Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

My Favorite Current TV Show Character

All too rarely, a TV sitcom character strikes just the right chords, and manages to capture something special.  Think of Norm on Cheers, or Kramer on Seinfeld.

In my view, we’re seeing that happening right now with the character of Bertram Gilfoyle on HBO’s Silicon Valley.

dinesh-gilfoyle-featureFor those who don’t watch the show, Gilfoyle (who’s always called simply “Gilfoyle,” by the way) is a software engineer for Pied Piper, the high-tech start-up that’s always teetering between the promise of fabulous riches and impending, crushing failure.  He’s got to be one of the darkest, most cynical comedic characters ever written — which shouldn’t be surprising since he’s a satan-worshipper.  With his unshaven, shaggy dog appearance, his cut-rate glasses, his gravelly bass voice, and his utter lack of sensitivity to the conventional niceties of the modern world, Gilfoyle is always ready to convey a devastating, usually vulgar put-down or offer a crucial comment while coming up with a technological way to save the day.  Often, the target of his ripostes is his fellow engineer, rival, and foil, Dinesh — who’s also hysterical in his role as the hopeless geek who desperately tries to be cool and gladly follows all of the trends that Gilfoyle then punctures with deadly, deadpan zingers.

How can you not like a character who says things like “I’m not one to gush, but the possibilities of your consequence-free reality are darkly promising,” or “If my mother was naked and dead in the street, I would not cover her body with that jacket”?  Or engages in dialogue like this:

Dinesh: “Did you see that? She gave me her hat.”

Gilfoyle: “Pretend you’ve seen a woman before.”

Bertram Gilfoyle is a rare mixture of paranoia, unconventionality, casual disregard for the law, wariness, technological savvy, and general nuttiness.  Given what’s going on these days, he’s a pitch-perfect character in our modern world.

The Oldest (And Lamest) Joke

When did you first hear the “why did the chicken cross the road” joke?  (And, when you first heard it, did you scratch your head in bewilderment about why the joke was supposedly funny?)

diginomicaThe jest about the wandering but evidently purposeful chicken is generally considered to be one of the oldest continuously circulating jokes in the modern world.  It actually has its own Wikipedia page, which traces the history of the joke back to an 1847 reference in a New York magazine called Knickerbocker.  In that pre-Civil War publication, the joke is presented as a “conundrum” or “quip and quillet” — a kind of riddle that the writer clearly thought was a real groaner.  The arc of the joke can then be traced through the ensuing decades, where it added bells and whistles and additional information all designed to cause the listener to think that the answer is something other than the traditional one.

But while the joke books of the late 19th century present the chicken and road joke as one of many overripe chestnuts you might hear from that joke-spouting uncle who thought he was a real card, you can see that many of the other common jokes that were in circulation in those days have long since been buried.  You don’t hear many “parson” jokes these days, or jokes about chickens generally, for that matter.  And yet — the awful chicken and road joke endures, like the B.O. that couldn’t be eliminated from the car in that Seinfeld episode.  Why?

The Wikipedia page describes the joke as “an example of anti-humor, in that the curious setup of the joke leads the listener to expect a traditional punchline, but they are instead given a simple statement of fact.”  That clinical description doesn’t really fully capture the point of the joke, though.  Unlike most purported jokes, which hope to provoke a laugh from the listener, the chicken joke is obviously designed to allow the joke-teller to laugh at the listener’s expense while the listener feels like a perplexed idiot.  I’m pretty sure that happened the first time I heard it, and it has left me wary about jokes ever since.  It was a valuable lesson, I suppose, but it’s just too bad that I had to hear the chicken and road joke to learn it.

Searching For Snippets

Lately I’ve spent a bit of time in front of the computer at home, on the YouTube website.  I’ve been looking for some funny highlights from TV shows that are now decades old.  You might call it searching for snippets.

My initial goal was to find the “Sis Boom Bah” moment from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.  Featuring the redoubtable Carnak the Magnificent, in what I always thought was one of the best continuing skits on the show, it is arguably one of the funniest single moments on what was a consistently funny show.  (You could argue about other Tonight Show moments, like the Ed Ames tomahawk-throwing incident, but I digress.)  Sure enough, I found the entire Sis Boom Bah Carnak sketch on YouTube, and I’ve put it above in all of its early ’80s, totally un-PC glory at the top of its post.  The Sis Boom Bah moment is still hilarious.

