Chapter 104: Why Karaoke is so damn important

The Karaoke bar is full of misfits, the kind of people who only fit in with other people that don’t fit in. This isn’t the Irish bar, the frat bar, the posh bar. This is the place where nights end. This is the place where lives begin.

Three songs. That’s how long until your name is called. Three songs of freedom before you walk up onto the stage, grab the microphone and orgasm on every single person sitting in front of you, their rapt attention standing in marked contrast to the incredible cacophony ready to exit from your waiting tongue.

Song number one is the first example of how to lose the crowd. Four dolled up girls get up to sing about having fun, and from the looks of it they’re having the time of their lives. Next month they’ll remember back to “that crazy night” they had, but they likely won’t remember getting much applause; there wasn’t any. There’s nothing quite as selfish as getting up and singing for yourself, so don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Song number two. Second example of how to lose the crowd. Sucka picks a song that’s too fast for his flow and all of a sudden he’s staring at words flying by the screen but there’s nothing hitting the microphone. He fell off the train and now it’s hurtling by him at fifty miles an hour and every time he tries to jump back on he’s a beat off. I’ve been that guy before, it sucks (old school). Know the damn song.

The last singer gets it right. He knows that it’s not about how good of a singer he is, it’s about changing costumes. He knows that Karaoke is the game of make believe and dress up reincarnated in bar form. He knows that the karaoke rock stars are the actors, the ones without fear or shame.

When he gets up on stage, he’s no longer the loner by the bar. This man’s a fucking god, and he knows it. He walks over humbly to his seat after he finishes and no one talks to him. They wouldn’t be talking to Him, because he’s not the same Him that just made half the audience feverish. When you step up you step into the shoes of someone bigger than you.

The stage lets you be a rock star for one song in exchange for remembering one crucial little detail. It’s not just karaoke. It’s a microcosm of Real Life. Check your ego at the door, put on your fancy hat and dance.

It’s dinner parties, black tie functions, fancy restaurants, theater stages, the wedding chapel, your college graduation, thanksgiving at your girlfriend’s grandparents house, the court appearance and the moment you expect her to say “Yes!”

Remember, kid, you’re not doing this for you. You’re doing this for them.


Chapter 103: The Definitive Guide to bagging States and Countries

Most men enjoy competition, whether it be sports, card games or the sheer volume of alcohol one can imbibe. However, in the grand scheme of all things gaming, these pursuits are quite trivial. Card games are determined in a sitting, sports in an afternoon, and the effects of drinking go away eventually (if things didn’t get too out of hand).

My favorite game isn’t played in one sitting. It’s played through your entire life and on a planetary scale; it’s about bagging. He who bags the most states, the most countries and the most continents (hell, even tectonic plates) wins the game.

What’s a bag?

A bag is a state, country or other significant geo-political unit that you’ve visited to a level that you can say “Nevada, yeah, I’ve been to Nevada.” Your trip to this mysterious land must be somewhat substantial; it’s not enough to put a toe over the border or to drive in a mile then turn around. There are three criteria that a trip into an unconquered land must meet in order to count. For the purposes of brevity, I’ll use state to refer to any geo-political entity.

Criteria #1, Locality: you’ve got to get out into the thick of it

A good rule of thumb is that you need to have your “feet on the ground”. This rules out airports, highways, any trip where you don’t get out of your car, riding a boat through without stopping, etc. There’s also a fudge factor in that you can’t step a couple of feet away from any of those things and have it count. The immediate support structure of these things are out too, meaning no truck stops, airport hotels etc.

Criteria #2, Uniqueness: it has to be representative of the state

You can’t drive through a state, stop a little ways into a local town and eat at a McDonalds. That’s Anytown, USA, and it’s in no way indicative of the local culture. You need to go somewhere or do something that’s quasi-unique for the state or the cultural / geographic region the state is in. Eat at a locally owned place that makes local food, visit some historical site, see something that screams “Georgia”.

Criteria #3, Memorability: it can’t be a throwaway experience, you need a story

A bag isn’t a bag unless there’s a story. The local eatery off the freeway doesn’t count unless something story-worthy happens. It doesn’t have to be life changing, but just something to take the experience from bland to memorable.

As you can see, all three criteria are not by no means deterministic, and an argument can be made for many borderline cases. The following are some examples to help flesh out the record, but everyone’s requirements as to the three criteria are not the same.

