Day 982: Opening 40

originally published September 8, 2014

As some of you may have heard (I have griped about this rather frequently lately), the cold, icy grip of 40 is looming around my next corner, poised to wrestle my youth to the ground before September’s end, pummeling it with its grey-haired, middle-aged fists.

But I’m okay with that.

Not only because I will finally experience my first day off from writing since December 30, 2011, and not because I believe some faucet of inherent wisdom will squeak open and gush the solved riddles of the universe upon my anxious brain, but because I simply refuse to stack my plate full of anxiety and dread over a number. 40 can be the new 30 – except my kids are mostly grown-up, my time is more my own, and my taste in beer has matured to a delicious and luminous plateau.

Besides, I’m not the only one packing air into his lungs for a big 40-candle blow-out. Skittles turn forty this year, so does the Volkswagen Golf. The Intel 8080 chip was released four decades ago, as was the San Diego Chicken (from whatever oversized, freakish coop in which he was reared). Let’s see what else will be launching its fifth decade on earth in 2014.

The toy whose very visage defines the 1980’s was born in Budapest on January 16, 1974. The Rubik’s Cube is, quite literally, Rubik’s cube. Ernö Rubik worked at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts (where I suppose you can begin working on your major in kindergarten), and he designed the toy as a way to solve the design problem of having the parts move independently without the entire thing falling apart. After playing around with it for a while, Rubik discovered that putting it back to its alpha state, with all six sides sporting a uniform color, was a nifty little puzzle.

There are about 43 quintillion positions in which a Rubik’s Cube can be arranged. While most of us spent our Rubik’s time in the 80’s claiming victory when we scored a single side, very few of us pieced together how to solve the entire thing. I always felt I would someday, but I know now (and maybe this is a droplet from that wisdom faucet) that it won’t happen. Unless I cheat. There are many solutions that one can find online which can direct you how to solve pretty much any scrambled Cube in less than a hundred moves.

If one should ever feel so inclined.

While Miss Piggy was most certainly not my favorite cast member on The Muppet Show (a cast which was near-flawless in its conception), she’s the one felt-based celebrity to be turning 40 this year. Her first appearance – with beady little eyes and a demure singing voice – was on a TV special featuring Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. She began on The Muppet Show as a secondary character, but her squealing popularity propelled her to the front of the stage. Also, she was the only strong female character on the show. Janice just didn’t cut it.

Miss Piggy – or “Piggy Lee”, a.k.a. “Pigathius”, as her full name was explained on various episodes of the show – has topped the New York Times Bestseller list, something even her amphibian co-star has failed to achieve. Frank Oz, who spent over 25 years with his hand crammed deep into her nether-regions, praised Piggy as one of the few Muppets with a full three dimensions of personality. She may also be the only Muppet who has been praised as “hot” on the internet, for whatever that’s worth.

Yep, if you’re my age or older I have now crammed this song so deep into your ear canal you’ll be weeping yourself to sleep tonight in bouncy descending notes. The feline foodstuff was initially scooped from the Ralston-Purina mind-stew in ’74, and now sits somewhere down the table from the canned pineapple at the Del Monte corporate banquet.

That damn song was written by Shelley Palmer, about whom I know nothing else. I can, however, identify Linda November as the lady behind the meowing voice. She also sang the “Have a Coke and a smile” jingle in that classic Mean Joe Greene spot. Her resume of jingles reads like a rolodex of my youth.

(I figure anyone old enough to remember these commercials is probably old enough to know what a rolodex is.)

The ultimate blend of mythology, fantasy, history, and (if you’re with the right people) complete bat-shit-weirdery has to be Dungeons & Dragons. Admittedly I never truly delved into this obsession, but had geek culture been a socially-accepted propeller of the mainstream in the 70’s and 80’s, this game would have been as popular as World of Warcraft today. Plus, it has the benefit of its dice being used as potential projectiles when someone you’re playing with pisses you off.

D&D has also given us a baffling melee battle with the religious right, as well as rumors of game-induced psychosis. It became the poster child for the ultimate in geekness, the embodiment of one side of the nerdism vs. jockism dichotomy that was 80’s culture. The one thing it hasn’t done is go away; any fad that can still claim a significantly populated subculture forty years later is worthy of some respect.

I had always assumed that Bailey’s Irish Cream stretched, like most mainstays of the booze world, at least back to the salty days of Prohibition. In fact its origins lie in 1971, when Gilbeys of Ireland was searching for something unique to shill on the international market. Three years later, they figured out how to blend cream with Irish Whiskey and bottle it for storage outside of a refrigerated environment. The name was borrowed from the Bailey’s Hotel in London.

That’s right, the “R.A. Bailey” signature on the bottle is a sham. The man doesn’t exist. All those lonely nights in which you told R.A. all your secrets while pouring his whiskey down your gullet were a lie.

That said, the Bailey’s people do use actual cream. Yet somehow it doesn’t go sour and we lactose-intolerant shlubs can usually drink the stuff with no problem. Hooray for magical cream.

Lastly… Fonzie.

Son of Vito, father of Danny, brother of Artie, cousin of Chachi and Spike.

Fonzie.

The tenant who lived alone yet connected to the C’s.

Dater of Pinky. Mentor to Leather.

Conqueror of barrels. Master of the jukebox. Occupier of the bathroom office.

He who cannot say “wrong”. Who cannot say “sorry”.

He supported Ike in ’56. He fought for equal rights . He now sits in bronze in Milwaukee.

He made Mork seem believable enough to warrant his own series.

His act of aquatic bravery – in some minds – single-handedly signaled the point of ultimate decline for Happy Days. Jumping the shark is now the most dangerous activity in the world, if you’re a TV show.

Fonzie was my first hero, the first fictional character I ever wanted to be – even before Han Solo.

Why don’t I worry about turning 40 this year? Because the man who played Fonzie is still on TV, and he is still absolutely awesome. The fun is just getting started.

Day 885: Video Predates The Radio Star

originally published June 3, 2014

Now a haven for reality shows and programming that has little or nothing to do with anything resembling music, MTV was once the go-to station for the ubiquitously 80’s art form known as the music video. But flipping one’s video rolodex back to the Buggles singing “Video Killed The Radio Star” is hardly an act of embracing the retro when it comes to the timeline of the music video.

You’ll have to travel farther back still than the pre-taped lip-sync videos the Beatles sent in to the Ed Sullivan Show when they no longer wanted to contend with the manic theater crowds to appear live. No, the music video is literally about as old as the medium of film itself.

As with any conceptual progress in the medium of film, the music video had to be squeezed through the skinny tube of innovation, and a quizzical defining of its language. But make no mistake – the music video was always about the music. In particular, about selling the music. Of course, in the beginning it wasn’t sex and sweat and slow-motion twerking that sold the music; it was the technology itself. This was some pretty sophisticated stuff.

