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writer's block

Fear and Loathing in America

Taking a Gamble on the Chinese
writer's block
One week of my life, California, June 2012

Job Search

I didn't get into casino training with a view to making a point, or learning anything apart from how to do a casino job. I wasn't commissioned by the New Yorker to write a hilarious expose on the underbelly of Los Angeles poverty and desperation. The sad reality is that I had been in California for four years and I needed a job.
There is a very fine line between being a writer (and this also applies, I gather, to other areas of the arts, such as acting or painting) and being unemployed. However, I could type fast and accurately and I get along with people, more or less, so I attempted to sign up with a temp agency. I say "attempted" because I spent two whole weeks scouring the San Gabriel Valley for temp agencies and whenever I found one, there was always some stupid problem. One office had gone out of business without having the common decency to inform Google. Another had relocated to Arizona. Another had a sign on the door that said "DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR" with no apparent alternative means to enter the building. When I finally made it into one of these offices, the woman behind the desk looked up briefly from her phone call to say, "we have no jobs," and returned to explaining to Stacy where she was going wrong with the men in her life.
I had assumed this “find a temp agency” thing would be simple. My plan was to wow them with my mad filing / typing skills, get hired by a start-up where none of the employees understand what the company actually does and spend the rest of the year being the hilarious guy near the photocopier who brings everyone doughnuts on Tuesdays. Literally the only good thing about this two weeks was I had an abrupt answer for anyone who suggested the apparent ease with which I should be able to find a job.

A Job

At a jobs fair in Baldwin Park, I found out about a job opportunity in Hawaiian Gardens, a tiny city surrounded by other cities about 40 miles away from Pomona, a bigger city of strolling Mexicans and police helicopters where I lived at the time. There was an offer to train people for free to be a third party player in a casino. I had no idea what "third party player" meant, but I know what “$10 an hour” means, so I signed up.
Before this, my entire experience of casino gambling was three weekend trips to Las Vegas, all of which were against my will, all of which were precipitated by a girl I was trying to impress. Las Vegas is a dark-universe twin of an oasis. It's in the middle of the desert, but it's a depressing cesspit of unattractive alcoholics, garish lights, uncomfortable sounds and professional losers. It makes the salt flats and featureless deserts which surround it seem like heaven. There is no sight more pathetic than a woman, just slightly past the point where she could still be considered attractive, dressed like she’s twenty years younger, bringing drinks in plastic cups to loss-junkie animals at three o'clock in the morning. Every time I went, like clockwork, there they were, throwing chips onto numbers and colors and laughing about it with their new temporary friends: “Daddy needs a new pair of shoes!” Daddy needs to go home and take care of his family, more like. It’s a town full of sound of fury, lights and negotiated virtue, alcohol and carousing, celebrating the most regressive, atavistic parts of the human spirit. We can do better.

A New Hope

Unless you were familiar with the American habit of naming places aspirationally rather than descriptively, you'd expect something special from a place with a name like Hawaiian Gardens. What you get is an entire city that looks like the back of an old people’s home. The training centre itself is in a series of rooms that have been rented from the Tri-City Regional Medical Center, a hospital full of brightly-lit, quiet sadness. The signs on the corridor doors read, in this order: spinal surgeon, cardiologist, casino training.
I got there an hour early, mainly because I didn't sleep much. The guy in the room next door decided to form a band at 4 a.m. I knocked on his door and asked him to rehearse at a more manly hour. They put the guitars away, but kept on laughing and shouting and so on. At 5 a.m. I asked them when they were thinking of wrapping up the party. They were reluctant to commit to a specific time.
Another reason I was early is that I overestimated the traffic. So, I was sitting in a cosy waiting room for about forty minutes, reading the little book I brought, and listening to the people behind the reception desk. The training leader, named Alpha, seemed to be taking a lot of phone calls.
That afternoon at two o'clock, the first day of training began. We were four: me; a Filipino girl who talked about her kid all the time; and two Chinese girls who had very little English and had no idea what was happening. Alpha occasionally used a translator app to talk to them. He also explained that at some point they would have to pick up some basic English as a job requirement.
He made an initial effort to explain what a "third party player" is. Under California law, a casino is not allowed to bank any winnings from card games itself, so they hire “third party” companies to do it on a contract basis. This means that they’ve essentially outsourced the whole financial end of casino card gaming. I have no idea why this is legal when straight casino banking is illegal. No one can explain it to me.
What this job entailed, finally, was monitoring casino tables to keep dealers and players straight. There are hundreds of scams and slices and cuts and we have to know them all. To catch them quickly enough is a simple enough matter; it involves doing basic math as fast as possible. Casino dealers have been doing their job well for years, and inside a week we had to get better than them. We had to know all the bets, antes, bonuses, payouts and all the multipliers for every single possible hand. We had to learn it all by heart, so it could be recalled automatically, because there is less than one second between when the dealer's hand is revealed and the bets are won or lost. We had a week to get that down.
At the end of the week (or however long) of training, there would be no job offer. Instead, they gave an “audition”. They put one of us on a card table with the actual guy who owns the actual casino, and we had to convince him that we could do a good job of guarding his money. And if he liked you, then I guess he liked you.
For the first time in sixteen years, I had homework: lists of multiplication tables, and photos of card permutations and chip combinations that I had to match to bet returns. It was hard going but it wasn't complicated, and I was looking forward to learning more about gambling in any case. If I got this job, I imagined writing articles about sad losers sending their families into homelessness and morons basking in the glow of transitory victory.