Things that I WOULD count:

  • I had a layover in Las Vegas that turned into a day-over: two of my flights were canceled back to back, so I took a taxi into the strip. Over the course of 5 hours I gambled at nine separate casinos until I lost a total of a dollar in the slot machines, making just enough to buy myself a drink. (local, unique and definitely memorable)
  • I drove through Nebraska the long way, stopping twice in the middle of nowhere to take quick naps on the side of local roads. The speed limit is 75 the entire state except for a 20 mile stretch right around Omaha, and I got pulled over doing 79 in a 65. Lunch was uneventful, at a local eatery in Omaha. (I count this because while no one experience was all three, the trip as a whole meets my standards)

Things that I WOULD NOT count (but some people would):

  • I’ve rafted down the Rio Grande twice, which runs along the Mexico / US border in Texas. We put in on the Texan side, and throughout the course of the trip stayed on the Mexican side several times. One night was a frightful experience where a mountain lion roared at us on and off throughout the evening. We took out on the Mexican side of the river and had to pass a border guard to get back into Texas. (while it was memorable, the river is like a highway and both sides are effectively the same, meaning locality is questionable and uniqueness possibly lacking)

Things that I USED to say didn’t count, but now I’m saying do count: (updated 8-11-07)

  • While on a road trip running through South Carolina, we stopped off in Columbia (the capital) where we ate at a Chain Eatery (TM) in the downtown area. Arguably local, arguably unique as we were in downtown and could see the capital building, but not really that memorable. However, as it’s been a point of contention for so long and I’ve recounted EXACTLY what I did in South Carolina many times, it’s become quite memorable to me.

The picture below is what you sorry lot get to compete with. It might look like a lot to some people, but I guarantee it looks like a boring life to many others. Now I can’t finish without getting philosophical at least once, so here goes. I’ve often been questioned on the legitimacy of the game, on exactly what justification there might be for bagging countries, states, etc. To that, I answer simply:

‘Never Been’ is reason enough.

2007-02-14: I bagged Oregon.
2007-09-11: I bagged Japan and North Dakota, and correctly marked Netherlands, Scotland and South Carolina (see above) as bagged.
2008-03-04: I bagged Belgium and Luxembourg.
2009-04-01: I bagged India and Nepal.
2010-01-28: I bagged El Salvador.
2010-06-10: I bagged Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Andorra, Norway and Sweden.
2010-08-16: I bagged Mexico.


Chapter 100: A year distilled into just 10 short words

The first chapter of the new year just happens to coincide with being the 100th chapter I’ve ever written. It could be coincidence, but I could just be a bastard.

Ta-oof-Sam dot com

It’s been a year since I started writing again. I wrote religiously my first year of college, however at some point I petered out and stopped posting anything at all. I’d continue to write the occasional story or rant and save them to a dark and mysterious corner of My Documents, only to read over them again and again; but that’s why I write.

My posting frequency is roughly correlated with how much free time I have to dwell on things. My thought process is sort of like making a pot of homemade stew. If you just look at the ingredients it’s all rubbish, sort of junk floating around without any sort of consistent culinary theme. However, when you put it all together and let it sit and combine so that the flavors sort of blend together, it can turn into quite the tasty dinner. I need time to let the thoughts coalesce into something that’s worth putting in notepad, partially explaining the three year gap in the written record.

It wasn’t that nothing interesting happened during my sophomore through senior year; quite the contrary. I was just too busy living it to dwell on it. I try not to run through the events of my week or to give summaries of my weekends, instead I always aim to tell a story. Sometimes, however, it’s useful to take a step back and think about what it all means.

OPI: Old People Introspection

I have a philosophy about being self-contemplative that I like to call “grandfather introspection”. A grandfather has a number of sons, and each of his sons has a number of sons as well. Likewise, a year has so many months, and each of those months has so many weeks, etc. Each son takes care of himself, the fathers take care of all of their sons, and the grandfather gets to look after the lot of them.

At the end of every day you summarize your experiance in your mind. Was it a good day? What can this day teach you about future days? At the end of the week, summarize the week. At the end of the month, think about the month. Finally, when you get to the end of the year, you get to the grandfather summary.

A kids job is easy; he just looks after himself and can worry about the consequences later. The father has a harder job keeping the kids in line, but the grandfather has the ultimate role. His job is to provide wisdom and insight to everyone, to be the keeper of Common Sense and the provider of Perspective. That’s why the yearly summary is so hard. Each day can be summed up simply: “Made it to work on time, cute girl smiled at me, skipped the gym, Colbert was awesome”. Weeks into months into the year and suddenly you’re combining long running undercurrents and summarizing major lasting relationships into a sentence.

