the day’ (pre-2000 for Detroit. Zing.) Are there not better things to spend time on?

Obsessing over a sports team is revealed to be the hollow joy that it is when you confront it a set of eyes that have spent time examining it’s evanescent qualities regardless of the home culture. The only logical choice to make is to either follow sports passionately wherever you are, which quickly becomes exhausting, or to disregard sports almost entirely, by which you risk potential alienation at the water cooler. This is not to say that following sports is bad; sports, all sports, are exciting, electrifying, and, hopefully, God-honoring. But you don't need to follow any kind of team to enjoy it. I simply think that knowing beyond the simple “Yeah the Vikes played Seattle last weekend and won” is not worth it. It is simply too broad a world out there to narrowly focus on one little corner .


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Jump Rope 2: Jump Harder with a Vengeance

If you were at any time a Japanese elementary school student, it’s practically a given that you can jump rope at a professional level. I am not even joking. Japanese kids can jump rope like it’s their job. The public school system, subsidized by both the government and the jump rope industry, is largely to thank for this, as they make jumping rope a three-month-long mandatory P.E. staple. Prizes are given out to those who can jump rope the longest, resulting in kids jumping in class, starving during lunch, and wetting themselves on a regular basis. Learning to run while jumping rope is an important skill to learn at this stage in development. The highlight (or, for me, the lowlight) of the year is the school-wide competition that marks the end of the jumping season. This is where kids break out their Nike Shox, trash-talk dictionaries, and carbon fiber jump ropes and proceed to double-jump until their arms almost fall off. This routine is repeated ever year, so that the average elementary school graduate has (roughly) over 13,000 hours of jump-roping experience and no rotator cuffs.

Double-jumping, passing the rope beneath your feet twice in one jump, is not an easy task for a foreigner like me to accomplish. I never was able to do it, and this relegated me to 45th string on any and every jump rope team and exposed me to repeated kickings of sand in my face. You see, Japanese kids have refined jumping rope to a surprisingly deep level, complete with many different jumping styles, such as Aya Jumping, alternately crisscrossing your arms with each jump, and Kousa Jumping, in which you keep your arms permanently crossed while you jump. At the higher levels both of these techniques are combined with double-jumping, resulting in a whirr of activity that turns a cord of nylon into carbon-hardened steel and a mere elementary school child into its martial arts master, no doubt employable at a thousand different sushi restaurants nation wide. I, meanwhile, was off in the corner, spitting out sand and trying to synchronize my body so that both feet lifted off the ground at the same time.

For those less inclined to individual competition, jumping rope could be turned into a group exercise through utilization of the O-nawa, or large rope. This rope, held by one person on each end, was rotated slowly, the goal being to see how many kids could hop in and synchronously jump. I, of course, was still working on my coordination so I usually was relegated to be a holder, since I was tall for my age and could move my arm in a more or less consistent circular motion.

Japan, however, wastes this potentially profitable natural resource, as once the Japanese student graduates elementary, jumping rope is never spoken of again. It is treated as a stage in life that one must go through and then move on, much like soccer is considered in the US. It’s something that, regardless of how good you get at it, you must discard it and grow up. This means that now is the prime time in my life to get good at it, so I can reclaim some lost dignity from my youth. So if you’ll excuse me, I have some Shox to buy and some sand to kick.

Dann writes from his home in Minnesota where, unfortunately, his mediocre rope-jumping skills are his main way of keeping warm.

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Nike, Iggy Pop, Shock Advertising, and Cleaning Up Public Space

If you follow my posts much, you know that I enjoy a good round of Guitar Hero. While Guitar Hero has been a source of new music for me from time to time, it has also helped me look at advertising habits at a deeper level, albeit indirectly. It was from playing Guitar Hero that I recognized this song (Iggy Pop’s “Search and Destroy”), and that allowed me to subsequently find the following Nike advertisement on YouTube.

That ad showed on NBC in 1996, during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. I was nine at the time, and was in the throes of Michael Jordan idolization. A family friend had taped Games 5 and 6 and mailed them to my family in Japan. The Nike ad only played once, but I watched the whole game so many times that the ad is permanently branded in my memory.

The content of the ad no doubt contributed to its "stickiness". Below is a haunting shot of a camera smashing at second thirty-one. That scene stuck with me more than any other.

The guy barfing is pretty dramatic, too.

The overall impression that I got from this advert was that sports was painful, hard, and punishing. There was very little glory depicted, and I certainly didn’t get the impression that Nike was the brand of winners. All the athletes involved wore Nike clothing, from Carl Lewis completing a successful jump to the guy on the ground trying not to be trampled.