On the second afternoon, a few more people show up, but I notice that not only am I the sole man in the group, I'm also the only white person. Everyone else is a female Asian. One of the Chinese girls comes up to me after the class and says she thought I was one of the managers when she came in first, not because I'm a man but because I'm white. She thought it was hilarious that I occupied the same place in the hierarchy that she did. I had no idea how to feel about this conversation, but it made me sad. I was certain that someone was the target of racism here, but I wasn't entirely sure who, or how it was working, or how I should go about fixing it, or even if it was something that required a solution.
The first time I learned that I am a white person was Wednesday, 10th October, 2007. I had just landed in California from one of the whitest countries on the planet, and I found myself living with a Filipino family. Growing up in Ireland, I didn't even know I was white. I thought I was just a guy. This was the first day someone referred to me as "our white friend". This would happen quite often over the following six years, and I would hear stories of people talking about me as "that white guy", in a manner which, because I spent all my time around Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans, I hoped was not so much pejorative as the easiest way to describe me.
On the third afternoon, we were doing some counting and dealing exercises and taking turns to deal the cards and test each other. I was paired with a Chinese girl, and the following conversation occurred. This transcription is completely accurate and none of it is exaggerated. In the middle of one of the exercises, the Chinese girl looked up at me suddenly.

"You cunt!"
I was surprised, as I thought we were getting along well.
"You cunt!"
I tried to think back over everything that led to this point of the conversation, but I couldn't think of anything.
"I don't think so..."
"I see you cunt now."
"I don't know what you saw, but-"
"You cunt chip. 1, 2, 3, 4, you see?"
"Oh, counting! Yes. I'm counting. Don't say that other thing."
"Yeah. Don't say that. Say 'count', yeah?"
At this stage, I was getting more frustrated than I should have been.
"No. Listen. Cow, cow, cow, count!"
"Nigga! Nigga, nigga, nigga cunt."
This was not what I was expecting to hear and I had no idea what to do. Everyone else in the room seemed busy.
"Please stop saying that."
"That. Yes. Please do not say that.
"Nigga ... nigga?"
"Yes. That. Don't ever say that. What does it mean?"
"Nigga? Nothing. No meaning."
"Then why the hell do you keep saying it?"
I was becoming more and more aware that this conversation could get me in serious trouble.
"It, nigga, like, nigga, mean, like-"
"What are you doing? What are you trying to say?"
"No, no, not bad. It mean, like, uh, you know, nigga."
"How would I know? I don't speak Chinese."
"No, you know, it mean, um, you know..."

Thankfully, Alpha rescued me. He explained to her using the translation app on his phone that certain words are beneath the dignity of anyone in the service industry and mean something completely different in English. That evening, I spoke to some Chinese friends who explained that "nega", as they insisted on spelling it, is used to block the gaps in a sentence, much as English speakers might use "like" or "um". In retrospect, it turns out she was telling me exactly what the word meant, over and over, and I mistook her explanation for incomprehension and hesitation.
On the fourth afternoon, I was hoping to get a moment to apologise for my terrible attitude with someone who was doing a great job of getting by in a language she was clearly uncomfortable with. I didn't get a chance. We were both paired with different people, and very early in the exercises, she burst into tears and fled the building. Alpha ran after her. We never saw her again, but Alpha said that she found the training very difficult and she was frustrated with her lack of progress.


By contrast, I got bumped to the morning class. The Morning Class was legendary among the afternoon crowd. We were already pretty rattled from having to memorise bunches of bets, card combinations and payouts in a matter of seconds, but we had heard that the morning class was where you go when you show promise, when you have potential.
As a child, my teachers would often tell my parents that “he has lots of potential, if only he’d apply himself”, which might be a nice way of saying that I was clever but lazy, although I would prefer the terms "differently-motivated" or "resource-efficient". It might also recognise the fact that if you're good at something, then you’re good at it, but if you suck, what you have is potential.
I was perfectly aware of the mild psychological tricks leveraged against me by clever but lazy teachers. I didn't say anything because I wasn't aware of the facility to do so, and there wouldn't be much point in any case. It could just make things worse and a small part of me had a strong feeling, like a devout Christian with cancer, that there was a plan where, on a long enough timeline, the guy in charge would make everything OK. I still believe that things will get better on a long enough timeline, but now I realise that I'll have to make it happen myself.

The Morning Class

I may have overestimated the traffic from Pomona to Hawaiian Gardens in the middle of the day, but the morning rush hour would demand a tribute, and that tribute is getting up at 7 am. It takes me about two hours to get to sleep on the best of quiet, dark nights, so I’d have to start trying at 10 pm: no more late-night movies, milkshakes or romantic adventures for me. The new schedule would involve getting home at about 2:30 pm, eating, card drills and exercises, and then try to calm my brain down to get some sleep.
This half-day class was somehow stealing twenty-four hours of my day, but Alpha told me I was doing well and that I was ready for the audition the following morning (Friday). He also said that if I passed the audition, I was guaranteed a job. I had just come out of a divorce, and was ready to latch onto any guarantees of any kind.
Early on the fifth day, the casino training class crash-landed. Not for everyone else: just for me. Alpha and I had a discussion where we agreed that I was not improving in a manner consistent with what a reasonable person would expect. I completely agree with his assessment. The trainers were putting more time and effort into me than anyone else, and it just wasn't clicking in my brain.
It’s probably just as well. Being hooked up to an I.V. of pure failure was starting to get to me. I’ve never been bad at anything in my life, at least nothing that I felt I should be good at. I’ve certainly never turned in a performance described as “poor”, and to be fair, that was Alpha being charitable. I am a disaster at counting chips and cards quickly.
For the last three weeks I have been naturally inclined to regard every new day as a new chance to get it right, to impress the brass with a stunning attack of the clevers. But it never happened. Instead, each new day brought ritual humiliation, embarrassment, and grinding and gnashing of teeth. I’ve had a knot in my stomach all this time and I was sleeping worse than usual. I blocked off eight hours for it and I was getting no more than three. One of the nights beforehand, I had a dream where I was at the audition and the CEO dragged me into a corridor and beat the hell out of me, repeatedly ramming my head into a door. I could still feel echoes of shaken nerves and a rattled brain when I woke up.
My awful handle on the required skills was demonstrated during an interview simulation (called a “pre-audition”). That’s not an exaggeration. Unforgivable mistakes were made at every stage of the simple series of operations: laying bets; dealing cards; working out who wins; paying bets. I felt very bad, and I was demoted from the magical mystery morning class to the afternoon class. However, the failure must have affected me worse than I thought, because at the afternoon class, I continued to get everything wrong: no improvement at all, no sign that I was learning anything. Alpha took me outside for a talk and while he didn't bang my head against a door, he gently explained that I was done with casino training.
Alpha told me he felt like he hadd also failed, because he liked me and he couldn’t figure out a way to help me improve. He said he liked to set himself challenges, and he was always looking for new and interesting ways to teach people. In fact, all the trainers were nothing but kind and patient and sometimes creative in their attempts to help me. It appears that my brain just isn't wired in a way that would make sense of this job.
I drove back to my familiar cesspit of cheap tacos and people shouting in the street and accepted the universe's judgement that I should live in eternal poverty.

