[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

The Best Worst First Date

[Cross-posted to Medium]

You’re definitely going on the first date. I know this is America and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want, but we’re assuming for the purposes of this Einsteinian thought experiment that you are definitely going on the first date.

That being true, what is the worst place you could be invited on a first date that would not foreclose the possibility of a second? Keep in mind that the suggested activity could be anything. So you may get invited for coffee. Or you may get invited for dinner. Or a trip to an art museum. An art museum! That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

But maybe that art museum is full of Che Guevara pop art and your date goes to the gift shop to buy a poster *on the way in.* Would Starbucks be good enough? I’ve heard from veteran daters that it is. What if it’s one of those understocked Starbuckses that is attached to a grocery store? How about Wendy’s? Maybe you, like me, enjoy few things more than a well-timed Frosty, and your date goes to the Wendy’s near campus so often that he (or she!) knows when the fresh batch of fries is coming out and, well, any date that includes “fresh batch of fries” by definition gets a second date.

This is the discussion some friends and I had for approximately 30 minutes while watching the Super Bowl. The loose consensus of our collection of mixed-gender 30-somethings seemed to be “Olive Garden,” and while I think there are places worse than the Olive Garden that would get a second date, I couldn’t convince the group. Yes, my time at the University of Michigan Law School was a total waste.

I also think “Olive Garden” can’t possibly be the answer because of its unusual ironic appeal for most suburban-raised millennials. The unlimited salad and breadsticks feel like cheating, even if the breadsticks are butter-drenched packing peanuts molded to resemble a tiny baguette. There have to be worse chain restaurants that would get you a second date. For me, if all activities are up for discussion, then almost any full meal is going to get a chance at a second date. But I also drove across Michigan to speed-eat a 5 lb. hamburger covered in sour cream and nacho cheese during a minor league baseball game, so…

When the alternative is a short coffee because someone swiped right at midnight after a night of drinking and is just trying to get this over with, a full meal feels like a real commitment, one more likely to get a proposal than a mere second date. But maybe I’m easy to please.

What do you think? What’s the worst place for a first date that would still get you to drag yourself across the second date threshold ?

Smanker: The Social Media Douchebag Gets His Politically Correct Wings

Francisco Dao of 50Kings, writing over at Pando Daily, is trying to make fetchsmanker” happen. That’s short for “social media wanker.” If you live in an area of dense tech startup activity or are a sentient human of employable age, you likely know That Person.

The column makes a valiant attempt to carve out some real estate for his coinage in between “smang it” and “smerd*” in the Gideons Portmanteau Dictionary. But ultimately his Foxworthy-style questionnaire falls short of the comprehensive test that we need for wider adoption. As the unacknowledged hero behind an unsuccessful, decade-long effort to bring back “Opposite Day,” I know well the Sisyphean task he has set for himself.

*Small nerd, e.g., “What up, smerds!”

Francisco, if you’re out there, consider this blog post my offer to help. If catastrophic but edifying failure is also a badge of honor in meme proliferation circles, I am your man. I can also contribute my small but enthusiastic reserve army, the Opposite Day Brigade (ODB). They’ll turn the t-shirts inside out, I promise.

On to his list:

  1. If you put your Klout score on your resume, you might be a smanker.
  2. If you think having a Tumblr page automatically qualifies you for a press pass, you might be a smanker.
  3. If you really believe the economy runs on “thank you’s” and not money, you might be a smanker.
  4. If you’re socially inept in real life, but popular on Twitter, you might be a smanker.
  5. If you think Mubarak was overthrown by Facebook and not by the blood of Egyptian revolutionaries, you might be a smanker.
  6. If your idea of an awesome vacation is going to 140 Conference, you might be a smanker.
  7. If you think “Liking” the Facebook page of a charity makes you an activist, you might be a smanker.
  8. If you’ve ever thought you could survive on Klout perks and social media schwag, you might be a smanker.
  9. If you claim to be an entrepreneur but six months in your “company” is still just a landing page, you might be a smanker.
  10.  If you’ve ever given the advice “be authentic and engage in the conversation,” you might be a smanker.