Throughout the length of the video the two-second gratuity-shot of Scottie Pippen’s sneakers is all that really tells you that you’re watching a Nike ad. I remember those shoes well, though I never owned a pair because I thought they were ugly.

All this to say that this was the first instance of watching TV that made me uncomfortable. As I saw it, Nike had put together montage of people failing at sports and getting hurt in the process, all to sell a product. It was the first piece of video that I was fascinated by, because of the fast editing and pounding rock song, but didn’t actually like. The whole clip kinda made me nauseous, actually. Maybe the flying blood and the aforeinserted barfing guy had something to do with it.

This feeling, the feeling of “Why am I excited by this when it disgusts me?”, I think, is good to retain. So often we see things that annoy or shock us, but we are too jaded by a lifetime of media exposure to really care. There are biological ways we react to things, ways we don’t know about but advertisers do, that can catch us off-guard. A recent example might be this vile divorce ad.

It catches you off-guard just enough so that you might consider the possibility. We don’t need this kind of advertising here, there, or anywhere. These are the things we should search for and destroy.


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In Which I Write 3000 Words About My International Peer Groups

We all know what the word “peer” means. Our teachers and parents use it often. We hear the terms “peer pressure” and “peer review” and know how to react. There's usually no question who our peers are - they are the people around us in our age group. Everyone is your second grade class is your peer, but not every second grader in your county. Second graders in France are not your peers, unless you’re a French second-grader.

It is these people (peers, not the French) who have the most influence over us as we grow up, exhibited linearly in grade school and then exponentially in high school. Our peers influence what we wear, how we talk, and what music we listen to. We know where we fit in amongst them; who’s cooler than whom. It is painfully obvious who fits in and who doesn’t, but we certainly don’t imagine that there are people who don’t feel that they belong in the peer group. Of course everyone is included, the logic goes. We say you are one of us, so you are. We compare ourselves to you, so you have to do the same.

Yet as a missionary kid growing up in Japan, I never felt I belonged in a set peer group. I was never purveyed that acceptance. My situation, though, is rather unique in that I had a few different groups from which to choose as my peers.

At an early age I was whisked off to Japan - a white missionary kid in an Asian country. I had three potential groups to choose from: white kids, Japanese kids, and missionary kids (MKs). All three of these groups seem equally large when you’re a missionary kid, though that idea of course seems silly now.

The straight-forward choice is that I should have decided to fit in with the Japanese kids. After all, I spent almost all of my elementary school years in Japan, going to both Japanese kindergarten and public elementary school. They were my classmates - my peers. I spoke their language. This was really the best choice, but I didn’t take it for reasons explained later.

The worst choice was to consider the white kids in America as my peers. Even though they looked like me, I only saw them once every four years due to the missionary home assignment cycle, and kids change a lot in four years. Yet this was half of my peer group. See, I had the unfortunate lot of being born in June. American schools run the school year Sept-May, so people born over the summer, myself included, are tacked on at the end as the youngest in the class. Japanese school, however, runs April-March, meaning that kids with June birthdays are some of the oldest in the class. That was also me. The result was that, because of my family’s moving schedule, I enrolled in American first grade, completed seven months, and then enrolled in Japanese first grade. (The later result of this is that I only attended two months of fifth grade, but that is irrelevant.)

If I had not taken Japanese first grade, I think I may have adjusted to the Japanese as my peers. My parents would have explained that I was a big second grader now and that is what second grade was, like how the Japanese did it. I would have accepted that and everything would have been fine. The problem was, I had my American first grade experience to compare to this new Japanese first grade, and I liked the American one much, much better. I knew the kids there looked like me and that I fit in with them. American kids were cool and played with cool toys. Japan, I soon thought, was the opposite of cool. I had to speak a different language. Kids at my school, kids who played with less-cool toys*, all pointed and giggled at the little blond kid. Hence, pretty much my entire Japanese elementary career was spent comparing the “crappy Japanese system” to my “utopian American experience”. Very early on I forged a massive superiority complex; I saw myself as a super-gifted and special kid forced to live in a system that was so far below him it wasn’t funny. Since I saw myself this way, it was only natural that I developed a feeling of learned helplessness. I was stuck; I wanted the American kids as my peers, but they were no longer around.