22 Years Old
writer's block

This is an article I wrote for the The Gazette (UCC Student's Union paper), published on October 24, 1996. I've transcribed it below because I am terrible at taking photos.

So, you've come to UCC. Big, isn't it? Well, if you were awake and functional for any part of Freshers Week, you might have gone on a tour, whose misguided aim is to familiarise the uninitiated with the more familiar landmarks of the campus.
These tend to be like shoeboxes in external appearance, and either hospitals or solicitors offices in internal content. What these tours don't show you is the real UCC - the UCC that you only become fully aware of around mid-second year. This is where I come in. Read and observe.
(i) E-mail computers. OK, so they might have told you about these computers, located on E2 (directly underneath E3). What they didn't tell you was thatthis is ina excellent place to meet foreign chicks and guys, as they seem to hog the terminals all day. Which makes one think - if they're so busy spending all day e-mailing their friends in their country of origin, why don't they just go home? That way, legitimate users like me coiuld play some games.
(ii) The toilets on E2. Yes, we are still on the same floor, and we've just gone into the toilets. Before going ot college, toliets were no doubt thought of as places of quiet reflection where one could answer the call of nature in peace. Not so in coklege. Toilets in college are topical fourms for olitical and social debate. The favourite topic of the toilets of E2 is the old homosexual / heterosexual thing. Classic quote from cubicle 2: "I get randy when I see secondary school boys." To this, some concerned citizen had replied: "What about secondary school girls?"So, if you have a burning wish to express a controversial opinion, sod the Philosoph and head for the nearest toilet with a black marker quick smart.
(iii) A-Block. Sure, we all know how to get to A-Block. But what if it's raining at the time? Or if there's someone outside you don't want to meet because you were drunk at the time and they think they're in love with you? Fear not, for legend has it that there is a way to get to A-Block from E-Block without going outside! The legend goes someway towards explaining the average puny quotient of food scientists.
(iv) Computer Science Faculty. Part of college which is in charge of teaching students how to be arrogant about being able to use a computer. Typical conversation (overheard):
"Well, will you look at that?"
"The number 8 is 1,000 is binary."
(v) Q-1. This one is very suspicious. The only thing of use available here is the Spike Milligan back catalogue. Therefore we can only assume that this is the nuclear bunker which will house Michael Mortell and Aidan Moran should a nuclear war present itself. They must have read our minds.
Join me next week when I'll be revealing reasons why most students have no lives.

The red line is the line most people took from E-Block to A-Block. The green line is the secret corridor to travel between these blocks in the rain. The green star is where the computer science people were, mostly congregating on the fourth floor.

On-line Christian Soldiers
writer's block

Chapter 1: syetenb

WARNING: What follows is the very essence of TL;DR. You may actually be slightly less intelligent after reading all of it. No one should do so. There is one confirmed case of a poor American girl who read this whole page, and now all she can read is Dan Brown books. In an Australian accent. Don't be like Becky. Do not read this page.

There follows an exact transcript, without any editing, of an email I sent to syetenb in 2007, master of a website which proves god exists. I'm posting this now because of a long debate Sye had with Matt Dillahunty last week which makes total mincemeat of everything Sye stands for.

The only alterations are as follows: numbers inserted by me refer to the notes at the bottom; some formatting HTML so the words don't all run together, mainly the addition of line breaks; and the italicisation of all syetenb's remarks, to make it easier to tell apart our respective contributions. This email was the last email that was sent in our exchange. During this exchange it was made clear that we gave permission for our words to be reproduced, so I'm not doing something behind his back. I was given to understand that he put my stuff on some Christian website for others to discuss, but I have no evidence of this.

Is it universally true that 1 + 1 = 10 in the binary system, or is it arbitrary? Is it universally true that if you add 2 OBJECTS to 2 OBJECTS, you get 4 OBJECTS, or is it arbitrary?
Well now you're just playing around with words. I managed to prove your theory incorrect*1, and you're grasping at straws. Just accept that you made a mistake and move on.

How do you account for universal truth, and the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic according to your worldview? You see, each of these are only steps to the proof on my site, yet each demonstrates the inconsistency of your position.
I don't agree with that at all.

Well, it would show the absurdity of your position, but no, I want you tell me if you believe that only things which can be demonstrated to be true are valid beliefs. (as the question states).
You're asking if the only things which can be demonstrated to be true are valid beliefs. Well, if you regard valid beliefs as necessarily true, thenyes.*2

Alright, what is the evidence that your ability to reason is valid?
I went through this before with you, on the site.*3 The ability to reason we have is the only one we have to work with. If you show me some other system with which to compare it, maybe I could see what you're trying to get at.

You are the one who said that the steps to my proof had other options, this is the FOURTH time I am asking you to provide them, since you won't, it is glaringly obvious that you can't. By the way, I can easily point to options you have missed. For instance, you neglected to include in your first step "I believe that God created everything out of nothing."*4
No, that option is covered with "I believe that things can be created out of nothing." Are you coming to realise the answer to your own question yet?

