2011.11 minutiae

...in which I abet societal ills

  • In my article on The Social Network I mentioned the practice of putting a really expensive item on a restaurant menu in order to make other pricy dishes look relatively cheap. I later remembered a particularly egregious perpetrator of this sort of thing: Norma's in New York City. $23 for French toast? $28 for a salad? Those selections look like steals when they're on the menu next to a lobster frittata with caviar for a cool one thousand dollars.

  • Most people misuse the phrase "begs the question," thinking that it's just a fancy way to say "raises the question." I apparently mislearned it as well, but not that way. From what I've read, "begging the question" really just means "assuming the conclusion." E.g., "The banana is the world's most delicious fruit. We know this because no fruit on Earth is tastier than a banana." But I learned "begging the question" as "giving a response that does indeed answer the question, yet cries out for the original question to be re-asked." For instance, say your three-year-old has just taken her trusty purple crayon and written her name on the wall. "Why did you write your name on the wall?" "Because it's the only word I know how to spell!" Okay, but...!

    I think that's a very useful concept and is what "begging the question" should mean. But no one would understand me if I used it that way, so I guess I'm stuck with awkwardly saying "begging for the original question to be re-asked" or something like that. Dagnabbit.

  • I was interested to read this Boston Globe article about how restaurants routinely lie about what types of fish they're serving you — order the red snapper, for instance, and in the vast majority of instances you're likely to get tilapia instead. That's one nice thing about being a vegetarian: rarely does a waiter serve me a turnip and swear that it's actually an artichoke.

  • Lots of arts institutions offer reduced prices for kids, who might be defined as "12 and under" at a movie theater, or "under 18" at a museum. I guess it says something about the demographics of live theater that, when I passed the Berkeley Rep, I saw a notice that tickets were always half price for anyone under 30.

  • Elizabeth found this article about a development in Japanese culture that really needs to migrate over to North America: cat cafés! They're just regular cafés that happen to have a dozen or so cats to look at and/or play with while you consume your snack and/or beverage. Given that I love cats but don't really have enough space here to have one of my own, I'm sure that if there were a cat café on Solano I would go all the time. My favorite part of the article was this:

    Vice: What's your impression of the place?
    Satoko: It's great, there are a lot more types of cats than I expected.

    I love the suggestion that she'd been thinking, "I was considering going to that cat café, but I dunno... they probably only have a few kinds."

  • I think I've figured out what one of my main problems with writing is. Say you have a bunch of ideas related to a theme, and you're trying to organize them. It might be the case that the natural transitions are not one-dimensional! There might be a perfect segue between idea A and idea B, and between A and C, and between A and D, but not between B and C, or between C and D. And if D naturally leads to E, cool, but then if E naturally leads back to A... agh! I end up sitting there for ages trying to figure out which idea should be paragraph 5 and which should be paragraph 6 when I want them both to be paragraph 5.

  • Another problem is that I find it very hard not to include an idea that seems to me in any way related to what I'm talking about. An article that's supposed to be "here is one problem with Alan Cranston's 1984 presidential bid" mushrooms into "here is every problem with Alan Cranston's 1984 presidential bid" and finally into "here is every problem with Alan Cranston's 1984 presidential bid and also with the United States electoral system."

  • So last month, right around the time I finally paid off my car, the IMA battery — i.e, the thing that makes the car a hybrid — failed. My dashboard lit up like a candelabra, the display indicating energy transfer between the battery and the engine went dead, and my mileage dropped from 70 miles per gallon highway / 50 city to 40/30. When I took it into the shop and the guy informed me that it would cost $3000 to fix, I decided I could live with the lower mileage.

    Cut to four weeks later, when my car conks out on San Pablo Avenue (while I am in the left turn lane, no less). I get it towed back to the shop. This time they replace the twelve-volt battery, at a cost of $105. And it turns out that the new 12V recharges the IMA battery, clearing the warning lights and the associated computer codes, and fixing the entire problem for 3½% of the original estimate!

  • Stalling out on a major thoroughfare is bad news. I had just been running out to get some dinner, so I didn't have my phone with me. I figured that I'd therefore be stuck there with traffic piling up behind me until the police finally arrived to give me a ticket and probably pepper spray me in the face. (Seems to be their thing these days.) I got out to wave people away from getting into the left turn lane and a couple of guys who were hanging out in front of the Popeye's Chicken started shouting at me to ask what the hell I was doing. They seemed to think that a 140-pound man should have no trouble maneuvering an 1880-pound hunk of inert metal through a left turn at a busy intersection. Eventually they came over to help me push and steer the car onto the quieter street and into the bike lane; one even lent me his phone so I could call AAA. (The call took a while because at first the dispatcher at AAA insisted that she couldn't send me a tow truck unless I knew the street address of the garage I wanted my car towed to. Who memorizes the addresses of auto shops?)

