Friday, August 31, 2007

It's A Tipsy Turvy World

1. Anyone heard the one about the Hodja? Hodja goes to a posh Soho restaurant in his tattered clothes and gets very shabby treatment. He leaves a massive tip. Next week, same restaurant, the wait staff all fawn over him. Hodja leaves a quarter. “Wtf, Hodja?” cry the waiters. “This one is for last week’s service,” says Hodja, “Last week’s tip was for today.”

2. The funny thing about tipping is that it turns the categorical imperative on its head. If you leave a higher than average tip for the charming and flirtatious waitress, she gets a windfall. If there is across the board tip inflation, the market response will be an offsetting reduction in the salaries of wait staff. Act in a way that you wish wouldn’t become universal law.

3. Performance pay works best when it is paid by the party best placed to evaluate performance, which is why tips are paid by customers and sales commissions are paid by the employer. The problem is that tipping tries to solve one kind of moral hazard (bad service) by introducing another (under-tipping). To the extent the latter is solved by moral pressure on customers, it is also likely to reduce the sensitivity of the tip to the quality of service (a low tip could be as much an indictment of your stinginess as the waiter’s rudeness), creating a see-saw effect. Incidentally, if there is significant tip inflation, my conjecture would be that eating out in large groups (stuff like business lunches) is also on the up, as a proportion.

4. Product boycott is an especially dumb and counter-productive way of protesting slave wages, because the reduction in demand will depress those wages even further. In fact, the opposite would be helpful – buy lots of sweatshop manufactured T-shirts and make a bonfire out of them (pouring expensive Burgundies down the sink surely made the surrender monkeys laugh all the way to the bank, but then the freedom fries crowd isn’t particularly known for business acumen). Why exactly is it immoral to wear a shirt made out of $1 an hour labor rather than shun cheap goodies and let thoughtless pricks go around wearing outfits made of $0.90 an hour labor?

5. A presidential tip jar may not be a bad idea. Not as financial incentive, but as real time barometer of public approval. “Dick Cheney’s Starbucks fund has hit rock bottom this week,” reports the Wall Street Journal, “with barely enough money left to buy two cappuccinos and a chocolate chip cookie. The spin from the VP’s office is that it reflects public concern about his heart condition. Democrats on the Hill are buying none of that.”

Tipping: Why I'm Against It*

I’ve never been a tipper. Due to my current circumstances, I rarely have the opportunity these days, but even when I do there’s a voice in my head that prevents me. The social pressure to tip can be intensely hard to resist, especially when you’re out for a night of entertainment with a group of friends. I’ve gotten in arguments over the issue and have even lost the friendship of a college buddy over it. Our friendship simply couldn’t weather my aversion to tipping. Over time I’ve learned to limit my time out with friends and to cut the evening short rather than put myself into a situation where tipping is expected. I’ll make excuses and just slip away to avoid confrontation. I’m a product of my upbringing I suppose. My father had nothing against tipping when he was much younger, and has indicated to me that he certainly did so as a young man, but by the time I was born he had come to believe it was wrong. He taught my sister and me that it was actually harmful, bordering on abuse, and encouraged us not to be herd-followers for the sake of tradition, but to be free thinkers instead.

Dad grew up in a fairly rural area and while they had no cows of their own there were certainly plenty of opportunities for cow-tipping on the neighboring spreads. He’s shared stories of late night escapades in the surrounding pasture lands where he and his buddies allegedly competed to see who could knock over the most cows in a specified time period. They’d get likkered up and take the tractor down the road a piece (plausible deniability I suppose), climb through the barbed wire, stagger out to the nearest concentration of snoozing bovines, and cut loose in an orgy of animal upending.

Sometimes I wonder how accurate his stories are, though. There’s a semi-scholarly analysis of the various moments and forces at play in your typical cow-tipping scenario here. Apparently it’s exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) for a single person to tip a cow. Especially when you’re smashed out of your gourd and fighting to remain vertical.

In any case, as I said, he has come to believe that cow-tipping is abusive and cruel, and has managed to impart that principle (along with many others) to his offspring. So now when my buddies and I get likkered up on a Saturday night and they get a hankerin’ to knock over some poor unsuspecting bovine, I usually suggest we throw rocks at cars instead. Or I make excuses and slip away to avoid confrontation.

*Elevated sensitivity to all things bovine brought to you by Urquhart.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Plant your corn early in the Spring

I'm more or less a reflex tipper. I usually tip in cash, even when putting a meal on plastic. (It seems more "real" to me that way. Okay, I'm weird.) I double the sales tax, round up to the nearest dollar, and done. I rarely, if ever, think about it. Unless the service was poor. Then I wind up in a quandary. What IS an appropriate tip when the service was something between atrocious and craptastic? When this question comes up, with friends and strangers alike, it seems to always spark an argument.

Those who were once waitstaff often argue that tips shouldn't be tied to perceived quality of service - since restaurant wages are so low, tips should come with the territory. Cross them on this, and they tend to become rather angry. Not always, but that's the way to bet. Of those who have never been in the business, there are a few who argue the "always tip" line, but they aren't generally as militant about it as those who (as John McG pointed out) once had their rent money riding on it. And every so often you come across someone who really emphasizes the idea of perceived quality of service. That becomes a hard row to hoe. The idea that there is a standard of service out there that we as customers are not fit to judge, but only to pay for, doesn't usually go over well.

There's usually a small group of people who advocate leaving a minuscule tip, such as a nickel, or a quarter, as a deliberate insult, and a way of demonstrating their displeasure. No sooner have the words passed their lips when Hey, Presto! the militant always-tippers are calling for the Crosses and Nails to be brought out, and the Scourges reset with freshly-broken glass. I've never seen it escalate to violence, but I have seen a few friendships founder, catch fire, and sink into the swamp. Not pretty. The idea, I'm told, is to make it very clear to the server that the service was less than was desired. It's a position that almost always winds up on the defensive. Mainly, I think, because it does add insult to injury, and is thus intentionally mean-spirited. Which I suppose is the point, but that doesn't really make it any more palatable.

From time to time, I've encountered people who tip on a sliding scale. They rate the service against their expectations, and tip fractionally, in accordance with the rating that they've come up with. You'd think it would be a workable middle-ground, but most people don't go for it - they don't want to be bothered with trying to come up with a "fair" calculation, it seems that no-one can ever agree on what fraction of the overall expectations were met, and there's usually at least one person who seems dead-set on demonstrating why the rating should be 100%. So the fractional tippers normally practice their art only when they're out by themselves.

I commonly fall in a last group - those that advocate for not leaving a tip at all, if the service isn't up to snuff. I was brought up with the idea that tips are meant to be a reward, and I tend to tip anytime someone does me a service that I wasn't expecting, or does a better job than I would have expected of them. No worthwhile service then, equals no reward. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that you pay for many services before you get them, and if you don't get what was promised, you're still out every penny you paid. Therefore, when I have a chance to not pay for something that I wasn't given, I jump at it. But it does seem unfair, somehow, to make it an all-or-nothing proposition. But for some odd reason, no tip at all seems less mean than a partial tip. Even I don't pretend to understand the logic behind that line of reasoning, but it's there nonetheless, and I can usually find someone else who agrees with me.

It's a never-ending debate. I try to avoid sparking it myself - fights that you can't win don't seem to be worth starting, but I am always interested to hear people's rationales for the positions that they stake out. But in the end, I still haven't made up my mind which is the "right" way, even though I've settled into a pattern of behavior. I still find myself grappling with the pros and cons every time the situation comes up, even if the outcome is always the same.

And in case the title of this post makes no sense to you...

The Clampetts, along with Mister Drysdale and Miss Hathaway, are in a posh Beverly Hills jewelry store (IIRC). The young man who's been helping them stands by expectantly, with his hand out.
Mr: Drysdale: He wants a tip.
Jed Clampett: Oh, a tip? (To the young man.) Plant your corn early in the Spring.
My father still finds this uproariously funny, and he quotes it every chance he gets. I have a vague recollection of having seen this episode myself, but that was a very long time ago.

The Subtle Art of Tipping

It's been a while since I left some of my patented drivel here, but the tipping conversation drew me in a bit. I eat out more than any other person I know, probably to my financial detriment, so tipping is a bit close to home in the list of things I have to do on a daily basis.

Now, granted, why I eat out has its basis in a simple fact of laziness, sure. I can cook for myself, but I'd rather have someone cook for me and I'll pay for the kindness of the service. The other reason is the experience itself. It is nice to have people ask you if you want things, if you are happy with your meal, can I get you another cup of coffee, etc., even if you are paying for it.

Try getting that kind of service walking through a grocery or big box store. Shit, it's tough to get anything even remotely like that kind of service from someone who is making minimum wage.

Paradoxically, it is this fact that indicates that the tipping system in some way works and works well. While I disagree with the general idea that your entire ability to earn banks upon you not having the occasional bad day, I can't say that not paying a person more than a quarter of minimum, and relying on tips for the rest of a livable wage is an entirely bad idea based upon the results.

Think about it, when you sit down at the table, you are already in a subtle negotiation. Both sides have a very vested interest in making this cursory relationship work because both are there with the agenda of maximizing a desired outcome, which is helped by the fact that these outcomes are not at all mutually exclusive. You want to enjoy yourself having a good meal, and he/she wants you to leave a large tip. On both sides of this equation are possibility for stumbles.

