Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meaningless Words: What Do They Mean?

The main offices of Bowling in the Dark are generally so busy that it’s difficult to keep up with our backbreaking schedule of hardly writing anything, and nearly impossible to find the time to review or respond to the fan mail that pours in from of our adoring legion of three to four semi-regular readers. However, every once in a while a letter demands to be read and shared. This is one of those:

Dear Mr. Bandit and Mr. Guy,
      I’d like to start of [sic] by saying that I owe you everything. You two—specifically, what you wrote right here—saved my marriage, and that’s no joke. And better than that, the prestigious medical journal I read just published an article that says that regular exposure to Bowling in the Dark is a proven cure for cancer! And when my cokehead grandson started reading your website, he turned his life arou—
[Editor’s note: Here she blathers on for a little while about a Harvard scholarship or something. We’ll just skip ahead a bit to the interesting part]
So that’s why I’m hoping you could tell me what the best song in the world is, and why.
Sincerely, A. Fugazi

As a matter of fact, it just so happens that our Research Department recently completed an exhaustive study of two entire songs in order to determine the best song in the known universe, and they’re very excited to be able to share the results.

It came as quite a surprise to learn through their research that what makes a great song is not instrumental virtuosity, uplifting vocal harmonies, a good backbeat, a creative rhyme scheme, or anything else that a merely rational music fan might be willing to consider. Rather, the only important ingredient needed to make a great song is the use of the meaningless nonsense word “na.”

The first song analyzed, “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” comes from Journey’s 1979 album Creation.1 If you’re not familiar with the song, the only lyrics that actually make any sense at all go just like this:
Na na nana na na
Na na na na na
Na na nana na nana nana nanaaaa
(repeat x 6)
In that song, Steve Perry and company repeat the word “na” 132 times in three minutes and fifty-one seconds, for a respectable NPS (na per second)2 rate of .5714. By any way you care to measure, this is a lot of nonsense.

However, The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” off their landmark album Sgt. Pepper’s Revolving Rubber Submarine, repeats “na” an astonishing 268 times in 7:03 of running time, for an NPS rate of .6337.3
na na
Hey, Jude.
(repeat x 6.02 x 1023)
Put another way, The Beatles use “na” 136 times more than Journey does. Not coincidentally, our exhaustive calculations have shown conclusively that The Beatles are precisely 136 times better than Journey. Don’t take our word for it, though. All the evidence is right here, in video form.

Please ignore Ringo’s jacket.

You may have noticed that, despite discussing “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’ ” above, we’ve in fact shown you the video for 1983’s “Separate Ways.” We did this deliberately, because this particular video is awesomely, hilariously shitty in a way that only a true ’80s video can be,4 and that helps us prove our point.5

Our only regret is that current budget limitations prevent us from conducting further research into other worthy nonsense songs such as “Centerfold” (J. Geils Band, 1981) or “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (Steam, 1969). Your generous donation could help advance the study of musical nonsensicology by months if not years, provided we don’t spend it all on alcohol or cheap floozies.6 Please call now, operators are standing by. But please, stop asking us to look into Beck’s “E-Pro.” That’s just not going to happen.7

1. As it’s known in certain parts of the American midwest.
2. It’s an industry term.
3. The number 268 is, rather than an exact count, merely the most accurate measurement that can be made with existing technology. In addition to filling the recognizable and easily measured choruses with “nas,” Paul McCartney also throws them into the occasional verse and also behind the chorus, where they’re much harder to count with any degree of certainty. Some words counted as “na” could well have been “ma,” “ba,” “da,” or even “hamanahamana,” so a more precise count cannot be made at this time. However, the future for more accurate na-enumeration seems bright, because science is always progressing . . . at least outside of Kansas.
23. This isn’t a footnote, you twit. It’s part of a number.
4. Especially the keyboard player at 0:53. Just look at that poor fuckin’ guy.
5. We do regret missing out on being able to sing along to the other song, though, especially because we like to replace the line “lovin,’ touchin’, squeezin’ another” with “lovin,’ touchin’, squeezin’ your mother,” which has been awesomely funny ever since I was in seventh or eighth grade. But that’s the sacrifice we’re willing to make in the name of science.
6. Or, for that matter, expensive floozies.
7. Beck is disqualified from this study despite his occasional use of "na" because for the most part he uses perfectly meaningful words, he simply can’t be bothered to arrange them in any meaningful way. If you’re inclined to debate this point, you are required to submit, in writing, a thorough explanation of what precisely it means to have a devil’s haircut in your mind.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Guam: The Tipping Timebomb of the Pacific