In 1894, a button salesman/lyricist named Edward B. Marks and a necktie salesman/pianist named Joseph W. Stern teamed up to write a song called “The Lost Little Child.” It was a cute little folk story about a policeman finding a lost child who turns out to belong to his estranged wife who once traded a donkey to Grover Cleveland for a magic whistle that could summon Poseidon inside a special thimble she’d wear in her hair, but only on Tuesdays when the barometer displayed a curious lack of humidity. Or something – I haven’t actually listened to the entire thing. The point is, music promoter George H. Thomas knew how to sell this thing.

The idea was to use a stereopticon (pictured above) to show a slide show against the curtain in Brooklyn’s Amphion Theater before the play, using the two lenses to dissolve between photos that would tell the narrative of the song while it played. Partly thanks to Thomas’s marketing ploy, “The Lost Little Child” was a certifiable hit, selling more than two million copies of the sheet music. This was the first music video, though at the time the gimmick was marketed as an ‘illustrated song.’

There was no record industry back then, but sheet music sales kept the music industry afloat. At least ten thousand theaters in America were showing illustrated songs before silent films, sometimes during the elaborate reel changes. The point was certainly to keep the audience entertained, but more important to the medium’s creators was getting folks hooked on the songs and buying the sheet music. Even after the advent of home-based record players and radio – even as late as 1937 when color movies were just beginning to emerge – illustrated songs were a hit.

A lot of silent film stars got their start as models for illustrated song photos, from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor. By the 1940’s, advances in technology had produced a new way to push the knuckles of music promotion deeper into the soft flesh of our everyday lives. No longer would we need to venture to a dark theater to be exposed to these visual ads for the latest hits. Now we could enjoy them while dining out.

They were called soundies: three-minute films, often with dance sequences, set to whatever song was being promoted. But rather than display the latest Jimmy Dorsey, Doris Day or Gene Krupa tune for movie-goers, they’d show up on a Panoram, which was a kind of film jukebox. You’d head to your local restaurant, nightclub, bar or amusement park and plunk in a quarter to watch people get their polka groove on to that Lawrence Welk hit you’ve been adoring on your radio because it was the 1940’s and maybe you liked really bland, shitty music.

In 1941, companies began fusing music with actual filmed narrative, adding the likes of the Keystone Kops or Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer to goofy little stories set to the music. These didn’t catch on – the public preferred to associate their music with watching either the musicians themselves or dancers. The soundies era was significant though, as they gave us some of the only visual recordings of African-American stars like Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner and Moms Mabley. The last of the Panoram soundies was released in 1947. From there, it was time for technology to up the game.

This is the French-invented Scopitone, the next stage of music video evolution. This device was brought to market in the late 1950’s by a company called Cameca, based out of Courbevoie. It spread to West Germany, then to England, and by 1964 it was beginning to make a splash in America. The machines were similar to the original film jukeboxes, but they played 16mm color film. Actual color!

One would imagine that the Scopitone revolutionized the music industry in the 1960’s, but in fact the trend never caught fire, possibly because the most popular artists of the day had no interest in producing films for them. But while you couldn’t pop the visual embodiment of the latest Rolling Stones or Kinks tune on the thing, you could still dial up Neil Sedaka singing “Calendar Girl” or Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” But by the end of the decade, the public lost interest. The Scopitone would never rise above fad status.

While the Panoram and Scopitone were spewing visual popular music into our lives in public, it was the musical short that truly heralded the video age. From the earliest days of sound film, studios would produce little one-reel shorts of the talent they were trying to push into the public’s collective consciousness – Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope and Judy Garland all got their starts this way, as did a number of future stars who wouldn’t gain fame based on their singing skills – people like Humphrey Bogart, George Burns and Cary Grant.

These were filler pieces, meant to be sandwiched between previews and newsreels between airings of a movie. When TV hit the scene, these shorts could pad the back end of a 20-minute sitcom.

The Beatles may have invented the conceptual-art style of the music video when they poured paint on a piano and leapt backwards into trees for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video, but the art form itself is downright ancient. It has most certainly been improved upon over the last 120 years, though I firmly believe we’ve passed the music video’s apex, which occurred somewhere around the creation of this masterpiece:

Day 860: Ethically Steering The Hypothetical Death-Trolley

originally published May 9, 2014

Today I’d like to talk to you about math.

Not “math” in the numbery, equationy, algebra-y way, but an ethical sort of math. Every time we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a moral conundrum, a little light flickers in our brain’s mathematical wing, weighing the heft of the pros against the heft of the cons. But is simplifying a dilemma into quantifiable terms really the best way to assess the situation?

Probably not. Each scenario has its own circumstances and personality, but that should never prevent us from making sweeping, knee-jerk generalizations – not to mention some judgy finger-wagging – to tell one another what we ‘should’ do. If ethics boiled down to nothing but math then the most soulless and sociopathic among us would have the easiest time at life. The heart always has its say.

But without the math, the heart would be the only one steering our moral ship and we’d never get anything done. No hypothetical ethical tightrope exemplifies this quite as well as the Trolley Problem. At least none that I found today, from the moment I decided not to write about the history of the mechanical pencil and instead opted to write about this.

The Trolley Problem starts out like this: there’s an out-of-control trolley racing down the tracks. No one knows why, maybe Daniel Tiger just decided he was fed the fuck up with King Friday’s tyrannical taxation and someone needed to pay – it’s not important. Five people are tied to the tracks and cannot escape the trolley’s path. They are facing certain death. Except you notice a switch within your reach. If you pull it, the trolley will get diverted down another track, where only one person will die. Do you do it?

Chances are, the math part of your brain called this right away. Five people dying is worse than one person dying so you flip the switch, right? Well, if it were that simple I’d be telling you all about Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins’ English patent for a lead-propelled refillable pencil in 1822. No, this gets a little trickier. Let’s introduce a fat guy into the equation.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, a lady who has actually made money from a philosophy degree in the last century, came up with this variation. Now there’s no switch to save those five people, just a fat guy on a bridge. If you shove the fat guy over the rail and onto the tracks (we’re just assuming you have the core strength to do so), the trolley will derail and the five innocents will be saved. The math is the same, but now you’ve got to physically heave a human with your bare hands to his shrieking demise. The lines are starting to blur a little.

Surveys on this differentiation have been done (which thankfully saves me the time), and there is always a significant number of respondents who find no real issue with the first problem but could not bring themselves to act in the second. Maybe there’s the fear of the fat guy exploding like that toxic waste dude at the end of Robocop and not stopping the trolley at all (giving you a death count of six and making you look like a real asshole), but this isn’t reality – it’s a thought experiment. We have to assume the fat guy does the trick and deters the danger to the others. So what the hell is the moral difference between the two problems?

One conclusion is that the action in the first problem has the one person dying as a side effect of you flipping the switch. It’s not flat-out murder, like shoving  person in front of a train is it? This leads us into the thigh-deep muck of the doctrine of double effect, which states that one can take an action that has bad side effects, but deliberately harming a person – even to create a positive outcome – is wrong.

But what if the fat guy was responsible for this entire situation? Let’s assume Snidely Whiplash put on a few pounds and then maliciously tied the five people in his Overeaters Anonymous support group to the tracks because they weren’t there for him that night he overdosed on powdered donuts. Now you’re letting justice and a moral imperative enter the discussion. People might be more likely to make the shove in this instance, though if one deems the wrongness of murder to be an absolute, they still might not kill the fat guy and save the others.

