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My Latest at Life As A Human: Credibility Vs. Transparency

"Credibility Vs. Transparency: A Closer Look at NPR and Its Ethics Code":

Twice in the past month, NPR (National Public Radio) has found itself in hot water over the application of its ethics policy. Two weeks ago, they drew criticism over a memo sent from the news department to staffers reminding them, among other things, that they were not allowed to attend Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s upcoming rallies. Then, last week, they fired long-time news analyst Juan Williams after some remarks he made on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. In both cases, the network came under fire for political bias and for stifling free speech.

My Latest at Life As A Human: Old Books

"Old Books: Don't Judge a Book By Its Megabytes":

The first time I ever had a writing piece published was in my senior year of high school when an essay I wrote for my English class made it into the local paper. My teacher had assigned us to answer the question, “Will computers ever replace books?” Being the book-lover that I am, I said no.

In Which I Reluctantly Get a Bit Political

Last night I went out for dinner with Juliette, Jason, and her parents and brother. It was a pretty nice restaurant, not particularly fancy and not outrageously expensive, but with pleasant, dark-wood decor; a relaxed, sophisticated ambience; and a menu that neither pedestrian nor pretentious. Most importantly for me, the ambient noise level was high enough that Jason's outbursts went mostly (but not completely) unnoticed by the tables around us. (They were all very understanding and forgiving, thankfully.)

So there we are, conversing and trying to keep Jason entertained while we wait for the food to arrive, when from the next table, I overhear someone loudly declare "Democrat means you want to pay people to sit around and do nothing." I look up, and I see this teenager--probably 18 or 19--passionately denouncing Democrats, unemployment, and the lazy people that rely on the welfare system instead of getting jobs like they ought to.

The first thought that popped into my head was "Has this kid ever even met a Democrat?" Because, honestly, I've never met anyone who actually wants to pay people to sit around and do nothing. But it's really none of my business what some kid says to his parents about welfare and I don't like to be nosy. Aside from which, right about then Jason was demanding that he be allowed to have all of the bread at the table, so I had more pressing things to occupy my attention.

I really wanted to mind my own business, but the kid had a strong voice and he was pointed right at me. So after he was done telling his parents and grandmother all of his thoughts on what was wrong with the unemployment system, he went on to talk about how awesome it is to have a fridge in his dorm room and how much fun he's having this summer and so on, and I found myself getting angry at him.

Now, look, that kid--whoever he is--is just as entitled to his opinion about unemployment benefits (or anything else, for that matter) as every other person is. If he wants to shout in a crowded restaurant about how Democrats facilitate laziness, it's certainly his right to be able to do so. Furthermore, I agree that the system as it exists now has flaws, and I've heard a lot of sound arguments from some very intelligent people that were substantively not much different from what this kid was saying.

Even so, sitting there in that nice restaurant in that nice strip mall in that nice, upper-middle-class neighborhood, listening to that nice-looking, clean-cut college freshman rant about Democrats and welfare, making his parents laugh about the misguided liberals, it just rubbed me the wrong way. I don't know that kid; I don't know what the sum of his life experience has been and how that's colored his opinions. But from where I was sitting, it didn't look like that kid had ever been poor, or had ever even known someone in any meaningful way who was poor. Or who was a Democrat, for that matter. He almost certainly has never had to financially support himself or anyone else. And I highly doubt he's ever had a family to support or a mortgage to pay, and it didn't sound like he knew anyone who'd ever been laid off.

Do you have to have been poor to be allowed an opinion on welfare? Is it required that you be financially responsible for others before you can talk about unemployment benefits? Of course not. Poor (or formerly poor) people do not and should not have the monopoly on discourse about that aspect of public policy. Nor does that having that kind of experience mean that your opinions are more valid, or that your ideas and observations are necessarily more astute.

In fact, there is no limitation on ignorance or insensitivity at all before we are qualified and entitled to our opinions. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try not to be ignorant or insensitive when we're spouting off about something, especially if we're doing so in public. And I've just known too many intelligent, hard-working, honest people who have had to deal with hard times through no fault of their own to be able to paint unemployment recipients as lazy or useless.