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress.”
—John Adams1

The U.S. House of Representatives’ own Hank Johnson of Georgia recently staggered into the spotlight when, while speaking as part of the House Armed Services Committee, he announced his concerns about a possible military buildup on Guam, and its potential negative effects on that island’s stability.

Now, the influx of a large number of troops and their various support services and dependents would be a legitimate concern, if we were talking about potential environmental, economic, and sociological effects on an island as small as Guam—which is, as Johnson put it, only seven miles wide at its “least widest point.”2

Unfortunately, though, it’s not this environmental, economic, and sociological baloney that keeps Rep. Johnson up at night, but rather “[his] fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.” If you’re the last person on Earth to hear about this story,3 see it for yourself below. The payoff starts at about 1:16, and please also note Admiral Robert Willard’s simple, gracefully respectful response, which is worthy of both admiration and praise:

Johnson’s office later released a statement—perhaps best defined as a nimble but ultimately failed salvage operation—claiming that the Representative was speaking metaphorically, that adding so many troops and dependents could bring the island past “a tipping point [that] would adversely affect the island’s fragile ecosystem and overburden its already overstressed infrastructure.”

I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest expert on the English language, but I’m an avid reader with an English degree and a more than passing familiarity with similes, metaphors, and symbolic use of words. And if Hank Johnson was speaking metaphorically about Guam capsizing, I will literally eat my hat.4

Whatever Hank Johnson’s politics are, I don’t care to know them. I don’t know whether his personal life is squeaky-clean and admirable or sordid and abominable, and as long as it doesn’t keep him from doing his job right, I’m not convinced it’s any of my business. What I do care about, though—what I feel is my business—is that he managed to get elected to one of the more exclusive and influential jobs in the country without knowing one of the fundamental differences between an island and a lily pad. That leads be to believe that there have to be other yawning chasms in his knowledge of how the world is put together, and that would affect how well he can do his job.

In case you’re not sure of the difference yourself, we at Bowling in the Dark paid famed director James Cameron $750,000 to create an interactive 3-D visual representation of the most relevant difference. Here is what he sent us:

Don’t get me wrong—I distinctly remember a time in my life where I genuinely believed that islands floated on top of the ocean. I recall thinking that the fundamental difference between Australia and, say, Hawaii or Guam was not its sheer size but that it did reach all the way to the bottom of the ocean, and other islands didn’t. I also remember learning that I was wrong about this—and at the time, I wasn’t a member of Congress. I was in grade school.

It seems fair to admit that there probably isn’t any regulation requiring public servants to know that islands are anchored to the ocean floor—but I figured it was the kind of thing that you just can’t not know, like how to breathe, or what word people use to describe a car.5 For Hank Johnson to be elected and to continue serving with such an apparent and embarrassing gap in his education is not just his failure or the American education system’s failure, but also a failure of voters to impose a reasonable standard on their elected officials.