Get with the Grandfather Summary

I’m kind of a Buddhist in how I approach the good and bad in the day to day. The ‘bad’s I marginalize, the ‘good’s I italicize and underline. Subsequently it makes being honest with myself occasionally quite hard, especially when the subject of my self-honesty isn’t as good as I’d like to pretend it is. My self-summary of how the year went is quite aptly described by, you guessed it, an analogy.

My family sends out a yearly Christmas Card in newsletter format, with each major trip or move having a subsection. Each family member also has a summary of the major happenings during the last twelve months, along with a quick recap of where they are and what they’re doing. This presented me with two problems.

The first problem concerned a certain girl that I’ve been known to spend a lot of time with. She was featured in our last Christmas Card (she even had a picture) and my parents included her in the first draft of this one. There isn’t a simple way to explain the complexity of our relationship in the couple lines I had to work with, and nothing I wrote seemed to do it justice. The world seems averse to the idea of taking a break from dating but still remaining best friends. What are the requirements for someone’s inclusion in a Christmas Card? I don’t list my other friends, should she get her own category? Girlfriend-turned-bestfriend-but-not-out-for-the-count?

It turns out my powers of reason and rationality aren’t all they’re cracked up to be; I wasn’t happy with any of the options and in the end I just left her out. I had the same problems writing about her there as I do writing about her here. All of these words are a form of public announcement, and at the time I didn’t feel comfortable making one.

The other problem related to my brothers. Both my brothers have been quite active; my brother Ed took a semester abroad in Athens and is involved in a lot of travel and activities in Boston, and my brother Monty does multiple sports, wins awards at various activities and is applying to college. I work at the Patent Office, go on the occasional weekend adventure and enjoy long walks through Wikipedia. In strictly number-of-line terms, my section was the shortest of the Christmas Card. While this number might be meaningless, it spoke a lot to me. I always have and always will measure myself by my stories.

There you have it. Not enough stories and no girl in the Christmas Card.

I don’t know a better summary than that.


Chapter 93: Why I go on so many dates

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
– Carl Sagan

The rules are simple: always at noon, and never decide the location until you’re standing outside. The former provides structure to what would otherwise be perfectly structureless days, and the latter gives people a chance to light a cigarette while we stand around and debate where we want to eat lunch. This specific day we wandered towards a small sandwich shop owned by the most enjoyable disgruntled man in Virginia.

As I picked up my sandwich from the counter, I caught the eye of a cute girl standing in line. There are lots of disparate groups working in the area around the Patent Office, most of them being miscellaneous professional organizations like law firms. She was dressed professionally but was around my age, and gave me a slightly hesitant but warm closed lipped smile. I smiled back and went to make quick work of my sandwich.

Observation. A constant feature of scientific inquiry.

Several days later, at a different local eatery, wearing the same pair of pants (I need to go shopping), I saw her starting to walk out just as I had opened to door to walk in. I held the door for her and she smiled warmly and said thanks, looking at me just a little bit longer than is strictly necessary.

Description. Information must be reliable, i.e., replicable (repeatable) as well as valid (relevant to the inquiry).

There aren’t a lot of women that work in the same part of the Patent office as I do. It seems computer architecture isn’t that attractive to the fairer sex, so I end up spending a lot of time surrounded by a rag tag band of engineers, nerds and wannabe lawyers. This is normally my absolute cup of tea, but sometimes it’s nice to be around … you know … women.

The following Thursday I was wearing a different set of pants, I had exact change, and just as I walked over to grab my drink from the cooler I spotted her deliberating on the chip selection. She turned as I walked up, I gave a friendly “hi”, and she returned the favor. “Salt and Vinegar is by far the best,” I posited. She furrowed her brow, thought for a couple seconds, then picked the bag up. “I guess we’ll see,” she said with twinkly eyes.

Prediction. Information must be valid for observations past, present, and future of given phenomena, i.e., purported “one shot” phenomena do not give rise to the capability to predict, nor to the ability to repeat an experiment.

The oft-repeated problem with women (or men, depending on how you look at it) is that it’s almost impossible for a man to determine if a woman likes him. This gets harder the more technical your degree is, as you brain has wired itself to the complicated pursuits of circuit design, recursive function debugging and pointer arithmetic. To suddenly switch tasks back into detecting subtle variations in audio frequency distributions emitted by members of the opposite sex proves beyond most men’s capabilities.

This applies to most men, but not all men. I’m a scientist, after all.

Control. Actively and fairly sampling the range of possible occurrences, whenever possible and proper, as opposed to the passive acceptance of opportunistic data, is the best way to control or counterbalance the risk of empirical bias.