This is a fine list, as far as it goes. But I have some quibbles. Mainly that a few of the ten are strawmen and are also not quite at the level of hilarity required to warrant inclusion. As David Foster Wallace proved in his non-fiction, if your made-up observations are either LOL-inducing or plausibly true, your audience will forgive you.

Re: #2, I don’t know of anybody who feels that merely having a Tumblr entitles them to a press pass. And I am a much bigger loser than Francisco and so keep the company of people who, if this was a possible thing to feel, would be inclined to. Now, if your Tumblr is on the level of Bon Iverotica or Annals of Online Dating, I see no reason why our Founding Fathers wouldn’t have wanted to give you the freedoms and benefits that come with the designation of “press.” Hell, I’d likely rather hear questions from the person behind Kim Jong Il Looking At Things than most of the White House Press Corps.

#4 is rather harsh on the socially inept. Plenty of delightful, smart folks are better in writing than they are in person. That shouldn’t get them branded as a wanker, or even the final 5 letters of the word wanker.

#5 seems to imply that there are people out there who envision Facebook as a giant 800 million person-Transformer. I get up every morning hoping to meet this kind of big dreamer, but I haven’t. If anybody knows of a Colorado-based meetup for these high-octane imagineers, let me know.

And Francisco, let’s also workshop “smanker” a bit. I have some suggestions for punchier Portamanteaus that might really blow this whole thing open. What do you think of “smoser” (pron.: /’smuzər/ (IPA), SMOO-zer)? Or how about “smassclown”?

Finally, in the interest of being constructive, here are a few off-the-cuff additions I would make to the original list:

1.) If you earnestly use the hashtag “#startuplife,” you might be a smanker.

2.) If your total number of tweets is less than 2x the number of times you’ve retweeted the pithy startup wisdom from Aaron Levie and Shervin Pishevar, you might be a smanker.

3.) If you enthusiastically post and endorse every single infographic that you see, you might be a smanker.

4.) If you don’t currently have a job and don’t actually have any experience doing much of anything besides tweeting in your undies but maintain that you are looking for a job in social media, you might be the textbook definition of a smanker.

5.) If you love George Takei and it’s not because of Star Trek, you might be a smanker.

6.) If, on any social media profile, you self-apply any or all of the following labels (guru, maven, visionary, intellectual, rock star, thinker), you might be a smanker.

 

My Failed Application to Write for Groupon

Editorial Note: After a few months of feeling sad because the dillweeds at GoDaddy destroyed my blog and all my content—and the compounded sadness from realizing I wasn’t important enough for the Wayback Machine to have indexed more than a few posts—I’m committing to regular writing again. Here goes…

Like most people who think they’re good writers but don’t actually submit a ton of stuff for evaluation by professionals, I probably have an inflated sense of how good non-parental humans think my writing is. And it was with this naive but not entirely baseless confidence that, in the winter of 2011, I submitted an application to be a member of the zany brotherhood of Groupon writers.

At the time, I was pretty strapped for cash. And I had spent enough time groaning and rolling my eyes at Groupon’s schlocky Dad-humor that I finally decided to demonstrate I could do better or just shut up about it. I can’t remember precisely, but I’m sure there were elaborate fantasies of being the Groupon equivalent of Michael Clayton. I would get called in at inflated rates to pen 4 coruscating paragraphs selling a Brazilian Wax to a community of genetically hairless Iowans or some such.

As a second job, it was close to ideal. I could work remotely and do as much as I had time for. And because I tend to write quickly, I was fairly certain I’d be making a mint in no time. Step 3: Profit!

I even had relevant blurb-writing experience. Back when I worked at The Prague Post (The World’s Most Respected Czech Republic-based, English-language newspaper), I spent a few hours each day surveying the Czech newswire and writing 50-word briefs. I also have photographic evidence of having, on at least one occasion, uttered a sentence amusing enough to make another person laugh with their whole face. And while Groupon insists that “[a]chieving Groupon Voice [ed: incidentally, how creepy and corporate is “Groupon Voice,” all capitalized and without articles] is not about being inherently funny,” it seems that their writers use most of the real estate not dedicated to boring deal details for swing-for-the-fences attempts at being funny or quirky.