One of my best friends, for example, is a highly skilled and talented engineer who puts in long hours and genuinely enjoys the challenge and technical knowledge involved in his job. The company he was working for happened to be losing money in certain areas, and decided to cut its losses by closing down his division. So he found himself with a mortgage and a baby on the way, and short the major portion of his household income. What would you do in that situation? I'll tell you what he did: he spent eight hours every day finding companies with open hiring reqs, sending out applications, and lining up interviews, and he did that for weeks until he landed another job. And he collected unemployment benefits to help tide him over until he got that job. Is that irresponsible or lazy? Try telling him that to his face.

Fortunately, my friend and his wife are sensible about money and between their savings, unemployment, and tightening their belts a little, they were able to get through that rough patch. Even more fortunately, there were actually jobs to be had. Not everybody is that fortunate.

The point here isn't to say that we do or don't need unemployment benefits or other kinds of social welfare programs, nor to say what forms those benefits should take. There is a lot of room for discussion there, and I'm certain that there are many valid points of view and many good solutions to the underlying problems. No, the point is that I'm sick and tired of hearing ignorant people say things like "Democrats want people to be lazy" and "Republicans hate black people."

We're all entitled to our opinions. But sometimes your opinion makes you an asshole, damn it.

Appreciate Your Waiter

In the past week or so, Juliette and I have been out to nice restaurants twice: last week we went to the Farm House Cafe for my birthday, and last night it was Morton's for our anniversary. Since Jason still isn't up to the task of sitting quietly for long periods, we don't get much chance to go to fancy restaurants much these days, and so these outings were a fun change of pace.

The two restaurants we went to are very different in both atmosphere and food, but what they have in common are both high quality and excellent service. And it's really the latter that impresses us most. Good food is a must, of course, for us to put a restaurant in the top tier, but in a city like San Diego there are plenty of people who can cook. Good service, though, is what really keeps us coming back.

One thing I've never understood is how disdainful people can be of waiters. I've had a fair number of different jobs over the years--I'm an engineer now, of course, but in the past I've been a film festival projectionist, worked the register at my mom's store, tutored underprivileged high school kids, and worked in visitor presentations at the Montery Bay Aquarium. I've also been a busser, a bartender, and a waiter. And let me tell you, waiting tables was by far the hardest job I've ever had.

Yes, yes, I know: different jobs are difficult in different ways, and there are a lot of people out there who would find waiting tables to be much easier than what I do now. Certainly, my difficulties as a waiter have a lot to do with my own personal limitations.

Still, I can't even remember how many times I've overheard people saying something snotty along the lines of "How hard can your job possibly be?" I'd be willing to bet that nearly all of those people would be terrible waiters.

It's not just the physical aspects: the lifting, the balancing, the squeezing through a crowded dining room, dodging bussers and other waiters as they fly by, the aching feet and wrists. Though, those are certainly things I'm glad not to have to deal with anymore. And it's not just the mental gymnastics of having to keep multiple tables and their orders straight, each one having come in at a different time, each being at a different stage of their meal and having different particular requests. Though, again, that's also more than I can handle. (As I was telling Juliette last night, I can't really deal with more than three tables at a time.)

The real difficulty lies in the fact that each customer has a different expectation of how the meal should go, and what the waiter should do and when. You simply can't treat every table the same way. Some people will get angry if you don't check back every five minutes, others want to be left alone. Some people want you to be chummy, others want you to be formal. And first impressions make a huge difference, so you need to have all of it figured out before you even start talking, which gives you maybe thirty seconds to try to pick up any signs as you walk up to the table.

A good waiter is a master of reading the subtle psychological cues each customer provides. He will juggle ten tables, each with their own demands and special requests, all the while making everyone feel like he's there just for them. It's an incredibly difficult skill to master, and to me, seeing someone pull off perfect service is every bit as impressive as watching a master musician or actor give a great performance.

Of course, not every waiter is a master of his profession. Most aren't. But they all have a challenging job, and nearly all work hard to do it well. So try to cut them a little slack.