I tried to deal with this by finding other white kids around me, other missionary kids, and using them as the other half of my peer group. The problems with this were that A) I only saw them a few times a year and B) I didn’t confine my peers to my age group. As long as they were missionary kids, I saw them as peers. As stated earlier, our peers influence how we behave as we grow and mature. My cues as to how to act, dress, and talk, then, came from two sources - my memories of my “peers” in America, and my fellow missionary kids whom I saw but a few times per year. With these two groups largely absent, I spent a lot of my elementary years alone.

Since a good chunk of peer interaction is comparison on a daily basis, and I didn’t have that, I saw myself as constantly behind the times. Every time I hung out with missionary kids they had newer, cooler shoes or were throwing around a new slang buzzword that I didn’t know. I was constantly playing catch-up, which only added to the frustration of being stuck in Japanese school. Not only was I stuck at school with kids who weren’t my peers, but I was on the low side of cool every time I was with kids who were. Older MKs got to do stuff that I could not, and I would look at that as my failure to meet some universal standard of cool rather than just, you know, because I was younger.

This inability to consistently engage with people I considered peers cultivated my belief that what was important was owning things that cool kids had. In order to be cool, you had to have what the cool kids had and dress the way they did. It never occurred to me that they were probably just as insecure as I was, or that they were influenced by others as to how to dress or act.

I’ll acknowledge here, then, that, yes, I was completely unaware that experiences I had were not universal. I grew up thinking that I had a super-vanilla, mega-boring life, and that every other MK got to have way more fun then I did, all the time. It didn’t occur to me that I had had experiences that others would envy. I assumed that every MK had everything I did, plus more. So thus, I was determined to make up that difference. This obviously never happened, because we can’t all have the same life experiences.

With sixth grade came the rotation of one year in America, and I was anxious to get back to my “real friends” and my “authentic” peer group. I was enrolled in a private Christian school full of kids who looked like me - the same kids whom I had learned with as a first-grader. I had a lot of catching up to do, but that was the easy part - I just had to buy (or get my parents to buy) the right stuff. Having my own interests took a backseat to what I thought would make me cool. Soon my room was full of basketball gear and apparel, street hockey equipment, Tech Decks, Beanie Babies, a portable CD player, sports trading cards, Hot Wheels cars, and vintage American coinage. From a fridge full of Gatorade to Atomic Warheads in my mouth and Lee Pipes on my legs, if I thought it would make me more American, I wanted it. Though this strategy would prove to fail as a long-term strategy in the near future, that failure was not something that my sixth-grade self had to face, because I moved back to Japan after a year.

The four years between ages twelve to sixteen, my family’s third term in Japan, marked what I like to call the Span Of Floundering and Alienation, or SOFA for short. Seventh grade was the year that I was enrolled at the Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ), a school for missionary kids - a school of, that’s right, my peers. I had gone for twelve years without a set peer group, and now I had one with which I had to interact every single day. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to act on a daily basis around kids whom I knew to be exactly like me. I was white, spoke two languages, had lived in two countries, had lived in the Japanese system and had educated parents, just like most of them. I couldn’t use the excuse of being white (as I did in suburban Japan) or the excuse of being a missionary kid (as I did in the US) to explain why I did things my way to these CAJ kids, and buying stuff alone wasn’t going to get me accepted into their group. I had to learn how to interact with a peer group, my peer group, in a dynamic, flowing, relational way. I never thought that I could be part of such an intimate peer group and all of a sudden I realized I could be, if I could only figure out the cryptic rite of passage. The SOFA was marked by my consistent failure to do so.

Why was this so hard for me to do? A small part of it was, no doubt, my lack of access to unlimited money with which to buy my acceptance. Another (less tongue-in-cheek) part of it was that a large part of my class had grown up together through elementary school, and it’s always hard for an outsider to break into a close-knit group. The biggest and most glaring problem, though, was that I was a teenager who didn’t really know how to make friends. In America I had made friends with the children of my mom’s friends, or with kids who had wanted to hang out with the “kid from Japan.” I had kids practically lining up to talk to me, and could pick and choose those to whom I would grant my friendship. In Japanese school I was pretty much a loner who made a different new best** friend every year, though I think they may have befriended me out of pity. I had four, maybe five kids who I enjoyed hanging out with and would rotate among them every few months.† The missionary kids I hung out with I saw as friends by default - their camaraderie not unlike that enjoyed by prisoners of war.

