Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Updating the Rules of Chivalry

It’s been said that chivalry – which I define as the quality of men being polite and respectful toward women – isn’t dead, just underemployed. Nowadays, the average man never learns the fine art of being polite and respectful toward anyone, equating it with subservience or a diminishing of his “street cred.” And the average woman, while she may appreciate an occasional polite deed or gesture, is sometimes embarrassed by the attention in what is supposed to be a gender-neutral world.

It’s tough for a man to know what today is proper and acceptable behavior toward women; after all, gestures that might have been acceptable in the 40’s or 50’s or even the 80’s and 90’s may be frowned upon by the lady of today.

I would call your attention to this interesting, somewhat tongue-in-cheek article by Lauren Bans which offers a guide to what’s acceptable and what’s not in the not-so-chivalrous 21st century. Here are a few of her takes on some of the old and new rules of chivalry … with my commentary, of course …

Old Rule: Always hold the door.
New Rule: Almost always hold the door.

A lady usually won’t mind if you open a door for her as a matter of common courtesy. After all, men sometimes open and hold doors for each other. Ms Bans recommends, though, that you not race ahead to open the door, or muscle the lady out of the way to get there first … if you’re in the right position, go ahead and do it, otherwise let her go ahead and open it herself (and, perhaps, hold it for you). Don’t use it as an excuse to ogle her backside. And regardless of who opens the door, don’t slam it in the face of the person coming up behind you.

Old Rule: The man always pays.
New Rule: If she asks, she pays.

Many ladies today are creeped out by a man who always wants to pay for everything, possibly because they feel that he’s expecting subsequent horizontal repayment. If you invited the lady out, you should pay. If she extended the invitation, let her pay. Or agree in advance to go Dutch. But if one of you is footing the bill, it’s bad form for the other to order the most expensive item on the menu.

Old Rule: Order for her.
New Rule: Never order for her.

Most of the ladies you’re likely to date can read the menu, and they’re more than capable of ordering for themselves. Let them do it. If the menu is in a foreign language, let whoever speaks the language place the order*.

Old Rule: Put your phone away.
New Rule: Put your phone away.

Unless you’re a doctor, volunteer fireman, or police officer on duty and expected to be available at a moment’s notice, turn the phone off and leave it in the car. The lady deserves your undivided attention.

Old Rule: Stand up when a lady enters the room.
New Rule: Don't get up.

This is one in which I differ from Ms Bans – I think it’s perfectly all right to stand up when a lady approaches and you are sitting down. It shows respect. And I also think it's okay to offer a seat to a lady, particularly if she's older than you are.**

Old Rule: Punch people to defend her honor.
New Rule: Do not punch people to defend her honor.

Aside from any other considerations, nowadays you never know when the person who’s bothering your date might be a gun enthusiast anxious to prove his manhood and celebrate his Second Amendment rights by packing iron in inappropriate locations. And as Ms Bans notes, most women are more than capable of getting rid of unwanted admirers on their own.

Chivalry. It's not meant to demean or embarrass anyone ... it's meant to show respect. Try it ... you may like it. Ladies, weigh in ... what sorts of well-intended but perhaps unwanted chivalrous behavior do you like or not like? Why?

Have a good day. Remember the Golden Rule***. More thoughts tomorrow.


* It will keep you from embarrassing yourself by accidentally ordering something unexpectedly disgusting. If neither of you can read the menu and it does not feature pictures of the entrees, consider patronizing another establishment.

** A few years ago, I was on a Metro train in Washington when a young woman stood up to offer me her seat. It was a very nice gesture, but it made me feel older and more decrepit than usual.

*** Not the DC version - "Whoever has the gold, makes the rules."

Monday, September 29, 2014

Letters for All Occasions

If you've been reading this blog for long, you already know that I love to write. I've exchanged handwritten letters with many of you (Kathy, Amanda, allenwoodhaven, and Andrea, among others) as my way of keeping the art of letter-writing alive.

