Monday, October 26, 2009

What's the Good Word?

In a recent poll conducted by Marist College, nearly half of Americans - 47 percent - said they find "whatever" the most annoying word or phrase in use today.

Twenty-five percent said they found "you know" most grating; 11percent can't stand "it is what it is," 7 percent would like to ban "anyway" from all verbal exchanges; and 2 percent reported that they could do without hearing "at the end of the day."

I disagree. "Whatever" has evolved into what is clearly one of the most useful words in the English language today, a word of such economy and impact that it's appropriate for almost any occasion.

Consider these definitions, some of which are found in the Urban Dictionary:

Used in an argument, you can admit that you are wrong without actually admitting it. ("So the Pope isn't Italian. Whatever."

It is passive-aggressive behavior at its most eloquent. (She: "If you leave me, I'll kill myself!" He: "Whatever.")

It is often used to dismiss someone when it is clear that rational discussion would be a waste of time. ("Don't tell me you believe in that evolution stuff! The Bible clearly states that the Earth is 6,000 years old!" "Whatever, go bother someone else.")

It is the most annoying thing that your girlfriend can say. ("Hey would you like to get dinner, see a movie, then perhaps go back to my place?" "Whatever.")

It's a phrase that can be used to indicate complete apathy. (Teacher: "Who was Plato?" Student: "Mickey Mouse's dog." Teacher: "No, he was a Greek philosopher." Student: "Whatever."

The term has more uses than a Swiss army knife.

By my yardstick, there are a lot more irritating phrases contributing to word pollution out there.

Take, for instance, the phrase, "What's the good word?" What are you supposed to reply? "Joblessness?" "Afghanistan?" "Schwarzenegger?" On rare occasions, you could actually reply with a good word like, "Hawaii" or "raise." Better yet, answer it with "It is what it is." That will stop the conversation dead in its tracks.

How about "no problem." This has somehow replaced "you're welcome" although it's a lot better than "no sweat" which was in vogue some time ago. George Carlin used to mock the phrase this way: "Thanks for helping me bring the dead babies up from the cellar."

"No problem."

"Awesome" makes my list. I have yet to hear it uttered by anyone who fits the definition of the word, "inspiring awe."

I don't know how "sucks" made it into everyday polite conversation, but it has. In fact, it is now the most sincere expression of sympathy going. ("My dog died and I'm in foreclosure." "Man, that sucks.")

But No. 1 on my hit list is "dude." Originally used to describe a dandy in Victorian England, it has somehow found its way into everyday conversation thanks to the stoners, surfers and skateboarders who often use it three times in one sentence ("I was at the mall the other day, dude, and there was this hot chick and I went up to her and dude I was like ... dude ...").

If that's not distressing enough, the youth of our country are already at work crafting a new set of clich├ęs. UCLA has compiled a dictionary called, naturally enough, "UCLA Slang" which attempts to categorize the language of the campus.

Successful submissions had to be unlikely to appear in a conventional dictionary. If the words and phrases also have the potential to puzzle parents, so much the better.

"Destroy," for instance, means the opposite of what you would think: to do well on something like a test.

Verbs morph into nouns, as in "epic fail," now slang for "what a mistake!" Nouns also become adjectives, with "Obama" now used as slang for "cool or rad," as in: "You just aced that exam - you are so Obama!"

The lingo of texting provided such visual entries as "QQ," an emoticon similar to a smiley face that, in this instance, stands for the verb "to cry."

Taking the first initials of a common phrase can result in a catchy initialism such as I.D.K., which is slang for "I don't know." Once those initials start being pronounced as a full blown word, they've evolved into an acronym like FOMO, which stands for "fear of missing out."


Thrown for a Loss

News: Rush Limbaugh fails in his attempt to become a part owner of the NFL St. Louis Rams.

Views: I had a disturbing dream the other night. I was at the opening game at Ed Roski's new stadium in the city of Industry, a locale with all the charm and beauty that its name suggests.

When I looked down on the field, who should I see but the Rams, the team that packed up and abandoned Southern California area some years ago, leaving pro football fans here with such a bitter taste in their mouths that most believe NFL stands for Not For Los Angeles.

Now they were back, lured from St.Louis, lacking both contrition and talent.