    Once the call was finally over I gave the guy his phone back, and he wished me luck and started to head off, but I chased him down and asked if I could pay him anything, as he'd helped me out of a real scrape. In the past I've generally been turned down in such situations — once a guy dug my car out of a snowdrift on the side of I-40 and refused to accept anything in return — but times are tough these days, particularly in the sort of neighborhood where I was stranded. I had a $10 and a $5 in my wallet, so I gave him the $10. He took it, said thank you, and went directly into the liquor store. Now, the reason I hadn't given him the $5 as well is that the other guy who had helped out had wandered off somewhere but I wanted to be able to give him something too in case he showed up again before the tow truck came. Which he did. I gave him the $5. He took it, said thank you, and also went directly into the liquor store.

    It took the tow truck about an hour and a half to arrive; fortunately, I had the book I'd been planning to read while I ate dinner, so at least I had something to do. While I was standing by my car reading, an obvious prostitute came up and engaged me in conversation about what I was doing on that corner and then, when I explained about the car, peppered me with questions about it. (Did it run entirely on electricity? Had I tried restarting it? Were the hazard lights always that dim? Etc.) The thing is, as downtrodden as that neighborhood was, I suspect that if my car had to break down it may have actually been a pretty good place for it. If I'd been in a more affluent area, would anyone have helped me?

  • One great thing about Berkeley: when the mechanic who was working on my car was telling me what was wrong with it, his explanation included both the word "sans" and a reference to Occam's Razor.

  • "small but perfect breasts"
    About 104,000 results (0.35 seconds)

    "large but perfect breasts"
    12 results (0.26 seconds)

  • Every year I get a half-baked stuffed spinach and mushroom pizza from Zachary's and eat it the next day for Thanksgiving. I can do this because I have an oven. In college I didn't have an oven, and so one time when I had some leftover Zachary's I tried to microwave it. The result was limp and gross, but I ate it anyway, and got sick a few hours later. Consequently, over twenty years later, I can look at a slice of Zachary's and find it immensely appetizing, but all I have to do is think to myself "that is microwaved" and I am instantly overcome with nausea.

  • Ah, Youtube comments. Here's one in which the poster happily reports that the erudite dialogue in the video "has improved my vocabularly."

  • Elizabeth once expressed some surprise to me that the U.S. didn't have an official logo, at least for tourism; Canada has a logo that it uses on everything, and it looks like this:

    Mexico has one as well:

    So I heard on NPR that the U.S. had finally adopted one of its own, but as radio is not a great medium for conveying what it looked like, I had to hit Google Images for a looksee. I braced myself as I pulled it up...

    That's way better than I was expecting! In fact, that's fainter praise than it deserves — I think this is really good. Canada, you gotta step up your game.

  • Speaking of games, it looks like we're headed for a BCS championship game of LSU vs. Alabama, which is unfair to LSU. LSU already beat Alabama. Why should it have to do so twice in order to win the mythical national championship, while Alabama need only go 1-1? Yes, Alabama is probably the second-best team in the country, but so what? Why should #2 get multiple shots at #1? It seems to me that, even if you're not going to have a playoff system, rankings should only come into play in two scenarios: one, when there are no unbeaten teams, and two, when there are three or more unbeaten teams. If there are two unbeaten teams, as will be the case if LSU beats Georgia and Houston beats Southern Mississippi, then they should play for the title. And if there is only one unbeaten team, there should be no national championship game. Just give the title to that team, because there's no controversy over which team is the best.

  • I've been going to a three-hour block of classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but every street around campus is in a two-hour parking zone. Thus, I initially drove a mile to the El Cerrito BART station and took the train to downtown Berkeley. Then I discovered that there's a bus stop a block away from my house that goes to the same intersection, so I started taking the bus instead. The bus kind of sucks. Buses virtually never arrive more than once every fifteen minutes, and often arrive only once every half hour or hour... and their arrival times rarely bear any resemblance to the printed schedule. Inside the bus it's hard to breathe (especially anywhere near the engine); add the motion sickness and reading on the bus is basically impossible.

    All that said, there is something to taking a morning-commute route and seeing the same faces day after day. Makes me feel at least 0.01% more like I'm part of a community.

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