Of course, not everybody likes to write letters any more, and our schools are too busy teaching students to pass standardized tests to teach the joy of communicating in writing. This is most unfortunate, not only because personal letters can convey information to family and friends in a uniquely intimate way, but because we often need to be able to write letters to achieve specific results in life ... cover letters for resumes we hope will get us jobs, letters seeking restitution for some wrong, and letters expressing our opinions to our elected reprehensives*, among others. Very few people nowadays know how to craft a letter to achieve a desired result.

But help is at hand, retro though it may be.

Back in July, my son Matt sent me a link to Frost's Original Letter-Writer, published in 1867 and described in its introductory pages as "A Complete Collection of Original Letters and Notes upon Every Imaginable Subject of Every-day Life, with Plain Directions about Everything Connected with Writing a Letter."

This book includes some 300 sample letters on many useful subjects, including (really!) the following:

- Letter introducing a young musician to a lady friend;

- Letter of complaint for imperfect goods;

- Letter requesting delay in the payment of rent;

- Letter answering an advertisement for a milliner;

- Letter declining to recommend a cook;

- Letter congratulating a friend on the unexpected return of a son supposed to be dead;

- Letter from a lady to a gentleman accusing him of inconstancy and demanding the return of her letters; and,

- Letter advising a young lady to discourage the visits of a suitor.

With the assistance of this useful book, even Mike might finally be able to write me the letter he still owes me. Stranger things have happened.

Have a good day. Want a letter? I'll write you one. E-mail me your snail-mail address and I'll send you your very own handwritten letter ... as long as you promise to send me one in return.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Such letters are much more likely to result in positive action when accompanied by a large financial enclosure. Content of the missive itself is less important.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Poetry Sunday

The unpleasant subject of violence against women is all too often in the news of late, and it's a serious problem to be sure. But this classic poem by British author Rudyard Kipling takes a different view of sex and violence, and of which sex is the more dangerous ...

The Female of the Species
by Rudyard Kipling

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can.
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
'Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man's timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn't his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husbands, each confirms the other's tale -
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man, a bear in most relations - worm and savage otherwise, -
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger - Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue - to the scandal of The Sex!

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity - must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions - not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unchained to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

She is wedded to convictions - in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies! -
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

Unprovoked and awful charges - even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons - even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish - like the Jesuit with the squaw!

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice - which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern - shall enthrall but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

Yes, Dear Readers, the femme may be more fatale than you know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Cartoon Saturday

Welcome to the last Cartoon Saturday of September. About time, isn't it?

Protests broke out once again in Ferguson, Missouri, after the chief of police apologized for the killing of Michael Brown by one of his officers; the FBI and British intelligence services believe they have identified the masked ISIS thug who murdered correspondent James Foley on camera in a notorious YouTube video; the Pennsylvania attorney general's office has blamed a former state prison clerk for her own rape; a man in New Mexico has been arrested after he was caught on film stabbing another man in an argument over a parking space*; and Apple has issued an apology after learning that faults in its new operating system resulted in some new iPhone 6's being unable to actually make phone calls.

Crime is no laughing matter ... except when our theme cartoons for the week deal with crime and criminals.

Some criminals are dumber than others ...

Some criminals moonlight with other jobs to make ends meet ...

And some other people moonlight as criminals ...

There's organized crime and there's ...

Everybody's getting on the PC bandwagon ...

Criminals use different techniques to get what they want ...

And some threats work better than others ...

On to new topics ... artist Andy Warhol reportedly once said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Nowadays, with YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, there's a different way to look at it ...

This one's pretty obvious, but I've never seen it used before ...

And finally for this week, most husbands can probably relate to this one ...

And there you have it - an edition of Cartoon Saturday to help ease you out of the month of September. One can only hope that October will be better.

Have a good day and a great weekend ... the weather here in NoVa is supposed to be great through the weekend, which will certainly help it along for us. Hope yours is good, too.

See you tomorrow for Poetry Sunday.


* See my 2007 blog post, "A Parable About a Parking Space."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Still More Editorial Gems

Ah, how quickly two weeks pass! It's time once again to visit the Editorial Gems Hall of Fame ...