Seventh and eight grade were the years when my superiority complex was destroyed. I realized that I wasn’t some superkid who everyone wanted to hang out with. I had to earn my place in the peer group. I wasn’t some, as Tyler Durden puts it, “beautiful and unique snowflake.” I was floundering. I had to find my niche, my talent that set me apart. Most of those two years was spent by myself, trying to make myself special, and I tried a lot of things. I wrote for the middle school paper, ran for student government, and acted in plays. I taught myself some BASIC programming and spent countless hours learning my way around the Internet, Windows 98, and Mac OS. I played soccer, basketball, ran track, and wrestled. I wore skate shoes, rode a Razor scooter, sagged my jeans and backpack, and used adult language with increasing frequency. None of that seemed to matter, though, because I still didn’t watch the right movies, listen to the right music, own an MD player, wear the right clothes, or get invited to any sleepovers. I wasn’t popular with girls.†† I wasn’t cool.

Ninth and tenth grades, the later half of my SOFA, were less tough times because I had, in effect, lapsed back into helplessness and resolved that I wouldn’t be able to weasel my way in with my peers. I had to look out for myself and find my own friends. The few close friends I made happened to be those who also, for various reasons, didn’t conform with the normal social peer group. We were the rebels, I suppose - the fringe participants. I was still active in sports and extra-curricular activities, though most of the time spent outside those was spent alone. I had a girlfriend‡, but she dumped me after a month. I cared less about school and more about computer games. I slowly gave up on trying to buy stuff to fit in. I listened to my own music and read my own books. Looking back now, I see that I still had suppressed resentment over being in Japan, because I remember eagerly anticipating the move back to America for my junior year of high school.

Junior year brought with it two revelations: that I was an emotionally stunted person (surprise!) and that I was much less rooted in America then I had led myself to believe. My emotional state was a result of the previous two years, during which I had idealized the military and its lifestyle. Basically I believed that showing emotion was a sign of weakness, a sign of being out of control. My subconscious helplessness that showed signs of bubbling up was suppressed by feeling that I could be in control of my feelings. Since emotion is something you have to cultivate, suppressing it for long enough will diminish your overall ability to feel it, and the early signs of that stage were beginning to manifest in my daily demeanor.

My parents sent me to counseling for it, which I thought was weak but went anyway. After a few sessions my counselor was seriously considering putting me on medication, but I eventually started opening up to him. It was actually an extraordinarily pleasant experience, and now I believe that everyone should have at least three months of counseling. It didn’t help, though, with fitting in with my peers.

Going to high school in America made me realize that there were indeed many aspects of my life that kids with no overseas experience could simply not understand. Many of my habits, mannerisms, and ways of thinking were notably different. Being in America made me realize that I could not refer to myself as “American” as a way to validate my actions. I had to accept that I was, most likely, more Japanese than American.

This I accepted, and my senior year back in Japan was marked by a time of personal growth as a self-confident person. I thought I knew where I fit in in the world and therefore was comfortable with myself. Looking back, I think I was fooling myself and just hiding behind my girlfriend. I had a steady girlfriend during the entire year, a cute Asian a year younger than me, and she was my life. We were together all the time, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about interacting with my peers to gain validation. I had her, and she thought I was awesome. I ignored my peer group, life seemed good, and I proceeded to end high school.

I wish I could say that this story has a happy ending, but it really doesn’t. I still struggle to be comfortable around people my own age. My SOFA mentality still bugs me. I’m fine around kids even one year younger or older than I am, but if someone graduated high school in 2005 like I did, they should prepare for me to feel awkward and inferior around them for no real reason. It’s pretty frustrating that I still feel this way.

So what do I think could have made a difference? Not repeating a grade might have helped. That was where I got the superiority complex and accompanying helplessness. Not being enrolled in a private bubble school in America might have helped. It was there where I had kids line up to interact with me. Those might have been things my parents could have changed. But what could I have changed? I could have not used my skin color (in Japan) or my international experience (elsewhere) to excuse myself. I could have faced the challenges that I chose to ignore or maybe completed my senior year alone in order to grow more. But I didn’t. But you know what? That’s OK, because I got through it and am able to look back on it and learn from it now. I don’t have any regrets, because having regrets means that I’m not comfortable with who I am now, and that’s not true. I write my experiences down so that others, so that you, can learn from them and perhaps find meaning in some experiences in your own life that you have missed until now. The journey is long, and you shouldn’t have to walk it alone.