Your argument is that the steps to my proof have other options, yet you provide exactly zero.*5
No, I think we're getting around to it. If I just told you the answer you're looking for, you wouldn't understand. You have to be brought to see it for yourself. You're getting there though. As you can see above.

I don't blame you one bit for not wanting others to see your arguments.*6 I would be more than happy to have these e-mails posted, but I understand why you do not. Quite simply I have asked questions that you cannot answer according to your worldview. Let me summarize:
I really don't care where you post these emails. You have my permission to do so.

1. Is it universally true that 1 + 1 = 10 in the binary system, or is it arbitrary?
The adoption of a binary system in the first place is arbitrary.*7 Try to focus - stay on track.

2. Is it universally true that if you add 2 OBJECTS to 2 OBJECTS, you get 4 OBJECTS, or is it arbitrary?
Hmm. I can think of cases where that would not be true.*8 So I guess it's arbitrary.

3. Do you believe that only things which can be demonstrated to be true are valid beliefs.
I don't accept that what you're asking is a valid question.*9

4. How do you account for universal truth, and the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic according to your worldview?
I don't. Things are what they are.*10

5. What is the evidence that your ability to reason is valid?
That's not a valid question.*11

6. What are the other options to the steps to my proof, which you claim exist?
I'm bringing you around to them with each email. You're doing very well. Don't panic.*12

You can continue to play the dodge and weave game and avoid my questions, but I will not tolerate your attempts to do so much longer.
Tolerate?*13 You emailed me, Sye. I don't care about converting you to atheism. I don't care if you never believe what I believe. I have no intention of trying to convince you that I am right. I think most atheists are like that. They really don't care. It only becomes a problem when a religious belief causes governments to disobey their own laws, or when government funds are used to pay for religious agendae, etc. I don't believe in god, any kind of god. I think the world we have is the one we've got, and we should probably worry about this one instead of worrying about what's going to happen after we die.

But you know, you believe that Jesus can remove the stain of sin from your soul, or whatever, and well done you for that. Hope that whole thing works out.

Thing is, people who do not collect stamps,*14 do not make list of myths regarding the religion of non-stamp collecting!
That's because people who do not collect stamps are not subject to the same level of ignorance and stupidity as atheists are.

Nice try though.


*1In trying to provide an example of something that was universally true, syetenb made the fatal mistake of using 2 + 2 = 4 as an example. 2 + 2 = 4 only makes sense if you accept a decimal system, which people have done seemingly for no other reason than we have ten fingers.
*2Here, I demonstrate how syetenb was begging the question, despite the way this question was phrased. If you express X in terms of X, you're really not moving anywhere. If you read what he's asking carefully, you'll see what I mean. It's one of the first things you learn in philosophy 101.
*3This refers to an earlier, protracted posting session onon an Irish message board (now defunct) which turned quite nasty pretty early on. He, and his partner in Christ, A*4*J were making all sorts of strange claims and becoming irritated when their arguments were disproven. Eventually A*4*J stopped posting, and syetenb was banned from the site for trolling. Unfortunately, there are no penalties for trolling in real life.
*4I don't know where he got this one from. I state quite clearly in my proof that the option for creating yourself is included. Maybe he doesn't know what ex nihilo means.
*5I didn't tell him that he neglected to include an option for some things being completely true some of the time. I honestly didn't think he would understand. My hope was that I could get him to see it himself. A quick check of his site reveals that he has not yet taken account of such an obvious omission.
*6Like note 4, I have no idea where he got this. I never told him I didn't want anyone to see what I wrote. My response confirmed that position as clearly as I could.
*7Well, it is. He was searching for some absolute truth, and as I found counter-examples, he kept moving the goalposts. It's a big field, but eventually he would run out of places to move them.
*8For instance, holes. Or raindrops.
*9This question he was asking is utterly nonsensical. It's the equivalent of asking if you think reason is reasonable, or if whiteness is white. It looks like a real question but it's completely meaningless. From our exchanges on the message board, I think syetenb honestly believes that if you ask someone a question that has no answer and they don't answer it, you've achieved some sort of debating victory.
*10I am indebted to Ludwig Wittgenstein for this elegant and often stunning rebuttal of some of the more insane theories of reality or knowledge.
*11Again, he's asking me how I know reason is reasonable. Which is like asking how I know a triangle has three sides. It's a triangle because it has three sides. Argh! Even several months later, in these footnotes, I'm getting frustrated that people this retarded are allowed to live.
*12Sadly, this was the last email in the exchange. As I noted above, he has not changed his site to adjust for reality. Even Alan Greenspan has now acknowledged that his model of reality had a fundamental flaw.
*13I was becoming more frustrated, as you can see, with the advanced retardation with which I was being regularly presented, masquerading as debate. This was one email, folks. One out of fuck knows how many. And I read them all. His use of the word "tolerate" seemed especially patronising, and frankly mysterious, as he emailed me first.
*14This was a reference to an analogy I made about those who regard atheism as "just another religion". I made the point that atheism could only be another religion in the same sense that not collecting stamps was a hobby. He almost made a valid point here, but fell at the last fence of logic.

There's more

Apparently this guy is a professional troll. On a whim, I put his name into Google, and discovered this same guy trolling: James Randi's forums, where he had his ass handed to him; Free Thought Forums; and even some Christian Forums! In every one, he presents the same broken arguments. Every time, several people try to explain where he's going wrong, and every time he either refuses to accept their arguments or just ignores them. Other people who have noticed the passage of this troll through their field of influence include this guy and this guy. I'm starting to think that he has some psychological problem, given that he seems to be annoying every single person he comes across online. Furthermore, his condescending attitude seems to be in direct opposition to the amount of posters who regularly prove him incorrect. Does he really believe that he's right and everyone else is wrong? Very possibly. If so, then he should be pitied rather than disdained, and maybe Christianity is the best place for him.