The Groupon application consists of a mock write-up for a deal and an online quiz that has both fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice sections. The quiz, which you can find online here, comprises both grammar/style/diction questions and questions designed to ferret out if you can determine what is funny and what is not. Or, more accurately, which choice conforms to the “Groupon Voice” and which does not.

A sample question (and answer key) from the NYT article linked above:

The kitchen is statistically the most dangerous room in a home because it contains the highest concentration of knives, open flames and …

A. cereal killers

B. spoiled fruit

C. mothers-in-law

D. pots of semi-living lobsters

Nearly half the writers pick A, but the correct answer is D. Puns are not allowed, spoiled fruit isn’t even remotely funny, and defaming mothers-in-law could irk mothers-in-law.

This question, like many of the questions, can cause problems for applicants that either haven’t adequately internalized the Groupon Voice or are actually funny and as a consequence lack imaginative access to the elusive GV. On the quiz, as with my sample deal write-up, I tried to put myself in the headspace of someone writing the reviews I’d been reading in my inbox for months. I thought I could achieve the appropriate tone by submerging my head in ice water for 7 minutes and then composing my response by trying to conjure Woody Allen on his worst day.

At the risk of sounding like that high school classmate that maintained he did poorly on certain SAT questions because “there were no good answers,” those answers all suck. And it’s not even close to obvious why one sucks less than the others. “Cereal killers” is an atrocious pun; “spoiled fruit” is wimpy and dumb and yet may be so wimpy and dumb that it’s actually funny; “mothers-in-law” is hackneyed, and mean without any payoff; and “pots of semi-living lobsters,” the supposed right answer, is aggressively stupid. And not because lobsters aren’t funny, or because the idea that pots of lobsters already submerged in boiling water would be dangerous is nonsensical and also unfunny. It is actually, I think, a candidate for the worst answer because of “semi-living.”

Maybe this is a personal bugaboo, but I see a lot of writing—mostly from folks under 40—in which people use  “semi-” and “quasi-” carelessly and with really lame results. These modifiers usually just make the intended thought less precise and/or more confusing. Here it just makes me want to poke my eyes out. It sounds like a lazy teenager describing lobster-zombies. Except less funny than that.

The idea behind D being the correct answer is presumably, if you’ve read that NYT piece by now, that it is “incongruous” that “semi-living” lobsters would be dangerous. And so even if it’s not funny, this is the correct answer because of the incongruity. Or something.

Here are a few other questions from the actual quiz I took. See if you can pick the right answer. I actually can’t help you out here since I don’t have my responses to the multiple choice. I scored an 82, for whatever that’s worth. I believe that’s out of 100? Which strikes me as not terrible but also was not enough to get me the job.

Select the most compelling, verifiable descriptor.

A. state-of-the-art
B. top-notch
C. phenomenal
D. licensed and certified

Which is the most interesting way to describe a 4,700 pound chandelier?

A. blinged out
B. more brilliant than a studious Christmas tree
C. a death trap
D. really big and shiny

Select the most enticing descriptor for a devil’s food cupcake.

A. delicious
B. sure to go straight to your hips
C. ooey-gooey
D. velvety

And here are the questions and my answers to the fill-in-the-blank section, followed by my mock write-up for a kayaking tour. I tried to ape the Groupon Voice while demonstrating a bit of originality as well. I was actually pretty pleased with how the deal write-up turned out, and especially so given that I wrote it in under 30 minutes. It seemed slightly stupid, mildly and occasionally funny, and it contained all the relevant details for the deal I was asked to sell.

18. Complete the sentence with an engaging verb:

[titillate] taste buds with the tangy ceviche.

19. Complete the sentence with an engaging verb:

The soft caramel light of two fireplaces [radiates] across the oak dining area.

20. Add an adjective:

The lights on the dance floor are set to a/an [subterranean] dim.

21. What are three synonyms for ‘customer’ that you might use when describing a boating tour?

passenger, client, Gilligan-wannabe

22. In one sentence, describe the décor and ambiance of this restaurant’s dining room:

ed: My answer here gave me douchechills, but I bravely submitted it anyways. [With lush brown drapery, elegant overhead lighting, and a regal burnished wood table, [X restaurant]’s interior is so nice one would be forgiven for not taking in the beautiful floor-to-ceiling views of the city at dusk.]