If you are a rude or difficult customer, you run the risk of upsetting your wait staff to the point where they simply write you off as a potential good tip. This will often cause the wait staff to avoid coming to your table as often, or take their sweet old time bringing your food out. If you are a rude or difficult wait staffer, the customer may leave a bad tip, no tip at all, or may simply leave before you have the opportunity to serve them much at all. It is to the disadvantage of both parties to come to the negotiations with a poor attitude, thus it encourages pleasantness on both sides.

The problem with the arrangement is that you, as the customer, are last to act. Imagine the irritation a wait person has when they've done everything short of giving your knob a quick polish only to find that they've been waiting on Scrimply Q. Cheapskate and his/her as yet unbroken policy of tipping 5-10%. Some people just don't accept the idea that when they go out, they pay for the service as well as the meal.

My rules are quite simple when it comes to tipping.

10% is the barest, least, minimum you can tip without being a total jackass. If you can't afford it, then the next question you need to ask yourself is whether or not you should be eating out or saving money by eating at home. If you can sleep well at night knowing that no matter how good a customer you were and how good the wait staff was, you managed to fumble the ball at the last gasp with a tip in the single digits, then I don't know what to tell you.

10% for lackluster service? Well, knowing that $2.35 or thereabouts is all you can expect without tips in this business, makes it clear to most people that if you (provided you don't have a wait staff job) were supposed to make a living with that little and all it would take was a bad day to make it happen that a tip is required, if even a small one.

20% is generally good for average service. Some will say 15% is fair for average. But remember that we are negotiating here. If you are in a place you frequent, the 20% for average service often encourages the same quality of service (or better) for the next time you come in.

Generally, I try not to go past 30% for whatever reason. There has to be a limit. I'm not fortunate enough to be made of money and 1/3 the price of the meal is fair for even the best service.

Then there's the interesting question of the meal price being less than $10. A $2 tip for a $10 meal fits the math, but remember, you're being waited on just as much as if it was a $50 meal. Generally, if the meal is under $10, I kick the above at least 10% more for each level of service.

And for crissakes, don't nickel and dime. Decide what percentage you want to tip, figure it out, and round up. If there's so much as a penny left over in your calculations, round up.

Exclamation Points, Some Final Thoughts

I think it's fair to say that over there in the fray, new and old, I've given new life to the vast utility that is the exclamation point by using them so sparsely.

In my reviews of movies I haven't seen, if I'm going to give away a surprise ending or a plot twist that I don't even know about, I'll always put in a !!!Spoiler Alert!!! after I've given away the ending or the plot that I'm totally clueless of. Saves a lot of time, money, and beaucoup hurt feelings.

When I'm about to say something that should be painfully obvious to one of the many insane retards there, I'll start out with a !!!Newsflash!!! to set just the right tone and hit just the right timbre. Very effective, but somewhat harsh, I know. Consider the source.

Another thing I like to do to torture people there is the old slip-in-an-earworm-when-they-least-suspect-it trick. But I, like Xerxes, am a merciful god. So there have been occasions where I've put in a !!!Earworm Warning!!! or 2. I like to think of this use of the points as "the police tape of prose". And I think it's working.

But when you're busy banging your head against a brick wall of total and complete and ubiquitous obtusity (New word!), it's time to bring out the big guns and fight fire with fire. That's right: I'm talking about unleashing the ALLCAPS hounds. Say, "YOU'RE AN IGNORANT DOOFUS!!!" It never works, obviously, because yelling at an idiot is tantamount to barking at a cat, if you get my meaning (I really hope you get my meaning!). I like to think of this tool as "the mutually assured destruction of the written word". Literally, you could say!

Many of my posts require sound effects, like [cricket chirp], [cue s/fx of can of worms opening here], [Wink!]. See that exclamation point after the "Wink" there? Don't you think that gives that tongue-in-cheek color a little hue of playfulness that [wink] just doesn't have? That's what I thought!

I mention the sound effects because when you combine the ALLCAPS and multiple exclamation points for s/fx like [kaBLAAAAAAMO!!!], [kerPLOP!!!] and [kaFWOOOOOSH!!!], it's like you're right there, right there in the middle of all that action, whatever that ends up being. Fun!

I've enjoyed our little discussion on the importance of showing a little bit of restraint when it comes to interjections and what not. An exclamation point is like profanity: The more you use the less subtle their effect. Go now and exclaim no more.

P.S. Great Article!

P.P.S. You, light up my life, you give me hope, to carry on...

P.P.P.S. !!!Earworm Warning!!!

P.P.P.P.S. Oops!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Shooter Girl

Serving booze isn’t at all like serving food. In food service, you’re facilitating the satisfaction of a basic need, and the goal is to anticipate and provide for patrons’ wants seamlessly and unobtrusively.

In a bar, interactions with patrons are unsubtle negotiations based on the exchange of juice for cash. “Juice” is whatever the patron wants, whatever he needs to make his experience satisfying and complete: the snappy come-back when he teases you, your gush of laughter when he cracks a joke, the view of your cleavage as you set his drink on the table. You make him look good in front of his buddies, and he helps you buy that new pair of boots you've had your eye on. The negotiations can go on for hours, often ranging far outside your job description. The line seperating sex workers and cocktail waitresses isn't a particularly wide one.

It’s Friday night, and I’ve been at work for an hour when Tracy the bartender asks me if I can manage my section plus be the shooter girl for the evening. The girl she had scheduled has just called in sick. “Sure. Why not?” I’ve never been a shooter girl before, but how hard can it be?

It’s nine, and she doesn’t need me on shooters until ten, so I go back up to my section to drop off the drinks I’m carrying and get orders for more. I maneuver around the pool players, careful to avoid the cue as a man draws it back, stretching across the table. He makes his shot and straightens. I wait. Without taking his eyes off the table he thumbs a bill out of his wallet and holds it out to me. “Keep the change,” he says, “and put it down over there.” I leave his pint of Guinness on the table.

A group of rugby players has pulled three of the small tables together and arranged themselves around them. I have to lean over them to set down the two pitchers of beer they ordered. I look around the circle. “That’s nineteen dollars,” I say. “Whatcha got to eat?” says the beefy guy right in front of me. He twists around and makes as if to bite my right breast. I hop back out of his reach and pluck a bar menu off a nearby table. Smiling with a rueful amusement that I do not feel—Ooo, you almost got me, caveman-guy—I put the menu in his hands. Without opening it, he says, “Bring me a chili sub. No fries.” He tosses a fifty on my tray. “That’s for this round and the sandwich, and bring us another couple of pitchers. The rest is yours.” As I’m walking back to the bar, I hear the bubble of their laughter burst behind me.

By ten o’clock my section has filled up. There are women on the lower level, but up here where the pool tables are, it’s mostly guys. I make sure everyone has fresh drinks and then I go down to the far end of the long mahogany bar where Tracy has lined up shot glasses in groups of twelve. She’s pouring shooters.

“Aphrodisiacs,” she says, “and these are Blowjobs.” I put six of each on my tray while she pours nine Cuervo Gold shooters. She takes the remaining three shot glasses in her hand and fills them with a gold-coloured liquid from a glass under the counter. “Flat ginger ale.” She puts them on my tray. “Keep these for when someone wants to buy you one.” I’m not sure that I’m okay with this. “You can’t drink a bunch of shooters on shift,” Tracy says, “and they’re going to want you to. Just play along. Take their money, drink the ginger ale.”

With eighteen shooters on my tray, I make a circuit of the lower bar, but I don't sell a single shooter. I realize that I’m going about it all wrong—approaching tables the way I would if I were serving cocktails. These people all have drinks in front of them already, and nobody needs a shooter. I'm still puzzling it out when I glance up at my section and see the rugby players craning, looking for me. I'll go practice my shooter girl tactics on them.

“We need more drinks,” the beefy guy says. His face is red, and there’s a red blot of chili sauce on his shirt. “You’re in luck,” I tell him. “I’ve got some right here.”

“Not shooters. Beer.” There’s an almost-full pitcher still on the table, and I use it to fill his glass. “I’m sorry. It’s going to be a few minutes before I can. I’m covering for our shooter girl. People need shooters, you know.” He rolls his eyes and asks me what kind of shooters I’ve got. “Blowjobs?” he barks laughter. “Blowjobs for everyone!” But there are ten of them and I’ve only got six on my tray. I put them on the table and explain that I’ve got to go get more. “No-no-no-no.” He puts his hand on the small of my back to detain me. “What else? Aphrodisiacs? Give me some of those. And you’d better have one, too.” No thanks, I tell him. I can barely contain myself as it is. He insists, just like Tracy said. I agree to tequila, and we clink glasses. His buddies make noises of approval as we drink. The round costs $35.75. He gives me a fifty and waves away the change.

It goes on like this for the rest of the night. People who barked drink orders at me earlier now want me to hang out and party. I take their money and drink my flat ginger ale. I let them hook an arm around my waist as we upend the tiny glasses. The next time I go to the rugby players’ table, there are only six of them left. Beefy guy wants me to sit down, but I plead duty, and he accepts some bright green shooters. I can’t remember what they’re called, so I tell him they’re called Serpent’s Kiss. He gives me a twenty for a bill of nineteen fifty, and when I proffer his change, he grabs my hand and yanks me down toward him. “You’re so beautiful,” he says. “I want you to come home with me.” My smile doesn’t falter as I pry his hand loose and give it back to him, with the two quarters tucked securely into his palm.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Only in America...