When I looked up to the owner's box, who should I see but Rush Limbaugh, now a partner in the franchise, smoking a foot-long cigar and slapping his wing nut buddies on the back.

Could it be true? Limbaugh and the Rams, the worst pairing since Sacco and Vanzetti, playing right here in a stadium I repeatedly called a pipe dream?

I woke up in a cold sweat. But when I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I realized Limbaugh, who has a history of making racially insensitive remarks, had about as much chance of owning a piece of an NFL team as he does becoming president of the NAACP.

When a man talks trash, he often ends up in life's landfill.

Besides, Roski will never build his stadium unless he can lure an NFL team here, which may be harder than getting Iran to disarm.

His people predicted last year that a team would be playing in the Los Angeles area come 2oo9. Now they're saying 2011 is a more likely date with the new stadium opening in 2013.

Sweet dreams.

News: Roman Polanski's lawyer says the director is "depressed" as he sits in a Swiss jail awaiting extradition to the U.S., a country he fled after pleading guilty 31 years ago to raping a 13-year-old girl.

Views: I'm depressed too, depressed that there was an outpouring of excuse-making for Polanski, a man whose immense talent overshadows his lack of moral backbone. About one hundred mostly European artists signed an online French cinema industry petition demanding Polanksi's release, and U.S. directors Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch joined in.

Why? Because he's an artist, one who has suffered, surviving the Holocaust and the death of his first wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson gang. And now, living on the run.

That's all very moving. But others have suffered greatly without resorting to criminal behavior. Nelson Mandela and Elie Wessel come to mind.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, actress Whoopi Goldberg rose to new levels of absurdity by saying she didn't consider the sex incident to be rape in the strict sense of the word. "It was something, but I don't believe it was rape-rape," Goldberg said on TV chat show "The View."

So let me get this straight: she was a child, he gave her liquor, drugged her, sodomized her then fled? You're right, Whoopi. It wasn't "rape-rape." It was worse than that.

We tend to cut our artists a generous amount of slack. They are talented and temperamental, and their excesses seem to come with the job description.

But genius doesn't guarantee immunity. Just ask Phil Spector.

News: Marge Simpson appears in Playboy.

Views: OK, so Marge is a cartoon. But she's at least as real as the silicone-injected, bleached blond, nipped and tucked bimbos Playboy has offered up as the ideal American woman.

Her appearance is an attempt to attract younger readers. So now a blue-haired mother of three with a voice like fingernails on the blackboard is going to reverse the declining fortunes of the Playboy franchise?

And you thought the Nobel Peace Prize was weird.

Monday, October 12, 2009

And the Winner Is....

I'm a bit jaded when it comes to awards. Maybe it's because we live in Hollywood, where everyone is a (fill in the blank) nominee for (fill in the blank).

Walk onto a film set and you immediately become a candidate for an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Peoples' Choice Award, a MTV Movie Award, an Internet Movie Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Kids Choice Award.

There are awards for blacks and Hispanics and gays, short subjects, long subjects, horror movies, science fiction movies, political movies, adult movies and everything in between. Even box-office bombs are honored each year with the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies.

There are plenty for everybody. Pass them around.

That's why it's refreshing to take note from time to time of the unique and exclusive Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the Ig Noble folks honor scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect, such as the two California scientists I wrote about several years ago who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Or the distinguished researchers who studied why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard.

Obviously, these awards are hard to come by. One must combine intense research with the curiosity and sophistication of an 8-year-old to make the cut here.

Behind the laughter, there's usually a semi-serious purpose.

Take, for instance, Stephan Bolliger, who along with four colleagues in Switzerland conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

It's unclear whether Bollinger and his mates, dressed in lab coats and armed with jagged test tubes, brawled their way through the local taverns to reach this conclusion.

Nonetheless, Bollinger told the Associated Press that his research has legitimate value. Lawyers and judges in court cases have asked how much damage a blow to the head with a bottle can cause, and the study could help decide future cases.

Dr. Elena Bodnar, honored for developing a bra that converts into a pair of gas masks - one for the wearer, the other for a friend - said that she came up with the idea while studying the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster. If people had had cheap, readily available gas masks in the first hours after the disaster, she said, they may have avoided breathing in iodine-131, which causes radiation sickness.