Some say a variant of the Trolley Problem is the ol’ Ticking Time Bomb Scenario. In this case we are leaving the relatively placid waters of the binary life/death world and plunging into the ugly froth of torture. If you have a time bomb set to go off – and here we could be talking about a shoebox bomb that will kill one lonely night watchman or we could mean a big atomic kablooie, it doesn’t matter – and you can potentially torture the suspect you have in custody to unearth the details you need to stop it, is it right to do so?

This is about as polarizing a discussion as you’ll find this side of Roe vs. Wade. I have friends who insist that torture under any circumstances is barbaric and evil, and others who believe such circumstances dictate its necessity. The prominent defence attorney (and outspoken liberal) Alan Dershowitz, whom I would have figured would land on the side of non-torture, actually believes that it can occasionally be appropriate. He would advocate for a warrant system, and for the torturers to be held accountable if they go too far or if they have the wrong guy, but let’s be honest – if there’s a nuke in Midtown, there aren’t a lot of people who would turn up their noses at the authorities getting their hands a little dirty to stop it.

To wit (and to keep this topical), let’s look at everyone’s favorite torturer.

I don’t like to quote the Parents Television Council (fuck censorship and fuck those people), but they claim that Jack Bauer has utilized torture to extract information from bad guys on average 12 times per “day” in the Fox series 24. One of the show’s creators has said that the ticking time bomb scenario hardly ever occurs in the actual world, however Michael Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, insists the show ‘reflects real life’. I’m not sure who to believe here, but I’m inclined toward the former. Maybe that’s just my inner optimist talking.

Joe Navarro, a high-ranked FBI expert on interrogation, told the New Yorker that “only a psychopath” can torture a person and not be seriously affected by it. “You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy and tend to have grotesque other problems.” That’s where the math falls apart and the humanity has to take over.

But still, when the moment appears and the time for thinking has been usurped by the need to act (or not act), whether it’s flipping a train switch, shoving a fat guy off a bridge or shattering a suspected terrorist’s kneecaps with a wrench, which will win? The math or the heart?

Day 856: When Death Sports A Wicked Grin

originally published May 5, 2014

There are souls who live lives of absolute anonymity, only to achieve the briefest flicker of fame through their final moments on the planet. For all the millions who have succumbed to heart disease, auto accidents and auto-erotic asphyxiation, somewhere there’s a story of a drunken teenager who died playing chicken in a Big Wheels trike against his buddy’s pickup truck. As readers of these tales we exert a tiny flex of our “Huh. Interesting” muscle – the same one that endures a passive workout as we blindly flip through a piece of Buzzfeed ‘journalism’. But we usually stop short of worrying about the same wonky demise happening to us.

In this sense, the modern case of the unusual death serves less as a cautionary tale and more as a temporal distraction akin to a cat video, or a six-second vine of a 13-year-old boy getting caught twerking against a cardboard stand-up Frankie Muniz in his bedroom. But while I wholly condone chuckling away at the ancient tales of strange offings, like how Draco the ancient Greek lawmaker was smothered to death by a showering of cloaks and hats as gifts by a grateful stadium of citizens (mostly because I don’t believe that really happened), I advise mustering up at least a smidgen of empathy for the more substantiated tales.

After all, it could be you next, you never know. One minute you might be walking home from the store, three packs of powdered mini-donuts and a week-old Hustler tucked under your arm, when suddenly your skull is cracked open by an airborne tortoise.

Our first is about a guy whose skull was totally cracked open by an airborne tortoise. His name was Aeschylus, and along with Sophocles and Euripides he is one of the three great tragedy-writers of Ancient Greece whose works are still performed today. His trademark was the trilogy, but his most famous works had a huge impact on theatre. His influence resonated over millennia, affecting dramatic expression, literature, and even music.

Then one day it all came to an abrupt end. Aeschylus was the recipient of a prophecy that foretold his demise via a falling object. Not long after returning to Sicily in 458 BC, Aeschylus spent a lot of time outside in hopes of avoiding that horrible fate. There were no planes or satellite chunks to fall on him back then, and birds rarely fell unexpectedly from the clouds. What Aeschylus didn’t count on was his big bald head being mistaken for a shiny rock by a passing bird. The bird was carrying a tortoise, and looking for a rock upon which he could drop it and crack open the shell. Aeschylus’s shiny head was that rock. What a way to go.

There is no sport more fierce, more brutal and more inherently homo-erotic than pankration, the form of hand-to-hand wrestling that took place in the original Olympic games. Arrhichion was the bad-ass master pankratiast of his day, the champion of the 56th and 55th Olympiad. When the next games rolled in, Arrhichion was eager to defend his title. He made it to the finals, but he was locked in an inescapable stranglehold by his opponent, and on the brink of losing his title.

In a final act of desperation, Arrhichion lurched his body to the left while kicking his rival with his right foot. This effectively caused his opponent so much pain, he signaled his surrender to the officials. Unfortunately, it also caused the opponent to inadvertently break Arrhichion’s neck. The champion fell dead to the ground, but because his opponent had signaled defeat, Arrhichion was declared the winner. That’s how you leave it all on the mat for the Olympics.

Let’s leap into the modern age, to some truly avoidable deaths that seem almost too weird to be true. We’ll start with Kurt Gödel, a mathematician, logician and philosopher who commanded astounding respect from his peers throughout the 20th century for his contributions to set theory, incompleteness theorems, and a number of other concepts I won’t even pretend I understand. But later in life, his brilliant mind was darkened by the shadow of intense paranoia.

A slave to his mental illness, Gödel was terrified of being poisoned. He trusted only his wife, Adele. When she was hospitalized for six months late in 1977, Gödel refused to eat food prepared by anyone else. Since his own culinary skills were clearly nonexistent, the guy simply stopped eating. There he was, an emeritus professor at Princeton, a pillar in his field and a winner of the Albert Einstein Award as well as the National Medal of Science, and he starved to death, whittling down to a mere 65 pounds before his body gave up.

Meet Garry Hoy. Garry was a successful Toronto lawyer, specializing in corporate and securities law. He also had a great sense of humor. One gag that never failed to tickle him was when he showed off the fortitude of the large glass windows of the Toronto-Dominion Centre where he worked by throwing his body into it at top speed. Crowds loved this bit, especially the young articling students who hadn’t spent a lot of time on the 24th floor of a skyscraper.

One Friday night in 1993, Garry did his schtick, boasting about how the windows around them were unbreakable. And he was right. Then he did it again.

He was still right – the glass didn’t break. It did, however, pop out of the frame and then proceeded to tumble along with Garry to the street below. Perhaps shaken by this tragedy, Garry’s law firm, Holden Day Wilson, closed up shop in 1996 – the largest law firm closure in Canadian history.

Sometimes when you tempt fate, fate answers.