(Incidentally, it has been suggested that at the time of his statement, Johnson may have been struggling with side effects caused by medication he’d been taking to treat Hepatitis C. However, according to Newsweek, Johnson had finished his treatments by the time of his Guam statement. So it appears that Johnson’s comments were not the result of an altered mental state caused by prescription drugs. We’re very happy about this, not only because we’re glad he’s feeling better, but also because, as the Newsweek article put it, “[we] may now resume mocking his Guam comments” without feeling like we’re mocking a man’s struggles with a very real illness.6)

There’s a saying that “every man rises to the level of his own incompetence,” and as if to illustrate this point, it was recently announced that Representative Hank Johnson not only remains on the House Armed Services Committee (among others), but also has been informed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he’s been added to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. I don’t know a whole lot about the latter committee, but I’m pretty sure that the House Armed Services Committee is a fairly important one. If we’re going to keep giving this guy responsibilities, that’s fine, but shouldn’t we consider awarding him something with a little less impact, like, say, the House Committee on Teddy Bear and Hello Kitty Affairs?

It’s almost certainly unfair to judge people, politicians or otherwise, for only the most colossally stupid things they’ve said at their most profoundly embarrassing moments.7 So I admit that I may be a bit out of line for assuming that Representative Hank Johnson is a dumb guy, simply because he said something really, really stupid that was caught on video. Even smart people make mistakes, some of them very embarrassing, bad, naughty, and/or destructive.

But come on, can you really tell me that a smart person would make this kind of mistake? I don’t believe that. Is it too much to ask the voters in this country—specifically Georgia, in this case—to elect somebody with a basic grasp on how the world is put together? Is it too much to expect that if we’re going to hire people to run this country, wouldn’t it help if they were, you know, smart? God help us all if we continue to elect people just like us. Shouldn’t we be electing people that are smarter than people just like us?

1. I haven’t been able (or even tried) to verify whether John Adams ever actually said or wrote this, but William Daniels said it as Adams in 1776—quite possibly the single best movie musical about the American Revolution made in the 1970s—and that’s good enough for me. Also, my apologies to any Bowling in the Dark readers who are disgraces, lawyers, or both.
2. A crack team of Bowling in the Dark linguists have been working around the clock for weeks to figure out just what this means. Results so far have been inconclusive.
3. In keeping with our theme of being well behind this times, this happened in late March and I’m just now getting around to commenting on it. So when I wrote that this happened “recently,” I’m speaking in cosmic terms, rather than in internet terms.
4. That is, I will literally eat a metaphorical hat. Metaphorically.
5. That word is “car.”
6. And we will. We sincerely wish him many long years of good health, but we just as sincerely hope that his surprising misunderstanding of extremely basic geology doesn’t reflect similar misunderstandings of other subjects important to our elected officials, such as law, physics, geography, math, the Constitution, or the theory of evolution. To name a few.
7. Although this hasn’t stopped folks from doing it to Dan Quayle and Al Gore for years now, even going to far as to give them credit for all sorts of stupid things they’d never said.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Speling is for Ccks

Brought to You by the Wieners in Washington 

Disclaimer: the following column contains photographic evidence of a naughty word that you may well find offensive and/or funny, provided you’re not one of those folks with lifeless, burned-out little cinders where your souls used to be.

Bobby Cox, the longtime manager of the Atlanta Braves, was honored—sort of—by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, May 4, 2010, to commemorate his long and distinguished career in major league baseball. At the end of the 2010 baseball season, Cox will step down from the job he’s held for twenty-five years, during which time he led his team to multiple World Series appearances and one World Championship. Two U.S. Senators, Georgia’s Johnny Isakson and West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, praised Cox in statements to be entered into the Congressional Record, and then presented Cox with a cake thanking him—sort of—for the half-century he’s dedicated to playing, coaching, and teaching the sport he loves.

I’m encouraged by our two governing parties’ willingness to occasionally put aside their unhealthy partisan bickering and work together in a respectful and possibly even friendly way—Senator Isakson is a Republican, and Rockefeller is a Democrat—and would be even more pleased if they occasionally did so towards some end that wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, as utterly insignificant as talking about baseball.