23. Humorously complete the sentence:

A hand-written note has the capacity to change minds, break hearts, or [elicit a sizable ransom]. 

ed: Full post-mortem disclosure: I thought “elicit a sizable ransom” alone was going to get me the job.

24. Humorously complete the sentence:

Black Magic Salon treats toes with the respect normally reserved for fingers and fingers with the respect normally reserved for [Oprah].

——

Kayaking Deal Write-Up

Do you resent the internal combustion engine? Think motor boats are for chumps? By taking advantage of today’s Groupon from Sea Kayak Georgia you can live out your Luddite water transportation fantasies with a half-day, all-levels kayaking tour for $25 (a $55 value). The 3-hour coastal tours are available year round and are offered every day. From March through October you have the option of 9am -12pm or 1:30pm -4:30 ; choose November through February and you’ll be spared the early morning wake-up with an 11am start. Orientations takes place 30 minutes before the posted start time.

Sea Kayak Georgia has been owned and operated by locals Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp since 1994. Both are ACA (American Canoe Association) and BCU (British Canoe Union) certified instructors and actually live on Tybee Island, the area you’ll be touring. You can develop your paddling skills, if you have them, or simply get out into what your Eastern European friends may call “The Nature” for a relaxing flatwater jaunt. Most trips go to Little Tybee Island, an undeveloped State Heritage site complete with beautiful, craggy trees and the occasional lighthouse.

Sea Kayak Georgia provides everything you need and no experience is necessary, although they do specify that you must bring your own clothes, shoes and snack/water. You’ve been warned: no showing up naked.

So there you have it. The point of this post was not to dwell on the rejection, which does still feel raw and commensurately stingy. And it was not to try and articulate why Groupon’s writing is actually kind of lame. Because that is both obvious and boring. The main idea was to leave a record of my abject failure so historians and/or Deities can make a fully informed judgment of my worth as a human, and so anonymous Internet commenters can call me a no-talent assclown. Which I quite enjoy.

At some point I may write a longer post with some actual substance that more directly addresses why Groupon’s whole schtick (distinct from their business model) is bad for businesses. Which reason is, in part, because it lacks sincerity, which is the fundamental element of good sales and why I would not want my business associated with the company. Unless I was in the unfunny Ironic T-shirt business. Which I am not. Yet.

Pop Music Will Learn You Good

After last month’s summer music review, a number of readers wrote in with some very personal stories of how pop music has changed their lives. Jennifer from Minneapolis wrote in with a touching attempt at a poem that described how Neil Diamond helped her get through puberty without having a breakdown and “Kelly” from Brooklyn credits her ringtone version of Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot,” which contains the lyrics “I’m hot ‘cuz I’m fly/You ain’t ‘cuz you not,” with subconsciously teaching her enough about logical reasoning to help boost her LSAT score 5 points and catapult her into our very own Law School.

Kelly’s transformative experience notwithstanding, the plentiful linguistic gifts of popular music, it seems, are mainly lexicographic.  That is, it gives us lots of new words. For instance, Steve Miller’s “Space Cowboy” provided the world with the endlessly useful ‘pompatus,’ and hip hop is responsible for the diffusion, if not the generation of, ‘crunk’ and ‘shorty.’  In the case of Snoop Dogg’s ‘-izzle’ language we have a vocabulary so rich that some linguists believe it will soon replace both the dreaded Pig Latin and Oppish, that hideous invention of middle school girls that involved, inter alia, putting ‘Op’ at the ends of words, as the preferred nonsense language of the nation’s young people.

Some of our finest musicians, however, are not content to merely introduce new words.  They aim to influence the architecture underlying interpersonal communication – our grammar.  Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” known to Dylan scholars as one of his most widely popular hits, is actually an extended commentary on the disappearing colloquial distinction between “lie,” which means to recline or be situated, and “lay,” which is generally a transitive verb meaning to put down or arrange.  Moreover, it’s believed that Dylan set the lyrics to such an easy melody in order to sow the seeds of confusion among the hoi polloi while simultaneously increasing the antipathy that the traditionally upper middle class grammarians of the world feel for the untutored masses and thereby ignite the Revolution that so many were working for in the late 60s.