I'll let Stephen Law, editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and senior lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, have the final word: bullshit.

Gareth Hanrahan's Guide To deadEarth
writer's block

In 2000, my friend Gareth Hanrahan came across a new role-playing game. He was not pleased. His review of that game has gone down in international role-playing history as one of the funniest things ever written on the subject. It's also a very handy Guide To How Not To Write A Roleplaying Game.

If you have any interest in role-playing, or funny things, or cool people, feel free to follow Gareth on Twitter. Any oddness in terms of formatting is because I cut and paste it from a website into Notepad and then into LiveJournal. I'll fix the formatting later. Just read it now.


I went, I saw (it's quite a nice site, technically speaking), and I downloaded the deadEarth player's guide and the deadEarth's GM's guide. This entire review is based on material found in them - I didn't bother looking at the rest of the site. I guess this review could count as a derivative work, and as the book says "You do not have the right to create derivative works of or makea profit via deadEarth without the prior expressed written consent of Anarchy inK Corporation. If you disagree, feel free to fuck off!"

So, anyway, here's something "something new, fresh and different", to quote spamboy. Y'know, I wouldn't dream of posting something like this if you morons hadn't spammed the Blue Planet forum.

The Player's Guide
Ooh. 51 pages long. Cunningly, it's actually only about 25 pages long. The pages use two text columns, but they only put text in one of the columns on each page. And they alternate which column has text in it each page.

Stop the revolution, I want to get off.
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Star Trek Fan Fiction Fan Fiction
writer's block
Here's something you might already know - your government is lying to you.

"But wait a minute," you reasonably interject, "how can you know what country I'm in or what my government is doing?"

Well, you deluded sap, this is part of the lie. If you are living in the year 2014, then your government is either directly (through force) or indirectly (through an increasingly organised series of incentives) run by the United States. Your biggest nightmare has come true.

Maybe you don't care. You probably shouldn't. Maybe the overt or covert American forces piloting your country's economy are doing a better job than your homegrown weasels could ever do. You don't know.

 I'm 38 years old in what you know as the year 2014. This means that during my formative years, during the last half of secondary school and the first half of my university education, there was a show called Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST: TNG) flying into our television sets every Saturday.

I have not seen all the episodes. I've seen most of the first season, when they had a blonde girl in charge of security, and I've seen most of the second season, with the weird doctor no one liked, and a smattering of episodes from the remaining five seasons . I haven't seen any of the TNG movies, although I started watching the new reboot, with the young actors and the lens flare. I wish I had paid more attention.

The first thing I remember after coming out of the box is Commander William Riker and Lieutenant Worf of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D pointing phasers at me, accompanied by two nobodies. I pointed at their red shirts and said the first thing that popped into my head, which was, "You guys should be extra careful today; I have a feeling you might end up dead."

In retrospect, it is entirely understandable why they took this as a hostile threat and strong-armed me through familiar corridors and a turbolift to the brig.

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"... come in... and say this shit to my face..."
writer's block

Chilton Nix

The tl;dr tale of one man's journey through Hipster Film Appreciation 101

(this will take some time)

Diane is a friend of mine. We both like movies and we talk about them all the time. One day, this happened:

I unintentionally misspelled his name, but whatever. The point is that I wouldn't be able to take anything he says seriously, because "Chilton Nix" would be written beside it. I realise this makes me shallow and possibly OCD, but I think it's important to be honest about these things. Then this happened:

and, presumably by way of explanation, this:

Everything's going fine so far. I like movies and I like talking about movies and Diane knows this, so co-opting me like this is not a big deal. What's the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen...

You don't need to read all of that; in fact I recommend, for the sake of your sanity, the most cursory of skims. The original David Lynch clip is 30 seconds long and consists entirely of him complaining that you can't see a movie properly on your iPhone. This would seem to be obvious, but it sparked a "debate" because of the inveterate pseudo-intellectual hipsterdom of everyone. I tried blowing it open, but the very act of engaging these people means that I was dragged down to their level. Whatever. I don't mind slumming it every so often. Then (!):

I have no idea where he got the idea that I was "sticking up for Diane". The only conclusion that I can come to is that he only read the bits where I was making fun of his name and skipped everything else. In movie discussions, as all over the internet, as in life, you should never hold strong opinions about things you don't understand. Also, there's a time when you should stop trying to use intimidation as a debate tactic, and that time is your tenth birthday.

Then, he sent me a private message:

I'm not sure what he thought was going to happen. Luckily, I have many years experience of smacking down assholes. Maybe he would learn his lesson and quit poking the bear. Also, I realise the beatnik/hipster thing was lame, but I didn't have time to prepare. Don't worry, it gets better:

"Come into Barnes & Noble and say that shit to my face." That's probably the high point of this entire exchange. So, unless you're a completist who finds the DVD extras of Adam Sandler movies fascinating, you can now return to your usual programming and thanks for reading.

Anticipating the possibility of his return, I had some time to prepare some better material, as you can see. I wanted to say "geography teacher" when it was pointed out to me by a concerned citizen that the phrase "geography teacher" did not carry with it the same sense of outdated gaucheness that it does in my part of the world. So I switched it, with reluctance, to "gauche history lecturer". I don't know why I bothered; he probably doesn't even know what "gauche" means. Well, maybe in the back of my mind I was planning this page. Then this:

He linked me to his blog. He claims below that "it gets sent automatically", which is odd because it wasn't "sent automatically" with every other message. So I think he's lying. I think he wanted me to see his book blog so I would be blown away by how clever he is. Well, maybe if I was prepared to deal with the sloppy grammar, spelling, syntax and catastrophic style.