Unfortunately, though, the event turned out to be at least as much of a black eye as a feather in anyone’s cap. If you haven’t heard about this already, the cake makers got the Braves manager’s name wrong. And no, they didn’t misspell “Bobby.”1

Whether this was deliberate or an accident is hardly the issue, at least for me. If it was deliberate, it’s certainly a rude and nasty thing to do, and it’s so troubling, childish, and offensive that I doubt I’ll giggle at it for more than a couple more days. What’s more important and disturbing to me—and what should be embarrassing to anybody who caught a look at the cake before it was presented—is that it somehow made it all the way from the cake shop to the Capitol without being noticed, mentioned, or corrected. The odds against this happening should be astronomical, for several reasons:

1. Only three managers in baseball history (Connie Mack, John McGraw, and Tony LaRussa) have more wins than Bobby Cox. No other manager in history can match his fifteen division titles. He’s a four-time Manager of the Year, and has won five National League championships and one World Series, having beaten the equally-insensitively-named Cleveland Indians in 1995. In other words, he’s pretty well known, and if you’re not immediately familiar with his name or who he is, he’s quite easy to look up online. Seriously, try it yourself. If it takes you more than about six seconds to find the right way to spell his name, either your computer is broken or you're some sort of stupid cock.

2. Nobody on Earth has ever, ever had the last name of “Cocks.” Seriously. And anybody who isn’t aware of this fact isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, allowed to work in government because they are—that’s right—stupid cocks.

3. A pretty typical going rate for first-class proofreading is around $25 per hour. The time it takes to read “Thanks For 50 Great years, Bobby Cocks”—seven words—is approximately 4 seconds, or just under $0.03 for the whole job.2 Three cents to keep the folks in our government from looking like really, really stupid cocks is money well spent.

4. The estimated budget for the U.S. government for fiscal year end 2010 is 3.552 trillion dollars. If my math holds up, the cost to hire (for example) me to proofread this cake would have represented right around 0.0000000000008% of our national budget. Or to put it a different way, it would have cost three cents (see above). I paid more than three cents in taxes this year, so the government has the money . . . and even if the government didn’t have the money, has that ever stopped them before?

5. While I’m not intimately familiar with the paths baked goods take through Capitol Hill security, I have to imagine that at some point this cake probably would have been taken out of its box and actually looked at, possibly poked at or scanned to make sure it wasn’t actually a delicious but deadly explosive. All it took was one page, or aide, or lobbyist, or security dude with a wand to look at it and say to somebody “hey, you do realize that this word means ‘dicks,’ right?” And that didn’t happen

I suppose I’m making this a bigger deal than it really is,3 and I understand that this particular typo didn’t appear on, say, landmark legislation or a nuclear anti-proliferation treaty—as far as we know—but if nobody out there has the brains to notice an embarrassing, offensive, and obvious misspelling of a famous man’s very simple name, what the hell kinds of mistakes are we allowing into our nuclear anti-proliferation treaties?

As embarrassing as this is, we should all be thankful that the cake people were asked only to write out the guy’s name. If they’d been told to draw a picture of Cox, who knows what we would have ended up with. I certainly wouldn’t have posted it here.4

1. Photo from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, used without permission but also without malice, intent to defraud, or possibility of financial gain, and all in the spirit of good fun.
2. For what it’s worth, the letter F in “For” should not be capitalized, and the letter Y in “Years” should be.
3. Just like a typical guy.
4. For the record, lest you think I’m a Braves fan, I’m not. I’m still mad that they beat the Rockies in the 1995 Wild Card round, and the Tomahawk Chop may well be the stupidest thing on Earth—D.C.-area cake decorators not included.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Did You Know?

Forget what you may have heard from astrophysicists or know-it-alls about neutron stars or black holes. The heaviest substance in the known universe—to be found not out in some distant galaxy, but right here on planet Earth—is James Hetfield’s right hand.

Coming in at a close second place is James Hetfield’s weird mutton-chop/mustache combo, circa early 1990s.