Displaying articles for: December 2013

Good Advice = Bad Science


With a New Year soon to begin, our thoughts turn to resolutions, most of which we simply won’t keep. For some, the problem is that the resolutions themselves are dumb: “Diet?” For many, though, the problem is lack of adequate motivation. That’s why there are calendars, posters, mugs, notebooks, T-shirts, and greeting cards with inspirational sayings. When examined closely from a scientific point of view, however, as I have done, they also are revealed to be dumb. (This essay is a distillation of a scholarly article, “The Scientific Moronocism of Proverbial Advisements,” originally published in The Journal of Clichés, Vol. XXVI. No. 3.)


Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. This apothegm is attributed to Les Brown, a professional motivational speaker. The moon is 356,400 km from Earth, at its closest. The next nearest star, on the other hand, is 4.37 light years from the Sun. So if you shoot for the moon and miss, you will in fact not land among the stars. You will land in empty space, still very much in our solar system, but probably too far from Earth to get back safely. Also, why are you shooting for the moon in the first place? There’s nothing there. It’s a hunk of lifeless rock, with maybe a couple of old golf balls on it somewhere. You can certainly shoot for a better destination instead. Tahiti. Shoot for Tahiti. Then, even if you miss, you’ll land among the other beautiful islands in the Windward group of French Polynesia.


Every strike brings you closer to the next home run. When Babe Ruth said this, he revealed that what he didn’t know about mathematics could fill a book. Hundreds of textbooks, in fact. The Bambino seems to have thought that swinging at pitches was akin to flipping a coin, and that every time he didn’t get the outcome he desired, it became more likely that he would on his next at bat. (He also seems to have thought that there were only two outcomes to swinging at a pitch—although in his case he might have been correct about that.) The probability of either outcome of a coin flip is not affected at all by previous outcomes, however. It’s even odds every single time. That’s the simple mathematical truth. (This leads to my recommendation that managers direct their hitters to flip coins when on deck, to reinforce the statistical lesson involved. Indeed, one Triple-A team has adopted this technique, with a consequent increase in the squad’s overall batting average from .246 to .251.)


We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light: Plato. From an ophthalmological point of view, this is extremely dubious. Either Plato was rather insensitive himself, or he’d never heard of photophobia, the serious medical condition characterized by an abnormal intolerance to visual perception of light prompted by discomfort or pain in the eyes due to light exposure. Common causes of photophobia include migraine headaches, cataracts, mild traumatic brain injury, and uveitis or corneal abrasion. And in any case, as there were no Donald Duck nightlights in his time, Plato’s entire hypothesis is open to question.


You can’t fall if you don’t climb. But there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground. Whoever said this was, like Plato, not a doctor. Possibly not even human. Every human one encounters—which logically must include everyone that you know—has, at one time or another, fallen from standing height, and not all of them had been drinking, either. You certainly can fall if you don’t climb, even if you don’t have vertigo. And as to no joy in living your whole life on the ground? If I may say so: Groundless! The ground is where some of the best stuff is: merry-go-rounds; taco trucks; swimming pools; the Mall of America. On the other hand, both physics and logic indicate that the more you climb, the more likely you are to fall, and the higher you climb, the farther you’ll drop when you fall, and the farther you drop the faster you’ll accelerate until finally you hit the ground again, where many subjects of my experiments in this matter find themselves wishing they’d stayed in the first place.


If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree. Jim Rohn—American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker—evidently did not master noun-verb agreement, but one segment of this motivational assertion actually do—I mean does—make sense. You don’t have to be a botanist to realize that, in all probability, you are indeed not a tree. Work with that in the New Year.


Matthew David Brozik is a pretty lazy guy. Shoot for matthewdavidbrozik.com; if you miss, you'll still land on the Internet, which can be a fun place.


Last-Last-Last-Minute Gift Guide


For when a bottle of wine is not – for reasons economic, legal, religious, or medical – an option.




The only thing better than a selfie of you is a selfie of you reminding your nearest and dearest where they left off reading Team of Rivals before the book club meeting on Wednesday night. For seasonal bonus points, take a fresh one (big smile, please) in your most outrageous holiday sweater – double bonus if you can dig up the reindeer-antler headband your daughter made at school. Print, trim, "laminate" (snack-size Ziploc baggie) and cross the lucky recipient off the list. Can be done in quantity, but note: there's something a touch creepy -- all right, creepier -- about distributing these at a party.




Here's the thing: a spoon can rest on just about any damn thing. But nobody wants that béchamel to get on the counter. So, beat the hell out of an old jar lid with a hammer, give it a coat or two with nail polish, and make sure you leave time for it to dry. This can be plausibly passed off, if necessary, as a purchase from that funky little store that sells crafts from Bhutan or Suriname or wherever and always smells kind of legally dubious.




Self-explanatory, right? You can go a lot of different ways here, from modern & kooky (short length of aluminum tubing from your garage, from that time you bought the wrong type of pipe, monofilament, mismatched utensils) to rustic & kooky (stick from the woods off Rte. 9, wire, bottles from side of Rte. 9, and you can say it came "From that place on Rte. 9? It might be closing?"). Really, kooky is sort of the default. Warning: Wind chimes are odious and violate the covenants of many planned communities, so only gift this to people lazy enough never to consider hanging up.