So I suggested some ways to improve the thing. It's easier to read things when you don't have to machete your way through a jungle of badly-written sentences. I also offered to re-write it (without touching the content), something which I was absolutely prepared to do. Then this:

He's made the classic "They laughed at Galileo" error, which is the upshot of his fourth paragraph. Yes, they did laugh at Galileo; but Galileo wasn't a genius because people were laughing at him. In the same way, making something unreadable doesn't make it clever.

James Joyce often wrote a kind of inspired gibberish, but he had an encyclopedic vocabulary, and a fundamental understanding of how language works. Chilton is no James Joyce: he just writes regular gibberish. I offered him five specifically-tailored ways to immediately improve his blog, but they would work as well for any, including my own (I have been known to throw an ellipsis in where it was in no way required).

Also, it's kind of cute that he doesn't know what "hipster" means. That's a sign that someone's a hipster, by the way. They'll either viciously deny it, or, "What does 'hipster' mean anyway?" We need to spread these tips around the internet so we can learn to spot them in the wild.

Now this is where it went weird. He wants me to help with his film project. But he frames this request by trashing my friend Diane in a remarkably petty and bitter fashion. He proudly told to "go fuck herself", and apparently she's "a little freak" and "too Aspergery". Ironically, there are two Aspergery people on this page, and neither of them is Diane.

Whatever comedy value he had was now lost. I don't really care what he said about me, because I can make jokes about it - but I don't have much time for trashing people who can't aren't part of the conversation. If I have something to say, I'll say it to you directly (as this thread proves). Accordingly, I sent Diane these screencaps and blocked and deleted Chilton Nix. As he probably Googles himself nightly, he'll see this as soon as it loads into the Google cache, so I'll post any outraged dumbass emails I get, should he be stupid enough to present his hindquarters for another word-whippin'.

Fake Word of the Day XIV
writer's block
An occasional series where I take something for which there is no word and invent a word for it.

fobbogy - a forced apology that was the result of so much background arm-twisting that it almost sounds sincere.

onine - of, or pertaining to, onions.

shumfle - anything you do to reduce the noise level of your bathroom activities (esp. when in someone else's house).

frip - the sudden, small shot of comfort and security you feel when you look at your fuel gauge and it's on F.

trine - someone on a reality show who's not there to make friends.

jinket - someone who, when asked to explain something, uses song lyrics instead of just telling you.

fauxla (pr. Foe-la) - anything that conspicuously isn't Coca-Cola.

chone - to make the same typo more than four times.

irrelibint - someone who appears on otherwise serious television (esp. political talk shows) for no other reason than because she is pretty.

wen-wen - the unnecessary bit before the start, or after the end, of a pop music track.

parsemious - descriptive of something that looks like it should be a word, but turns out not to be.

remorse code - the series of circumlocutions and euphemisms you only use when talking about something you've done that you're ashamed of.

Related: If you like this sort of thing, you might like Fake Word of the Day XIII, which contains links to all the other Fake Word of the Day pages.

"Cocaine-addled paedophile"
writer's block

Mike Perkins

Chapter 1: Fraud, Cocaine and Paedophiles

I have a friend called Andrea. She is a music teacher. The man who taught her music is called Mike Perkins. Mike feels an affinity with her because they both share an interest in music and teaching it to others. One fine Facebook day, Andrea posted a status update asking if she should pursue her university studies or further her music qualifications.

This screencap has been edited, but only to take out posts by other people.

As you can see, I humorously suggested that she should give up music entirely as it was a waste of her time (the joke being that she already makes a successful living from it, and presumably could only do even better if she chose to follow that road). Mike then chose to poke his humourless oar in * and take everything seriously. So seriously that he had to list his material possessions and the precise specifications of his plasma television ("42 inch panasonic 400 Hz").

Now, in my time I've had to deal with a fairly broad cross-section of people who make this world a worse place. Some of them blindly follow religion. Some of them are well-meaning but just misguided in a few very specific areas. Some of them are actively trying to hurt other people. And others are just morons who haven't thought anything through but still insist on developing strong opinions. If this page teaches us nothing more, let it be this: You should never develop strong opinions about things you don't understand.

It's been my experience that each of these categories of people are not open to reason, or any sort of correction. If attempts are made to explain the error, they will incorrectly interpret this as an invitation to a debate, and hence a validation of their stupid opinions (as Richard Dawkings said about refusing to debate Creationists: "It would look very good on their résumé; not so good on mine").

Accordingly, there are two strategies for dealing with these people, and you will see me execute these strategies all over the internet: 1. Assume that the bonkers opinion is true, and take it to its logical conclusion (the hope being that the person will be confronted with the stupidity of his opinion in a more direct fashion). 2. Ironic sarcasm leveraged with hyperbole and ridicule.

As a career in music is a perfectly reasonable option, the former strategy was denied me, and so I was forced into the second option. I first suggested that his hostile, aggressive and excessively materialistic attitude was the result of too much cocaine, which I assumed he would understand as a joke, because I know nothing at all about him - certainly not enough to be able to arrive at such a conclusion with any authority. And yet in his next message ("I have never taken drugs") he handed me that authority! He took it seriously! I had incorrectly assumed that accusing him of being a cocaine fiend would be ridiculous enough. Well, what's worse than being a cocaine fiend? Being a paedophile! So in my next post, I accused him both of being a paedophile (based on something he said about being friends with Andrea when she was 10 years old), and that Mike Perkins wasn't his real name. Surely now he would understand that I'm not actualling accusing him of anything?

That didn't happen. He took my accusations of paedophilia seriously, although he seems to not have noticed the allegation of fraud. What the hell was I supposed to do now? I'd never come across someone that utterly defeated me before. I had signalled that I was joking in as clear a manner as I could (although in retrospect maybe I should have accused him of bombing the World Trade Center), so I gave up. That's right. For the first time ever I actually gave up. I told him I was just fucking with him (post number eight in the linked thread) and that I was sure he's lovely, and also how I thought the accusation of grooming should have been enough to understand what I was doing. This should really have been the end of everything. What happened next is what catapulted Mike Perkins from run-of-the-mill idiot onto a shelf high above all our heads, for which we need a whole new word.