Hopefully, he was found before the first bite ...

Weird karma ...

Now, that's what I call a miracle cure ... not ...

It all depends on what an "application" is, I guess ...

"Hello, Photo Department? Can we try this again?" ...

I wouldn't touch my next line with a ten-foot ... uh ... never mind ...

It might have been more successful with pancakes ...

I think these kids are facing a bleak furniture ...

Well, duh ...

A rose by any other name ...

And there you have it ... proof positive that there's still a job market for editors. And English teachers.

Have a good day. See you tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday. 


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rules Your Children Won't Learn in School

As I look back on my life and consider the lessons I would want to share with my children and grandchildren, I don't know if there's a better punch-in-the-gut summary of the real rules of life than this one. I don't remember where I originally found it, but I think it's worth sharing ...

Rule #1. Life is not fair. Get used to it. The average teenager uses the phrase It's not fair! 8.6 times a day*. You got it from your parents, who said it so often you decided they must be the most idealistic generation ever. When they started hearing it from their own kids, they understood Rule #1.

Rule #2. The real world won't care as much about your self-esteem as your school does. It expects you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. This may come as a shock. Usually, when inflated self-esteem meets reality, kids complain that it's not fair (see Rule #1)

Rule #3. Sorry, you won't make $100,000 a year right out of high school. And you won't be a vice president or have a company car or phone or iPad, either. You may even have to wear a uniform that has your name, rather than a Gap label on it.

Rule #4. If you think your teacher is tough, wait 'til you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure, so he tends to be a bit edgier. When you screw up, he is not going ask you how feel about it.

Rule #5. Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity. They weren't embarrassed making minimum wage either. They would have been embarrassed to sit around talking about the latest web sensation all weekend.

Rule #6. It's not your parents' fault. If you screw up, you are responsible. This is the flip side of It's my lifeYou're not the boss of me, and other eloquent proclamations of your generation. When you turn 18, it's on your dime. Don't whine about it or you'll sound like a Gen Xer.

Rule #7. Before you were born your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way paying your bills, cleaning up your room and listening to you tell them how idealistic you are. And by the way, before you save the rain forest from the blood-sucking parasites of your parents' generation try delousing the closet in your bedroom.

Rule #8. Life is not divided into semesters, and you don't get summers off. Nor even Easter break. Your employer expects you to show up for eight hours or more every day, volunteer for extra work, and not ask for ridiculous things like overtime pay. And you don't get a new life every 10 weeks. It just goes on and on.

Rule #9. Television is not real life. Your life is not a sitcom or a "reality" show. Your problems will not all be solved in 30 minutes, minus time for commercials. In real life, people actually have to leave the sandwich shop to go to jobs. Your friends will not be perky or as polite as the ones on those Disney Channel shows.

Rule #10. Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.

Rule #11. Enjoy life while you can. Sure, parents are a pain, school's a bother, and life is depressing. But someday you'll realize how wonderful it was to be kid. Maybe you should start now.

Have a good day. Teach your children the right rules. More thoughts tomorrow.


* My granddaughter Leya is only 7, and she uses it, too. A lot.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Trouble in Silicone Valley

Living as we do in a land of plenty, we Americans tend to get when we are confronted with unexpected shortages of things we need or want. When the supermarket is out of our preferred brand of corn flakes or toilet paper or ketchup, we complain loudly to the manager. When the local Apple Store doesn't have just the right iPad or iPod or other widget we want, we whine like it's the end of the world.

But I can tell you, Dear Readers, things are a lot worse in other countries, where shortages of some items pose real problems.

Consider the situation of underendowed women in Venezuela, where there is a nationwide shortage of silicone breast implants, no trivial issue for a nation in which nearly 85,000 aesthetic (as opposed to reconstructive) breast procedures were conducted last year. Only the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and Germany perform more breast surgeries.

According to this article, currency controls put in place by the Venezuelan government have led to shortages of many critical items, including breast implants, and to skyrocketing prices for those items when they are available. A breast prosthesis can cost $5,000 or more if a patient is fortunate enough to find one*. And it makes the lady who reportedly paid over $20,000 to have her chest enhanced by the addition of a third breast look positively greedy.

