Everybody Else Uses Checking

Every day on my morning commute, as I pass by an sign reading “Only Jesus Saves” posted on a telephone pole in front of a bank, I think “Well, at least someone will have money for retirement…”

Books: Blindness

After I raved about House of Leaves, a reader suggested I check out Blindness by Jose Saramago, describing it as “another freak-out book.” I wasn’t really in the mood for another freak-out book, honestly, but I found Blindness at the library and brought it home with the intention of putting it on the bottom of my “to read” pile. But then — whoops! — I read the first chapter, and all of my queued up books were forgotten.

Blindness tells the tale of a great epidemic that sweeps through a small town (and perhaps the world, though the scope of the book is provincial), leaving its victims sightless but otherwise unaffected. The first few chapter trace the web of contagion as the disease is transmitted from one person to the next; then, about a third of the way through, the focus shifts to a small group of the infected who are struggling to survive while quarantined in an abandoned mental institution along with scores of similarly afflicted inmates.

The book was originally written in Portuguese, and translated into English. And I have a confession to make: I have an irrational aversion to translated novels. No matter how accomplished the “About The Authors” blurb claims the translator is, I always feel that I am missing out, that something must have surely been lost in the shuffle. Why can’t these author just learn to speak English as second language more fluently than most of us speak it as a first? You know, like Nabokov did. That said, the language in Blindness is rather stark and straightforward, almost Hemmingwayian, so this aspect of it didn’t bother me as much as it otherwise would.

What I did find somewhat irksome — until I grew accustomed to it, at least — was Saramago indifference to punctuation and grammatical rules. Entire conversations in Blindness are often contained in a single sentence, written in a “He said this and then she said that and then what do you mean?, he replied” manner that eschews quotation marks or any other devices that would aid the reader in determining who said what. Some have pointed out that this style mirrors the plight of the protagonists — that we, the reader, must suffer like the sightless, unable to determine where those voices are coming from in the absence of any visual cues.

Much of the novel plays out like a modern-day adaptation of Lord of the Flies, when men, severed from their old lives (here by the loss of a sense, rather than geographically) revert to their bestial natures. Indeed, the middle third of the book is mighty grim, so much so that, at one point, I almost abandoned it, wondering why I was voluntarily subjecting myself to something so depressing. Fortunately, the story already had its hooks in me, leaving me no choice to persevere.

I did not find Blindness to be a “freak-out book” — not on par House of Leaves, at any rate. For one thing, I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough to completely buy into the premise. But, to be fair, Saramago doesn’t try to make the narrative believable, choosing instead to write the story more as an allegory. (None of the characters have names, for instance.) Consequentially, I felt a few steps removed from the action. And while it bummed me out at times, freaked out I was not. Still, an excellent and gripping read, and one I would recommend.

The Bad Review Revue

Rebound: “Starts off bad, then tapers off.” — Kyle Smith, NEW YORK POST

Herbie: Fully Loaded: “To damn it as soporific crap, as lazy profiteering, as yet another needless and cynical remake in a season populated by such con artists, would be as pointless as the movie itself.” — Robert Wilonsky, DALLAS OBSERVER

The Fantasic Four: “Directing seems an unduly elegant term for what the Hollywood hack du jour does here.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY

Mindhunters: “So stupid it makes xXx: State of the Union look like it was written by Nietzsche.” — Stephen Hunter, WASHINGTON POST

Kicking & Screaming: “Not only not funny, it’s unfunny. It kills humor. Sit in a room by yourself, look at a blank screen for 90 minutes, and you’ll have more of a chance of laughing at your own thoughts than you will at this movie.” — Mick LaSalle, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

The Honeymooners: “It’s not as bad as the average Hollywood movie. It’s stupendously worse.” — Wesley Morris, BOSTON GLOBE

Research Day: Butt Muscles, Tractor Beams, And STUFF IN ALL-CAPS

Is your ass one muscle or two? A female coworker of mine recently signed up for a course in bellydancing. Here’s the conversation we had after her first class:

Me: Is it fun?

Her: No, I hate it. It’s way too hard. You have to, like, move the left side off your butt up and the right side down at the same time. I don’t even think that’s possible, since your butt is just one muscle.

M: Is it? I always kind of though it was two.

H: It’s called the “gluteus maximus,” so I think it’s just one.

M: Well, even so, it can’t be impossible to do that. I mean, your tongue is a single muscle, and you can move different parts of it in different direction.

H: No you can’t.

M: Sure you can. If you stick out your tongue you can move the tip of it up and down without moving the back of it.