A good parent will sacrifice for their children. Myself, I sacrifice a portion of the bacon I’d like to eat every Sunday morning so that my daughter knows the glory of the finest of meats. Jennifer Strange, a mother of three from Rancho Cordova, California, really wanted her kids to own a Nintendo Wii system in 2007. The system was brand new, and even in the post-Christmas shopping haze they were still hard to come by. Sacramento Top-40 station KDND put on a contest called “Hold Your Wee For A Wii”. Contestants were given increasingly larger quantities of water to drink every fifteen minutes – the last one to take the #1 exit onto the porcelain underpass would be the winner.

I don’t know whether or not Jennifer won. But she certainly lost – after complaining to a co-worker of being in tremendous pain on her way home after the contest, she passed away from water intoxication. The radio station immediately shut down their morning program and fired ten people who were present for the contest. Jennifer’s husband and kids launched a wrongful death suit, and the jury determined that Jennifer was zero percent responsible for her demise; the entire burden fell on the radio station. The family was awarded over $16 million, a sum I’m sure they’d gladly exchange for Jennifer if they could.

The lesson here is to watch out for the weird, because no matter how unlikely a tragedy may be, eventually it’ll hit. These were all avoidable deaths. Well, except the damn tortoise thing. Sometimes the randomness of the universe can sneak up and kick us in the nuts, I suppose.

Day 818: Brother Can You Spare Infinity Monkeys?

originally published March 28, 2014

Every so often I encounter one of those weary, soggy mornings when the lazy sun can’t seem to prop my fingers upon their ASDF-JKL; thrones to do their little thousand-word dance. Artificial stimulation helps – sometimes a throttle-jolt of caffeine, perhaps a bursting platter of bratwurst eggs benedict, even one of those nefarious little energy shots can bump the words past my grimy fingerprints. But what I really need?

Monkeys.

An infinite number of monkeys huffing an infinite amount of jenkem in front of an infinite number of typewriters could eventually produce something close to an acceptable article. Probably not within my one-day deadline, but you never know.

Actually, the infinite-monkeys cliché usually posits a loftier result, either the complete works of Shakespeare or at least one of his plays. People have crunched this hypothesis into a briny pulp, sorting through the ramifications of infinity and trying to use math to uncover just how much time we’re talking about. One school even attempted a practical re-enactment of the theory. That’s good – that deposits this topic just deep enough into the Realm of Weird to warrant my attention.

Aristotle contemplated the random combinations of atoms that make up the universe, and pointed out that the only difference between a comedy and a tragedy is the arrangement of its “atoms” (meaning letters). It was French mathematician Emile Borel who first used the infinite-monkeys concept in his 1913 paper “Mécanique Statistique et Irréversibilité”. Emile’s monkeys serve as a metaphor to help us wrap our imaginations around the idea of producing a massive, random string of letters.

And that’s really the squishy innards of this little thought experiment, isn’t it? Looking at the probability of a seemingly impossible result occurring under the fictional guidelines of infinity. But why leave the concept floating about, untethered to any actual math? There are grants to be had, people. Somebody somewhere will pay money for a mathematical mind to figure out roughly how long we’d have to wait for these damn monkeys to produce something of value.

And they have.

Let’s simplify this. Instead of the works of Shakespeare, what if we wanted to see if a single monkey would arbitrarily type out ‘BANANA’ on a typewriter? Assuming a 50-key keyboard, the monkey has a 1/50 chance at typing a ‘B’ first. For each subsequent letter the odds of the little guy slapping the correct character goes up exponentially. So for him to hit all six letters of ‘BANANA’ the odds are 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50 x 1/50, for a total of one in over 15 billion. Not likely, but it’s still possible.

But that’s just one monkey. Add more monkeys and you’re more likely to see ‘BANANA’ at the top of a page. As your number of monkeys approaches infinity, your odds of seeing the word increase to nearly 100%. But we’re only talking about one word here. Extrapolate the problem and things get messy – the text of Hamlet alone features over 130,000 letters. That’s a lot of typing.

Let’s shrink our conceptual keyboard from 50 keys to only 26 – forgetting even the space bar or any punctuation. We just want to see if these damn monkeys can get the letters of Hamlet in the correct order. There’s a 1 in 26 possibility a single monkey will type the first letter correctly (it’s a ‘W’ – I checked). Then there’s a 1 in 676 chance he’ll get the next one (1/26 x 1/26 that he lands a ‘W-H’). Even to hope a monkey will nail the first twenty letters is beyond a dream: the odds are 1 in 19,928,148,895,209,409,152,340,197,376. That’s as close to statistically zero as you’ll ever need to get, and we’ve still got 129,980 letters to go.

To be blunt, if every atom in the observable universe was a monkey equipped with a typewriter, typing from the Big Bang until the end of the universe, you would still need more time – more than 360,000 universe lifetimes – to achieve even a 1 in 10500 chance of seeing the text of Hamlet on one of those monkey’s pages. And that’s just Hamlet, not the complete works of Shakespeare. So it turns out the cliché about “given enough time…” is misleading. In 360,000 incarnations of all the time in the universe you’d still never see the result you were looking for.

So what’s the point?

Richard Dawkins, noted atheist, evolutionist, and all-around purveyor of common sense, applied the monkey conundrum to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. One of the big criticisms of evolution is the apparent impossibility that a random collision of circumstances would procure our DNA – some greater power must have intervened. Not so, says Dawkins. These critics are mistaking randomness for adaptability. And he proved it.

Dawkins created a computer program called the Weasel Program. Its objective was to produce the phrase from Hamlet, “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” using a random letter generator. As we’ve discussed previously, the odds of this happening are somewhere outside a kajillion-zillion to one against. But if the program were to freeze a letter when happens to be correct (say, an ‘E’ in the second slot) and only allow the others to change, it wouldn’t take nearly as long to land at the desired result. In fact it only took 43 generations for “WDLTMNLT DTJBKWIRZREZLMQCO P” to transform into “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.”

DNA, and indeed all life on earth, adapts as it needs to in order to achieve its end result – catching prey, defending itself against pterodactyls, climbing trees, whatever. Score one for the monkeys.

Lecturers and students at the University of Plymouth in the southwest of England put this to a practical test in 2003. Using a well-spent £2000 grant, they left a computer keyboard inside the enclosure of six Celebes Crested Macaques at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, just to see what they’d create. The experiment lasted for a month and produced only five pages, mostly consisting of the letter ‘S’. This might have something to do with the alpha male monkey bashing the keyboard with a rock right away, and the batch of them spending more time urinating and defecating all over the thing instead of typing on it.

For a more accurate display of the extreme randomness of the infinite-monkeys concept, a guy named Dan Oliver in Scottsdale, Arizona developed a computer simulation, spewing a seemingly endless stream of random letters into his computer server’s ether. After more than 42,162,500,000 billion billion monkey-years, one of the so-called ‘monkeys’ produced nineteen consecutive letters that pair up with a string of nineteen letters in the text of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona.

I guess that’s a start. For now, I suppose I’ll have to keep writing these articles myself.