*This part I suppose I can blame on my parents, who never really let me indulge in the fad-oriented Japanese youth culture. I never had a NES, SNES, N64, Tamagotchi, Digimon, battle pencils, or a battery-operated plastic train set. I never played Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh, never watched Dragonball, Ultraman, Power Rangers, Kamen-Rider, or any animated television series, and never read a single manga series while in elementary. In general, I never watched Japanese TV, and thus was left out of the hype surrounding the newest toys. To this day, I can’t recall a single Japanese toy commercial. To be fair, though, I did have Mini Yonkus, a few hyper-yo-yos, and a ton of LEGOs.

**Or “only” - whichever you prefer.

†Three, if you only count full names that I can remember. Kobayashi Akihiro, Yoshino Yuya, and Nakao Soutaro.

††This is probably still true.

‡She was Japanese, attended a different international school and was a grade younger than I. I did not see her as a peer.


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Ramen Noodles - Junk Food as Art

Ramen noodles seem to have a bad reputation here in America. Maligned as the food of poor college students and those seeking empty carbs, ramen is looked at merely as warm junk food. The producers of popular ramen, such as Maruchan, don’t help either when they price a block of ramen for less than 40¢ a package. Drop a Kennedy, heat some water, stir and cover. A meal in thirty seconds! As a man who grew up in Japan, however, I know that there is much more to ramen than that. Most American ramen is a disgrace to ramen as I know it.

The Japanese love their ramen. It is a ubiquitous food throughout the country - a Japanese microcosm of the global dominance of McDonald's. That means that, yes, there is the budget-quality stuff available there too, but it is referred to as “the cheap stuff” rather than just “ramen”. What the Japanese usually have in mind when they talk about ramen is the stuff that you find in restaurants. This is my mindset as well. To get good ramen, you go to a restaurant.

Every ramen noodle shop makes their ramen a little bit differently, according to the standards of the target demographic. Average prices for a decent bowl of ramen range from ¥280-¥550 ($2.50-$5), while niche ramen restaurants can charge upwards of ¥980 for a bowl. Prices, of course, also reflect ingredients used, and a good rule of thumb is that the more expensive the bowl, the more meat/higher quality meat is included. Pork is the preferred meat, and it is sliced and placed on top of the noodles. Two or three slices is common, but I have seen as many as six.

The number of different ingredients that can be added to ramen is staggering. Vegetables, seaweed, soy sauce, eggs, meat, fish products, and myriad spices are all fair game. Most common ramen offerings will have a few slices of fatty pork, seaweed, a slice or two of kamaboko (a processed seafood product), and a sliced vegetables.

As I mentioned, a factor in making good ramen is the amount/quality of the toppings ingredients. The variation in noodle texture and quality, however, also contribute to making a good ramen. Some shops hand-make their noodles, which ensures quality at the added expense to the customer. Other places just buy dried blocks of noodles and boil them. These noodles are generally stiffer and harder to chew.

The main part of the ramen that separates the good stuff from the bad, though, is the broth. High-end noodle shops guard their broth recipes like Colonel Sanders guards his herbs and spices. Drinking the broth after finishing the noodles is an integral part of ramen consumption, and is how you tell the good stuff from the ordinary stuff.

I would go so far as to say that a good bowl ramen noodles is an art form. It is junk food, yes, but it is also art. Don’t believe me? Well, America has an equivalent junk-food-turned-art: the barbecue. Thousands of cooks all across the States slave over making the best-tasting sauce to slather onto fatty meats. Sure Arby’s makes a BBQ Roast Beef, but if you wanted a foreigner to get a good taste of “American barbecue,” you would send them to your secret local hole-in-the-wall joint, or maybe to a respected restaurant like Damon’s Grill. They might as well get the good stuff.

And just like there are BBQ fanatics, there are ramen otaku. One of my high school youth group leaders was one - a guy who traveled all over Tokyo in search of good ramen restaurants. That was what he enjoyed doing, and he wouldn’t hesitate to steer you in the direction of a good ramen shop if you were looking for food in the area.

One nation’s junk food is another one’s passion. Just like American chefs pour time and effort into their BBQ creations, so do the Japanese into their ramen dishes. Ramen is more than just a cheap college food, it is an honored national staple. There may not be many ramen restaurants here in America, but I think the arty-junk-food spirit is vibrant here, and it causes me to smile every time I pass a barbecue stand.


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Apparently They Make Color-Safe Bleach

I stumbled across the YouTube trailer for the movie Juno the other day, and had forgotten some of the pure gem lines that that movie has. The trailer can be seen here.