There’s comedy gold to be found just about everywhere on YouTube, but you have to work to find it.  In that sense, it’s a lot more interactive than just watching TV and letting the cathode rays wash over you.   Let’s say that you thought the “Norm!” one-liners from Cheers were consistently funny, as I do, and just wanted to check out a few of them.  A few deft searches, and voila!   One example of what I found, with some of Norm’s choicest rejoinders, is below.  And whether it’s great moments from Seinfeld, or the title introduction to Hogan’s Heroes, or a favorite scene from The Dick Van Dyke Show, you can probably find it on YouTube.

 

The [Insert Noun Here] At [Insert Location]

The other day I was driving through southern Pennsylvania when I saw a billboard for one of those condominium/retirement community developments.  The name of the place was “The Views at Bridgewater.”  What kind of views, I wondered?  I didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to stop to find out.  But I did notice, once again, what seems to be an alarmingly ubiquitous trend in naming new real estate projects.

english_word_22the22In the old days, a developer would have simply called the new project “Bridgewater,” but at some point a marketing genius decided that adding “the” and a one-word description would be much more attractive to potential buyers.  Maybe using the specifying “the” is thought to give the development a more distinctive feel.  Whatever the reason, this same naming convention seems to have been adopted by every real estate developer in America.  It’s always “The” followed by a noun identifying a physical feature followed by “at” followed by a location.  So, if somebody were to develop a condo project in the Westeros world of Game of Thrones, it inevitably would have a name like “The Walls at Casterly Rock” or “The Cliffs at Dragonstone.”  And if this naming convention had been developed before Seinfeld was broadcast, his parents would have lived in “The Units at Del Boca Vista” instead.

And just as disturbingly ubiquitous is the overuse of periods in advertising real estate developments.  Every “mixed use” development seems to feature “Live.  Work.  Play.” somewhere in its brochures and billboards.  Why the periods, rather than commas?  Probably because somebody did tests with a focus group, and decided that periods were more definitive and therefore more compelling.

Do these marketing approaches work with the average American?  They must, because they’re everywhere.  English teachers undoubtedly cringe at the overuse of one-word sentences, but at the same time feel a certain welling sense of pride that words and punctuation can be the difference between a successful real estate venture and an outright failure.

As for me, I’ll just continue to “Breathe.  Eat.  Blog.” here at “The Brickwork at German Village.”

Farts In The Arts

When Russell went off to Camp Seagull in the Carolinas as a young lad, Kish and I waited with trepidation for his first letter home.

Most camps in those days didn’t let kids call home for a few weeks.  Campers could write letters, but not call — the reasoning being that hearing Mom’s voice might just produce even great bouts of homesickness.  So we waited, and when Russell’s letter arrived we tore it open and read it eagerly.  We realized that he would be OK when we got to the part where he said he thought he would really like his cabin mates because “they all thought farts were funny, too.”

250px-firefartIt turns out that Russell and his Camp Seagull buddies had a lot in common with the ancient Sumerians, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift.

A recent article tackles the important and surprisingly under-researched topic of flatulence humor in literature.  It reports that the earliest known fart joke in history is also the oldest known joke, period — which tells you something about the significance of flatulence humor in human civilization — came from the Sumerians circa 1900 B.C.  It is: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”  Admittedly, it doesn’t really seem very funny these days, but let’s give the ancient Sumerians a break — since it was the very first known joke in history, we can’t reasonably expect Seinfeld levels of humor, and besides, we’re probably missing some important sound effects that accompanied the gibe and dramatically increased the humor quotient.

Of course, fart references were found in Chaucer and Shakespeare — where your British Literature professors might dismissively refer to them as “bawdy humor” — and in Mark Twain’s writing, too.   Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, seems to have been weirdly obsessed with breaking wind.  Writing under a pseudonym, he penned an entire book on the subject called The Benefit of Farting Explained that articulated, in painstaking detail, Swift’s views on the different categories of farts.

So if you read or heard about the recent report about the unfortunate woman who passed gas during surgery in a Tokyo hospital, igniting a laser being used during the procedure, and thought it was funny even though the woman was burned as a result, you’re not alone.  Humans have been chuckling about farts since the dawn of recorded history — and probably for as long as humans have been around at all.