Thanks for the mammaries, as Bob Hope used to sing.

Have a good day. Be grateful for what you have. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Of course, "one" doesn't do much good when the surgery is for aesthetic augmentation, does it?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Little-Known Physical Laws

As you know, Dear Readers, I graduated from Penn State many years ago with a degree in Linguistics. What you may not know is that I did not start out in that program – I actually went to college with the intent of majoring in Chemistry. Unfortunately, my lack of facility with higher mathematics (and lower mathematics, too)* led to the necessity of finding an academic program that I could actually understand and pass.

Hence, Linguistics. German grammar beats integral calculus any day.

I also had a great deal of trouble with Physics, largely because Physics was full of the same bothersome equations and Greek letters and such that had caused me to crash on the rocks of calculus. But as it turns out, there are a lot of laws of physics that don’t involve ghastly mathematical manipulation and are important to understanding the world at large. Here are a few …

The Law of Perverse Gravity - Any small part, when dropped, will roll to the least accessible place in the universe.

The Law of Observatory Probability - The probability of being watched is directly proportional to the stupidity of whatever you are doing.

The Law of Random Number Response - If you dial a wrong number, you never get a busy signal; someone always answers.

The Law of Variation of Velocity - If you change traffic lanes, the one you were in before will always move faster than the one you are in now. This is also true when you change checkout lines in a store.

The Law of Water-Telecommunication Relationship - A body fully immersed in a bathtub will cause the telephone to ring.

The Law of Undesirable Encounters - The probability of meeting someone you know increases dramatically when:
(1) You are with someone you don't want to be seen with; and,
(2) You are someplace you shouldn't be.

The Law of Petulant Machinery - When you try to demonstrate to someone – typically a repairman who charges a fortune just to show up at your house – that a machine won't work, it will function perfectly.

The Inverse Extension Law of Biomechanics - The severity of the itch is inversely proportional to the reach of your arm.

The Law of Inappropriate Seat Location – This law has three parts:
(1) At any event, the people whose seats are furthest from the aisle will always be the last to arrive.
(2) They will leave their seats several times to go for food, beer, or to the toilet, and will leave before the end of the game or performance.
(3) People who occupy aisle seats come early, never move once, have long gangly legs or big bellies, will not stand up to let you pass, and stay to the bitter end of the game or performance.

The Law of Directed Dissipation of Heat - As soon as you sit down with a cup of hot coffee, your boss will ask you to do something which will last until the coffee is cold.

The Law of Locker Location - If there are only two people in a locker room, they will have adjacent lockers, no matter how many lockers are available.

The Law of Surface Attraction - The odds of an open-faced jelly sandwich landing face down on a floor are directly proportional to the age and cost of the rug.

The Law of Unsupported Argument - Anything is possible if you don't know what you are talking about. Congress proves this every day.

Obey the laws of physics ... don't fall up.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* That explosion in the undergrad chemistry lab didn’t help things, either, but we won’t talk about that.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Using Anti-Social Media to Fight the Bad Guys

The fanatical radical Islamic group variously known as The Islamic State, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been making quite a stir in the Middle East with it's extreme brutality and demonstrated hatred for everyone who doesn't follow their religious vision. One of the things that makes ISIS so different from other rigidly bigoted religious groups is its facility with social media. The peaceful and tolerant adherents of ISIS not only cut off the heads of their prisoners, but post videos of the events on YouTube. They publish glossy magazines extolling their version of the One True Faith while giving instructions on how to build bombs in your home to kill people who don't believe the way you think they should*.

They're really blending the social media technologies of the 21st century with the values and customs of the sixth. And that's to be expected ... a video with high-quality images and rousing music posted to YouTube reaches a lot more people than a few clay tablets impressed with cunieform characters describing your latest atrocity.

So, it occurred to me to wonder whether or not ISIS's love of social media used in the most antisocial of ways might be able to be turned against them somehow. Here are a few ideas ...