Mind you, I'm not saying you should ignore bad service. Not at all. As former waiters, both Juliette and I are quite forgiving of honest mistakes, but the same experience that gave us empathy for waiters who try left us with no patience at all for lazy waiters or those that don't care. I've stiffed waiters for bad service before and not felt the least bit bad about it. And I say this as a person who routinely tips over 20% on the total after tax.

No, I'm just saying, maybe take a look around and see what's going on. If you've been waiting a few extra minutes for your check to show up or for your plate to be cleared, take a look and see how crowded the room is. If it's wall-to-wall in there, very likely your waiter is slammed and simply can't get from table to table fast enough. Yes, in situations like that the management probably should have brought in extra staff to help out, but your waiter likely has no input at all into the scheduling process, so don't take it out on him that there's more to do than people to do it. Just try to have a little patience and remember that your waiter is a human being with feelings, and who has a very difficult job.

And for crying out loud, people: tip. As I mentioned before, I usually tip at 20% to 25% after tax, and I've been known to give tips as high as 50% when the service is truly outstanding. (Though, admittedly, I usually can't afford to tip that high at really expensive places.) I recognize, though, that most people don't or can't tip as much as I do. You don't have to be a big tipper to be a good customer, and I don't think any waiter should expect big tips. The standard is 15% of the pre-tax total. If you can't afford that much, you should probably be eating in cheaper places, or not eating out at all.

In my book if your waiter was trying, didn't make any unforgiveable mistakes, and you didn't tip when you could have, well, you're a cheapskate. And I don't want to eat at a restaurant with you.

My Latest at Life As A Human: Raising Respectful Sons

"Raising Respectful Sons: A Father's Reaction to the 'Slampigs' Scandal":

 

Back in the early stages of my wife’s pregnancy, before we knew we would be having a son, people often asked me whether I wanted a boy or a girl. My response usually went something like this: “Well, I’d be happy either way, I think, and I don’t have a preference, really. I don’t want one more than the other. Honestly, though, the idea of having a daughter kind of terrifies me.” That’s the thought that occurred to me again Monday morning when I ran across this article in fellow Life As A Human author Schmutzie’s Twitter feed.

 

A Letter to Amy Alkon In Response to Her Recent L.A. Times Editorial

Dear Ms. Alkon,

I had the pleasure of reading your op-ed piece "Screaming kids and airplanes: Mayday! Mayday!" last week and I just wanted to write and let you know how refreshing it was to finally hear from a kindred spirit. This country has been overtaken by rude and selfish people and seeing someone tell it like it is was a welcome breath of fresh air.

Like you, I have never been loud in a public place. Just as you described for yourself, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of propriety, which is why the occasion of my birth was an calm, orderly affair, without any of that obnoxious crying and mewling that you so often hear about. I have no idea why newborns these days are so self-centered and ignorant of our vital social conventions but it is simply unacceptable. Parents, take note: just because your child doesn't have the ability to speak or understand language or control their limbs or bodily functions is no excuse for them not to know and follow the rules of polite society. And don't bother trying to tell me about cognitive development or any of that nonsense--we both know it's just a ruse to try to distract from the obvious fact that you're a failure as a parent. Am I right, Amy? (May I call you Amy? I don't want to presume.)

I also applaud your exhortation of people to take responsibility for their own life choices. If you are thinking about having a child then you need to consider the possibility that your little Johnny might inconvenience other people for a few hours. And if there's even the slightest possibility that that could happen, you had damn well better keep little Johnny away from them, even if that means that he doesn't get to meet Granny until he's 17. I don't care if Granny can't get the time off work to come to you, or if you don't have the money to fly your whole family across the country for the holidays, you should have thought of that beforehand.

I am a bit concerned, though, Amy, that you might be bowing to pressure from the unwashed masses in limiting the scope of your article. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that you're willing to put Mr. Cell Phone and Ms. Unruly Child in their places, but there is so much that you've left out. I mean, I can hardly go into a Starbucks or Panera Bread or even the grocery store without having to hear people talking. And I don't mean on the phone--thankfully, you already covered that. No, I'm talking about those oblivious, obnoxious jerks who have the audacity to have face-to-face conversations in public places. Don't they know that every time they open their mouths, I have to hear them? If their parents had done their jobs, maybe, but that must not have happened because it's getting to where I can't go anywhere without having my ears raped by their noise-pollutive talking. (People have told me before that I shouldn't used the term "rape" that way because it's hyperbolic and downplays the seriousness of the crime, but fortunately I know you haven't been infected by that ridiculous PC nonsense. I bet you even had people complaining about your having used phrases like "social thuggery" and "stealing" and "victims" in your piece. The nerve of those people...)