It's interesting that the tipping customs in North America are so much more than elsewhere in the world. Is it our merticratic pay-for-perfomance culture?

I'm not so sure, since a number of the reasons given for tipping well (servers have to tip out, they don't get paid a normal wage, etc.) have little or nothing to do with the quality of the service received. The language is that of entitlement rather than earning.

You can compare a tip to a performance bonus for white collar jobs, but there's a few key differences.

  • While white collar workers might count on the bonus; their base salary is considered sufficient. Not so for service staff.
  • A patron having a tough month who leaves no or a poor tip is a jerk. A CEO for a company having a tough year who lowers or eliminates bonuses might not win popularity contests, but will be considered prudent.

I think Keifus touched on the answer below. Since we all consider ourselves above average tippers, we walk away from these situation thinking we have some good. It's not quite a Travis Bickle fantasy, but I do think we think to ourselves, "Other people don't appreciate how hard she's working and how unfair the compensation system is. But I do, and I'll make it up to her."

So everyone leaves happy.

The Tipping Pint

They also serve who only stand and wait. From 17 to 27, I earned my living from tips.

I left home/was kicked out just as I turned 17. I ended up in Banff, where I worked as a chamber maid for a couple of months and then found a job waitressing in a pancake house (I was too young to get a job anywhere that served booze once they checked my S.I.N, although I looked old enough to make it into almost every bar in town).

For two years, I got up (or, okay, was still up from the night before) at 5am and made my hungover way down the pathway on Sulfur Mountain to Phil's. One spring morning,I literally walked into a moose. Luckily, he or she did not take offense. I'd let myself in, turn on the back lights, start the big pots of coffee up, and begin squeezing whipped butter islands into little side bowls. The cook would show up and cook us some eggs and pancakes, and then the utility crews, the ski patrol, and the hands from the dude stables, along with any early morning hikers or skiers would start pouring in, desperate for coffee and carbs.

I'd work till 1:30pm, turning over about 80-90 tables in that time. The money was great--not much per table, but the sheer volume made up for it. And time flew by, because it was so insanely busy. Everything I know about multi-tasking today, I learned at that job. When I turned 18, I was able to move over to evening shifts, serving booze. Even better tips, and not quite as frantic. I took a bussing job at a good restaurant and, by the time I was 22, I was serving in a high-end, nationally rated bistro, featuring a French trained Japanese chef, who created some of the first fusion cuisine North America had seen. On a slow night I'd take home $60, on a good night I'd take home $150 (this after tipping out about 30% to the bussers, bartender, and kitchen staff). Typically, my customers tipped 15-20% on their rather hefty bills (I think Canadians tip at a lower percentage than Americans, but we have up to 15% sales tax on a bill, too).

I made almost nothing in wages--the owner refused to pay us for more hours than he had assigned to the shift, which he said ended when the restaurant closed. Yeah, show me a restaurant where the wait staff get out at the same moment that the kitchen closes! My covenant with the customer was that I would serve delicious food in a way that enhanced the evening--whether inobtrusive and seamless, or friendly, flirtatious, slightly aloof--but always as flawless as I could make it. I hated it when a customer had to ask for water, bread, wine pouring and coffee refills...

I treasure the memory of the engagement proposals I helped facilitate; the nervous guy on a first date with the woman he ultimately married who used his finger bowl (hot water with lemon slices) as a dip for his mussels. I didn't say a word until I had cleared the plates and she was in the bathroom and then slipped him a note for future reference. He thanked me with a 40% tip and came back often.

It's been over 15 years since I last put on my cummerbund and bow tie. I'm still a heavy tipper and can't help but grab the check when it's one of those group bills and tell everyone how much they owe, having factored in tax and tip. I dine frequently with an older friend who loves high end dining but hates tipping--he thinks that 10% is generous--I can't help but slip an extra $20 or so under my saucer when he insists on picking up the bill. I guess I am a pathological tipper, because I know how poorly the serving staff are paid, and they are often required to tip out a certain percentage of their sales (not their tips) to the kitchen, bartenders and bussers. From 3-7% of sales, in fact, depending on the business model. Which (there is no other word for this) sucks if you've had a big table that has stiffed you.

P.S. if you recognize yourself as the slimy type who "forgets" to pay at the group table, once you realize that there is enough money down--your table mates didn't decide to treat you, they were TIPPING the server who ran back and forth with drinks, water, appies, meals, desserts, coffee and tea, etc. It's theft, and there is a special place in hell for you.

Influencing the social contract

So I was thinking about the social contract in general, when it comes to buying stuff. There's little, if anything, we consumers can do with most businesses to influence justice in payment. My personal boycott of Wal-Mart is too small to influence their employment practices. The managers and CEOs of any large organization whose goods or services I use will still be compensated beyond their worth, and will like as not peddle inferior products made in some third-world sweatshop, choke the air with carcinogens, and deforest the Amazon. For most of the stuff I buy, I'm well removed from the immediate effects of our decision, and even to the extent we're aware, there's not a whole hell of a lot we can do change them anyway. (I'm sure it makes me a bad person, but I haven't been willing to descend into pure aescticism to make a point.)

This is one reason to patronize local businesses. You can't do much about the supply chain, but since you're one of a small pool paying the people at the front end, and you have an idea of the sorts of business practices they utilize, you do influence some measure of equity. In the case of waiting tables, the difference between good tippers and bad seems to be an aware of the social contract. Maybe it's good that we know that one person. Restaurants are some of the most localized, and maybe the only one where we're expected to contribute voluntarily to the fair compensation of its employees. Even if we need to drop the charade of "performance," maybe we shouldn't let that handle go.

Up next: how would plumbers and real estate agents make out under that social contract model. (Or performance model?)

[Note that I feel guilty pushing the page with what's basically a reply, but any pointers to the recent schism seem just as good buried...]

Business practices...


Restaurant employers can legally underpay wait staff at something like a quarter minimum wage. (In MA, the base waiter pay is two-something an hour.) Employees need the tips to get paid anything approaching working wages. Depends on where you work, but a fraction of the tips usually go to the other underpaid restaurant schlubs: the busboys and dishwashers, and the person who cooks your food. Waiters also get screwed at tax time, as the two dollars and change is often insufficient to get properly FICAed. It's always fun to come up with a couple grand lump sum in April.

See, the last thing I want to be worrying about at the end of a nice dinner out is the FICA index for wait-staff's wages. It just simply should not be my problem. I think I should only consider the quality of the service received, rather than the compensation and taxation policies. Doing otherwise perpetuates an unjust system.

Of course, it's a lot easier for me to be principled when it's not my rent money we're talking about.

On the jury I was on last week, we had to figure out damages, and one of the jurors said we should add some more because the plaintiff's lawyer would get a certain percentage, and our response was that's not our problem.

I consider myself a good tipper (Does anyone consider himself a poor tipper? Or a bad driver?), but probably not at the standards of a server or former server. I can count on one finger the number of times I have ever left less than 15%, and almost always leave more. If I use a coupon, I add the coupon back in before calculating my tip. If I have the girls with me and they eat "free" but make a mess anyway, I'll add more.

But I do find myself avoiding scenarios that involve tipping, find myself resentful when I feel one is expected but unearned, and anxious about ambiguous situations. (e.g. I wait in line and place an order at a counter, and am given a cup and a number tent. Someone brings me a platter with my food. There are no visible trash cans for me to bus my table, so I leave my tray. Must I tip?)

And I guess I should add with reference to my post yesterday that it's probably a good thing for social equality that most of us know somebody who has worked for tips, and can sympathize.

John McG. (cheap bastard)

Tipping: not a city in China

I don't see any sea change in tipping practice without a concerted media effort (which will surely annoy me into doubling my gratuities) or government intervention. But there are good reasons to tip well, and specious ones...

The basic problem is twofold. Restaurants attract customers largely based on their menus, and there is an incentive to discount service from teh cost of the food. If Bob's Bistro is able to list $18 filets on the menu while discounting the waiter's pay, then Steve's Slop-shoot can't afford to include that cost in the advertisement. No one will come, even if Steve double-deep-fries his steaks to colon-clogging perfection. Just costs too damn much.

[This is kind of funny, actually, because most restaurants don't make their off of food, but rather booze, which is also not included in the menu price.]

The other things that keep tipping alive is the (fucking) IRS. Restaurant employers can legally underpay wait staff at something like a quarter minimum wage. (In MA, the base waiter pay is two-something an hour.) Employees need the tips to get paid anything approaching working wages. Depends on where you work, but a fraction of the tips usually go to the other underpaid restaurant schlubs: the busboys and dishwashers, and the person who cooks your food. Waiters also get screwed at tax time, as the two dollars and change is often insufficient to get properly FICAed. It's always fun to come up with a couple grand lump sum in April.

Now, the justice of tipping depends on where you work. There are advanced skills working at a quality restaurant (you need to know about the food, and how to satisfy the expectations of moneyed assholes), but as John notes, the skill level doesn't exactly rise as fast as teh food costs do. If you're in fine dining, waiting tables is surprisingly lucrative. If my wife did it full-time, she'd be coming close to her old engineer's salary. (See kids, college is for suckers.) The pay scales in fine restaurants seem a little absurd when you start comparing waiter take home pay to that of the skill players (the chefs).