In the past ten years, this tradition of linguistically conscious pop music has been carried on by the warrior poet Ludacris and, most recently, by Stacy Ann Ferguson, better known as Fergie.  And but so whereas Dylan’s song seems deliberately calibrated to foment rebellion and tear our country apart, Fergie approaches her songs with a message of unity. If we all spelled the same way, her music implies, there would be no war.

Now, some of you may know Fergie as the leathery former frontlady of the Black Eyed Peas and the one responsible for one of the worst songs of the last few years, 2005’s “My Humps.” Others as the maxillofacially curious fiancé of Transformers‘ heartthrob Josh Duhamel. All of you waiting for a slightly more sophisticated reason to kneel in front of Fergie and kiss the hem of her daisy dukes can now refer to her subtle foray into the field of linguistics as evidence of her much-deserved celebrity status. I’m actually not talking about the fact that listening to a Fergie song often doubles as an advanced lesson in self-promotional orthography  – e.g., “Fergalicious,” which teaches you how to spell ‘Stacy’, ‘Fergie’, and ‘delicious’ in the same song – but instead about her slightly more controversial embrace of the ’singular they,’ one of the hobbyhorses of prescriptive linguists everywhere.

The ‘singular they’ is the use of the pronoun ‘they’ in a sentence such as “Any girl who dates a fellow law student is dumb; they must have an IQ below 100.”  The powdered wig set would insist you substitute ‘she’ for ‘they’ in the second sentence. There are complicated linguistic arguments about the different semantic work each of those choices does, but it’s safe to say that people have been using ‘they’ in this fashion since before the time of Shakespeare, and that when somebody tries to tell you it’s grammatically incorrect, they’re usually wrong.

By way of illustration, I present a verse from Fergie’s recent (and terrible) “Big Girls Don’t Cry”:

I hope you know, I hope you know

that this has nothing to do with you.

It’s personal, myself and I

we got some straightening out to do.

And I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket.

 

Stephen Pinker talks extensively about the problem of nominally singular antecedents being associated with plural pronouns (them, they, etc.) in his book “The Language Instinct.” A related excerpt from page 391 of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics Edition:

“Everyone returned to his seat” [ed. What your elementary school teacher would have you substitute for the allegedly ungrammatical ‘Everyone returned to their seat.’] makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to be in the audience, and everyone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph […]

The next time you get corrected for this sin, ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:

Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.

Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible “improvement,” Mary saw everyone before John noticed him.

 

Pinker goes on to explain that the dissonance we intuitively hear in the ‘improvement’ has to do with the linguistic relationship between everyone and they. That is, they are not functioning in this case as ‘pronoun’ and ‘antecedent’ but as the more obscure ‘quantifier’ and ‘bound variable,’ a distinction that while interesting is sufficiently wonky as to be beyond the ambit of this here humble column.

This is all a very long-winded way of encouraging you all to really listen to the music around you, even the stuff you think is garbage.  The music of Fergie and Bob Dylan has important lessons to teach us all about the world we live in, and for those of you who don’t read the Language Log blog on a regular basis, you’ll sleep soundly knowing that you can probably absorb a freshman course in generative grammar by listening to Top 40 radio.

In Which I Mostly Validate Your Osama Blood Lust

Ok, so a few words on whether or not you’re allowed to be happy that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Because it appears as if relief may be the ceiling of the Officially Sanctioned Emotions. Or maybe it only reaches somber reflection, in which case my Twitter feed has a bigtime reduction in Life Points coming.

The day after OBL was killed in what sounds like an operation combining the best and worst elements from Michael Bay & James Cameron (True Lies, not Titanic), a good portion of the Internet was already clucking about the legions of wildly celebrating idiots that appeared everywhere from CNN to Al Jazeera to the Citgo Store down the street. The night of the announcement, this was the public face of America’s reaction: a bunch of probably drunk college kids yutes getting their jingoistic kicks and pretending like we won the World Cup in a world where we actually cared about the World Cup. Yes, it was crass and gave me a severe case of the douche chills. And this coming from someone who was, at least for some portion of the evening, unabashedly happy that OBL was killed.