Day 815: Warriors Of Virtue

originally published March 25, 2014

While the bulk of our news sources have us scouring the globe for a missing plane, watching for the next drunken act of buffoonery by Toronto’s mayor or collectively pretending that Kim & Kanye’s pampered offspring has any relevance to anything, the mainstream western media has skipped a few stories. Perhaps not ‘skipped’, but ‘demoted’ beneath the whodunit-appeal of the Malaysian aircraft and the partisan theatrics in local and national politics. For example, did you know that 89% of the population of Veneto, the Italian province which includes the seductive city of Venice, voted to secede from Italy last week?

I will begrudgingly admit that my own ignorance is self-imposed. I plow through news-hungry waves, gobbling up current events stories like they were crab legs and bacon strips at the MGM Grand buffet. Then, once I find myself teetering upon the brink of abandoning all hope for humanity, I stop. I insulate myself with escapist entertainment and blissfully allow the world to shimmy and quiver on its own, on the other side of my heavy black curtains.

This is how I missed the extraordinary tale of Aitzaz Hasan. Here’s a kid who, at the age of fourteen years old exhibited a greater demonstration of pure cajones than everyone I knew at fourteen combined. It sickens me (with a slightly hypocritical acceptance of my own cross-cultural ignorance) that so many people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch an unrepentant douche like Justin Bieber in concert, yet they miss out completely when someone like Aitzaz makes the news.

Aitzaz Hasan was in the ninth grade, fifteen years old. He was a good student, perpetually busy and with no shortage of friends. His home was the Hangu District in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, where a number of Shiites live, and where the local government has come under fire for attempting to negotiate peacefully with Taliban militants. One such militant, a fetid splotch of sub-human filth who had aligned himself with the extremist Sunni group known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, crossed paths with Aitzaz on the morning of January 6, 2014.

(Perhaps this is what sours me on reading the news – most news sources will refrain from referring to people like this as ‘sub-human filth’, even when it applies.)

There are two stories as to how this went down. Either Aitzaz was outside the school gates with his friends, being punished for tardiness, or else the group of them were hurrying to get to the school before morning assembly. Either way, the stranger – dressed in the same Government High School uniform as Aitzaz and his friends wore – asked for directions. Aitzaz was suspicious, and while his friends bolted for safety after spotting the detonator beneath the guy’s shirt, Aitzaz tackled him. That’s when the suicide bomber’s vest detonated.

The bomber had been looking to take out as many of the 1000+ students at the school as he could. It was to be a violent attack against the nation, a devastating, 9/11-esque assertion of fanatical religious bullshit. Instead we’re left with the story of one teenager who sacrificed himself in order to save his friends and to kick the specter of terrorism squarely in the nads. Aitzaz’s story made the news here, but unless you were paying attention on January 10 (that’s when the story appeared on both the CBC and in The New York Times), you’d have missed it.

Locals – and here I mean bloggers, Tweeters and journalists all over Pakistan, urged the government to honor Aitzaz and his magnificent display of tragic martyrdom. Two days ago, on Pakistan’s national day, Aitzaz’s family was handed the Sitara-e-Shujaat, the Star of Bravery. I checked – nothing in the western news about that.

Perhaps there’s comfort to be found in the more widely recognized story of Malala Yousafzai.

Since she was old enough to speak, Malala Yousafzai was a voice of reason. Raised in the Swat Valley, a region in northwestern Pakistan that has been under consistent pressure from Taliban forces for years now, Malala was tapped by the BBC to anonymously blog about her situation there. The news organization wanted an ongoing narrative from the perspective of a local girl, just as the opportunities for girls and women were being snuffed out by Taliban authority. Shortly thereafter, in January of 2009, girls were prohibited from attending local schools. More than a hundred girls’ schools had already been blown to rubble. By the following summer, Malala was a refugee.

Malala was reunited with her family in September, but by then she was cemented to the notion of being a voice for her cause. At 12 years old she was speaking to the Toronto Star and appearing on Capital Talk. Her BBC blogging identity was revealed, and she was fast becoming a celebrity. Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and two months later she won Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. It’s almost surprising how long it took for her enemies to take a shot at her.

A Taliban gunman boarded a bus in October of 2009, demanding to know which girl was Malala. Upon identifying the fifteen-year-old, he shot her with a single bullet that crossed through her head and neck, right into her shoulder.

Such is the character of the Taliban, a group so dark of soul and ensconced in insecurity they had to shoot a 15-year-old girl, simply because she disagreed with them. Fortunately, these terrorists are as inept as they are misguided, and Malala Yousafzai made a full recovery from her wounds. Her established public profile as a voice for the oppressed meant that Malala’s story would become page-one news all over the world. Pakistani officials offered a substantial reward for information about the assailant, and just about every major western political leader expressed disgust at the shooting.

Malala’s shooting even attracted celebrity responses, which meant even more penetration through the thick veil of noise that makes up our news cycle. Madonna dedicated a performance to Malala, and Angelina Jolie donated $200,000 to the Malala Fund for girls’ education. Laura Bush wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that compared her to Anne Frank. Finally, a Nazi comparison that doesn’t invoke the requisite eye-rolls.

23-year-old Atta Ullah Khan, a grad student in chemistry, was identified as the shooting suspect. He remains at large. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, who had visited Malala in hospital, began pushing a petition to the United Nations to demand that all discrimination against girls world-wide comes to an end, and that all children in Pakistan are given the right to attend school. Malala has not retired or allowed the violence perpetuated against her to dissuade her in the least from her cause. In the year and a half since the attack she has met with Queen Elizabeth II, spoken at Harvard, and met with President Obama and his family. She wasn’t there for a photo op either – she confronted the president on his use of drone attacks in Pakistan, which are killing innocent victims and doing nothing to help the education crisis.

I read stories like Malala’s and Aitzaz’s and feel a twinge of hope amid a cacophonous cavalcade of desperation and bad news. There are genuine heroes in the world, and the terrorists’ misguided tactics have yet to notch a single genuine victory for them. These heroic children are a refreshing counterbalance to the scores of backwards policies, unfocussed media and outright evil that permeates the news. It almost makes me want to pull my head out of the sand and become a little more informed. Hopefully, that feeling lasts.

Day 790: Pissing Away The Profits – Worst Business Decisions Part 1

originally published February 28, 2014

The secret to business success lies in making good decisions. I have no doubt that thousands of qualified individuals could offer monumentally wiser business advice than this, but in that most general, inarguable, obvious-even-to-a-schmuck-like-me way, it all comes down to decisions.

Some culture-shaping decisions were outright brilliant, like JVC and Microsoft spreading VHS and Windows around numerous manufacturers while Sony and Apple kept the Betamax and Macintosh systems to themselves, leading to one’s demise and the other’s miniscule 1990’s market share. Other business decisions, like my choice to devote at least two hours of each of my days over this thousand-day period to producing articles for free public consumption online – not so much.

That’s okay, I can live with it. So what if this project floats gratuitously among the ether, leaving no significant residue upon my personal net worth? It’s art. Art that is smattered with Cliff-Claven-esque trivia and poop jokes, so the best kind of art. And besides, as far removed from savvy fiscal acumen as I may be, at least I can pride myself on not having made the bonehead decisions these folks did.