1a. Send them handsome boxed sets of videos showing fully-clothed girls going to school and getting an education ("Girls Gone Mild").

1b. Send them handsome boxed sets of videos showing unmarried women talking with unmarried men (particularly - gasp! - Christians or Jews).

2. Offer advertising from Jimmy Dean's Pork Sausage to underwrite the costs of their media campaigns.

3. Flood the local airwaves in areas occupied by ISIS with reruns of "Three's Company," "Sex and the City," and "Commander in Chief," then sit back and watch their heads explode.

Any other ideas? Let me know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Actually, the article titled "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom" was published in the al-Qaeda magazine "Inspire."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Poetry Sunday

I love being a grandfather, and this poem by Olivia Stiffler sums up a lot of the bittersweet joy of that role in life ...

by Olivia Stiffler

They disappear with friends
near age 11. We lose them
to baseball and tennis, garage
bands, slumber parties, stages
where they rehearse for the future,
ripen in a tangle of love knots.
With our artificial knees and hips
we move into the back seats
of their lives, obscure as dust
behind our wrinkles, and sigh
as we add the loss of them
to our growing list of the missing.

Sometimes they come back,
carting memories of sugar cookies
and sandy beaches, memories of how
we sided with them in their wars
with parents, sided with them
even as they slid out of our laps
into the arms of others.

Sometimes they come back
and hold onto our hands
as if they were the thin strings
of helium balloons
about to drift off.

Have a good day. Enjoy your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They're your most precious gift.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cartoon Saturday

We are now two thirds of the way through September. How about a nice round of applause for ourselves for surviving this long, eh?

The introductory news summary will return in this space next Saturday. In the meantime, why not let's just get to the cartoons ...

You all know the old expression that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it, right? Well, Ol' Bilbo is doing something about it - this weeks selection of theme cartoons deals with weather and climate change ...

And you thought the fancy weather radar your local TV station cites was a new invention ...

Makes sense to me ... 

Oddly enough, there is an upside to the drought that's now ravaging the West ...

If it works for the weatherman, why not for the general public? ...

This seems about as good as most weather forecasts, anyhow ...

They don't make lemonade stands like they used to ...

This is becoming more true every day ...

Those machines where you swipe your credit card are getting more nervy all the time ...

This is some high-tech I can really use ...

And finally for this week, rescue pets are said to be the best ones. Still ...

And there you have it - another batch of cartoons to help keep you sane as you navigate the final third of September. Cartoon Saturday will be back to its regular format next week when I once again have time to include the weekly summary of bad news and, of course, you are certainly welcome to come back tomorrow for Poetry Sunday. I'm not just doing this for my health, you know.

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts on the way.


Friday, September 19, 2014

The Second Ass Clown of the Month Award for September, 2014

How quickly two weeks go by! It's time once again to crown our second Ass Clown of the Month for September, 2014 ...

It goes without saying that the choices are difficult to make, but this time the choice was no shot in the dark (if you'll pardon the expression). The award goes to

Oscar Pistorius

Mr Pistorius this month became the most famous person to get away with murder since O.J. Simpson, being convicted by a South African court of "culpable homicide" rather than murder after the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year. Ms Steenkamp died after Mr Pistorius shot her ... four times, and with hollow-point expanding bullets, no less ... through the closed door of a small bathroom, claiming he thought she was an intruder.

For his skill in evading justice, Oscar Pistorius is named as our second Ass Clown of the Month for September, 2014.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Are You Going to Wear THAT?

A few days ago I noted on my Facebook page the following: "It's the birthday of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, famous for his work both alone and with such other famous designers as Coco Chanel in creating extraordinarily expensive clothes that don't look any better than the ones you buy at JC Penney's."

I was immediately called to task by my old* friend Marilyn, who said in response, "You have GOT to be kidding, Bilbo! You cannot see a difference?"

Well, it all went downhill from there.