Mark: Why do people think yellow is gender-neutral? I don’t know one man with a yellow bedroom.
Vanessa: Well, Juno, your parents must be wondering where you are. You might want to head home.
Juno: Nah. I'm already pregnant, so they figure nothing worse could happen to me.
Juno: Your shorts are looking especially gold today.
Bleeker: My mom uses color-safe bleach.

Truly, this is better living through chemistry.


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Corporate "Expertise" and "Beneficial" Beverages

I don’t buy soda very often, but occasionally I will buy some 12-packs if they are on sale. One such recent sale had me snapping up some Diet Coke Plus (marketed with slogan “We include the “L” so you don't make a wry face®”) which, as far as soda goes, is right up there behind root beer. Despite the colorful logo it seems that Diet Coke Plus has a hard time selling, because the advertising copy writers are now digging deep into their reserves of “phrases we can use to sell sugar water.” A quick picture of the box will explain what I mean.

Refreshing. Uplifting. Hydrating?
It’s true. Research shows that all beverages contribute to proper hydration. That means that whether it’s your first can of the day or your afternoon pick-me-up, Diet Coke Plus helps you stay hydrated all day long. So stick with the Diet Coke Plus taste you love. Your body will thank you for it.

While it’s true that drinking fluids does hydrate you, claiming that Coke is an efficient way of doing so is a lot like saying that smoking cigarettes "contributes to air inhalation and lung expansion," or that eating Twinkies "contributes to reducing hunger." It is technically true, but it’s not, as soccer players would say, in the spirit of the game. Appealing to the lowest common denominator, human health, is not an effective marketing strategy. Neither is suggesting that drinking carbonated soda in the morning is normal. Not even if you have an accompanying website.

Coca-Cola appeals to research, but they don’t tell who’s research. Their own? An independent third-party’s? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Because they are an multi-national corporation, surely they can be trusted, right? After all, they have statistics, so they must be the experts.

Corporations claiming expertise is hot-button issue with me. A while back I went to a seafood restaurant. While I was being seated I was assured that a server would be with me shortly, and that they would be a seafood expert. Much to my astonishment, a teen-age girl soon arrived, menus in hand. Now, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but, having visited a world-class fish market years earlier, I already had a pretty ingrained image of what a “seafood expert” was. This girl, on the other hand, might not have known how to pronounce ‘cichlid’. My prejudice can perhaps be best portrayed in this Venn diagram.

Calling everyone who works for you an “expert,” whether in seafood restaurants, car audio installation booths, or cheap bars, doesn’t make me want to recommend your business establishment to anyone. I want to decide, to make the judgment, on whether or not you employ experts.

There’s a clerk at my local Hollywood video who "researches" so many movies that she writes her DVD rentals off her taxes as a work expense. She can recommend five other movies that you may like based on your current and past selections. If someone I know needs some movie variety, I’d send them to her. Likewise there is a hole-in-the-wall yakitori restaurant in Tokyo that I enjoy that was recommended to me by my friend, who himself is friends with a yakitori connoisseur. It is truly delicious, and it took two experts (the chef and the connoisseur) to allow me to partake in excellent yakitori.

But it’s not just the corporately-instituted “experts” that bug me - it’s the unique naming of employees by corporations in general. Some companies do it rather conservatively, like Wal-Mart (“associates)” and Target (“team members”). Other places do not fair so well. I don’t care what anyone says, putting ingredients that I ask for on my sandwich for me does not make someone a “sandwich artist”.

These days, corporately-bestowed expertise practically precludes actual knowledge or significant ability. Rather, customer-recognized expertise should be honored, and hopefully it is at thousands of businesses around the country. Is the flood of so-called “experts” a passing symptom of global corporatization, or a portent of impending mediocrity? Whatever it is, I think I now need a vitamin-enhanced water beverage with which to rehydrate myself.


give po’ man a break

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Sometimes You Just Really Need Help

I no longer actively play video games, but I still manage to crack a smile when I see the sly hand of a Goodwill gamer at work.


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Pink Ribbons for the Cure!

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is cool, because fighting breast cancer helps the world suck less. It also means that my store stocks pink suckers and Susan G. Komen cookies - fun products that let me use my sweet marketing psychology skills to good-naturedly rib regular (male) customers.