On the other hand, old Mabel slinging breakfast hash is on her feet just as long (dealing with teh expectations of unmonied assholes), and earning a quarter for every plate to supplement her salary. You'd be nuts to serve breakfast, and I try to give these people a break. I think the pizza deliverer has the worst lot of the bunch, and not just for the humiliating uniform and drunk customers. Do you think Papa John's is paying his car insurance? I tip the pizza guy best of all.

I try to tip well for the first reasons. I don't tip people in fast food: these poor sots earn a normal wage, expect me to bus my own table, and don't bring my sack o' crap past teh counter. I tip bartenders less because I think they deserve it, and more because I want the drinks to keep coming when it gets crowded.

Keifus (good tipper)

WikiFray Symposium: Tip Inflation.

We're going to try to having "symposiums" on different topics. WF members are encouraged to reply on this topic with top posts rather than comments or forum posts. We'll try to have one each week.

Reihan Salam writes:

Generally speaking, I don't like dealing with wait staff. Why? Because I am uncomfortable with being served. And so I generally leave good tips, even if the service is not great. I once dated a young woman who worked as a server and she gave me some basic guidelines: (a) say you had a milkshake and the bill comes to $8 -- you still need to leave at least $4 because someone has to clear the damn table. (b) Leave at least 20 percent.

It seems every circle of friends has this person -- the one who used to work as a server and insists that everyone leave 30% tips for average service. I'm sure WikiFray has one as well, who will chime in soon.

And yeah, somebody had to clear the damn table. For a milkshake, that entails picking up a glass, maybe two an putting it in the basin. That's $4 of labor? Tell that to a migrant farm worker.

And even if it is, it's called a loss leader. The labor for a $15 steak dinner isn't that much more than that for a $7 sandwich. The labor for a $5 glass of beer is the same as for a $2 soda. Yet the tip for those is doubled. If Target sells milk below cost to get me in the store to buy higher margin items, I am not obligated to pay more for it if that's all I buy. It's a business. Some items are more profitable than others.

And note the effect this has on Reihan -- he dreams of a restaurant where he doesn't have to deal with anybody. When the cost of a restaurant milkshake is $12, the $3 dirve thru looks like a bargain. These servers who think they're doing their fellow workers such a service by hectoring everyone into leaving big tips are ultimately harming them.

Add in that it seems that every face-to-face interaction these days involves an encounter with a tip jar. I smell a backlash.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Raw Iraq War Report Footage Leaked

Secret Unedited Video Reveals Vast Centrist Conspiracy Afoot
Transcript Reads Like Robert Ludlum Thriller

Whoa! You won't see this on youtube. Forget your "Porn At The Pentagon" scandals. This one's got "obfuscation" written all over it in about 17 languages, including Farsi, and that South American one with all the throat and tongue click-popping. Many G.I.s are dying for this information. Proceed at your own risk.

My Fellow Americans,

My name is Colonel David Patraeus.
[off camera] You're a general, sir.
That's what I said.
Anyways, the rumors are true: The surge is working, sort of. With the addition of 75,000 troops at the front line of the war on terror and an additional 35,000 troops functioning as a logistical support team behind enemy lines, the tide has turned.
[off camera] It was 20,000 and 10,000 respectively, respectably, sir.
Uhh, shut up. That's not the point.
We have control of the northern regions. [rattattattattat... rattattattattat...ttattat... rattattat]
The Turkishmen have subdued the rioting in the south. [rattattat... ttattattat... ttattat]
The western regions are all but back to their pre-war status, just without water, electricity, a sewage system, a Denny's [rattattat... ttattat], breathable air, dry cleaning, unbroken windows, non-looting based civilian activities [rattattattattattattattattat], unexploded cars not on fire, mosques, a Sizzler, or autocratic leanings. Other than that, out west they're partying like it's 1999 all over again. [rattattat... ttattat... rattattattattat]
Okay, somebody shoot the dude over there strafing us with a machine gun. We're rolling tape over here and all that gunfire we're taking is distracting.
Right. We've surrounded the pockets of insurgencies up and down the Euphrates, moving slowly village by village [ttattattat... ttattat... rattattat]
Yeah, I mean it, guys. Ice him before I drop a rocket propelled grenade down your skivvies.
I'm speaking to you from the very heart of the worldwide war against terrorism -- The Green Zone, which actually isn't green. It's mostly sand-colored with desert camo accents. Hey Steve? Rick? Find out why it's called The Green Zone, and for godsakes let's get some green stuff in here A-S-A-frickin'-P. Oh, there, look. The roof on the new KFC is green.
Ahem. When Saddam Hussein drove those 3 airplanes into the Sears Towers almost 6 years ago, he sent the world a clear message: Bill Clinton blew up those buildings with explosives and Nancy Pelosi helped. Well, our commander guy and his entourage have been sending a little message of their own back to the world since March of 2003.
[off camera] Uhh... They don't know what they're doing? Is that the message?
Okay, Les, shut the fuck up. You're destroying my rhythm with all your chop-busting and I can't concentrate on my motivation. This isn't exactly "smell the fart" acting, you dumbass. Roll back the teleprompter. Good. Let's pick it up there.
Ahem. We've made progress. Things are different than they were in March of 2003.
[off camera] You mean like the fact that there isn't any oil being pumped any more so there aren't any oil revenues to pay for this war?
No, brainiac. Saddam's been toppled and bin Laden's on the run.
Okay, what in h-e-double hockey sticks was that?
[off camera] Sorry, sir. Someone just blew up the Dairy Queen again. Looks like it's another night without Peanut Buster Parfets.
Those Dilly Bars are really good, too. I hate Klondikes, but the taffy ones are delicious.
Oh, great. Which one of you chuckleheads wants to tell me just precisely how the fuck long my little flag lapel pin thingie has been upside down? Les?
[off camera] You can't really see it. I'm framing you from the mid-shouler up. The CIA couldn't see it.
Well, excuse me if I don't take any comfort from that, seeing as how the CIA couldn't find Florida on a map of Florida.
[off camera] So do we need to reshoot the "Strolling From Downtown Freedomville To Safetyland Via Not-Out-Control-Anarchy Lane" scene?
No, I think the smoke from all the burning buildings will cover it up, if not at least distract the viewer from an upside down flag lapel pin on a colonel--
[off camera] General.
That's what I said.
Ahem. Saddam's on the run--
[off camera] He's dead, sir.
[awkward silence]
Les? May I?
[off camera] Sorry.
And Obama's probably dead already.
[off camera] Osama, sir.
But the prompter says "Obama". Who's Obama?
[off camera] Barack Obama? He's the appropriately light-skinned Magic Negro running for president against that lesbian lady.
Is he the guy that said we should invade Pakistan if we think they're harboring al Qaeda members? Yeah, I really like him. He seems to have this knack of cutting through all the bullshit about why we're here and why maybe we shouldn't be.
Oh shit, there goes the bowling alley. Somebody call Zimm and tell him league night's off.
[off camera] Well, the Delta Force Players are doing Twelfth Night at The Jarhead Dinner Theater later.
Excellent. Gilmore Girls is a repeat anyway.
[off camera] I hate that show. Too much talking.
That's because you're gay.
[off camera] Don't ask, don't tell, sir.
Whatever. Let's get out of here. Too dicey. We'll hit The Mall Of Democracy to get some exteriors, then do the "10 Bucks For A Bag Of Trash" scene in front of the Sunglass Hut.
[off camera] "10 Bucks For" what, sir?
"10 Bucks For A Bag Of Trash"? That program we instituted in Kirkuk? Any villager who gathers a trash bag of garbage gets 10 bucks, pumping some much needed cash into the local economy. Like the surge, it's working. And I find it highly irregular to conjecture that the locals would abuse the program by manufacturing trash overnight to pick up in the morning for a 10 spot. Not gonna happen. Mark my words.
[off camera] Marked, sir. But where are we shooting the "Soldier Testimonials" scene?
At the Sonic. Coney night. And it really needs to look exactly like those montages when someone gets booted off So You Think You Can Dance.
[off camera] I love that show.
That's because you're gay.
[off camera] Hooyah!

To be continued.

WikiFray Book Club

It's short. It's entertaining. It's cheap (or even free if you get it from the library).

The Mystery Guest. Read it and be awesome

I'm thinking we'll start right after Labor Day. The book can be read in a few hours, and it's in stock from Amazon. It should get a little bit of buzz from the paperback release, so this will help you look like a literary cogni-whatyumacallit. My thought was that participants would (if they wished) each top-post thoughts on the book on the main blog, and we can continue discussion in the forum.

