(Science happens every Sunday over at Secondhand SCIENCE.
Something like science, anyway. A few of the same letters are involved.
This week, the topic was absolute zero, which turned into something about a card game with ice queens, a shrunken-headed actress and naked George Costanza.
I can't tell you how these things happen. You'll just have to go see for yourself.)
I saw an ad the other day calling for writers for a "household tips" website. I didn't apply, because I'm not sure I have what you call a firm "household". It's more of a housefumble, really. Or maybe a housedrop.
"Dry cleaning takes up nearly fourteen percent of the average household budget, probably."
Also, I wasn't sure a series of awful puns would qualify as my first post. So I let it go.
But since then, I've been thinking more about it. I live in a house, practically every day. I must know something about saving money or time or sanity in the routine of living. Surely, my advice would be useful for somebody out there.
So I decided to practice. Here are three home-living tips from me. On the house.
#1. Save on dry cleaning bills.
Dry cleaning takes up nearly fourteen percent of the average household budget, probably. That jumps to forty-three percent if you work on Wall Street, or are a big Mad Men cosplay fan. So how to manage those huge expenses?
Stop wearing nice clothes, obviously.
Right now, go toss all your fancy suits and dresses and snazzy slack-'n'-blazer combos into a box of mothballs and put them away. The dry cleaning industry -- not to mention the suitmaking industry, the "dressy heel" cabal and whoever the hell invented wrinkly silk ties -- has perpetrated their dastardly scam for too long.
Dry cleaning is for before and after weddings, funerals and the more important proms (senior year, just the spring one and only if your date is hot). It's not an every day, nor an every week thing. There are only two reasons we don't all wear sweatpants and T shirts to work right now: the shadowy influence of the dry cleaners, and us not all rising up at the same time to stop the madness.
If we do it now, we'll save time, money and the hassle of those stupid flimsy hangars covered in paper for some odd reason. I'm in, if you're in. Let's kill two birds with one stone.
And then let's starch that son of a bitch.
#2. Throw away your alarm clock.
Sometimes we have to get up in the morning. Whether for work or a court date or because the park will be opening to the public again at dawn, there are schedules that we simply have to meet.
But that doesn't mean we need a fancy newfangled ten-dollar alarm clock to do it. There's an easy way to get up at any time you like, and it won't cost you a dime:
Right before bed, simply drink eight ounces of water for every hour less than ten that you want to sleep. Retiring at ten, to awaken at six? Sixteen ounces for you. Up until midnight, with a meeting at six? You might need forty, or an ounce or two more.
Whatever the situation, drink enough water and you will wake up in time. You're setting your bladder -- and there's no snooze button on that thing. None that you could reach, anyway. And if this "alarm" doesn't go off?
Well, at least you'll have a good excuse for missing your appointment. Nobody's going to question that story.
#3. Use your freezer as a pantry.
One handy tip I've heard involves freezing citrus squeezings. If a recipe calls for the juice of half a lemon, what do you do with the other half? Some say to juice it into ice trays and freeze it, so you'll have it for the next time. I think this is fantastic advice.
But why stop there?
I see a lot of recipes calling for half a diced onion. Fine, but don't throw that other half out. That's wasteful. You know what to do instead:
Dice it into an ice tray and throw it in the freezer.
Or what about a cake that needs four eggs -- but you just went and bought a whole carton of twelve?
Break the rest into ice trays. And put them in the freezer.
Last night, I made mac 'n' cheese. And the box said that I should drop a pinch of salt into the pasta water. So I did. But there I was, with a whole shakerful left over, minus the one pinch. What's a terrible-but-frugal cook to do?
I shook the rest into ice trays, and I put them in the freezer.
Now I'm ready for just about any recipe. My freezer is packed top to bottom with trays full of leftover cumin, extra Russian dressing and pickles that wouldn't fit on my sandwich. It's the perfect food storage system.
Except all the trays look the same. And some of them smell kind of funny. Also, I'm out of ice cubes.
Okay, so maybe it's better I didn't get that particular writing gig. I'll just wait for something a little more up my alley -- like chainsaw juggling tips or home gallbladder surgery for dummies or 101 household uses for gasoline.
It's all about finding a niche, you know?
I've reached a crossroads.
No, it's more than that; it's an existential fog. A crisis of identity. A questioning of everything I am.
What brought on this morphing of self, this foreign mode of being?
Yesterday, in the afternoon, I laughed -- out loud, physically laughed -- at a picture on the internet.
Of a CAT.
I know, right? This is bad.