H: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Like, the front of your tongue is the right side of my butt and the back part of your tongue is the left side of my butt?


M: I’m sorry, but as a married man I can no longer participate in this conversation.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time searching the Internet for an answer to this question. My operating assumption was that the human body only contains one gluteus maximus muscle, but I kept coming across illustrations such as the one found here which make it look like there is one gluteus maximus per leg.

Finally I dusted off my old MeFi account and Asked Metafilter. A few minutes after I posted ther query, ikkyu2 weighed in with this: “Two. Definitely, incontrovertibly two, innervated each by the inferior gluteal nerve (right and left)” and cited this page as evidence. Based on the fact that his Mefi profile page lists his occupation as “neurologist,” and that he knows how to use words like “innervated,” I’m going to believe him.

Update: Although I didn’t mention bellydancing in my Ask Metafilter post, that must be the vocation where butt muscle inventory most frequently occurs because equipoise chimed in with this: “I’m guessing [that a previous responder who said that you can’t move each side of your butt independently] is not a bellydancer. In Middle Eastern dance,, you can shake your hips by squeezing the right glute, then the left, then the right, etc. … From experience, you definitely have a separate muscle in each buttock.”

What’s the origin of the phrase “tractor beam”? “We’re caught in a tractor beam! It’s pulling us in!” So says Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. This may not be the first time I heard the phrase “tractor beam,” but it’s certainly the first I remember. But how one earth did a piece of farm equipment come to be associated with staple of science-fiction?

Surprisingly, there’s a website devoted to questions just like this one. Science Fiction Citations describes its mission as “hunting for the earliest citations of sf words,” and “tractor beam” is one of its many entries. It traces the phrase back to the 1931 story by E. E. Smith entitled “Spacehounds of IPC,” which includes the line “Brandon swung mighty tractor beams upon the severed halves of the Jovian vessel, then extended a couple of smaller rays to meet the two little figures …”

I found a few other pages that corroborated this, but all just attributed it the phrase to Smith without speculating as to why he chose the word “tractor.” But in this discussion thread (Google cache), someone posits a fairly plausible hypothesis: that “tractor” is just short for “attractor.” And someone else points out that there is no need to look beyond the dictionary for an explanation: the word “tractor” has, as one of its definitions, “something that pulls or draws.”

Bonus fact: accorording to this essay, E. E. Smith also gave us the words “forcefield,” “mothership,” and “hyperspace.”

Why, in legal contracts, are some line written in all capitals? I recently had to sign a lengthy indemnity waiver for an event I will soon be participating in, and while most of it was written using the standard rules of capitalization, there were many passages which were written in all-caps. That got me to wondering if the passages in all capitals shared some property, and were capitalized out of legal necessity or tradition.

I asked local blogger and legal mind Snarky, and here’s what he wrote:

Items in contracts that are in BOLD AND ALL CAPITALS are usually those areas in which (1) they are asking for an explicit waiver of an important right (and thus can claim that a reasonable person would not have overlooked the item); (2) are contractual terms that vary greatly from what a common law presumption of the terms would be, were that item not present; or (3) for mere decoration (such as “BUYER” and “SELLER” in a buy/sell contract).

Doing a little legwork on my own, I found what probably explains the presence of all-cap statements in contracts. The General Definitions section, and one thing you can do to automatically render a portion of text “conspicuous” is to put it “in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text.”

Excercise Tip

If you are a jogger and currently over your desired target weight, avoid running down steep inclines. Your additional mass will put undue strain on your knee joints and ligaments, greatly increasing the chance of injury. Also, you will feel every ounce of your surplus fat shake as you jounce down the hill, and that’s a huge fucking drag.

Estate Planning

If anyone in Seattle wants to recommend a lawyer for estate planning, drop me a line or mention them in the comments. I need to get a will and a living will, and would prefer not to pay so much that there’s nothing left to bequeath. Suggestions for estate planning software packages are also welcomed, thanks.

Worst Transformer Ever

I took The Squirrelly to the park. He ran around like a thing wild for 20 minutes, and then, upon the depletion of his very last joule of energy, abruptly transformed into Cranky Frankie.

“Ooooookay,” I said, swinging him onto my shoulder. “I think that’s enough park for one day.” He half-assedly struggled for a bit, squirming until he was horizontal, but then gave up and went limp.

Defeated, he just lay boneless in my arms, alternating between shrieks of anger and insincere sobbing. At that moment a young girl, maybe six, and her mother walked by. The daughter tugged on her mother’s shirt, pointed at The Squirrelly, and said “Mommy, what’s that?”