For those on the fences, here's the Publisher's Weekly starred review (via Amazon, whose readers have given it 5 stars):

In this slim and lyrical memoir, French writer Bouillier tells of the moment when he received a phone call in his Paris apartment in the fall of 1990 ("It was the day Michel Leiris died"). Bouillier was 30 years old and asleep in all his clothes, and it had been years since the unnamed woman on the other end of the line had left him "without a word... the way they abandon dogs when summer comes." Rather than calling to reconnect or explain, she called to invite him to a party, several weeks hence, at the artist Sophie Calle's apartment, where he was to serve as the "Mystery Guest." What Bouillier (his untranslated Rapport sur moi won the Prix de Flore in 2002) makes of this simple setup is pure Gallic magic— a mix of hapless obsession, sophisticated abstraction, unearned righteousness and hyperarticulate self-doubt—as he tries to guess the woman's motivations and get a hold of his own feelings. The book's four short parts (beautifully rendered by Stein)—phone call, preparation, party and aftermath—are small miracles of Montaigne-like self-exploration. Reading as Bouillier moves through the light and dark of love, through its forms of "maniacal sublimation" and through its mystery, is arresting. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pinky and the Brain

I scored a bunch of free lumber from work recently (this year's bonus--I made sure to earn it) and decided to build a backyard shed with it, a project that's been successfully procrastinated for three years now, as all the tools rusting under my carport attest. I'm one of those natural carpenters, by which I mean I'm married and I own a home. That killer eye for level and square just happens to reside in my partner's head, as do the big-picture designs (and redesigns). All the technical building prowess is my own however, and there's nothing like a square, solid blow with a hammer to show that off. My fingernail immediately turned purple, and I could touch nothing with it for a whole day. Eventually I did bump my pinky a little bit (typing is hard work), causing blood and pus to leak out all over, but mercifully releasing the pressure underneath. Most of the purple bled out, but that nail's still going to come off: close inspection reveals an underground river of frothy goo. It's still leaking clear blister juice from the top, and it's just gross. But what the hell, whoever uses their little finger?

Funny I should ask.

It was a whole year ago (holy crap, have I been blogging that long?) that I decided to retard any skill I'd attained on my mandolin by then by re-learning my right hand technique. My heart was in the right place with the effort, but my problem was less one of anchoring (I mean hey, Bill friggin' Monroe anchored his palm like me, and I can play almost 5% as fast as he can*) and more generally one of pick direction. As I stumbled through the last year teaching myself minor variations of tunes, I found that if I wasn't going the right way, I was fighting the rhythm. So it's been fixing itself. Sort of. About as gradually as I can learn anything, my right hand issues are slowly ironing themselves out.

So now that I'm all the way into second gear again, the obvious thing is to do drop the machine back down to a lurching crawl. Usually when you start learning the mandolin, you go after the old American (by way of the British Isles) fiddle classics. They're tuned in the keys of A, G, or D (or their relative minor keys) because the root notes rest on open strings (just pluck it, don't press it), and that's an easy place to start on either instrument, which are (normally) tuned identically. But if you ultimately wish to express more than the same ol', it's good to get beyond the three-chord classics and/or to play in keys of interest to other instrumentalists. You can do this while using open strings of course, but they won't be your home base anymore, and if you continue to anchor yourself there, you have to relearn the fingerings for every tune each time you play in a different key. To be a more versatile mando player you must make the dreaded foray up the neck. You have to use your pinky. And you have to think--at first.

The mandolin is brilliantly designed for four fingers. (Go ahead and whack your thumb.) It's tuned such that if you start a scale by fretting with your index finger, you'll get to the fourth note (halfway up) with your pinky before you switch strings. If you're playing in all closed positions (i.e., no open strings), then the fifth note will be with the index finger again, and you'll conclude the octave with your pinky. Playing with open strings means you can avoid fretting with your weakest and least coordinated digit--which is why most people start this way--but if you can master that awkward little bastard, then there are only four fretting patterns, depending on with which finger you start. That's true in minor keys as well, or whatever funky-ass mode you're trying to groove in. Only four patterns, ever. It's a piece of cake to transpose your tune to any key at all, just by sliding your starting position up and down the neck. If you play your chords in closed positions too (a good idea anyway), then you also realize how cool it is that the mandolin is four across as well, as you can pinch off every string with a finger, sliding the chords up and down just as easily as the scales.

For any tune I've memorized in the closed positions, transposing is nearly without thought, but it's a bitch getting them in my head in the first place. My wife is learning the fiddle (less ambitiously), and as she picks up a tune, I must do the same. Her up-the-neck lesson isn't coming soon, and as you might guess, her selections don't necessarily play as easily in the closed position, except, you know, when they do. I've found some of the fiddle melodies infuriating to play with pinky applied, but some of the other ones grow surprisingly easier. It's all about minimizing the amount of fingerboard covered and finding the most comfortable fingering sequences. It takes some painful experimenting with which of the four fretting patterns you use to play which parts--thinking!--and it's bloody difficult to read the music, as I don't really associate the short frets with any notes on the staff. But unlike my mediocre attempts at dexterity, I can see how my sinister pinky is opening up doors. If only I get my brain around it.

* even when dead

Flashman: The Non Musical

One of my dream jobs is being the casting director Supreme. This morning's coffee discussion turned to Flashman, who was one of my favourite and slightly problematic anti-heroes when I was a teen. The books are great; well researched, lots of adventure, and, ummm, a fair bit of misogyny and racism, as is only appropriate for the tales of a Victorian bully-boy. Which is why they are tough books to translate to screen (one miserable attempt with a woefully miscast McDowell some years back).

Casting Flashman requires an actor who looks physically impressive, is a handsome brute, can toady with the best of them if he thinks it to his advantage, and who can display convincing cunning and deeply subverted cowardice. My top pick (though I haven't seen the last two characteristics on display yet) is Gerard Butler. Then Clive Owen. Then Adrian Paul. Maybe the Rock, if he could grow mutton chops and do a convincing upper-class Brit accent.

Thinking about Flashman made me think about Billy Bunter, one of my favourite reads as a kid (despite being a fat kid, myself). Again, rampant classicism, racism, and women don't even exist, except as Tuck Shop ladies dispensing jam tarts (hidden code?). But they made me laugh out loud. And want jam tarts, even though they've always been a disappointment when I actually had one in my mouth. In my local library, nary a Billy Bunter title to be found--censored, and maybe rightfully so...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Blogging The Debate Hungover

For whatever reason, I seem to be able to get ABC on Sunday mornings, but only if one of the dogs is laying right in front of the TV. Since they both have separation anxiety when it comes to dad, that's usually not a problem. So I decided to hover over the democratic candidates' rhetoric in between all the chain smoking and Milk Of Magnesia shots. Here are just a few observations.

-Beginning to answer a question by restating the question, word for word, is very middle school debate team-ish. It makes you sound like a heartless space robot. Speaking of which...

-Kucinich got one of the bigger laughs when he answered one of the questions, Do you think the power of prayer can affect natural disasters?, a mind-bogglingly stupid one at that, with, "Well, George, I've been praying to God for the last 45 minutes that someone would call on me." That's one nutty alien space zombie from another planet!

-John Edwards was one of only a few who answered that above question correctly, i.e., "No." Attaboy, faggot!

-Obama got in a nice dig at Hilary (Hillary?) when she and others criticized his lack of experience. He turned it around on her and said basically that lack of experience in Washington is an asset, and having experience in Washington a curse. Ouch.

-I like Richardson (Richards?). Down to earth, honest, scrappy.

-Hilary got in a nice dig at Karl Rove when she wondered aloud why he was so obsessed with her. I.e., Darth Vader he ain't.

-Apparently the new rule at these debate things is that there has to be at least one insane 80-year old nutcase who never comes close to even addressing the question and doesn't answer it to no one in particular, not even to the camera. !!!Newsflash!!! That's what we've got currently, minus the years.

-No one has a cogent exit strategy for Iraq. Not even the swinging dicks on the ground there. Why? Because there is no cogent exit strategy for Iraq. Which is exactly why we should probably get the fuck out of there, like, ASAP.

-9/11 changed everything? What? Well this is certainly news to me! Why am I always the last to find these things out? It's like snail mail all over again. And here I thought there were so many delays at the airport because of that Il Divo tour Simon Cowell's hocking like snake oil at a carnival freak show.

-I really need to go through that stack of papers on the left side of the desk. It's funny that Citibank keeps sending me emails about protecting me from identity theft and yet continues to send me balance transfer checks 10 times a month. Conflict of interest, or marketing through "make an example of" philosophy"? You tell me.

-Any of these folks would probably make a better president than George W. Bush. Although at this point so would my dog laying in front of the TV there. Good girl!

Off topic: 50. Did he even break a sweat? Can't wait for the US Open.

Magic Shoes

As we became more deliberate in our sexuality, the shoes we chose for a date were coded messages

A few nights ago my husband and I beat the summer heat by lounging around on the basement couch. Random channel surfing produced a surprisingly fascinating documentary, Ballets Russes, about the ballet troupe founded by Diaghilev in 1909—in it’s heyday, talents as Nijinksky, Balanchine, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel collaborated to create dances, sets, and music which are still in use almost a century later. The film combined archival footage of the troupe’s fifty years of performance with interviews of the surviving dancers, all of whom seemed to have the kind of old age that I hope to (still actively working and full of mischief). My husband, not a ballet fan, enjoyed it, too.

When I was a chubby eight-year-old, I pestered my parents until they enrolled me in ballet class. The teacher an Iron Curtain defector, was a Hungarian in her early fifties, who stalked around the mirrored basement with a cane in one arthritic hand and a cigarette in the other. Practicing my “un, deux, trois, etc.” amidst a row of equally clumsy little girls, I would covetously eye the eleven and twelve-year-olds who, perched on the wooden bench at the back of the classroom, banged their toe shoes against the floor and then wove the pink satin ribbons around their ankles, tying them in perfect bows.

This, I believe was the start of my magic shoes fetish, one that most women share. At some seminal point in our history, we gazed at the satin-encased arched foot and gleaming, rounded toe supporting a ballerina’s impossibly graceful pose and we were lost. We wanted that elegance, that ability to transcend gravity, the capacity to transform from girl into swan or fairy queen. And then we saw the Wizard of Oz, the sparkling Ruby Slippers whose true magic lay in their ability to change a frumpy farm girl into a Power in a magic land (and NOT in taking her back to a farm in Kansas, for heaven’s sake!).