Besides, her patented devices look pretty, she added.

It's hard to argue with research like that.

Other notable winners:

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson for showing that cows with names give more milk than unnamed cows. Rowlinson said naming cows was just one aspect of their research that showed that when humans are nice to animals, the animals return the affection (thereby validating the old Carnation advertising slogan, "milk from contented cows").

Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for figuring out why pregnant women don't tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Executives of four Icelandic banks for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.

Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor Castano for creating diamonds out of tequila.

These awards take their place in the pantheon of past winners, which includes researchers who showed lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating and an investigation into whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio.

Then there's a special salute for the Air Force Wright Laboratory of Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon - the so-called "gay bomb" - that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

All of this comes at a time that the British government has unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much "impact" the research has.

The plans have come under fire from academics, who say that curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution.

Not to mention happy cows.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Phoneys Among Us

History tells us that the first words ever spoken over a telephone were courtesy of its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who said to his assistant listening in the next room , "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you."

I suspect history's second telephone conversation went something like this: "Mr, Bell, I'm calling on behalf of the Society to Eliminate Nose Hair. As you know, Mr. Bell, nose hair strikes thousands of adults in their prime, causing public displays of picking and plucking that are intolerable in this enlightened era. Remember, Mr. Bell, a nostril is a
terrible thing to lose. Help us stamp out nose hair by giving us a generous donation. How much can I put you down for?"

At which point Alexander Graham Bell hung up and immediately set out to invent call blocking.

Actually, Mr. Bell was long gone when telemarketing was inflicted upon an unsuspecting public. Some suggest that in the 1950s, DialAmerica Marketing, Inc.became the first company completely dedicated to inbound and outbound telephone sales and services. The company, spun-off and sold by Time, Inc. magazine in 1976, became the largest
provider of telephone sales and services to magazine publishing companies.

You remember them. They would call a month after you subscribed and ask you to renew.

I mention all this because my family is about to set a new world and Olympic record for annoying calls from a single source.

Thanks to Caller ID, which may be the greatest invention since the wheel, we have been able to duck at least 20 calls in a two week span from something called AICR. They call at 8 a.m., 8 p.m., weekdays and weekends, and every conceivable time in between.

I've been tempted to answer, just in case AICR stands for Astounding Infusion of Cash for Rector. But in my heart of hearts, I know they don't want to give me money, they want to take it.

So I decided to investigate AICR and see who they are and why they so desperately want my attention.

It turns out that AICR stands for the American Institute for Cancer Research. According to its website, it is the first organization to focus research on the link between diet and cancer and translate the results into practical information for the public.

Well, that seems like a noble goal. So how do I fit in? As an unwitting volunteer fundraiser, that's how.

AICR's telemarketers want you to distribute pledge forms to all your neighbors so they can help fund the organization's activities.

If that's not intrusive enough, it's your job then to collect the pledges and send them back to AICR, under the theory that peer pressure/guilt will open up wallets and purses up and down your street.

It's been my experience that most people enjoy their neighbors at arm's length. Start banging on doors and asking for money and you become no more than a telemarketer yourself. Then, watch your social standing in the neighborhood equal that of the old lady up the street who keeps 40 cats in her house and hasn't emptied the trash in five

Don't get me wrong. We should all join the fight to cure cancer. I lost my mother and mother-in-law to cancer so I know the pain it can inflict not only on the victim but the survivors as well. But what are you really contributing to here?

The American Institute for Cancer Research, according to the New York state attorney general's 2006 report on nonprofit fundraising, took in only 13 percent of the money that a professional fundraising organization raised for them.

And a group called Charity Navigator, which last year helped 4 million donors decide where their money would do the most good, gave AICR a rating of one star out of a possible four.

Besides, even if AICR was run by the Dali Lama himself, their aggresive telemarketing campaign would negate most of the good deeds they may do.

My advice in dealing with telemarketers: Speak to them in a foreign language, preferably one you just made up. If they ask, "how are you today?" tell them your dog just died. If you're a male and the caller is female, ask in a husky voice, "so,what are you wearing?" Imitate a recorded message saying you'll be released from prison
soon. If that fails, one wag suggested telling the caller that they have reached a murder scene, you are a detective, the person they are calling is dead and you want to know exactly how they know the victim.