It's not even about the cat. Sure, I don't like cats much. Cats are apathetic, self-absorbed antisocial assholes, and that doesn't fly with me. Because that's my job, dammit. Stop hogging my thing, cats.
Also, I'm allergic. And cats' chief mode of communication is to scratch gaping wounds into your flesh. And ancient Egyptians liked cats, and they yanked people's brains out through their noses and dumped them in pickling juice.
Oh, sure, it was people who were already dead. Still, it's weird. Cat people are weird. I'm not cat people.
But it's not about the cat, really. It's about what the cat represents, online. Cat pictures are, like, the quintessential indicator of someone who's doing the internet wrong. Somebody emails you cat pictures? You block their address. They post felines onto your Facepage+ wall? Defriend it with fire! That same person starts a Tumblr dedicated to their "varrah mst favirite LOLkittehs EVAR!!"?
Schedule an intervention. Bring a priest.
And a scratching post.
"This is what people's grandmothers do when they've first discovered the interwebs, and someone's explained that the mouse isn't a foot pedal and get your goddamned coffee cup out of the DVD tray, grandma, this isn't freaking 1997, ya coot."
Now obviously, I'm not going to start spamming out photos of cats with captions like "WHO'S A BEBBEH KITTEH?!". Because I'd sooner shove my keyboard -- and hands -- into an industrial blender. Obviously.
Still. I'm concerned. Partly that I laughed. But mostly because the natural end of this story is to share with you the picture in question. The picture of. A CAT.
I feel like this has to be some kind of gateway thing. A portal into a dark and harrowing world, where I definitely do not want to go and don't have the Benadryl available to cope with.
And yet I'm torn. My only defense at laughing at a cat picture is to show it to someone else. This is what people's grandmothers do when they've first discovered the interwebs, and someone's explained that the mouse isn't a foot pedal and get your goddamned coffee cup out of the DVD tray, grandma, this isn't freaking 1997, ya coot.
That's not cool.
(Also, the picture is apparently over a year old. Part of me feels good that I avoided at least one stupid picture of a stupid cat for so long.
The rest of me is fully aware that I'm now discussing not only a picture of a cat, but a picture of an idiot cat that the rest of the world has already seen. Which is exactly the sort of shit internet grandmas pull all the time.
That second part of me is drinking heavily, to try and forget.)
If I don't share the picture, then I laughed -- alone, forever alone (or months after everyone else, anyway) -- at a cat picture. I'd be taking one for the team, suffering a partial pariahship, but not sinking quite to the point of distributing dangerous kitteh-based content.
On the other hand, if even one other person sees the pic and laughs, then we're both in the same boat. I've tarnished the soul of humanity, sure. The world would be a shadowier, prissier place, covered in fur and canned tuna and smelling vaguely of animal urine. But at least I wouldn't be alone.
I don't know. Could I live with myself? Exposing an innocent mind to feline photos? Hastening the demise of other internet users into useless, drooling cat whisperers? Perhaps yanking the very cornerstone from the facade of civilization as we know it?
Yeah. I think I can. Anything to avoid being "that cat guy". Here. Look upon the cat picture, and weep.
Weep for us all. The terrorists have won. By which I mean, the FURRAH KITTEHS!!
(Curious about scanning electron microscopy? Well, of course you are -- who isn't?
Want to know what SEM has to do with 30 Rock, the Simpsons and Goldspider, which I totally didn't just make up? Then check out the latest post on Secondhand SCIENCE. That'll teach ya.)
I'm thinking of picking up a new phrase to sprinkle into conversation. Because that's totally the sort of thing I think about on weekends, when there's nothing else happening.
Truly, I'm living the dream.
Anyway, my top candidate right now is "if I'm honest". So far as I can tell, this is a phrase that gets a fair amount of use in the U.K., but not so much here in the States.
I say that because I don't remember ever hearing anyone nearby saying "if I'm honest", and I listen to people who speak directly to me at least six or seven percent of the time.
(Somewhat less if they have freckles. Freckles are very distracting.)
At the same time, the phrase is used all the time on the show which I use as a barometer for all of British culture -- Top Gear on BBC America. For example:
"If I'm honest, the Porsche's grille looks like a cross-eyed Sheffield boxer's reflection in a funhouse mirror."
Or: "If I'm honest, your lap time was slower than the tea room queue for biscuits at the St. Palsy-on-Thames Home for Addled Spinsters."
Or perhaps: "If I'm honest, my car's handling is as squirrelly as James May's unkempt gentleman's forest."