As puberty approached, we clopped around in our mother’s party shoes, dreaming of the day when we would become grown-ups, elevated not just by breasts but by three inch kitten heels, too. Later, as we became more deliberate in our sexuality, the shoes we chose for a date were coded messages. Shiny stilettos and anything that resembled a cat or snake skin told them, if they knew how to read it, that we set out on the date with passion as a possibility. Wearing high heels involves physical pain at sometimes excruciating levels (it’s why the Little Mermaid story so resonates for women, once they’ve embarked on their adult lives), so they are only put on for a man when there was strong motivation. Sensible shoes were a signal that we liked you as a friend.

A little older, and women wear shoes mostly for other women. Their shoes are every bit as much a declaration to those they regard as competition as a man’s choice of car or mistress is. Jimmy, Manolo, Ferragamo, et al—these are the Porsche, Ferrari, and Mercedes of a certain woman’s world.

I’ve spent my life yearning after unsuitable shoes. A decade as a waitress was not kind to appendages that, as the culmination of many generations of Irish peasants, were already leaning toward triple E status. I am forced to live in flip-flops, earth shoes and clunky boots. But, walk me past a window full of killer heels with tiny straps and I am lost in a dream of what might have been: the pointed toe emerging delicately out of a Park Avenue limousine, a career as a dominatrix, the heady romp of groupiedom, being Margaret Thatcher’s security double… the list is endless and the only thing stopping me is sensible shoes.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Unleashing Personal Exuberance

monotheism, india, and "the beast with one back"

1. The crucial distinction between monotheism and polytheism is revenue flows. My parents purchased salvation with one check a year; my neighbors in Taiwan would have killed for such a streamlined financial system. The Fire God remains on a barter economy (he seems to enjoy pineapple and Coke), the Daoists will only take cash, and nobody is quite clear on what exactly the Boddhisatva wants. The medieval Catholic Church lasted so well because it integrated the two approaches -- think of Martin Luther as an advocate of a neater spreadsheet (roughly: "saints are false consciousness").

This system was bad for atheists, but they have come up with a clever new income stream. Profits now grow in proportion to Christopher Hitchens' ego.

2. Meanwhile, in India, the government may come down because it has acheived what the majority of the country wants. At issue is a nuclear deal with the United States that gives a quiet nod to India's nuclear program despite the governments failure to endorse a ban on testing.

The previous government, run by a Hindu-nationalist party (the BJP) badly wanted the agreement but never got it. Their goal is to bring down the progressive party (the UPA) of Manmohan Singh. UPA's only real transgression was to negotiate a deal, but the BJP is using its rent-a-mobs to drum up nationalist sentiment by claiming the treaty violates the country's sovereignty.

The BJP, being the minority party, couldn't achieve anything without help on the inside. Their turncoat allies? The Communists. Normally, Communists and very nationalistic religious parties do not make natural bedfellows, but it turns out the Commies hate the U.S. more than they hate the opium of the people.

So the Commies will symbolically pull out of the ruling coalition (not clear if they would actually support a no-confidence motion), and the thing that 90% of the populace wants will be jeopardized.

Moral of the story -- Communism may be good for something after all.

3. I knew Claude Scales was a funny man, but who knew he did penis jokes? Turns out the boomer knows quite a bit about being self-absorbed -- "the hot date with the Sally Five-slide." Such cool lingo they have in Brooklyn!

Claude's post remined me of a challenge set down by that dirty-minded instigator, Keifus, thrown down at John McG at Wag the Slate, the beta version of WikiFray. John rose to the occasion with the classic titles "Who's Beating the Meter?" and "Improper Self-Love." But, improbably, it was MsZilla who was the hands-down winner.

Feeling nostalgic for the old days, I thought I'd revive the tradition.

Friday, August 17, 2007

We're Having A Heat Wave, A Tropical Heat Wave

I wonder if this could be

a temporary work through

Thursday, August 16, 2007

No comment

(numbers don't lie)


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On The Origin of Weblogs

What do you think of this idea for a book blog?

Ever since Blogging the Bible wrapped up, I've been wondering what Blogging The Origin of Species would look like. There's a part of me that thinks it would be little more than Cliff's Notes updated for the 21st century, and written by an amateur, but I still think that it might make for a worthwhile project. Mainly because the more interactive format that a weblog (Um... why does Blogger flag "weblog" as misspelled?) provides could make for an entertaining, lively and sometimes vitriolic debate. But I'm curious - would any of you see this as an interesting exercise?

Open thread

Please use the first comment link (to the left of the post count) to sound off.

The Old Man and the Sea

1. Backward Induction:

A while back, I developed a habit of getting depressed on Fridays. Sunday evenings are depressing for the obvious reason (demise of the weekend and impending work week). Saturdays started getting bleak on anticipation of those Sunday evening blues, and soon, thanks to acute foresight regarding what lay in wait for Saturday, a pall of gloom descended on my Fridays too. At a time when most people joyously rushed out of their offices to hit the pubs, the restaurants and the theaters (to say nothing of wild orgies and raves), I made excuses to go home and lie wrapped in a blanket lest I slash my wrists in despair. What kind of deluded idiot celebrates a fleeting freedom when the fate of being dragged back to the harness is merely two days away?

A key determinant of the quality of life is how we relate to the future. That seems obvious enough; what is less clear is how exactly it works (or can be made to work). For example, placing a high weight on the future may elicit much good behavior in us (e.g., avoid adultery, stick to a diet, stop being an asshole), but may also unravel all commitments (love, loyalty, friendship) by throwing a harsh light on the impermanence of everything. There is also the argument that what we tend to hold intrinsically precious is what is fleeing. I wonder if I should prefer a one night stand with Angelina Jolie or a lifetime. Maybe I’ll settle for a week.

Eventually, I found a way of conquering my weekend blues. On Monday morning, I tell myself that glorious Friday is only five days away, so that I am essentially a free man biding my time to throw off my shackles. This has imparted such an insufferable aura of cheerfulness to my demeanor throughout the week that most friends and colleagues shun me till Thursday night at the very least. I wonder if I should return to the previous perspective.

2. Virtual Dotage:

Once one has spent a good length of time on a discussion board, a sensation sets in that can only be described as simulated dotage. I don’t mean it in the trivial sense of having “aged” in terms of years spent, but in the psychological one of garbled memory, attention deficit and an increasingly blurry sense of what is happening around on the board. Here is my best understanding of Wikifray/nopunuq/whatever’s architecture:

There are a bunch of individual blogs. When people post comments there, they show up here, so that others can reply here, discussing what they read there. The blog entries elsewhere also show up here as feeds, but comments must be posted there to be registered here as such. Some posts made here may be published in Wordflare, which has its own forum where readers may comment on what they read there about thoughts originally posted here (or, for that matter, there) in response to blog entries which appeared there (not Wordflare, the other “there”, wherever that is). All this digs up the old philosophical squabble about whether there really is any there there, but that is neither here nor there. I think.

Was I even close?

3. Religion:

As a self proclaimed atheist, I am often alarmed at the prospect of being clubbed together with polytheistic nutcases practicing ritual sacrifice and other weird shit. Let me explain.

There is little difference, really, between an atheist and a deist. The atheist believes there is no God, while the deist believes that He exists, but resolutely stays away from the universe (i.e., He is always there, never here). Thus, which framing I choose ought to make not an iota of difference as to how I expect the universe to behave, or what my fate in it will be. I might just as well call myself a deist.

The difference between a deist and an orthodox monotheist is similarly infinitesimal. Suppose I believe that saints can fly. Rather than calling this a supernatural phenomenon, I can always rewrite Newton’s law so that the gravitational force between bodies is a function not only of their mass and the distance between them, but also of their virtue, thereby fitting my belief into a deistic framework where natural law rules supreme. Alternatively, were I of the opinion that Newton’s inverse square law operates without exception, I could still think that God is working furiously every nano second to keep it from breaking down.

Finally, the distinction between monotheism and polytheism is just plain absurd. Is the Federal government a single entity, or a conglomeration of interacting entities like the Defense department, the Treasury and the CIA? I could frame my beliefs as if all godliness were emanating from a single source, or (without any alteration to their essential substance) as if they were multi-sourced: like the dept. of miracles, the dept. of fire and brimstone, the divine hurricane dispatch service, and so on.

This has led me to the disturbing conclusion that I may be a worshipper of the flying spaghetti monster and the giant tea-pot, after all. In which case, who am I to call the Scientology kettle black?

Open Letter to My Computer, With Certain Comments Directed Toward Floyd Landis

Dear Computer,

I'm not sure you will be able to read this, as you seem to be dead, forcing me to walk to the library this morning and locate some paltry stand-in, some off-key understudy, to fill in.

I don't think I ever typed into you a favorite bit from Full Metal Jacket:

This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of my enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.

In order to make myself write, I sometimes thought much the same about you, computer. Together, we were adding to knowledge, defending the republic against ignorance, saving my life by applying it to a small yet useful purpose, a bailiwick.