Meet Dick. Dick was a successful producer in the 1950’s. By 1962 he was a proud A&R man (that’s ‘Artists & Repertoire’ – the guy who screens potential acts) at Decca Records in England. On a blustery New Year’s Day, Dick sat in the studio as a hopeful young quartet from Liverpool tried to dazzle him with their sound, one which had already billowed many a swoon into excitable young women (and even men) in the northern towns. Those men were John, Paul, George and Pete Best, and they proceeded to make Dick famous.

Famous for flubbery, that is. Dick Rowe told the group’s manager Brian Epstein that guitar groups were “on the way out”, and he turned them down cold. It would take a few months for the Beatles to become the biggest group in the country and years before Dick was able to scrape away all the solidified egg from his face.

George Harrison felt bad for the guy, and introduced him to the Rolling Stones. Dick had smartened up by then, and after signing the Stones he went on to lasso the Moody Blues, the Zombies, Them with Van Morrison, John Mayall’s Bluesbrakers, Tom Jones and the Small Faces. In the end, Dick made good.

In the 1970’s, few companies brought more giggly bliss to children than the Mego Corporation. Mego was the toy titan of the 70’s, producing the World’s Greatest Superheroes line of action figures, which featured a hodgepodge of DC and Marvel favorites, like Captain America, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man… pretty much all the comic book A-listers of the decade. Then in 1976, company honcho David Abram was offered the rights for another toy franchise for an unproven sci-fi film.

He said no.

David felt that his company would go bankrupt if they made a toy out of every “flash in the pan” sci-fi B-movie that trotted through Hollywood’s grimy streets and backlots. Kenner Toys snatched up the Star Wars franchise and made a mint. Mego tried to peddle at top speed to every ensuing sci-fi fad, and they were able to secure the toys for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Buck Rogers and Moonraker. Unsurprisingly, the Moonraker toy juggernaut was not enough to save Mego from this horrible decision, and they drizzled down the corporate drain in 1982.

In the midst of production for Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Amblin Entertainment reached out to the good folks at Mars to offer them an opportunity to sprinkle their delicious M&M’s candies throughout the film. Perhaps Mars had reached the limit of their annual advertising budget, or maybe they simply weren’t ready to leap into the relatively new realm of cinematic product placement. They passed.

Hershey was offered the gig next, and they happily inked a deal to plug the movie with $1 million in advertising, in exchange for using E.T.’s lovely visage on their products and in their own ads. Reese’s Pieces were a fairly low-key Hershey product before that film became the most lauded piece of 1982 cinema. Now they were being devoured en masse by movie-lovers and candy-snarfers alike. Mars didn’t wither and die, of course. But they did miss out on the opportunity to be pioneers in the now-commonplace product placement domain. The sales boost might have been nice too.

I don’t want to pick on Ryan Leaf. The guy is famous for one reason and one reason only – being the biggest draft bust in the history of the National Football League. This is one instance where saying yes was the poor business decision, as the San Diego Chargers scooped Ryan Leaf out of Washington State as the number 2 draft pick of 1998 (#1 was Peyton Manning to the Indianapolis Colts – the polar opposite of a draft bust). Leaf had been a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and by every measure appeared to be the second-best quarterback in the draft class that year.

It wasn’t a good fit. Ryan made quick enemies of his teammates, yelled at the press, and within two months his backup had replaced him as the Chargers’ starter. Injuries and poor playing dogged him through three seasons in San Diego, where he won only four games. After one more year as a Dallas Cowboys backup option, he retired. The players San Diego could have taken that year instead? Well, pro-bowlers like Charles Woodson, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for starters.

In 1876, the only way to send immediate long-distance communication was to go through Western Union’s network of telegraph wire. It was a legal monopoly; Western Union had all the technology. Company president William Orton should have been able to coast into the 20th century atop one of the most powerful companies on the planet. When a guy named Gardiner Greene Hubbard showed up on behalf of an upstart inventor named Alexander Graham Bell, Orton thought the offer of $100,000 to purchase the telephone patent was ludicrous. He turned it down, calling it an electrical toy that had no commercial possibilities. Keep in mind the telephone was designed to work with all the nation-wide telegraph lines in Western Union’s domain. They just had to plug it in.

Undeterred, Bell set up his own company, which eventually became American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). I don’t believe I have to warn about spoilers here – Bell did just fine with that company. Orton, meanwhile, was soon scrambling to create his own telephone empire, employing a fleet of inventors – including Thomas Edison – to improve the technology, then challenged Bell’s patents in court. What he could have owned for a hundred grand cost Orton much more in legal fees.

In 1879 the dispute was settled by the US Supreme Court, with the patents clearly remaining in Bell’s hands. Western Union was forced to retreat from the telephone world and while they still exist as a means to wire money from place to place (en route to obsolescence thanks to email-transfer technology), I’m sure they’d rather own a piece of AT&T, Bell, Qwest, Verizon, and everything else under that corporate umbrella today.

These decisions are all being seen through the well-scrubbed pane of hindsight, of course. Still, with the exception of San Diego drafting Ryan Leaf, it seems as though someone should have seen the potential in these botched decisions. But then what do I know? I give my stuff away for free.

Day 769: Happy Birthday To Possibly Both Of You

originally published February 7, 2014

Every so often I like to write an article about math. 

This is not because I like math (I don’t) or because I unearth a specific gem of unique adrenaline when I reach the conclusion of a math problem (I experience no such thing). I write about math simply to remind myself that it’s there, and to give myself the daunting challenge of making some portion of it interesting. You thought writing a thousand words in Shakespearean sonnets was tricky? That was a seat at the sundae bar compared to this. 

I took my last math class in high school. And by ‘took’, I mean I sampled bits of it, but left most of it on the plate. Once the curriculum started to include concepts like quadratic equations and logarithms, I allowed my attention to meander to more earth-bound notions, like old soul records, pretty girls and caramel sauce (sometimes all three at once – I was a creative kid). I simply don’t have a brain that is hard-wired for that brand of thinking. 

But I’ve danced down this hallway before, poking my head through the door of Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal 3-door conundrum. And even for us non-mathies, sometimes numbers can take our brains by the squishy parts and lead them on a fun little trip. 

Where math tends to poop out its most delectable little gems is in the realm of probability. How the oddsmakers in Vegas determine a 2.5-point spread for a game instead of a 3-point spread is a complicated and elaborate process that I hope to dissect before the next 231 days have expired. An understanding of probability will decrease your chances of leaving a casino with your wallet significantly lighter. Most importantly for me, probability also presents a number of quirky snig-bits of momentarily interesting trivia. My specialty. 

Imagine you walk into a room with 22 other people. You sit down and begin chatting, and for whatever reason the topic of birthdays pops up. What do you think the odds are that two people in that room will share the same birthday? 23/365 (or about 6.3%)? Less than that? Maybe more and less at the same time because math is a soulless bitch who wants nothing more than to mess with your head? 

Actually, the correct answer is about 50%. 