I had picked up several non-verbal clues as to what the girl-from-the-local-eateries was thinking, but not quite enough to strictly differentiate between the two obvious possibilities: she could just be friendly, or she could want me. Until I have definitive proof one way or another, I have two possible default strategies to take. One, to assume friendly until proven interested. Two, to assume interested until proven friendly.

Deciding on a default strategy in this case comes down to weighing between the two types of statistical errors that can happen. Type I errors (false positives) are when you incorrectly label someone guilty when they are innocent, and Type II errors (false negatives) are when you fail to label someone guilty when they really are guilty. If I assume the girl is friendly, I eliminate the possibility of committing a Type I error but I open myself up to the possibility of a Type II error.

Falsifiability, or the elimination of plausible alternatives. This is a gradual process that requires repeated experiments by multiple researchers who must be able to replicate results in order to corroborate them.

In the ideal criminal justice system they’ve made the decision to place the burdan of proof on the prosecution so as to prevent innocent people from being convicted of crimes they did not commit. This is a case of the negative consequences of a Type I error outweighing those of a Type II. In every case, a Type I error is caused when an action is taken due to a false conclusion, and a Type II error is an action NOT taken due to a false conclusion. Every statistics class I’ve ever had has drilled into my head that Type I errors are the devil, and that Type II errors are what you laboriously add certainty to your conclusions to avoid.

Accordingly, I assume she’s friendly. I commit to collecting more data.

Causal explanation. Many scientists and theorists on scientific method argue that concepts of causality are not obligatory to science, but are in fact well-defined only under particular, admittedly widespread conditions.

It was several weeks before I saw her again, and when I did she was sitting at a two person table with (in my heterosexual opinion) a very attractive professional looking man. She was recounting some story in a slightly southern accent. From my own observations I’ve found southern girls to be unabashed extroverts when it comes to friendliness. They seem to operate under a default strategy of assuming people are good until they are proven evil.

At least the South understands Type I errors.

Sciencey bits from Wikipedia.

It seems that evolutionary biology and the Economist disagree with my rationale.


Chapter 71: The Woman Crying on the Metro

Wednesday. Early evening. Possibly my favorite time of the week.

The escalator carries me up and out of the DC underground and into the windy bustle of Foggy Bottom. Every week I ride the metro from work up to the George Washington campus and eat a chilidog before heading to class. I eat a chilidog because eating gives reason for sitting, and sitting gives reason to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: people watching.

Compared to the people who live and play in my Alexandrian bubble, the women who work and walk by the GW campus are an intriguing bunch. High heels, designer purses, young, hip, intellectual. These are the women that give DC notoriety. Everyone here has a plan and walks with a purpose.

I eat my chilidog.

It’s a curious endeavor to imagine what they’re thinking about as they walk the way they do. I’m concentrating on avoiding getting ketchup on my pants, but I’m also realizing that I was wrong this morning when I determined that this specific pair of socks was clean, and now I’m paying the stiff and itchy price. Are they thinking about their socks? Are they thinking about a court case? Legislation? The next evil company they will investigate? They all look so self-assured; as if certainty in all things was a given. Are they even wearing socks?

The look of these women makes it hard to be comfortable being so unsure of yourself. I have a plan, it’s a shaky one, and I change it often. Someone watching me walk would probably notice no distinct purpose and that I let my eyes bounce from object to shiny object. What have they figured out that I haven’t?

On my metro ride home, I notice a particularly striking example sit down across the aisle from me. She has a briefcase and wears a suit. An elegant forehead makes her feel imposing even at 5’6″. She sits down, pulls out an iPod and dons a pair of ridiculously cliché white ear buds and closes her eyes.

Less than a minute later, she just starts to cry.

There are no sobs. She has a smile on her face, and the tears run down faster than she can wipe them away. I try not to stare, which I’m usually only moderately successful at.

She continues to sit, holding her briefcase, clutching her Nano and wiping the tears away as fast as she can, unable to contain the beaming smile she still wears.

I have no idea what she is thinking.

Pretending to have an idea of what goes on inside other people’s heads lets me build up a fictional image of who they are. The sharp dressed lawyer thinking about going in for the kill. The business woman contemplating the next takeover. But maybe everyone is like me, and inside what sometimes can be a stoic figure lurks those three fun little words: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The lawyer is worried she’ll fuck up, that her case isn’t good enough and she’ll finally be exposed as the fraud she is. The business woman doesn’t care about work anymore, she just can’t stop thinking about the custody battle she’s going through to get her son back.

The outsides might sometimes look slick and unwavering, but on the inside I guess we’re all a little scared.