The point that I was trying to make, with all the humorous ineptitude for which I am justly renowned, was that people (particularly women) frequently spend obscene amounts of money on designer outfits that look wonderful, but not necessarily to a degree that is commensurate with the price demanded. When you buy something that's been designed by a Lagerfeld, or a Chanel, or a Vera Wang, or a Donna Karan, or whatever, you are paying an enormous surcharge for a name and the social cachet that goes with it. When you buy the right outfit at JC Penney's and clean up well, you can look good for much less.

And it's not just the designer names attached to ladies' dresses and men's suits (can you spell "Armani" or "Hugo Boss" or "Ermenegildo Zegna"?) that are an issue in pricing. Consider also Bilbo's Law of the Proportional Economics of Garments, which states that, "The price of a woman's evening gown or bathing suit is inversely proportional to the amount of material used in the construction thereof." I've seen women's bathing attire that covers virtually nothing, yet costs the equivalent of the GNP of Burkina Faso. "Wieso das?"**, as my father-in-law is fond of asking. This is related to the factor I have previously referred to as the Degree of Gasp, which is a measure of the desirability of a garment for a teenage girl ... my daughter was fond of selecting her prom dresses based on this factor - the louder my gasp at the sight of her in the dress, the more attractive and desirable it became ... and the Law of the Proportional Economics of Garments naturally factored into that reaction as well.

So, ladies, consider your purchases well. Your men love to see you looking good ... but they also like to be able to do other things like make mortgage payments and feed the family.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


By which I mean, "long-time and cherished."

** German, loosely translated as, "What's up with that?"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Critical Shortage of Buzzwords - a National Crisis

In the last two posts I’ve discussed the specialized languages of the military and of advertising. As I noted – and as you certainly don’t need me to tell you – specialized language is employed by various trades, the legal profession, and especially the government to enlighten insiders and obfuscate things for the uninitiated. In the words of George Orwell, “Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Despite the existence of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires government agencies to use clear, plain language when dealing with the public*, and a wonderful website called Plain Language.gov that extols the virtues of clear and precise writing in government service, it can still be a sore trial to understand what your elected reprehensives and their minions are telling you**.

The problem of obfuscatory language in government is bad enough, but it’s getting worse, because the federal government and its subordinate agencies are running out of buzzwords.

The General Services Administration (GSA) today published the results of a lengthy study which confirmed that, at current rates of use, the pool of available buzzwords will be completely exhausted by the end of 2016. The study documented alarming trends in the gratuitous use of buzzwords with no consideration being given to moderation in use or conservation for future requirements. The situation is grim for both liberals and conservatives, although it appears to be much more dire for conservatives, who require a large supply of politically-correct buzzwords to accommodate the requirements of a broad spectrum of traditional political conservatives, religious conservatives, libertarians, neocons, Reagan Republicans, RINOs, Tea Party zealots, isolationists, survivalists, and many others.

As a result of the study, the GSA today announced a new program to identify new and exploit previously untapped sources of buzzwords. The program will explore such potential new sources as buzzwords used by previous generations and once thought obsolete, buzzwords used in various foreign languages which can be carried over into English (with or without translation***), and the tapping of the National Buzzword Reserve which, like the National Petroleum Reserve, is a resource meant to be drawn upon only in times of the most dire national emergency. Another aspect of the program will encourage the worlds of business, academia, and entertainment to cooperate in developing new and sustainable sources of buzzwords.

In a statement accompanying the public announcement of the new plan, The Honorable Frank Lee Speaking, GSA's Principal First Deputy Vice Under Director for Buzzword Management, said "At the end of the day, the American people must step up to the plate, take the bull by the horns, and get down to brass tacks as we face this existential threat to our national linguistic security."

Do your part. Volunteer your buzzwords today. The nation is counting on you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* It actually says, “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

** If you doubt me, take a few minutes to read the instructions for calculating and reporting your income tax. Have aspirin ready.

*** An example is the recent popularity of the expression “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” the translation of a Polish proverb indicating that the speaker is not responsible for the activity under discussion. This is a particularly useful expression for members of Congress, who are in constant need of creative ways to deflect blame for their own incompetence onto the other party.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Translating Advertising-Speak

We're all familiar with hard-sell advertising and with the bright colors, bold fonts, and questionable claims that are made by those who want us to buy their products. It can be hard to separate the wheat of reality from the chaff of advertising hype, but here's a handy guide, courtesy of my friend Bob, that may help out ... with a few of my editorial comments, of course ...