Nobody buys themselves oven mitts, but everybody needs them, and the pathetic gratitude with which something – anything -- that fulfills this domestic function is received will make you think twice about how truly irrational a species we are. The largest, cheapest gloves your local chain drugstore carries, wrapped in many layers of reflective duct tape until a sort of blob effect is reached, will serve nicely, especially if you strongly imply that they are from IKEA.




I promise you: this is next year's "sock monkey."  Stop at hardware store on way to recipient's house: buy large spool of sisal twine (the browner and rougher the better) and, in the parking lot, form multiple balls of varying sizes. Attach with unbent paper clips and say you found it on Etsy and "couldn't help yourself." Suggested animal shape: pig.




Higher level of difficulty, but recommended if you've got to make up for what you thought was an innocent remark at Thanksgiving dinner about your cousin's hairline. If you live in an urban area, the streets nearby are likely littered with pigeon feathers; if you live in a rural area, ask a nearby turkey farmer. With a pair of toenail clippers or jagged end of a key, create a sharp point on one end. Gather up a supply of blue or black ink pens from handbags, briefcases, coat pockets, children's backpacks, kitchen drawers, bathroom cabinets. Extract ink cartridges and drain into empty glass spice jar. Nest in tissue paper (or tissues!) in repurposed wooden box that originally contained four authentic Wisconsin chutneys from your brother-in-law.




The post-smoking world is justly fascinated with these artifacts of a formerly nicotine-driven America, but our sketchy memories for specifics have left us communally gullible. Any flattish bowl or dish – the uglier and cheaper the better, with brass being the preferred substance– can be offered as a hilariously kitschy "vintage ashtray." "I mean, I don't know," you say, laughing "You can use it for nuts, or chips – I just loved it. I think my Dad had one just like it!" Note: don't try this on your Dad.


Bill Tipper left your gift at home, but he will absolutely bring it by next week.


Your Workplace Holiday Party

As far as we can tell, despite our worst efforts, places of business continue to throw their annual parties.  So we herewith repeat this cautionary tale from last year, in the hope that it will prevent at least a few people from wrapping themselves in streamers and coming on to that guy or gal in Accounting. -- The Editors


Welcome to your workplace holiday party-- we're so glad to have forced you to come. And this must be your plain-looking spouse. Here's where we make a comment that could be construed to mean we're unhappy with your work and your job is in jeopardy. Now we laugh, because we're kidding. Or maybe we just like to laugh. Please, take off that vagrant's coat you're wearing. No, don't put it near our coats.

Come join an awkward conversation circle with the woman who stole your promotion and the guy who thinks you don't know he dented your car in the parking lot and didn't leave a note. Yes, that local sports team is doing terribly. Sure, the stock market is a thing that exists. No, there is no one across the room you can pretend is giving you an excuse to leave this conversation.


Please enjoy this delicious spread of food paid for with the money that used to fund our health insurance plan. It might make you sick, but that's entirely your responsibility since July 1st of this past year. How's that working out for you? Time to gossip about people who aren't here. Now aren't you glad you showed up? That makes one of us.

Hey-- the CEO is starting his speech about how wonderful his compensation package is. Watch him stumble over his words and not realize his index cards are out of order. See, he's no smarter than you. He just got lucky. Doesn't that make you feel better about your life? It doesn't? Should it? These are some of the questions you should ponder, instead of listening to the CEO explain that you probably aren't getting a bonus.

The gift exchange is about to start. Did you obey the $10 limit? How silly of you-- now your gift will seem embarrassingly cheap. You might wonder why we force a gift exchange among colleagues who have no interest in actually exchanging gifts. It's actually all for our own amusement. Just like the way we sometimes shut off the air-conditioning system. You think it's broken? Nope, we're multi-tasking--saving money and torturing you at the same time.

Look at that raffle prize! It's worth almost three months of your salary. And who's going to win it? The CEO's wife! Yep--some people have all the luck. What? Of course your ticket gave you a real chance to win-- if by "win" you mean "lose." You probably also thought the liquor tonight was free. Nope-- you'll see its cost deducted from your next paycheck, along with a service fee, plus a hefty tip for the bartender, who just happens to be the CEO's son. He's going to invest it in a start-up that's working to develop robots that can do your job-- much better than you can, and for a fraction of the cost. Now you're feeling that cocktail, right? And not a moment too soon.

Oh, look-- your boss is leaving. That means it's okay for you to leave, right? Or so you think. What you don't know is that he's actually coming right back, and you're going to miss the part of the night when the few people who are still here get their health insurance back and receive a hefty raise. You'll hear about it tomorrow. And everyone will ask why you left so early. Are those tears of joy? Yes, it's a lovely party, especially the private room in the back, where you're not allowed.


We'll see you tomorrow, on our surveillance cameras.

Jeremy Blachman is working to develop robots that can write humor pieces. Read some of their work at jeremyblachman.com.



July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).