It's possible they never said any of these things. I only listen closely to foreign specialty variety shows about twelve percent of the time. But let's assume they did. Or at least they said "if I'm honest" a lot.
I think this is a fantastic habit to pick up, for three very good reasons.
First, using this phrase involves doing something that the Top Gear presenters do, and that's obviously what they're there for. The motto for the show is practically, "yes, by all means, please try all of these things at home".
More important, "if I'm honest" is a near-complete license for deception. If I work it into conversation three or four times a day, then it establishes that, in those three or four sentences, I'm being completely honest. I've just announced it, and so those sentences won't be lies.
The logical conclusion being that all the other words I spew out over the course of the day are very likely mistruths, duplicitous, ill-informed or pure fantasy. It's beautiful. Label the truths, and take the rest of the time off.
How has this not caught on in, for instance, Congress? Seems like a fit.
Finally, "if I'm honest" seems like a fantastic template for other feelings or attitudes someone might want to declare at the beginning of sentences. Why stop at honesty, when the phrasing represents a handy launching point for a whole spectrum of messages to relay? Like so:
"If I'm tired, I probably wasn't listening to you anyway, freckleface."
"If I'm nervous, I need a fresh pair of pants."
"If I'm horny, you should put on the Babar costume and pick a new safeword."
So that's settled. "If I'm honest" is now a part of my vocabulary, along with other derivatives as I find them handy. Ooh, here's one:
"If I'm out of good ideas right now, then I just managed to squeeze nineteen paragraphs of nonsense out of some offhand comments on a smartass show about European cars."
Oh yeah. This is already working out. Brilliant.
Today, I was asked to write a first draft of an email with an update on what my department has been up to recently. The final email will soon be sent to the entire company. It was my job to get the ball rolling.
And I rolled that ball. I rolled it to the tune of two-and-a-half pages, including section headers. And footnotes. Eight of 'em. Footnotes.
"Tomorrow Never Datas"
Actually, that might be the problem. Or at least, a really strong indicator of the problem. Which is me. Obviously.
I won't bore you with the actual text of this update. But I will share those section headers -- and the footnotes. These are actually real. I just sent the email. Noodly appendage to god.
Sections of the Update Email to Communicate to the Company What We Do:
Data Hard with a Vengeance
Live and Let Data
To Live and Data in L.A.
Tomorrow Never Datas
(Did I mention our department works with data? That's kind of important. We do data. I think most people in the company are aware of this.
If not, they will be soon.)
And the footnotes:
(1) There aren't actually any Easter eggs. But don't tell the people who don't bother to read footnotes.
(2) In fairness, we've written scripts that do most of the work. We barely stake any personal pains over this any more.
(3) Or pizzas slipped under the door. We're not so picky.
(5) We are so sorry. Yes, we know. So sorry.
(6) Happily, the "five-second rule" works much better with a hard drive full of data than a bite-sized candy. Though both taste worse after you step on them.
(7) Well, not all our activities. We never(8) post anything to the mailing list about our writing gigs or orienteering events, for instance.
(8) Mostly. Mostly never.
So my question is this: Should I be worried that my boss will fire me the second she's done reading the email?
Or should I be more worried that she'll send it out, everyone will read it, and the entire organization will fire me, possibly involving actual fire?
This whole "business savvy" thing. I do not think it means what I think it means.
(Sundays are for science! But Mondays can be, too!
Or at least until Sunday, when I ruin science again. Stay tuned for that. Meanwhile...)
I've never paid much attention to the latest fashions or styles. This should be clear enough from every picture ever taken of me -- even the ones posted on the internet.
All right. Especially the ones posted on the internet.
One example of my laissez faire attitude toward haute couture: I bought some new jeans recently. On Amazon, using a tag ripped out of a current pair as a guide -- because I don't want the "hot new fresh"; I want the thing I've got that fits my ass and has the pockets I like, only without the scraggly leg cuffs or that weird stain on the crotch I still can't explain.
(Seriously, is that mustard? Curry sauce? Did I dry hump a bowl of Velveeta and then forget about it? What?)
I bought three pairs -- one I needed, one for backup, and one in case another cheese-thrusting emergency comes up -- and I was mostly happy with my choice. Except for one thing -- I usually get stonewashed pants. I like those. They're lighter and softer and feel a little worn-in already.
I've had non-stonewashed pants; for the first six months, they feel like wearing two huge wrapping paper tubes around your legs, taped together to a cardboard codpiece. I'm not into that. It's like being a life-sized flat Stanley fetish doll. No, thank you.