Along those lines, why do people think it's OK to wear ugly clothing in public? For that matter, why do they think it's OK to be ugly? I shouldn't have to pay the cost just because someone chooses not to have plastic surgery. Ugly people should stop being so selfish and keep themselves in the basement where they belong. And I don't want to hear "Oh, but plastic surgery is so expensive." Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you decided to be poor.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know as a like-minded individual how much I much I value your writing. People are always telling me that what we really need is patience and tolerance, and that if these are the worst of my problems that I'm pretty well off. You and I know, of course, that all that is a bunch of nonsense. Because, after all, it really does come down to this: I should never have to experience anything that I dislike in the slightest, and anyone who makes me do so is nothing better than a terrorist.

Dear Substitute Spin Instructor

Dear Substitute Spin Instructor,

We need to have a little talk, OK? Look, I know it's your job to tell me what to do, how much gear to add, when to stand, when to sit, when to speed up, when to slow down. That's fine. I know that you're supposed to push me, to get results out of me. What you're doing, though? That's not it.

OK, so you want to throw a heavy hill climb at me? No problem. You want to keep me at a level 9 for 3 minutes? Sure. You want to pull a little bait and switch at the end of the 3 minutes and tell me to keep at it for another whole minute? OK, I can go with that. Tell me to push it? OK. And when I'm straining and I have sweat stinging my eyes and I'm panting so hard that I can't even make myself slow my breathing down, you can even shout "Are you having a good time!?" at that ridiculous moment. But, seriously? When I don't answer, don't give me that "I can't hear you!" crap. That does not inspire me. It just makes me angry.

OK, so maybe I'm stubborn enough that when you say things like "Hey if I don't hear you, I'm not letting you down!" I'm more likely to set my jaw and grimly press on rather than give you the satisfaction of hearing my voice. (As if speaking were even an option for me at that point.) Yeah, I guess that's a form of motivation. If I'm thinking to myself "I would rather puke and pass out than answer you" because of something you said, then I guess you are getting me to work. Except that ultimately what you're motivating me to do is figure out what your class schedule is so that I can avoid you completely from now on.

Oh, and another thing. If you know that you're going to be a hard ass later on, own up to it from the get-go. Don't start off the class like some kind of yoga teacher with all that "listen to your body, don't push yourself further than you can go" stuff if you know that you're going to shout "Dont you dare touch that dial!" at people when they actually do decide that they can't keep up.

Lead instead of pushing. Don't make threats. Don't be a jerk. It might work for Jillian on the Biggest Loser, but you're not dangling a big pile of money in front of me. Is all that clear?

I can't hear you!

An Unpleasant Email Forward

I recently received an email forward that really bothered me. Now, I'm not a big fan of email forwards in general but, for the most part, they're relatively harmless. However, rather than the normal message detailing some fictional email tracking system or inspirational (but also usually fictional) story about a cancer survivor, this one was all about spreading, in my opinion, xenophobia and bigotry. Now, before I say anything else, I need to make it clear to anyone who may know the particulars of this situation that I do not think that the sender is xenophobic or bigoted. On the contrary, he's one of the most generous and empathetic people I've ever met. Really, that made the forward all the more shocking.

The email describes an incident between a Michigan State University professor and a Muslim student group at that same school. Apparently, the student group had protested some political cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. In response, the professor in question sent the following email to the student group:

 

As a professor of Mechanical Engineering here at MSU I intend to protest your protest. I am offended not by cartoons, but by more mundane things like beheadings of civilians, cowardly attacks on public buildings, suicide murders, murders of Catholic priests (the latest in Turkey ), burnings of Christian churches, the continued persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the imposition of Sharia law on non-Muslims, the rapes of Scandinavian girls and women (called "whores" in your culture), the murder of film directors in Holland, and the rioting and looting in Paris France .