ME: “Hey, how’s it goin?”
CUSTOMER: “Pretty sweet. The sun’s out.”
ME: “Yeah. Just the milk for you today?
CUSTOMER: “Yeah, that’ll do it.”
ME: “Ok. You should totally buy one of those pink suckers and support the fight against breast cancer.”
CUSTOMER: “I think I’ll be OK with these, thanks”
ME: “If you don’t buy one, it means you hate breasts!”
ME: “I bet you’re standing there right now thinking, ‘What have breasts ever done for me?’ That’s cold, man.”
CUSTOMER: “You put me in an awkward situation now, because I do like breasts.”
ME: “I know! So buy one.”
CUSTOMER: “So a sucker, or what, those cookies over there?”
ME: “Yup. And buy two, because breasts come in pairs!”

You all have no idea how often this works.

My sentiments are best summed up in what my coworker yelled after a female customer today -

Happy Breast Awareness Month!


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Bicycing Is Only As Expensive As You Let It Become

About an hour ago I got home from a two-hour bike ride. Tonight it was a little above forty degrees here in Minnesota. I am turning into Calvin’s father.

It’s funny how cycling gets to be addictive. One day you pedal into downtown and back, and before you know it you’re covering seventy miles in spandex. Tonight I was riding my Cannondale, trying out my new pedal system. It sounds really snobby to use the phrase “pedal system,” but by that I only mean the pedals, cleats, and cycling shoes. Yes - sigh - I own cycling shoes. I own two pair, actually. I didn’t plan for that to happen, but the snookering corporate cycling giants pulled a fast one on me.

I bought a pair of used road pedals off of craigslist early in the summer to use with my track bike. I knew next to nothing about pedals, so I assumed they would work with any old cycling road shoe. After I bought the cheapest pair of road shoes on Amazon.com, I found that this was not the case. See, I had bought a pair of older Shimano Ultegra pedals that were fairly high-end. And, as it turns out, you need higher-end road shoes to fit higher-end pedals. I had bought shoes that could not possibly accommodate such high-end pedals. I did some more research and found out that there are three or four different pedal/shoe systems out there, so I had to go out and buy different pedals (Keo Look) to fit my shoes. I used that combination all summer.

This week, however, I was again browsing craigslist when I found a guy selling brand new carbon fiber road shoes for a fraction of their original cost. These were high-end shoes that would work with my higher-end pedals that had been sitting under my bed all summer, so I snapped them up. I then go to attach the pedal cleats (the part that you screw on the shoe so it can click into the pedal tightly) only to find that the cleats are A) in pretty poor condition and B) missing parts. No big deal, I say to myself, cleats should only be a few bucks.

Well, new ‘new’ cleats are only a few bucks. New ‘old’ cleats are more than a few bucks. By the time I finally got my pedal system ready to go tonight (many thanks to Grand Performance), I had put over $100 into it. Thankfully, it turns out to be a pretty great pedal system, and hopefully I’m not just saying that to avoid admitting that I spent a lot of money for nothing.

This brings me an actual point, which is to highlight the needless “improvements” that the cycling industry markets on a yearly basis. I would flesh out my concerns in full, but the gloriously irreverent cycling blogger BikeSnobNYC has already done it for me. He did it last year, too. Even if you don’t know much about cycling, they are good reads.

It is truly ridiculous how expensive some of these bikes are getting, and how all the new parts are perplexingly incompatible with the old ones that fulfill the exact same function. Performance is one thing, but we are talking about machines that essentially do the same thing they were doing in the seventies - converting "circular pedaling" motion into "rolling wheels" motion, steering said motion, and stopping said motion. There’s a guy riding in my area who has a nice road bike with 30,000 miles on it. He obviously doesn’t see the need to “upgrade”, and after my pedal fiasco, I’m not sure I do now either.


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Buying a New (old) Razor Brings Increased Savings!

Recently I saved a bunch of money, reduced waste, improved my personal hygiene, learned a new skill, and stuck it to the Man. In short, I decreased worldsuck in one swift minimalist blow. What did I do? you may ask. I’ll tell you. I bought a new razor.
It’s true, decreasing worldsuck by buying a new razor seems a but far-fetched, but it’s not! Allow me to explain, for those of you who didn’t stop reading after you saw that I “improved my personal hygiene.”

I used to shave with a Gillette M3Power vibrating razor. It required 1 AAA battery to vibrate the blade, supposedly to help facial hairs stand up so they could then be shaven off. The Amazon.com copy for this razor reads like some dude rushed to finish his 4:45 assignment before squealing his tires in search of a cheap happy hour.

