Monday, January 28, 2008

The Most Amazing Word In The English Language

Can you guess? If not, umma tell you what it is. (Hint: You should know by now). That’s right, umma. It’s amazing—four letters that stand in for four words. The phrase they replace, “I am going to,” can be easily reduced to two words with a couple more common contractions, I’m and gonna (or even the three-syllable ummina), yet intrepid English speakers are not satisfied with that amount of casualness and time savings. No, they slur the words together even more to save an extra 15 milliseconds and ten thousand molecules of oxygen. Although umma is widely used in informal conversation, it is rarely spelled out. Hip-hop, in recent years the wellspring of countless catchy slang words, is leading the way in making umma a certified contraction. The new song Umma Do Me (video below) by Rocko, features the word in an expression that means, basically, I’m going to be true to myself. Check it out. Umma go.

YouTube - Rocko - Umma Do Me Keep reading...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Movie marketing going viral

Check out the incredible scope of the marketing campaigns for Cloverfield and The Dark Night. Both use various online touchpoints to slowly build up suspense and enable fans to interact with the fictional world. There's nothing better than organic hype.


Batman Keep reading...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

The South: Home of the World's Ugliest Snowmen

This past weekend we experienced what is likely our sole snowfall of the season, as anemic and ephemeral as it may have been. Yet in yards across the city, snow-starved residents sought to fulfill their wintry duty and construct snowmen. These poor figures end up flecked with bits of grass and pinestraw, looking hairy or diseased, as a result of our desperation for building materials. It's as if we feel compelled to participate in this tradition, even though the products of our hard work are not the most aesthetically pleasing anthropomorphic sculptures. What's more, most of us document our brief opportunity for cold-weather exploits (attempting to sled down pale green hills dotted with patches of white, etc.) in photographs online. "Look, cousin Joe in Michigan! We had winter yesterday!" How I long for pure white bluffs, fluffy flakes that crunch as you trudge through them and pack them into delicate spherical snowballs. The winter blues can be allayed by a beautiful blizzard that leaves behind spotless fields of snow. What we got on Saturday, however, just leaves you looking forward to spring. Keep reading...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Default Thoughts

In a popular Freudian cartoon, the artist uses a nude female body in various poses to depict a man’s brain. The cartoon corresponds to a certain spurious scientific statistic, which claims men think about sex anywhere from every seven seconds to a few times an hour. Although I find this statistic ridiculous and superfluous, it does raise an interesting question. What do we think about when we are bored? For most of our waking hours, our minds are focused on getting us through the present moment, whether it be holding a conversation, making a deposit at the bank, or completing a task at work or school. There are some times, however, when the mind is unoccupied. This is often the case during movement, either of the body itself or within a vehicle. Someone who is walking, running, or on a long highway drive experiences little mental stimulation, and is thus free (or forced, depending on your perspective) to let his mind wander.

Typically the mind gravitates to whatever issue is most pertinent in the person’s life—financial problems, a floundering relationship, or a daunting task that lies ahead. Almost invariably these preoccupations tend to be with negative things, either reminiscing about a lost moment in the past or dreading an event in the future. (Another common way to pass the time is entertaining oneself with the memory of a humorous incident, often producing a smile or chuckle incomprehensible to bystanders.)

For some reason the human mind is cursed to obsess over unpleasant issues in its free time; happy thoughts just do not hold our attention the way disappointing ones do. Freud might say we all have an unconscious “suffering wish” that compels us to torture ourselves with thoughts we know disturb us. It’s the mental equivalent of sniffing our fingers after touching something we know will smell bad. This attraction to mental anguish may be driven by a deeper desire to incite pity or empathy from others, thereby experiencing an essential quality of the human condition.

For years my default thoughts concerned my girlfriend (and later ex-girlfriend). During our relationship, most of these thoughts were admittedly quite positive. After our breakup, however, my feelings and memories turned sharply negative. I was plagued by a sense of loss and betrayal, as well as bitter nostalgia and anger. These thoughts were much more tenacious than prior pleasant ones; not only did they fill the dead space in between other thought processes, but they invaded and conquered vast swaths of mental territory, making concentration on other topics nearly impossible.

Unpleasant thoughts tend to be inherently circular, resulting in an endless positive feedback loop. Trapped inside our own heads, we are unable to comfort ourselves or find closure. Needing an outlet for these intrusive thoughts, but fearing alienating my friends with constant talk about the same old seemingly unsolvable problems, I resorted to seeing a psychological counselor, as well as scribbling countless pages in my journal. Getting the thoughts out of my head and onto something tangible did in fact help relieve the mental burden, albeit temporarily.

Now these private moments of contemplation are becoming ever more scarce. Portable technology—like iPods, laptops, and cellphones—are eliminating the erstwhile occasions for daydreaming, rendering us increasingly reliant on the external world for stimulation. Rarely is there a chance to escape this connectivity and let our minds wander as they once did. Given my hypothesis that this mental wanderlust is inevitably unpleasant, I do indeed enjoy the reduction in potential opportunities for it. Nonetheless, I am still intensely interested in what subjects my mind turns to in its downtime, and I fantasize about the ability to carry out a large-scale, longitudinal study on the state of idle minds throughout the world. Understanding our default thoughts is the key to understanding the nature of our deepest wishes and desires; they are our conscious unconscious. Keep reading...