 

This is what offends me, a soft-spoken person and academic, and many, many of my colleagues. I counsel you dissatisfied, aggressive, brutal, and uncivilized slave-trading Moslems to be very aware of this as you proceed with your infantile "protests."

If you do not like the values of the West - see the 1st Amendment - you are free to leave. I hope for God's sake that most of you choose that option.

Please return to your ancestral homelands and build them up yourselves instead of troubling Americans.

 

The originators of the email then go on to complain about the predictably outraged response by the student group and ends, as is usual for forwards, by requesting that you pass it on:

 

Send this to your friends, and ask them to do the same. Tell them to keep passing it around until the whole country gets it. We are in a war. This political correctness is getting old and killing us.

 

Now, at first glance you might be tempted to agree with some of the things this professor is saying. Most people do, after all, think rape, murder, and terrorism are awful things, and rightly so. And I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there who are tired of what may seem like endless frivolous protesting. But this is exactly why this sort of thinking is so pernicious and problematic.

Let's take a closer look at the situation being presented. First of all, let's notice that the group in question is a student group at an American university. Now, chances are that a fair number of this student group are not American citizens. But I would find it extremely surprising if I were to find out that there is not also a large portion of the group that are citizens. So, right off the bat, telling them to stop "troubling Americans" is at the very least narrow-minded. What does it take to be considered an American these days? Does practicing a different religion now mean that you're not an American? Or having a different ethnic background? What about being foreign-born or having foreign-born parents? Sounds like bad news for all the Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus out there. Heck, it's bad news for just about everyone--how many of us have no other "ancestral homeland," whether it's in the Middle East or Asia or Africa or Europe?

What about the issue that started the whole thing off in the first place, the offense taken at the cartoon. Well, there's certainly an argument that can be made that it was an overreaction. After all, political cartoons are supposed to be inflammatory and controversial, and maybe we should all be a little more thick-skinned about these things. But what if the situation were reversed? What if it weren't Muhammad but, say, Jesus that were being defamed? Maybe it wouldn't bother you, and in that case, more power to you. But, let's be honest, most people probably would be offended. Back in 1999 people were up in arms about a portrait of the Virgin Mary made out of elephant feces. If that was out of bounds, why isn't something like this? I'm all for the idea of people letting stuff like this go but only if it goes both ways.

Now let's take this line: "I counsel you dissatisfied, aggressive, brutal, and uncivilized slave-trading Moslems to be very aware of this as you proceed with your infantile 'protests.'" Here I might be slipping into the unreasonable realm of "political correctness," but if I'm wrong for thinking it's unacceptable to paint whole religions or races with the same brush, I'm fine with that. I mean, consider what your reaction would be if he said something like, "you greedy, money-grubbing Jews" or "you ignorant, dirty, violent, criminal blacks." Would that be OK? There are over 900 million Muslims in the world, more 3 million in the United States alone, it is clearly not possible to call them all terrorists and slave traders. More to the point, how many of the individuals in that student group--again, I remind you, a student group at an American university--have ever planted an explosive, raped a woman, or bought a slave? If we can really hold these students accountable for things that other members of their religion have done then nobody is safe--horrible injustices and atrocities have been committed in the name of every religion. (In the name of secular ideals, too, lest anyone think I'm just picking on religion.) By this professor's logic, I guess that makes us all rapists, slavers, and murderers.

Finally, there's this line: "This political correctness is getting old and killing us." Is it really the political correctness that's killing us, or is it the fact that we can't seem to get along with people and ideas that are different? Obviously, my opinion is the latter. I understand that political correctness may seem stupid or aggravating to many people, that it's a lot of work to retrain yourself to treat people the way they want to be treated instead of the way you're used to treating them. I understand that it's tiring and sometimes annoying to have to always put yourself in the other guy's shoes. But, really, isn't it worth it? Sure, maybe it's a bother to have to watch what you say and do, but don't you want people to look out for your feelings, too? Tolerance, ideally, is a two-way street--what's good for me is good for you, too.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to say what's on their minds. Just because I happen to think that this professor is small-minded doesn't mean that I think he shouldn't be allowed to express his opinions. But if more people spent some effort trying to understand each other instead of pounding their fists on the First Amendment, I think the world would be a much better place.