"World's best shave. The first micro-powered shaving system from Gillette, for a totally new shaving experience and Gillette's best shave ever. Micro-Power: Turn on it's tiny motor and feel the micro power. In just one M3POWER stroke, you get a closer and more thorough shave. So thorough, there is less need to reshave, which means less irritation. PowerGlide Blades: Patented blade coating produces Gillette's smoothest blade surface for incredible glide, and a level of comfort that only M3Power can give. Indicator Lubrastrip with Vitamin E and Aloe. Gillette's best shave ever - the M3Power razor plus PowerGlide blades."

It is supposed to provide, via “micro-power”, the world’s best shave. Gillette’s best shave, even. I can tell you one thing - using it, I didn’t feel any micro-power. I felt a vibrating, $10, plastic razor. Actually, it came with two blade cartridges, so make that a $5 plastic razor. The glide was, however, incredible.

But, man, the blades killed me. Sixteen cartridges would cost me close to forty bucks. You have to call them cartridges nowadays because they pack multiple blades in one cartridge. The M3 carts had three blades each, and they are spring-loaded. I am not making this up. They are spring loaded, coated with Easy-Glide (“for your pleasure”, I am assuming), and had an “Indicator Lubrastrip” that told you when they were dull and useless. Also, did I mention they were $2.50 a pop? Assuming I got five good shaves out of them (I got, at most, four), that would equal $.50 a shave. A fun equation for this overall cost, for use later, is 10(cost of razor)+2.5x(cost per blade).

I decided to switch razors because this cost was getting ridiculous, the blade cartridges were wasteful, the thin spaces between the blades were hard to clean, I didn’t want to pay for batteries, and the micro-powered, “world’s best shave” was irritating my face. So I decided on a new razor. I admit that I was a bit hesitant about the change, because I had never used any other razor but the M3Power. (Well, excluding that run-in I had with an electric one back in ‘04. )

This is that new razor.

This, ladies and gents, is a Merkur 178. Amazon’s copy for it is remarkably straightforward!

"The Merkur Safety Razor has a chrome finish. Its double edge design provides a very close shave. Its comfortable handle is designed for a non-slip grip. The safety razor has a straight edge especially great for an extra close shave. Blade replacement is so easy - simply turn the knob on bottom of handle turns to screw or unscrew head. Comes with one stainless steel razor blade. Made in Germany. Razor 3" in length."

Three re-reads later, I am still not quite sure if the razor provides a “very close” or “extra close” shave, but I suppose it does not matter. What matters is that the razor is 3” long, which is precisely the amount of space I allot on my sink for shaving devices.

ANYWAY, this razor is everything the M3Power is not: durable, pretty, good for my face, easy to clean, and cheap in the long run. And have you seen prices for straight-edge blades recently? You can buy one hundred for $17. One hundred! And you know these blades are razor-sharp, because they are open-source.

You know how razor companies are always adding more blades and selling new, “better” models of razors? And every new one advertises to be the “best ever” shave, right? My brother has a theory that every time a new model comes out, the blades on the older models get slightly duller on purpose. Think about it. How long does each blade touch a grinder to be sharpened? Milliseconds, maybe? So, if the company reduces sharpening time from 750ms to 550ms, the blade is slightly duller, the assembly line moves more quickly, and the newest razor lives up to its promise of being the “best ever.” Of course, blade cartridges are proprietary property, so, Gillette, perhaps, can restrict anyone else from making them, thus eliminating competition. The blades for my new razor suffer no such fate. Multiple companies make them, so they are motivated to make their blades the sharpest in order to get ahead of the competition. The consumer wins!

At $35 the razor is considerably more expensive, but it’s durable. And I still get about four shaves to the blade, making the cost equation super awesome, coming out to something like 35+.17x. Let’s look at this on an eye-ruining graphing calculator.

Hey, Mr. WebAdmin, that color scheme makes math considerably less cool. Of interest, though, is that graph. The really vertical one represents the M3Power, while the more-horizontal one represents the Merkur. The intersect of those two lines is at 10.7, meaning that as long I can limit my lifetime usage of the M3Power to 10 blades, I have less net spending. The minute I need to use that eleventh blade, however, I save money by using the Merkur. It is not micro-powered, but I think I can live with that.

Are there disadvantages to using the Merkur? I suppose a few. You have to take care of it - wash it, take it apart, dry it, etc. Handling the blades could be dangerous. You have take more time to shave and be more careful with it so as not to cut your face open. But this is where the skill comes in. Electing to learn a skill rather then solely rely on technology is minimalist because you enrich yourself instead of a corporate pocketbook. The more I shave, the faster and better I become at it. Shaving has no longer become a chore, but rather an opportunity to improve a skill.


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