I've wanted to be a historian since I was around six. This was mostly my father's doing: he hung timelimes on the walls of the kitchen. The Dark Ages started with the TV set and stretched to about where we kept the Legos. From the Legos to the cookbooks was the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment bridged the gap from cookbooks to fireplace. Years later I learned that Jesuits created imaginary buildings with rooms storing bits of information -- this spacial arrangement facillitated memory of thousands of details. When the Jesuits arrived in China, the Chinese were most impressed by their astronomy and their pneumonics.

I don't know if my father knew about the Jesuits, but all my life I've known that the 30 years war was 1618-1648 because of it's relation to the fireplace. My mother taught me argument (see other letter); my father was the details man.

At any rate, the Ph.D was the culmination of all this, and it was predictably Oedipal. If you are going to slay your father, best to have a good computer. I'm sorry I whacked you so hard, and particular sorry about the cat hair. And perhaps it's the, well, the maleness of all that that makes me think of guns and Kubrick movies. Time to switch metaphors.

We live by the stories we tell about ourselves. That's how I read the texts that TenaciousK posted today. It suits me to regard the writing of history as an epic exercise, and me part of it. It's a productive fiction -- my very geekiness takes on a heroic hue, my errors are tragic flaws, my paragraphs catharsis. I'd be better off if I chose a more modest metaphor (looking into a well). Then I wouldn't get motivated by things like the Floyd Landis ride in the Tour de France.

The urge of the historian is to participate in making people immortal, to keep the past close by, to give it life in the present. It's a completely ridiculous job, as silly as comparing a thesis to a bike race. What I do will end up on some busted computer, you or something like you, and a time will come (for the vast majority of the world it's long since here) when nobody cares about nineteenth-century China.

Still, it's fun to occupy the spaces that have been filled with stories, to go to the Forbidden City, the Red Fort, Walt Whitman's house. History is also a way we give poetry to objects (like you). At the end of the day, it makes me happy.

Anyway, as I say goodbye to you, computer, I'd also like to bury this sense of epic, which pumped up my ego but made it so hard for me to write anything. I'd like to stop caring about how long things last, and be content that they are still around, allowing me to measure myself against them, to find a kind of footing, to get oriented against whatever household object and whatever past comes to hand.

Thanks for your help.



cc: Floyd Landis
encl(2): Full Metal Jacket DVD, Collected Poems of Seamus Heaney

Open Letter to My Mother


Science : Journalism :: Science Fiction : Punditry

[I've been boring myself with this one all week, now it's your turn. On the plus side, it should be out of my head now.]

Even though I've been committing some half-assed versions of it lately, I'm not a big fan of science journalism. Or maybe that's not quite correct: I like the stuff in here when I read it, and the various popular science magazines can be OK for fields I'm unfamiliar with, even if one of them was once so foolish as to include my photo once (the last time I saw my name in print, I think). My occasional viewing of the NYT science section has revealed a general readability and even Will Saletan can occasionally be trenchant as he parrots it. And I like fantasizing about science too. No the problem is less what's written, and more the readers. I don't mind opening eyes and instilling a desire for greater understanding (again, I've enjoyed popularly styled reports recently in areas I was totally ignorant), and I'm all for inquiry, but it annoys me when dumb people read a breezy piece, with their own agendas on their backs like monkeys, and think they have it down. It annoys me even more when those people are influential.

I think it's John McG's fault that this came across my attention. According to the poster,

[a cited USA Today article] also contains some worthwhile comments on the danger of politicizing science, as well as in pretending that science can resolve contentious policy debates.
Yes, you have to beware of people using their credentials to forward political (or market) agendas, but science isn't something that bears the weight of opinion as obviously as everyone seems to think. Just because theories can be developed and institutionalized to a degree, it's rare that this stuff sifts through peer review for very long. It may take an extra convincing argument to sway the establishment, but at the end, science is interpretation of facts and measurements, while politics is interpretation of opinions. Ideally, opinions are grounded in facts, but they sure don't have to be.

Facts enrich opinions more than opinions enrich facts. You do have to be wary of the latter, whatever the source. Still, I wish I had more sources of science policy opinion.* When scientists write editorials they tend to be either dreadful (and USA Today and Volokh are right that the opinion is often more funding) or bombastic (which is more fun since there are a lot of earnest deniers out there, but I'm still glad I skipped Stephen Jay Gould deriding The Bell Curve at novel length). In the opposite case, when professional opinion writers get their hands on scientific points, it's nothing short of a train wreck. It's the worse with conservative pundits, because conservatism, by definition, is a set of opinions that's been reinforced for a while. The liberation from a justifying set of facts for those opinions may be a newer development in the movement. Certainly they're more crass than I remember as a kid.

[Is this what happened to economics? I had just finished mocking supply side theorists last night when it occurred to me that Milton Friedman shouldn't really be called a lightweight. I don't know if he can be blamed for skyrocketing the national debt in flush times, favoring short-term speculation over real investment, or a suspiciously self-serving policy of enriching the already rich, but whatever we have now also seems a far cry from Friedman's monetarism. Need to read more on that. Consider it an invitation to comment.] Even if they've got some intellectual bits distantly behind them, the cheerleaders of poorly fortified opinions generally (and wrongly) imagine themselves the first in line to reap the promised rewards of their insincerity. Cushy and undeserved jobs aside, I don't know if your average conservative hack is really of the ownership class, and less so their readers.

But what the fuck, they've no doubt mangled Thomas Jefferson and Sun Tzu just as badly as anyone else. Frustratingly, other fields have crept into their purview as well, ones that I actually know stuff about. Jonah Goldberg, no deep thinker he, and a frequent complainer about scientists' inability to accept simple rhetorical "truths", has opined that those clever can-do scientists are going to save us from an oil crunch, fersure. Evidently, everyone is as eager as he is to keep him in his pampered, dull sinecure. (If you need a goat on the liberal side of things, witness the slavering over stem cells.)

To add insult to insult, the opinion hacks are doing their damndest to ruin my beloved science speculation too. Glenn Reynolds (of AG Android fame, and also doing his damndest to delve the shallows) has made time blathering about the hypothetical technological singularity as though he'll be the first to be uploaded. As though we need to listen to a computerized pundit for all eternity. Roy Edroso makes me sad when he picks on these people, but just because goobers latch onto it, it doesn't mean that speculation can't be instructive too. Some people read that stuff and it inspires them to become scientists, or merely to look down new avenues of thought. Others find it justification for their own mediocrity. Sharpen up your facts to defend against them.


*For the record, m'man Archaeopteryx actually does it pretty well.

Co-Existentialist Angst

My mid-life crisis involved a first marriage and buying a house

After many years of contented singledom, I re-encountered my first love about 18 months ago. Four months later we were married—a first for both. So far, it’s pretty damned good. We’re revoltingly lovey-dovey, combine passion with a steady background appreciation of each other, have survived a home renovation, and even work together. I thoroughly enjoy his company, and still get a thrill when he walks through a room. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to feel such a surfeit of emotion. I’m happy.

But. My life used to quite fearless, and now I feel it—that dread of a future parting. My morning newspaper has the notices of people celebrating their fiftieth anniversaries on the same page as the obituaries. I stare at the pictures of aged couples, and feel angry that it’s unlikely we’ll hit a golden wedding anniversary (we’d be in our mid-nineties). I now read the obits obsessively, keeping track of whether the person who died was married and, if so, was the surviving spouse male or female? I feel a weird happiness when I see spouses who have died within a few days of each other. It’s what I hope for, too, now that I’m sharing my life so profoundly.

But. I used to totally disapprove of infidelity, and scorn my married friends who stayed together after one or both of them had strayed. I thought they were weak; both for stepping out and for not doing their level best to destroy their cheating spouse. And now I know that I could tolerate it, under a wide variety of circumstances, although it wouldn’t make me happy.

But. My single friends seem to think I’ve won some kind of jackpot. Maybe I have, but it’s not the one they seem to want. They attach an almost magical significance to being married, some of them going so far as to say that they feel like losers because they aren’t. This comes more from women than men, but even the guys feel this pressure. I never felt that way—based on my parents and many of my friends, marriage looked like a great opportunity for unhappiness. The jackpot I won is finding someone that I don't just tolerate, but totally enjoy. It is in finding another human being that I am willing to change for, in order to accomodate our mutual happiness. It's not about the white dress and the diamond, or some societal judgement on those who live, for whatever reason, a single life (which is no way the same thing as a solitary life).

But. I’ve turned into a bit of a Wife. I make the dental appointments (because I’m scared plaque will migrate into his arteries and stop his heart), I do most of the laundry (because I notice that it needs doing and I don’t like asking), and I’m the one who handles the bill payments and does most of the picking up around the house because it hits my mess tolerance level before it hits his. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on the verge of nagging, as the boundaries are nowhere as clear as they were when I lived with a room-mate.

But. I’m agnostic, held back from atheism only because I can’t prove there isn’t a god. And, now that I'm married, I really wish I did believe in an afterlife; one where my love and I could be united for eternity, or share endless turns on the wheel of reincarnation, instead of my conviction that the biochemical network that is "me" dissipates upon death, and my slow dissolution into component atoms will occur.

But. All the buts don’t matter. This mystery of love that survives amidst the practical concerns of daily life is wondrous, forming an existence that is purely celebratory.

With thanks to Urquhart for sparking the thought chain

Monday, August 13, 2007

Wikifray blog and forum: a critique

If you include its earlier incarnation as Wag the Slate, wikifray has been in operation for about one year. Ender built it, and the rest of us came and participated and wrote and recruited people. I'm sure many of you share my feeling that it's been rewarding to participate in it, and to watch it grow.