License Plate Holders, Sudoku, The Fair, Tony's

As I was on my way to work the other day I noticed that the car in front of me had one of those personalized license plate holders. The slogan on it read, "Her car, his payment." For the life of me, I couldn't figure out whether that was meant as a complaint from him or a boast from her. I don't know which one would bother me more.

 


 

Why is it that so many people have trouble pronouncing the word "sudoku"? It's completely phonetic and not even very long. I mean, I've gotten used to people mangling my quite phonetic last name, but that's also ten letters and five syllables. Sudoku? Three syllables. What's so hard about that? And yet, for some reason, not one person in ten that I've heard say that word gets it right, preferring "suduko" or "soduku" or "sudoku."

Wait a minute...

 


 

This past weekend, Juliette and I went to the San Diego County Fair. The first time we went to the fair was just after we moved to San Diego, so it was a little surprising that a year had already gone by. This year's fair wasn't nearly as entertaining for me as last year's, mainly because I wasn't hungry. Usually the prospect of eating a hot dog, a gyro, kettle corn, ice cream, a caramel apple, roasted corn-on-the-cob, a tri-tip sandwich, and a plate of vegetables that has been deep-fried until any semblance of nutrition is long gone all on the same day would be something that would put me in quite a good mood. But this time I just didn't have much of an appetite, so I had to content myself with looking at student art and champion livestock.

Speaking of livestock, Juliette and I were both shocked to hear a woman exclaim "Oh, look at the horsies!" as we passed through the barn that held the cows, sheep, and goats--with nary a horse in sight. After exchanging incredulous looks, we both resolved to make sure when we have a family to get them out of the city from time to time.

 


 

Later in the weekend we had a friend from out of town in on business, so we went out to dinner with him and some mutual friends to Tony's Jacal. We'd only been once before, about a year before--for that same friend's birthday, as it happens. I'd nearly forgotten about the place in the intervening time, which is odd considering how good it is. In fact, I think that it may be my new favorite Mexican restaurant, since the closing of the Casa de Bandini last year. One of the odd things about San Diego is that although there are plenty of great little taco shops, there are hardly any good Mexican restaurants--not, at least, in the parts of the city with which I'm familiar. Tony's may not actually disprove that observation, considering that it's actually in the neighboring city of Solana Beach, but it's close enough that I'm willing to overlook such technicalities, especially in light of the awesome food. The prices are pretty decent as well--the five of us all ate quite well for less than $70, including tax and tip. I heartily recommend it if you're ever in the area.

I Really Shouldn't Have To Say Any Of This

There are certain things that everyone should just know as a member of society. These aren't big, complicated things. You don't need to know how to solve differential equations or write sonnets. Little things. Like knowing how to use cutlery, or remembering to wear pants. It's come to my attention that there is one area that many people seem to think is exempt from these little courtesies: public restrooms. So I'm just going to take this opportunity for a friendly little reminder. Maybe this doesn't apply to you, but you may at least be able to sympathize with my frustration.

First, and I can't stress this enough, flush. Enough said.

Second, wash your hands afterwards. It's good for you, and it's good for the rest of us. There are so many germs that you pick up on your hands throughout the day, especially in the bathroom. Stop spreading them.

When you're done washing your hands and drying them, put your paper towels in the trash. Not on the floor. Not in the drain. Not stuck to the ceiling. In the trash.

Alright, guys, this one is just to you. I know exactly how much work it takes to aim properly, and it's not much. Make the effort. And make sure you're aiming where you're supposed to, i.e. not the floor.

If you happen to clog up the toilet, take responsibility for what you've done and inform the management. Don't leave an out of order toilet for whoever might come along next. It's not their fault. It's yours. Deal with it.

I don't know why some people turn into total slobs when using public facilities. Maybe they don't have to deal with the consequences of their actions, but do they not realize that the rest of us do? The bottom line is: if you wouldn't do it in your own bathroom, don't do it in the public restroom either.