He refused to accept my retraction. Despite the fact that I said in plain English that I was fucking with him, he continued to post as though I were still genuinely accusing him of being a cocaine-addled paedophile. I had completely lost interest in the thread at this point; I honestly thought his answer was going to be something like "Oh. Well, sorry. But you're still an asshole. LOL." or something like that. I didn't consider for a second that the following level of retardation was even possible in another human being.

The rest of the thread is me attempting to underline my retraction and attempting to explain why it was funny. I don't like explaining my jokes, but sometimes the explanation can be funnier than the actual joke. And for the remainder of the thread, he continues to not get it, either wilfully, or because he honestly doesn't understand.

That was a few months ago. Skip ahead to July 2, 2011, when this wonderful exchange occurred:

This screencap has not been edited in any way. This started with him putting the movie Sucker Punch into Andrea's "top 3 films of all time" without consulting her, and by regarding someone rapping over a Queen track as "awesome". I echoed the consensus opinion that it's not very good, but you might like it if you want your movies to look like video games.

This screencap has not been altered in any way - and thank fuck I took this when I did, because the whole thread went into weird mode straight afterwards. You can see there are differences. My first thought was that he deleted his message to make things worse for me. But then I looked at it again, and one of my messages is gone too (the one with the fantastic line about One Tree Hill)! And I know I sure as hell didn't delete that slice of comedy gold. As Andrea was clearly not online at the time, a more reasonable explanation would be that whatever Facebook glitch caused my post to disappear probably also caused Mike's post to disappear. Sadly, this logic escaped Mike Perkins, who soon after threatening me with legal action and all sorts of racist whiny gibberish, sent this seemingly triumphalist message to me as a personal Facebook message:

"It hasn't gone. It's right here right now." He is clearly under the impression that I deleted my message. He hasn't noticed that his own message is missing too! I should probably take it as a compliment that he's paying attention to everything I say to the exclusion of everything else around him, including his own contributions. And although he says with a hilarious attempt at menace that it's "off to a few other people as well", he actually sent me the same message five times, so I was seriously entertaining the possibility that he had made some sort of mistake. Then this appeared on my Facebook home page:

I'm imagining Mike typing his sternly-worded email of complaint to Facebook HQ in his dimly-lit Dickensian flat in inner city London, fingerless mittens turning down parrafin lamps as the evening draws to a close, the yellow-green fog creeping its way around the cobblestones and horse-drawn carriages, conveying men at midnight to those who would indulge their dark complusions. I'm also imagining the poor bastard at Facebook HQ who probably had too much will to live to actually read any of the messages, and just hit a Send Warning button somewhere to shut Mike Perkins up. Maybe this will work, thinks my imaginary Facebook employee, maybe now Mike Perkins will quit whining. I never did check that box, and it just disappeared after a week; I acknowledge nothing!

Chapter 2: Defamation 101

Before we get into the legal morass of jurisdiction and how it's more or less impossible to nail anything down online, "defamation" is a legal term for something very specific: spreading lies about someone which causes them measurable harm. Obviously, making stupid jokes isn't covered. Sometimes even saying obviously hurful and nasty things without humour isn't covered, and in fact, not a single case ever taken against Facebook or any Facebook account for defamation has been successfully prosecuted (although that won't stop some people from taking money from people dumb enough or angry enough to think they have a case). Not a single one. In this particular case, for instance, the judge threw out the case because the people had set an earlier precedent of making obviously outlandish statements for the purposes of mockery, but you could throw that case out for a number of reasons. Facebook is, as are all social networks, full of uptight assholes getting offended and expecting someone else to be responsible for it. So good luck with that, Mike Perkins.

But let's say that the comedy exception doesn't exist (which it does). Even in that case, he'd have to demonstrate that it caused him measurable damage (defamation doesn't give a shit about "emotional distress" - in other words, the fact that you got upset is your own fault, legally (and common sensically too)). He would be unable to do so, because the only people who saw that were on Facebook, where he's the only person (apart from his poor wife, to whom my heart goes out) who didn't think it was funny. Ironically, claiming that my business failed could be seen as defamation because, firstly, it's false, secondly, he clearly takes it seriously and expects others to believe it as a fact, and thirdly, it could be damaging to my future employment prospects (although being a business failure didn't do George Bush any harm).

He's made the mistake of assuming that becasue he finds something offensive, everyone else has to also. This is a fundamental disorder of humanity. When the divorce referendum was passed in Ireland, it only passed by 0.3 %. what this means is effectively half the country showed up to say not only do I personally disagree with divorce, but no one else can have one either! As you can see, at least in my country, this sort of disordered thinking is quite common. In reality, that fact that Mike Perkins got offended by something I said means fuck-all legally, and if he wanted to get into a legal thing, he'd have his ass handed to him, not by me, but his own lawyer.

Incidentally, after the little box went away, I read the Facebook Community Standards for the first time while researching this page, and the good news is that mockingly referring to someone as a pseudonymous, cocaine-taking paedophile does not violate ANY of the ten sections! Go click on the link; have a look. It's instructive.

Chapter 3: The 9/11 Controversy

Soon after 9/11, paranoid mutterings were made about one "M. Perkins" in relation to the World Trade Centre bombings. Although conveniently out of the country at the time of these terrorist acts, the FBI seems clear on the connection. Evidence gleaned from aggressive interrogation techniques in Guantanamo Bay was confused. Some miltants placed him in the airplanes on the day (which, as I've said, is impossible), some claimed he was one of the masterminds of the entire operation (with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atef), while still others said he was coincidentally in the background of a number of high-level meetings, but didn't know where he was or what was going on.