That’s right. In any gathering of 23 people, you’ve got a 50/50 shot of finding two people who would have to split the candle-blowing duties in the break-room when the staff gathers to sing off-key. If you’re wondering how that can be, how the odds can go from 1 in 365 that a single person shares your birthday to a virtual coin-toss with only 23 people you aren’t alone. This is known as the birthday paradox, not because it goes against any set laws of physics or reason, but because it’s completely counter-intuitive. To take it a step further, in a room of 70 people the probability rockets up to 99.9%. 

The reason for our confusion is purely narcissistic. We look at that room with 22 strangers and see 22 possibilities that someone else has our birthday – not much chance. But we need to add up all the possibilities between everyone: 22 for you, plus 21 for the next guy (not counting matching up with you), plus 20 for the next, and so on, giving us a total of 253 pair combinations. Of all those pairs, it’s likely (or at least 50.05% likely) that one of them will involve a match. There is actual math stuff behind these calculations, but I don’t want to dig much deeper because the math looks like this: 

It’s best just to take my word for it. Or try it out here – this page lets you run the a sample set of any size and keeps track of the matches for you. I tried it with 23 people and found a match 15 out of 25 times, so 60%. 

Let’s look at another dollop of probable goofiness. Consider these two scenarios: 

  1. Mr. Brimley has two kids. The older child is a girl. What is the likelihood that both kids are girls? 
  1. Mr. Ameche has two kids. At least one of them is a boy. What is the likelihood that both kids are boys? 

Common sense – or at least the suspicious breed of common sense that wears the logic home jerseys in my brain – tells me that the answer to both is 50%. Both problems assign a gender to one kid, so the other kid has a 50/50 chance of being a boy or girl. But if that were the case, there’d be nothing to write about, except maybe that it’s fun to substitute names from Cocoon movie actors into math problems. 

To break this down, we have to first understand that there are four permutations of the answer: BB, BG, GB, GG. (‘B’ means boy and ‘G’ means girl, and the one listed first is the older one.) In the case of Mr. Brimley, we know the older child is a girl, so that eliminates BB and BG. Thus, of the two remaining possibilities (GB and GG), there is indeed a 50% chance that both kids are girls. 

The second question is where the fun is hiding. At least one kid is a boy, which only eliminates GG. That leaves three other permutations (BB, BG and GB), and a 1 in 3 chance that both kids are boys. It’s all in the phrasing. 

At this point your math-inclined brain-matter is either shrugging its goopy grey shoulders because this is way beneath your level, or it’s exploding from these fantastic probability riddles. Or perhaps you still don’t understand – that’s okay, this is the best I can explain it. In high school I excelled at film studies and cafeteria three-card monte, so this is a smidgen over my head too. 

Except that with anything and everything in the real-life, reach-out-and-graspable, smash-it-with-a-hammer world, there are too many variables to kick dust in the face of mathematical probability, no matter how dumbed-down it is on paper. The math of the birthday paradox assumes 365 days (no leap years), and that there is an equal chance of people being born on any given day. The truth is that more people are born in the spring, more hospitals schedule C-sections or inducements on Mondays and Tuesdays, and identical twins can muck up the balance. Nothing is simple. 

The boy or girl paradox is no better. First off, there is a slightly greater likelihood of a male being born – that’s just biology. Genetics play into it also. Identical twins (which are always – well, almost always – the same gender) fiddle with the balance of this problem again. And how do you account for an intersex child? Like I said, real-life always soils the paper upon which a good math problem is sprawled. 

Maybe that’s my problem with math: I just don’t trust it. That’s okay, the probability that I take another math class in my lifetime is safely tucked against the zero mark. I’m good with that. 

Day 732: Whips & Chains & Donkeys & Hugs – It Must Be January

originally published January 1, 2014

It’s a new year! And in most parts of the world that also means it’s a new month – the twelfth entry in my Monthly Observances series. After today’s article completes the series you can now sprinkle your entire calendar with heaps of celebrations you’d never previously imagined. Raise a glass to National Cleavage Day in April! Down a tube of chemically processed hog anus on Hot Dog Day in July! Count things and show your friends some bar graphs on World Statistics Day in October! With so many things to celebrate, it’s a shame we have but twelve months in which to contain them.

And January is no exception. Most of us are enjoying what I personally call ‘International Hangover Day’ today – a day off from work in which we can soothe our collective headache whilst watching a parade of flowers and too-loud bagpipers. My American friends can enjoy a long weekend in honor of Martin Luther King later this month, but in Canada we get nothing else. January is cold, unpleasant, and devoid of any special days off aside from this one.

Which is why I’m thrilled to have found some new occasions to observe.

Keep an eye out for anyone wearing purple on January 17. The third Friday of the year is International Fetish Day, and wearing purple shows your support for those who like a little bit of kinky spice in their sexual paella, and those who oppose banning extreme pornography from our internet airwaves. The storied tradition of this event dates way, way back to 2008.

Ronnie Campbell, a Member of Parliament for Blyth Valley in England, got caught up in the hoopla surrounding this event, proclaimed that he would be wearing purple in its honor. After an article in the Sunday Sun prompted a few questions from his followers, Mr. Campbell claimed that he had misunderstood the occasion’s intent. He thought a fetish was “a worry, like worrying about backing the right horse.” He asserted that he had no idea it was a sex thing.

Uh-huh. “Backing the right horse.” More like backing into the right horse, you kinky bastard. Am I right? High-five? Anyone?

Copyright lawyers can toss these faces into the trash heap today, as the world celebrates Public Domain Day. In most European countries, copyright expires seventy years after an artist dies, shifting the bulk of their work into the public domain. These folks died in 1943, meaning the clock just ran out on their heirs’ rights to reap dollars off their work.

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit money-well has dried up. Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian-born composer whose masterful (and downright freakin’ manic) compositions rocked the foundation of modern classical music might now hear his stuff shilling Juicy Fruit gum in an elevator-screen commercial. Want to use “Honeysuckle Rose” in your next presentation to the corporate board? Fats Waller won’t mind; his music belongs to you now.

In Canada we are even more gracious, using a ‘life plus 50 years system’, so our public domain will now include those who passed on in 1963. This list includes Robert Frost, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley and Sylvia Plath.

On January 16, perhaps as you’re ironing your Fetish Day purple shirt, you should also make an effort to do absolutely nothing. National Nothing Day was dreamt up by Californian columnist Harold Pullman Coffin, and its intent is to counteract all the rest of the crap in this column by insisting that Americans sit around without celebrating a damn thing. After the onslaught of holidays over the previous two months, this one makes sense.

Except that January 16 falls on a Monday every so often, and that plunks Martin Luther King Jr. Day right on top of National Nothing Day. When that happens, you can sort out the contradiction on your own.

Gotta love those wacky Christians. Sometimes the holidays that get the least press are the most interesting. The Feast of the Ass commemorates the time when Joseph, Mary and lil’ baby Jesus had to get the hell out of Dodge (or, in this case, Jerusalem) for fear that King Herod was going to slay the kid. The donkey plays a big part in this story, and as such he gets his own day.