But the best I could find on Amazon was "medium stonewashed". I don't know what that means, exactly -- do they wash them for less time? Or with smaller stones? Is the procedure the same, but carried out by a tarot reader who can tell the pants' future? I can't say.
All I know is, "medium stonewashed" came in my size, and most others. Actual "stonewashed stonewashed" pants were available in just two sizes. One was a 28-inch waist, which would work wonderfully, so long as I abandon the notion that "pants" are a thing meant to cover parts of my body north of the lower thigh. The other was a 52-inch waist, which my wife might be able to climb into with me.
(Only she wouldn't, because she wouldn't be caught dead wearing stonewashed pants, because apparently they're unfashionable this year. Or this month. Or anytime before three o'clock on Tuesday; I really don't keep up with the rules on these things.)
In fact, the missus was quite happy to learn about my order adjustment, and offered that with their limited selection, "maybe Amazon is trying to help you dress better".
I rather doubt that. Given the outrageous shitton of poor decisions (and fake poor decisions) I've made during Amazon orders -- and Amazon's relentless, non-judging enablement of more self-defeating behavior by making recommendations based on those very same poor decisions -- I don't think Clan Bezos is going to draw the line at a pair of pants two shades lighter than they're wearing in Milan this spring. I just don't see it.
In the meantime, I've got three pairs of not-quite-cardboardish-but-still-somewhat-sandpapery new pants to break in. And to lighten up. And try not to stain in mysterious ways, at least until they've appeared with me in a decent photograph or two.
Oh, who am I kidding? These things probably already have polka-dotted something-or-other spilled all over them. Or they'll be around my knees in any picture that gets taken. You don't have to be a stonewash medium to see that coming.
The other day, I was asked a seemingly simple (if rather pointed) question:
"What are you doing to save the environment?"
I was not ready for this question. I certainly had not thought about this question. And it's quite possible I was eating a megafarm beef burrito from a big-chain restaurant out of a styrofoam container at the time I was asked this question.
I don't remember doing that. But the way the question was asked, it sure as hell felt like that's what I was doing. That, or strip-mining the Amazon rainforest with chlorofluorocarbons, somehow. Something very enviro-dickish.
My answer was, of course, inadequate, mumbled and incomplete. I didn't know what the hell I was doing for the environment -- I wasn't thinking about what to do for the environment, just at that particular moment.
"The environment is a little like your left armpit. It's always there, and you'd miss it if it went away, but you never give it a lot of thought."
Or at many others. Let's be honest. The environment is a little like your left armpit. It's always there, and you'd miss it if it went away, but you never give it a lot of thought.
Not until something weird grows in it, anyway, or it starts to smell like an overripe mushroom with halitosis. Then you call the EPA. Or the people at Mennen.
My point is, I do some things to help the environment -- and, for the record, my left armpit. I just don't keep a running tally of each and every one of those helpful little deeds I do.
Or rather, I didn't, until some jackhole came by and asked the question, and made me feel like Baron Acidrain von Oilspill when I didn't have an answer ready. So now I know what I do to save the environment. In fact, I've come up with a whole five things. And I'm going to tell you what they are.
In digital form, thereby saving an innocent tree.
That's the first one. Point, me. I can feel the ozone layer's sphincter relaxing already.
Here's the rest:
2. I recycle.
Which is to say, I have a blue bin at home into which I cram stuff that isn't styrofoam or factory-cow burritos or spent plutonium waste, and another bin into which I do cram that stuff. If I have it. To be fair, I don't keep a lot of styrofoam around.
Now, I don't further sort the stuff in the recycle bin. My understanding is that there are machines or hobos or small indentured children whose job it is to keep the plastic side plastic and the glass side glass, so to speak. I mean, I put things into the blue bin, and not the not-blue bin. Responsibility has to be handed off somewhere; there's only so much I can do. I'm just one man.
(I have it on good authority, by the way, that at my office, the blue bins and not-blue bins all get dumped together into unspecified-color bags and hauled off to the dump. I have no input or sway over this practice, so short of dragging my trash home to recycle it myself -- and I'm not doing that; my car already smells like stale burritos -- I'm really doing the environment no good with any personal waste management strategy I choose to employ at work.
Of course, I still throw my recyclables into the blue bin, anyway. I call this "recycling in spirit". And goddammit, I'm counting it.)
3. Though I still run the water in the sink while I brush my teeth, I don't run as heavy a stream as I used to.
My wife, little miss conservationist showoff, doesn't run the water at all. She wets the toothbrush, then brushes over a completely dry sink like some kind of ascetic hermit.
I can't even.