It began as a collaborative project which Schad openly disdained for many months while others among us worked to make it viable. He later became supportive of it when he hit upon the idea of using it to launch his own venture (which began as a partnership with Ender, and continues now with Schad as the sole proprietor). Though I had certain misgivings, I was nevertheless excited about taking wikifray in a new direction,
and from early April, I offered what support and assistance I could. As you may have noticed, I'm a keener about this sort of thing, and I was very committed to wikifray.

The nuponuq forum was implemented in late April, and we switched over from blog comments to forum comments on April 30th. There was an immediate drop in posts and responses to posts. This was to be expected at the beginning, while people got used to the new environment, but I don't believe participation has come back to the quality it was prior to the change. If this diminished activity is due to the summer slowdown, you’d expect it to show in the number of posts, but not necessarily in the responses, or in the depth and quality of conversation. Summer or not, there are still a good number of people on the forum on a daily basis, but they’re not interacting the way they did on wikifray, where posts often engendered long and interesting discussions. In fact, this last while, the writing on wikifray has been better than ever, yet forum response has been thin and restrained. On the chart below, note that in terms of total number of posts, activity on the forum has increased over activity on wikifray, but check comments on your posts over the period before the changeover, and compare them to forum comments on your posts. Has the quality or frequency of the response changed? What about your posting - has it changed? (It's improved, right?)

Participation on the forum has a different feel. The ambiance seems to have changed with the loss of the egalitarian structure that wikifray enjoyed. As we were trying to attract quality writers to wikifray, we made the effort to create a welcoming environment. Schad’s behaviour, both before and after his project, has been inconsistent with this. He of all of us seemed most at home in the hostile environment of BOTF. That's not a problem per se—it’s just Schad—but it’s bad for business, and the business that it's bad for is something in which I once had a stake. And how did I lose that? I withdrew when I realized that Schad’s views on certain issues were so in opposition to mine that I could not participate as active support for his project any longer. I asked him to delete Write, Bitch from his server. He did that, and he also removed me from the admin forum on nuponuq. This was not unexpected, but it effectively curtailed my involvement in wikifray, as wikifray has become subordinate to the forum, and everyone who was active in wikifray development as an admin has moved over to nuponuq development, with Schad as the person in charge. Given our collaborative beginnings, this is a disappointment.

The following week, Ender, who's role had been up in the air before I dropped out, made an official announcement on the forum that he was no longer a partner in Schad’s venture. Schad responded with a gracious acknowledgement of Ender's work sourcing and adapting the bSpeak software for the nuponuq forum. He also thanked catnapping and skitch and John for their efforts. Although I’d put many hours in, both here and on other parts of Schad’s project, he left me off the list of people who'd contributed. This was not only bad form, it was plainly dishonest.

I was out, however. I had thought I'd stay involved in wikifray, but wikifray was now married to nuponuq; the two are interwoven, and Schad is the guy in charge. What has he done that warrants this status? He’s supplied server space, vision, and a willingness to benefit from other people's efforts. Ender and skitch have done most of the work on the forum software. Schad owns the software and the servers that host it, but really—the cost of the bSpeak software is negligible, and server space can be had anywhere.

Even though Schad had snubbed me when it came time to acknowledge contributors, I didn’t want to respond in a punitive manner. I put forum comment links on the new blog (shared with KarenOh), and I continued to participate on the forum. I treated him no differently than I had before. For his part, Schad took to being a jerk toward me. Disagreement is one thing, but he rarely offered argument. In keeping with his usual style, he’d berate me with insults to my intellect and mental health. Still, not a biggie, except in what it bodes for the future of this place, when the project is (hopefully) successful, and people are really invested in the community. I've been on forums with mean-spirited proprietors, and they are not creative and inviting spaces.

Quoting Geoff: “If your site offers a more comfortable medium for old-time Fraysters, then I welcome its presence on the net. I'm somewhat critical of it - based on what I've seen, you guys seem dangerously close to building a monument to everything that was unappealing about BotF.”

That’s not what wikifray was, and if that’s what this is turning into, I want no part of it.

It annoys me when people offer criticism without providing suggestions toward remedy, so here’s what I think needs to happen:

  • Restore the egalitarian structure. The wikifray forum ought to belong to and be governed by the members of wikifray. Schad needs to withdraw as a wikifray admin, and abstain from moderation and admin activity on the wikifray forum. Wikifray admins can moderate the wikifray forum.
  • Restore blog comments so that people can respond to posts on the blog if they wish to.
I see no problem with the following:
  • Wikifray members continuing to send their comments from their own blogs to the wikifray forum
  • Schad hosting the wikifray forum on his server
  • Schad taking posts and comments from the forum to publish in his magazine
  • Schad taking revenue from ads on the forum
  • Schad running the other forums as he sees fit.

Wikifray members: your thoughts, please.


Posts and comments on wikifray: c/p

Nov 5 – Dec 4....44.......10.........301......6.84

Dec 5 – Jan 4....43........9.........271......6.3

Jan 5 – Feb 4....58.......15.........504......8.68

Feb 5 – Mar 4....57.......16.........515......9.03

Mar 5 – Apr 4....51.......15.........434......8.5

Apr 5 – May 4....62.......14.........350......5.64*

May 5 – Jun 4....33.......11...........(n/a)

Jun 5 – Jul 4....47.......14...........(forum)**

Jul 5 – Aug 4....28.......13...........(forum)**

* prorated from data before Apr 30
** Jun 7 - Aug 13: 1873 forum comments

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wikifray Book Club

Two lovers walk into a cafe. The woman leaves, presumably to use the bathroom. The man hears nothing from her for three years. He feels as if he'd lost an organ, and just as he's come to a kind of truce with himself, he answers the phone. It's her. She invites him to a party...

It's short and brilliant. Let's read it, and then chat. The hardcover is out, or you can pre-oder the paperback on amazon.

Do it. You know you want to.

Friday, August 10, 2007



Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Shooter with Mark Wahlberg: DVD Review

Wahlberg plays Bobby Lee Swagger an ex-Marine marksman living in exile who Danny Glover [the bad guy] coaxes into helping prevent an assassination attempt on the president's life. Ultimately Swagger is double crossed and accused of the assassination attempt.

My favorite quote from the movie..."You don't understand how serious this is. They killed my dog."

It is considered a thriller and I thought it was awesome. Wahlberg ain't hard to look at either. Some of the ladies might find it offensive because of all the killing but I didn't because 1) that is what Swagger does and 2) they killed his dog...dammit!

If I'm stepping on Switter's toes with this movie review...good! AND if he calls Markie Mark gay I'm gonna go ellen on him and no doubt catch (h)ellen for doing it!!

Shooter: official site

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

NBC's Age Of Love Finale Sweeps Me Off My Feet!

What a night! A veritable roller coaster ride of emotional kidnapping. I haven't been that psychologically exhausted since this year's Daytime Emmy Awards, when Oprah accidentally thanked herself, and she hadn't even won anything!

I.e., I certainly didn't see that coming from a mile away, namely, that he'd choose the 25-year old over the 48-year old in this sex-charged game of sociological hacky sack. !!!SURPRISE ALERT!!!

What a ride! I laughed. I cried. The dog threw up over there in the corner that one time. It was like falling in love all over again, but with a semi-imaginary person on my TV.

Yet through all the tears, all the ups and downs, all the magic of editing, all the cat fights and hair pulling and pissing contests and fuck teases, some even on the show, I managed, in spite of myself no less, to learn a thing or 3 along the way. Here are but a few

-A lot of professional tennis players are dorky and retarded.

-Australia is a country surrounded on all sides by water, a "fun fact" he pointed out during his brief "Down Under For Dummies" history lesson for the ladies.

-A lot of single women will say anything not to sound vapid and stupid, and yet they still manage to sound that way.

-A lot of professional tennis players have never been to college, and some don't even have much of a high school education. And it really comes through with perfect clarity.

-It's not that women hate each other; it's that some women are insecure and they hate themselves, which they then project onto other women.

-When you play Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" backwards, it sounds like Freddie Mercury is saying, "Some of us smoke marijuana." Which is tantamount to saying that when you play Pat Boone covering "Something In The Way She Moves" backwards, it sounds like Pat's saying, "This version could kill a rabid elephant on steroids," when you really think about it.

-It's not that men are complete assholes; it's that some men are better at hiding that fact than others.

-Youth may indeed be wasted on the young, but sometimes the experience of age is squandered on the older.

-A lot of professional tennis players have to have their own name tattooed onto there palm so that they spell it correctly when they have to sign those giant Publisher's Clearinghouse-esque checks.

-Mark Consuelos has an almost eerie and inexplicably creepy grasp of the obvious.

-Never under any circumstances should you ever try to remove the sticky "Security Device Enclosed" thingie from your brand spankin' new Eight Is Enough, Season 4 DVD while stoned.

Publishers don't have clearinghouses; they have slush piles; and those aren't so much slush piles as they are interns' desks.

-Money might not buy you love, but it sure does, on occasion, bring you at least some semblance of it. And sometimes that's just going to have to be enough for now.

They'll go out on 3 dates, she'll realize he's just another boring doofus who's bad in bed, and they'll never see each other again. Or am I projecting?

Coming next week: FOX's Hell's Kitchen, A Real Barn-Burner!