It’s customary during this affair for a female to lead a child on a donkey into the church, the humans popping into a pew while the donkey gets to stand up front beside the altar. The congregation then “hee-haws” their responses to the priest. I am so glad that I am not making this up. Christians need to make this as big a deal as Christmas – celebrate the hilarity in your faith!

Also, another day off on January 14 would be really groovy, thanks.

My trusted companion, Wikipedia, turns 13 on January 15, which will inspire a number of gatherings upon Wikipedia devotees and editors around the world. No doubt they’ll all be discussing the ramifications of being an inspiration to such a dynamic and famous writing project such as this.

Feeling a little down? Well, it might not be the fact that you’re locked into the middle of what seems like an eternal winter – though if you live near me, that’s probably the most likely suspect. A little piece of pseudo-science published by Sky Travel has used a complicated formula, incorporating weather, debt, time since Christmas, the failure of New Year’s resolutions and motivation to conclude that the Monday in the last full week of January (that’d be the 27th this year) to be the most depressing day of the year.

Blue Monday, they call it. And of course Sky Travel’s solution is for you to jet somewhere on that day, though given that ‘debt’ is one of the factors in their little equation, doing so may not be possible for all of us. They also claim that some point in late June is the yin to this yang, the happiest day of the year. But that’s the future – for now we’re stuck with Blue Monday.

While it may be inconveniently located six days prior to Blue Monday, National Hug Day is sure to squeeze away your winter blahs. Rev. Kevin Zaborney launched this event in 1986 in Clio, Michigan, aiming to encourage people to hug their family and friends. You could also stand on the street and embrace passing strangers, but that’s only recommended if you are also well-trained in some sort of self-defense combat.

Look, American couples spend only a third of the time touching one another compared with French couples, according to a study by the University of Miami. Hugging is good for the soul, it’s good for stress, and it’s good for shooing away the dreary veil of January. It’s also a good way to say, “Hey, about those things I inserted into you last week on International Fetish Day… we’re still cool, right?”

Happy January everyone.

Day 721: Skymall Gift Ideas For The Tardy

originally published December 21, 2013

We are rapidly approaching the glorious end of the Christmas shop-fest, that time of year when we pour too much of our paycheck into gifts people generally don’t need but are too polite to turn down. Unfortunately, these are the grisly days when you might find yourself on the receiving end of a kind gesture without sufficient opportunity to match it with a gift of your own. Inevitably some friend or co-worker with whom you have had a cordial but tempered relationship is going to drop a ribboned and bowed box of Ferrero Rocher in your lap and you’ll have nothing to with which to reciprocate.

Well, there’s always a quick trip to the drug store. Nothing says “you’re in my thoughts this Christmas” like a box of Tucks Medicated Pads. But if you really want to impress them, just tell them you’re waiting on their present to arrive through the mail, and dammit, that Skymall is just too slow.

They aren’t, of course. They are a wonderfully efficient shopping machine, but maybe you can buy some time and get away with a thoughtful and heartfelt gift on the 27th or the 30th. Here are some Skymall products I believe would enrich anyone’s life.

Ever since the Chevy Chase movie Oh Heavenly Dog rocked the foundations of our culture in 1980, people have been fascinated by the idea of a talking dog. Now you can own one! Just strap this collar around your naïve and helpless little hound’s neck, and with the handy remote you can trigger one of four pre-recorded messages that you have prepared. Scraps will be the life of your New Year’s Eve party when he approaches guests and says things like, “Hey, your crotch smells like raisins!” or “Have another shrimp puff, fat-ass!”

In your voice. While you crouch behind the bureau and giggle.

This gift is a clever way of telling your friend that he has too many friends. Also it’s a good way to mess up his poor dog’s mind. I’m no Cesar Milan, but I’m pretty sure if the dog is hearing voices two inches from his ear and not seeing any accompanying visual cue, he’s going to get a little squirrely. Especially if you have the dog uttering sleazy pick-up lines like, “Hey there, good-lookin’!”

This is the gift that tells your co-worker, “I don’t know which football club you support in any given match, but this saggy clump of non-breathing vinyl will sit on your head and remind everyone around you that you are experiencing the joys of the iron grid.” I particularly enjoy the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life smile on the model’s face.

The $52.25 price tag for this product may scare you off, but don’t let it. For that price you get six of these – and yes, it’s the only way to purchase them. Now everyone at the office will be able to clearly identify which other co-workers you forgot about when you were doing your Christmas shopping.

There is an obesity epidemic plaguing our great nation, and when you couple that with a sharp increase in repetitive stress injuries due to excessive computer time, it’s a wonder our entire species hasn’t collapsed into the wells of history by now. Fortunately for the future of humanity, the good people at Gadget Universe have bestowed upon us the Springflex UB. Simply clamp the two massive, totally non-weird-looking arms to your desk and you are set up to do over 120 exercises to tone your upper body into a buff, Youtube-comment-leaving machine.

According to Skymall, “The SprigFlex (sic) lets you do over 120 exercises virtually anywhere at anytime.” Well, ‘anywhere’ meaning the desk you’ve clamped it to, and ‘anytime’ meaning whenever you aren’t feeling overwhelmed by the reality that you just spent $89.95 on two ridiculous-looking flex-arms when you could have simply gone for a walk.

The Mistress of the Crypt statue is a lovely piece of 9.5-inch-high art for the moody gothic person on your Christmas list. I simply want to know why this is included in Skymall’s ‘Christmas’ section, between the wreath-cozy and snowman-riding-a-rooster tree ornament.

And speaking of which, who is spending $60 on a snowman riding a rooster? What is happening to our culture?

The mounted squirrel head is a great bargain. For only $24.95, its eyes will monitor and judge you, its chest-fur will ripple confidently, and its flaccid front legs will dangle helplessly near where its groin would be if it hadn’t been mercilessly severed from the upper portion of its body. This is the ideal gift for that co-worker who prattles on about the crazy dream she had last night while you’re both waiting for the coffee machine to percolate. Now she’ll only have nightmares to tell you about. And those will be far more interesting.

The reviews of the mounted squirrel head are unanimously positive and sincere, which in itself is a little scary.

You’ll be singing, “No artificial creamer, no cry,” as you pour a hot pound of Marley Coffee into someone’s (belated) Christmas stocking this year. This is the ‘Get Up Stand Up’ blend, but you can also try the ‘Buffalo Soldier’, ‘Talkin’ Blues’ and ‘Lively Up’ varieties. I think they’re really on to something here.

Why not “I (espresso) Shot The Sheriff”, “Forever Loving Jah(va)”, “Coming In From The Cold” (an iced coffee blend), “Punky Reggae Latte” and “Redempaccino Song”? None of the blends feature kaya, so we can safely leave the obvious ganja jokes in the cupboard where they belong.

Once again another Christmas will pass me by and I won’t end up owning a voice-activated 15-inch R2D2. Not only does this droid respond to 40 commands, but he can play games with you, act as a motion-sensor sentry, and he plays the Mos Eisley cantina song while he dances. This is the droid I’ve been looking for, and it would make a great present for that internet writer on your list who has provided you with so much mirth and delight for the past 721 days or so.

Just sayin’.