Look, I'm all for the environment. And she's convinced me to run just a trickle of water, for the sake of the whales or farm-raised salmon or slip 'n' slides in the middle of the Mojave. Something or other. But good lord, woman -- this isn't feudal Europe. You might as well bathe in last night's filthwater and get your humors bled out at Supercuts. We won the Cold War, already.
Fine. The first Cold War. Anyway, I don't care. I'll save the planet a little. But I'm running water while I brush. Next.
4. I only drive to work five days a week.
Because the planet can use a petroleum holiday for those other two, while I'm sleeping and drinking. You're welcome, Ms. Nature.
5. I give to Greenpeace.
Frankly, I don't know whether Greenpeace saves the environment or not. I've never actually read any of their literature or website or anything. So far as I know, their agenda consists of making PETA seem reasonable, mooning horny Japanese whalers and strapping friendship bracelets onto endangered penguins.
(Are there endangered penguins, even?
Probably the ones near the Japanese whalers. I'll stand by that.)
But "Green" is in the name, so probably somewhere in there is verbiage about protecting all life and swaddling nature's creatures and making out with potted ferns or something. I just assume. So why donate to Greenpeace in the first place?
Because my doorbell rang one Saturday afternoon between my sleeping and drinking time, and outside I found two painfully sincere college chicks with their hemp socks and their suburban dreads and their reverent plans to go (back? I didn't catch that part) to the slums of San Povertina to nurse clubfooted chickens back to health. Something like that. Noble gesture. Poor country. Gimpy poultry. Something.
Anyway, I was so moved by their enthusiasm and their passion and their dedication that I signed up right there to help their cause. Because I am a person who firmly believes in contributing to the betterment of our environment.
(And totally not because I am a person who thought that they were maybe going to kiss if I made a donation.
Totally not that. At all.)
So, there you go, smartypants enviro-question asker. Five whole things that I do to help the environment, which is four-and-a-half more than you're doing by going around asking pointy questions to unprepared burrito-eaters.
Why don't you stick that in your pipe and... then carefully take it out, fold it into your compost heap, break your pipe down into components, reuse what you can't recycle and give your nearest white elm -- or reformed Japanese whaler -- a big fat smooch for me. Because environment.
I don't want to give the impression that while I was on my *ahem* "holiday" break, I was just sitting around doing nothing
Yes, I was sitting around doing mostly nothing. But I did find time to carve out a different site, and start writing over there. So, "yaaaaay".
Or "someone burn the internet; it's finally tainted beyond repair". Depending on your point of view.
Anyway, in my real life, I'm a scientist. Sort of a scientist, at least. I was trained in science, and then left to pursue a different, more rewarding career.
Which mostly involves being told by scientists -- actual real scientists, this time -- where to put numbers in giant spreadsheets and databases and intranet web pages, and how many digits in each are significant, and which particular ones should be colored in which way.
Because we all have different definitions for the word "rewarding". Apparently.
The point is, I'm pretty well soaking in science at the office, which is great. Biology, chemistry, genetics -- it's all wildly interesting, and I've got at least a few years of too-long-ago classes to help me understand it.
"Or rather, what I know about science, which is mostly hand-waving and questionable analogies and some curse words I read in the margins of an Intro to Physics textbook."
And to display it on internet pages. In rainbow colors. Apparently.
At the same time, I've always been fascinated with other sorts of science. I used to read books -- gentle, friendly books, with the big words broken down and lots of pop-up pictures -- about cosmology and quantum physics and the the nature of consciousness. I never took any classes on those things, so there's no guarantee I understand any of it. But I'm interested. I must have picked up something.
I just hope it's not the thing Stephen Hawking came down with.
All of this is to say that I've started a new site, and it's about science. Or rather, what I know about science, which is mostly hand-waving and questionable analogies and some curse words I read in the margins of an Intro to Physics textbook.
The site is called Secondhand SCIENCE, and there are a few topics live already. To give you an idea of the tremendous quality of discourse I'm fostering there, I'll just share the first sentence of the very first post, on the sobering topic of black holes. I hope it's not too technical for the curious layperson:
"In science, "black hole" means something very specific; it's not just a catch-all term for scary, life-sucking things like Congressional speeches or a trip to the DMV or Lindsay Lohan's vagina."
Yeah. It's pretty much all downhill from there.
So feel free to stop by for a visit. Every Sunday -- including tomorrow! -- I'll pick a new bit of science, carefully dissect it under a microscope, and then do it absolutely zero justice. In 600 words or less.
But only one color. Because this might be science. But it's not my day job. Word.