NEW - Different color from previous design.

ALL NEW - Parts are not interchangeable with previous design.

NEW AND IMPROVED - Different color and parts not interchangeable with previous design.

EXCLUSIVE - Imported from someplace or other.

UNMATCHED - Almost as good as the competition.

FOOLPROOF OPERATION - No provision for adjustments.

ADVANCED DESIGN - The advertising agency doesn't understand it.

IT'S HERE AT LAST! - Rush job. Nobody knew it was coming.

FIELD TESTED - Manufacturer didn't have test equipment.

HIGH ACCURACY - Unit on which all parts fit.

FUTURISTIC - No other reason why it looks the way it does.

REDESIGNED - We think we fixed the previous flaws.

DIRECT SALES ONLY - Factory had a big argument with distributor.

YEARS IN DEVELOPMENT - We finally got one to work.

BREAKTHROUGH - We finally figured out a use for it.

MAINTENANCE FREE - Impossible to fix.

MEETS ALL STANDARDS - Ours, not yours.

SOLID-STATE - So heavy you can't lift it.

HIGH RELIABILITY - We made it work long enough to ship it

Caveat emptor.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Speak Military

Being a linguist, I am fascinated by all aspects of language, and particularly the field of semantics, which studies the origin and meaning of words and phrases. Listening to people speak can tell you a great deal about where they come from and what work they do, and every business, trade, and field of endeavor has its own set of terms unique to it's needs and derived from its history.

As you know from my endless reminding you of it, I spent 23 years in the Air Force dealing with my fellow blue-suiters and with the soldiers, sailors, and Marines with whom we planned and carried out the nation's defense. The military is, as are all organizations and careers, chock full of distinctive jargon and unique phrases. Here are a few military phrases you may (or may not) have heard, based on an article by Captain Victoria Hight in the Air Force Blog (and, naturally, containing my additions and editorial comments). Not all of these are unique to the Air Force, but many are …

"Stand By."

Like several of the phrases on the list, this one originated in the early days of radio communication, and most often means “wait for the next transmission.” If you've ever called a military person and had to be put on hold, you were probably asked to stand by rather than wait or hold.

"Voluntold" and "Mandatory Fun."

Voluntold combines the words "volunteer" and "told" to create an expression which implies that one is expected to volunteer for a particular task you really don't want to do, and to enjoy doing it. This is not a strictly military concept, of course, as many companies require their employees to do things on their own time, such as take part in charitable activities or make "voluntary" contributions to specific charities ... but only the military has its own term for it, as far as I know.

"… And a Wake Up"

This phrase is of obscure origin, but was probably developed by someone on an endless deployment to an undesirable location full of sand and murderous creatures to make the time remaining on the deployment seem to pass more quickly. “Five days and a wake-up” sounds a day shorter than “Six days,” and manages to convey a sense of anticipation and excitement about whatever's coming.

"Say Again."

This is another of those radio communication terms, and requests the person on the other end of the line to repeat their last message to ensure understanding and clarity of reception. One of my favorite variations of this is an expression popularized in my own office by one of my co-workers, who was fond of reading messages and saying, "Say again ... you're coming in broken and stupid" (see also broken, below)

Clock Positions (as in, "At your three o’clock")

This expression refers to a system of situational awareness for a pilot, in which the position of an object on an imaginary clock face relates its relative location to that of the pilot. Imagine yourself in the center of a clock, looking toward the 12 o'clock position ... "twelve o’clock" would be straight ahead, three o’clock would be 90 degrees to your right, and six o'clock would be directly behind you. The warning to “check your six” or simply "check six" means to look behind you for an approaching danger. The title of the classic World War II film “Twelve O’Clock High” referred to the position of an enemy aircraft located directly ahead and at a higher altitude (more than likely attacking out of the sun).