Initially reluctant to present himself to the authorities due in part to his paedophile past, and a cocaine habit which, in the words of a source close to Mike Perkins, "made David Bowie look like a Christian", eventually his legal counsel convinced him that offering testimony was preferable to the feds kicking his door down and dragging him away in a sack.

What happened during the following three days (the maximum allowable interrogation time before charging becomes legally necessary) is a matter of debate. All four people present differ in their accounts, but they all agree that his written evidence was confused, frequently contradicted itself, and seemed to imply a massive conspiracy of terrorists which including a network of fundamentalist Muslims who manned the major ports of Europe specifically to smuggle paedophiles into and out of various countries (mainly Italy, France and Germany). This conspiracy went "all the way to the top", although when challenged, he was unable to name anyone at the top, or the prime ministers of the United States or England. He then attempted to use his inside knowledge of this conspiracy to leverage leniency from "the judge", even though it was repeatedly explained that he wasn't being charged with anything.

Ultimately, the role of Mike Perkins in the World Trade Center bombing may never be known, but it behooves all right thinking people to ask the question: how many lives would have been saved if his threat to the community had been identified by law enforcement earlier? Probably at least three or four, I'd think. Maybe even five.

* Seriously. I have never seen a boat propelling mechanism that had such a low appreciation for the subtle art of ironic sarcasm.

Los Angeles Dating Site Profile
writer's block
This is what it looks like:

I’m not your typical LA girl. I am from [somewhere with a cooler climate] but I moved here for the sunshine and my career. I like [some combination of the following]: hiking, yoga, Runyon Canyon, social cause X, reading [Sedaris / Palahniuk / Murakami], listening to [Radiohead / Muse / Mumford and Sons / The XX], farmer’s markets, Whole Foods, and Wes Anderson movies.
Now, since everyone has written the same thing, it’s hard for me to see exactly how you’re not the typical Los Angeles type. Analysis: engaged.

You’ve travelled a lot because, after all, your parents’ generation didn’t work so hard for you to get barefoot and pregnant at 22 and you now feel that “seeing the world” has given you more life experience and credibility. Maybe you’ve even ventured into a Third World country (Mexico doesn’t count), which you can now wax poetic about over $20 martinis.

You think voting Democrat somehow shows you’re a compassionate humanitarian, thinking that the difference between them and Republicans is chocolate-vanilla, when even a cursory analysis will reveal more of a dark chocolate/light chocolate contrast.

You say that you love animals, despite the fact you claim ownership of them, give them human names, and sometimes dress them in human clothing. In other words, you’ve just anthropomorphized them to fill the childless void in your life.

Despite your proclaimed activism in the cause of social issues, you have an unnerving amount of products produced by Apple, one of the most egregious operators of evil, pseudo-enslavement of people in developing nations.  Also, just one of the little social events you’ve been to in the last month could’ve financed a permanent system of potable water for an entire village.

You can buy a nice faux-bohemian lifestyle, you can buy a “green” eco-friendly car so you feel less guilty about those plane flights to wherever, but you can’t buy self-awareness.

I’m not saying I hate you, but SHOW ME SOMETHING ORIGINAL!
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Impossible To Translate
writer's block
In 1915, Franz Kafka published "The Metamorphosis", about a man who turns into something else. The very first sentence of The Metamorphosis is

"Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt."

On the face of it, a fairly simple German sentence. Generations of proud English and German speakers, however, have had trouble with the last bit. 

The phrase "ungeheuren Ungeziefer", means "horrible vermin" (according to David Wyllie's translation) or "monstrous vermin" (according to Stanley Corngold's translation), but it's very difficult to translate. "Ungeziefer" definitely means "vermin", but English speakers are far more likely to mentally categorise "vermin" in terms of rats and mice. It makes your brain do a little skip, which is something any writer or translator wants to avoid. 

The description of a carapace and many legs and so on makes it clear he is some sort of insect, so "vermin" is no good; it's sending our understanding in the wrong direction. In 2002, Richard Stokes translated it as "monstrous insect", and the most popular translation (by Joachim Neugroschel) is "gigantic insect", but this is technical language, a description of phylum and class and contains nothing of the horror implied in the word "Ungeziefer", so "insect" is no good. Another approach has been to attempt to define exactly what kind of insect. A beetle? A cockroach? Vladimir Nabokov had a mild obsession with nailing down exactly what sort of beetle was intended, which is probably irrelevant to the point of the story, and in any case, no one can agree. As with all of Kafka's writing, it's less about accuracy of detail, and more about pushing a certain urgent, paranoid mood into your mind. The language we choose for our translation must be a translation of mood, not of words.

Wikipedia has the adorable "gigantic insect-like creature", which, although technically very accurate, is so self-consciously avoidant that it's taking us even further away from the text by thrusting an image into our brains and then refusing to define what the image is. Ian Johnson's "monstrous verminous bug" is probably the best translation, as it covers the idea of being too big, of being some sort of pest, and the word "bug" is admirably non-specific while meaning, essentially, "insect". Even this valiant effort, however, doesn't have the flow or snap of "ungeheuren Ungeziefer". This leaves us with Stanley Applebaum's "enormous bug", which sacrifices meaning for flow, but given that the entire King James bible was written under that mandate, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

There is a very interesting sub-field of linguistic anthropology called folk taxonomy, which is specifically the study of how people decide to categorise the meaning of their words (and things). As you might expect, this is often at variance with the real relationship between those words and things.  There are many examples of experiments run where subjects from different cultures are shown photos of a dog, and a tiger, and then a cat. They are asked which of the two first photos is "most like" the cat, without expanding on what they mean. The idea is to get the subject to determine what you mean, and decide accordingly. The results can sometimes be surprising. People connect words and meanings in ways that would never occur to you or me, and fail to understand the connections we make. And that's fine.

It's looking more and more like "Ungeziefer" is the translator's nightmare: impossible to translate while maintaining both the mood and the meaning. And that's just the first sentence. Next week on Impossible To Translate, I hope to get into the second sentence.