But why do so many seem surprised or disappointed that this is what ended up happening in certain corners of the country and that this is what the TV news networks chose to show? Or, rather, why are people mistaking what the TV networks are showing for an accurate depiction of the country’s reaction? Or even neglecting the possibility that it might be perfectly acceptable or simply realistic for people to be happy momentarily and only afterwards transition into the business of figuring out what to do next. Or maybe people are capable of having multiple conflicting emotions at once and yet only outwardly expressing one at a time at the risk of looking like an Edvard Munch painting. Also strange to me is that less than a day after the single most accomplished terrorist of all time is murdered by a bunch of Americans, so many were in a race to winnow down the spectrum of permissible reactions to approximately 4.

I’m even more baffled that folks opining in the aftermath were turning these scenes of jubilation/patriotism/nationalism/whathaveyou into straw men about how people who are happy or even merely relieved for some non-trivial period of time must feel that OBL’s death represents the End of Terrorism and boy look at how impossibly blinkered and stupid everybody is. Because of course if you truly had a nuanced view of things, you couldn’t possibly be happy for any longer than it takes for a video camera to confirm that that is indeed a smile and not a pre-emetic spasm.

Dancing on graves is not my style (although I am not a categorical non-grave dancer), but I think that it’s possible to have a visceral, true reaction to Bin Laden’s death that isn’t particularly dignified but also not worthy of condemnation. Which is not to say that everybody celebrating is even capable of having a thoughtful reaction to a controversial historical event. But I don’t care. Kantian philosopher Christine Korsgaard is quoted in an NPR piece as saying that “[i]f we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead.” This unhelpful distinction strikes me as precisely the sort of thing an academic philosopher would say when talking to NPR. Talking about the morality of emotions in this case is just not very interesting. And of course all the usual caveats apply about how our emotions are conditioned and we have some control over shaping that blah blah blah. Talk to me when somebody’s actually done something reprehensible. And no, swaddling oneself in the American flag and screeching out Team America: World Police references does not count.

And in fact I actually wouldn’t begrudge these people their Death Dancing at all were it not for the fact that Bin Laden’s death is a bit beside the point at this late stage and also inextricably bound up in all the other War on Terror bullshit of the past decade. But one can recognize what it means or doesn’t mean when situated in historical context and also be relieved and even glad that the dude got a double tap to the head. I will disagree with those that say it’s meaningless (looking at you unnamed Wallace-l contributor) by asserting that nobody has any idea what it means, really. Although Dan Drezner takes a shot at describing quite forcefully why it might mean quite a lot while still preserving the SEO benefits of not having the word “fuck” in your title.

George Bush’s simplistic Manichaean view of the world did quite a bit to fracture the country and poison our capacity for political dialogue. Osama’s death enabled, however briefly, the flickering re-imagination of a national community, of a kind of collective identity. Nobody who was on Twitter on Sunday could deny this. This does not mean that everybody felt the same way, but that night everybody felt something. Together. And the range of feelings when something of this magnitude happens, after what has seemed like the world’s longest case of retribution blue balls, is vast and within broad limits largely beyond reproach. I just don’t find a few hours of blood lust indulgence every generation or two all that troubling. And I don’t think it’s a slippery slope to being just like our enemies, as David Sirota’s popular piece seems to imply.

So what does it mean? Nobody has any idea, because what it means is partially up to us. Or more accurately maybe Barack Obama. He can’t control whether this assassination galvanizes Al Qaeda into retaliation or even whether Pakistan and the US drift further apart or manage to use this as an excuse to repair frayed ties. But America craves symbolic victories. Whether Obama will harness this one and actually end the War on Terror in all its freedom-sapping, innocent-killing glory is up in the air. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll all be at the mercy of our sanctimonious Facebook friends, who will lie in wait hoping for any small expression of forbidden emotion in order to smugly assert their moral superiority by passive aggressively posting quotations of dubious provenance.