This phrase often refers to anyone who is sick or injured, or any piece of equipment or software which doesn't work. Most often email systems seem usually to be broken. It can also refer to the quality of a garbled radio transmission (see say again above).

Military Time

Most military members (and most everyone in Europe) refer to time on a 24-hour clock*, rather than as "AM" or "PM." The picture below relates the two ...

The military also generally refers to "Zulu Time" as a standard for coordination of activities across various time zones ... it refers to "Greenwich Mean Time**," or the time at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, which has long been used by the military, airlines, and others as a standard to reduce confusion.

"Squared Away."

This phrase most likely stems from having a uniform with sharp, nearly square creases, the tidy arrangement of a barracks room in which everything is put neatly in place, or a bed made with the sheets squared and stretched so tight you could bounce a coin on them. It describes an individual whose appearance and performance of duty are above reproach.

"Spun Up."

A person who is "spun up" is familiar with the current situation, and the action of getting someone (especially a senior officer) ready for a meeting or other event is often referred to as "spinning him/her up." The Air Force Blog article suggests that this term derives from the acronym SPINS, meaning "special instructions," but I have a different theory. In the early days of flight, when aircraft had more than one wing, the engine was often started by a member of the ground crew who grasped the propellor and gave it a mighty shove to get it spinning (much like starting an old car by "popping the clutch") ... you've probably seen this in the movies. I think it's more likely that this is the derivation of the term.

and finally ...

"Roger That!" or simply, "Roger."

This is yet another of those expressions from radio, and it means "I have received and understood your last transmission." It's a universal military expression to acknowledge receipt of an order.

Are there any specialized expressions you use in your daily work? Leave a comment ... inquiring minds want to know.

Have a good day. I say again, have a good day. Roger!

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Which explains the old joke in which a young woman at a party asks an old soldier why he's so glum. "I haven't had sex since 2002," he explained. "That's terrible," the young woman replied. "You're telling me?" the soldier sighed ... it's already 2130!"

** Nowadays usually referred to as Universal Coordinated Time, or UCT, so as not to piss off those who view time itself as a manifestation of colonialism.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poetry Sunday

As nice as it is to have Agnes' father visiting us for a few weeks, it's also nice to have some peace and quiet. And solitude ...

by Margaret Gibson

For today, I will memorize
the two trees now in end-of-summer light

and the drifts of wood asters as the yard slopes away toward
the black pond, blue

in the clouds that shine and float there, as if risen

from the bottom, unbidden. Now, just over the fern—
quick—a glimpse of it,

the plume, a fox-tail's copper, as the dog runs in ovals and eights,
chasing scent.

The yard is a waiting room. I have my chair. You, yours.

The hawk has its branch in the pine.

White petals ripple in the quiet light.

Have a good day, and enjoy the rest of your weekend ... in solitude, if possible.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cartoon Saturday

Time marches on ... with hobnailed boots.

We're two weeks into September and halfway through my father-in-law's visit from Germany. While he's here, I don't have the time to do the usual Cartoon Saturday news summary, but I need the cartoons as much as everybody else, so let's get to them ...

This week's collection of theme cartoons celebrates that marvelous invention that we didn't know we couldn't live without ... the Global Positioning System, or GPS.

You can do things without going too high-tech, as the Amish have found out ...

GPS works for crash-test dummies, too ... more or less ...

Sometimes the programming is very simple ...

And sometimes, the programming is simple without going in straight lines ...

GPS is getting better and more specialized all the time ...

Dethany Dendrobia, the lovable corporate goth from "On the Fastrack" is one of my favorite cartoon characters ... with her own specialized GPS in her customized hearse ...

So much for GPS ... how about a few other assorted cartoons to round things out. As those who know me well can attest, proud grandparents can be a little tiresome sometimes ...

Keeping it all in the family ...

This is the sort of advice I can see my granddaughter Elise giving me when she digs out her doctor play set ...

And finally, sometimes one can go overboard with the latest fads ...

Have a good day and a great weekend. Come back tomorrow for Poetry Sunday.