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Soon I will be closing a chapter in my life I call “Waiting.” The name refers to both the existential stage of my life it represents, as well as the job I held during this time—namely, as a waiter. Actually the proper term is server; I was instructed early on to expurgate the un-PC terms waiter and waitress from my vocabulary. It also took me several weeks to find my footing, both literally (slipping and falling on the slick floor outside the kitchen) and figuratively (for some reason I just could not remember to pass out straws with drinks). In the two months I served I saw and experienced a lot—about the restaurant industry, about myself, and about human nature. Here I attempt to synthesize it all into a concise report.

I had considered working in a restaurant during college, since it seemed to me a rite of passage for the young and transient, but figured I wouldn’t make much money serving college students. I struggled post-college to find a “real job,” and eventually settled on serving as a way to make money while continuing my job search.

I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but I was utterly unprepared for the chaotic and stressful environment I found myself in 40-50 hours per week. I couldn’t take the heat, as the saying goes, and wanted to get the hell out of the kitchen. A shift, I once thought, would be four or five hours. It ended up being 8-10. A double shift on a college football Saturday means you’re spending 15 straight hours on your feet, with no more than a handful of two or three minute breaks.

At orientation incoming employees were briefed on the company guidelines and expectations. Much of it was the usual boilerplate: no drugs, cell phones, sexual harassment, etc. Despite these strict admonitions, I found that the rules were spurned by servers and managers alike. All but two of the serving staff were known pot smokers, including one who regularly showed up to work obviously inebriated. The cell phone policy was enforced sporadically; some servers were written up for having theirs out in public, whereas I was merely reprimanded when caught. But it was undoubtedly the warning against sexual harassment that was most frequently flouted. Some examples: The presence of an attractive female customer was noted and relayed as soon as she stepped through the door, and any (straight) male staff around did not hesitate to give her a thorough study, including (most conspicuously) the Mexican bussers. Servers were surprisingly lewd around each other, even within earshot of customers (a request from a male server for a female server to sit on his face, detailed comparisons of sexual experiences). G-rated the conversation was not.

Fairly quickly it became clear I was not cut out for the cutthroat restaurant milieu. As a dedicated environmentalist, I was horrified to see thousands of glass liquor bottles thrown away every weekend, as well as massive amounts of food left on plates or wasted in other ways. Not to mention the vast quantities of water wasted when customers left much of their 23 oz glass of water untouched. As someone who considers integrity one of his most valuable traits, I was dismayed to see bartenders use well vodka to mix cocktails, when the customer had specifically ordered top-shelf stuff, and give me two glasses of Miller Light when the customers had asked for Coors and Bud Light. Remaining a server would mean a constant battle with my morals and sense of propriety, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.

My first two weeks were a lesson in Murphy’s Law. This was a blessing in disguise, however, since facing so many stumbling blocks early in my serving career meant I would be less likely to ever face them again. Nonetheless, it was a little frustrating to seemingly bear the brunt of the bad luck for the entire serving staff. There was the day I got sat with four tables within minutes of each other—a total of 20+ people—when being “double-sat” is considered a challenge. A man at one of the tables appeared to delight in my predicament. When I asked if he needed anything, he stared sneeringly at me for several seconds, then asked if I was overwhelmed. When I answered in the affirmative, he merely smiled as if given pleasure by my misfortune. Later he became irate when I failed to deliver a drink I had never heard him order. I restrained myself (barely) from returning his rudeness, but in the end it didn’t matter; he left me $1.70 on a $43 tab. Then there was the party two days later that walked out, failing to pay for $40 of their tab or tip me on the entire $150 of their bill. To see how cruel and inconsiderate so many customers were was a truly shocking experience. There were, however, less frequent instances of shocking generosity by my customers. One man left me a $20 tip on a $6 tab, and two men left $45 on $130. It’s these bright spots that keep a server going, much as a sweet drive or putt bring a golfer back again and again, despite the 90 shots he makes in a round that don’t go right.

Customers do many things that are irritating at best and offensive at worst, things that indicate their disregard for the dignity of the hardworking people who serve them. It starts at the very beginning: “Good evening, guys, my name is David and I’ll be your server tonight.” Response: “Can I get a sweet tea?” And I always want to encourage my guests to “use their words” when they make use a check-signing motion to request the bill, even when I’m right next to them. Granted, many customers have manners and greet me right back. And there are a handful of parents who try to instill traditional values in their children by instructing them to say please and thank you and to look at me when they are speaking to me. But it’s shocking how many people leave their politeness at the door when they enter a restaurant.

There are also many customer quirks that are intriguing in their frequency. It is common for me to find straw wrappers ripped up or rolled up on the table after a party leaves, perhaps the detritus of boredom or nervousness. Some customers fold full sugar packets around their chewed gum to dispose of it, a practice I myself have even been guilty of, despite its wastefulness. Most people order a drink, but few are enticed by the availability of a special. And the most ordered menu item among the elderly? Hot dogs with coleslaw.

t’s been a wild and revelatory couple months, but I’m pretty burnt-out. And I’m not the only one. Due to the high turnover rate in the food service industry, I’ve already become one of the senior-most half of the staff (we’ve lost eight servers since I started). The job has its ups and downs, but I do not regret the experience at all. I’d encourage every young person to give it a shot; from the free food to the advantages of stress-heightened hormones, there are some nice fringe benefits to be had.

I’ve come to wish there were a restaurant draft that required everyone between the ages of 16 and 25 to work at least a month in a restaurant. It’s not as dangerous as a military draft, but it would teach teamwork, organization, and a variety of interpersonal skills that are essential for future success in any profession.

Since a restaurant draft is not likely to ever happen, I have one last word of advice for anyone who has never served: 20%. Always. (Unless the service is truly bad.) Keep reading...