In The Holiday Spirit

IMG_7629America is the land of inclusiveness, and December is when people of many faiths and beliefs celebrate important holidays.  So when Kish and I walking down in the Short North today, it was nice to see that a shopkeeper remembered to recognize one holiday in particular.

That’s right:  Festivus . . . for the rest of us.

And to properly recognize Festivus, here’s a snippet from the Seinfeld script The Strike, when the Costanza household’s odd holiday traditions were first described:

FRANK: Welcome, new comers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear

about it! You, Kruger. My son tells me your company stinks!

GEORGE: Oh, God.

FRANK: (To George) Quiet, you’ll get yours in a minute. Kruger, you couldn’t smooth a silk sheet if you had a hot date with a babe.. I lost my train of thought.

(Frank sits down, Jerry gives a face that says “That’s a shame”. Gwen walks in)

GWEN: Jerry!

JERRY: Gwen! How’d you know I was here?

GWEN: Kramer told me.

KRAMER: Another Festivus miracle!

And now, time for the feats of strength.

Eminent Domain

Today we received a notice that we needed to update our blog domain name.  Following the handy instructions from WordPress, I switched our domain name from webnerhouse.com to webnerhouse.wordpress.com.

The reason for the change is that our old domain name, webnerhouse.com, is “set to expire” and “will stop functioning” on November 25, 2014.  That sounds final and irreversible, so I made the change to a new domain.  Why is this happening, after more than five years of blogging?  I have no earthly idea.

Of course, I have only the dimmest understanding of what a “domain” is, anyway.  In fact, when I hear the word “domain,” I inevitably think of the Seinfeld episode “The Contest” — which of course involves an entirely different domain as well as one of Cosmo Kramer’s greatest moments, shown above.  The domain I’ve changed is a lot less interesting, and involves names assigned by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.  Who cares, really?  As long as loyal readers can find our humble blog — and the redirection of visitors to our new domain is supposed to be automatic — that’s good enough for me.

Uncle Sam, The Scooter Sap

Over the weekend the Washington Post carried a terrific article about how fraudsters ripped off Medicare — and through Medicare, the American taxpayer — in the Great Scooter Scam.  It’s another troubling, cautionary tale that shows how good intentions can run awry, how fraudsters are always ready to pounce, and how our ponderous governmental apparatus is just not well-suited to ferreting out fraud.

The fraud scheme grew out of Medicare’s requirement that claims be paid promptly, and the vast scope of coverage that Medicare supplies.  With millions of claims being received, there was no way to check them out before making the required prompt processing decision.  So Medicare’s default approach was to pay claims first, investigate later.  The fraudsters learned this, and rubbed their hands with glee.  But fraudsters can’t perform surgery or other medical care, so how do they take advantage of that gaping vulnerability in the system?  Medical equipment was the answer . . . but the crooks then had to find just the right kind of equipment, where real money could be made.

Ultimately, they realized that scooters and motorized wheelchairs were perfect.  The need for them was plausible, and there was a huge gap between the actual cost of the devices and the inflated amount Medicare would pay.  The fraudsters created elaborate schemes that included “recruiters” who identified seniors to receive the scooters and bogus medical supply companies — and seniors who willingly participated because they thought there were getting a freebie, even if it was something that they didn’t need.  When Medicare changed the rules to require in-person doctor visits to try to stop the fraud, the crooks recruited doctors who were willing to participate in the fraud in exchange for a cut.

The result?  Perfectly able-bodied seniors with wheelchairs, still in their wrapping, gathering dust in their garages or serving as the perch for oversized teddy bears.  Seniors riffing on the Seinfeld episode and having scooter races in their neighborhoods.  And huge amounts of federal money lining the pockets of criminals.

The scope of the fraud is astonishing.  The Medicare system has paid billions for motorized wheelchairs, and they don’t even know how many of the purchases are legitimate.  One recent audit of paid bills showed that 80 percent were improper.  And even after the federal government became aware of the scooter scam, in 1998, it continued to pay billions in phony claims.  Since 1999, Medicare has paid $8.2 billion for 2.7 million motorized wheelchairs and scooters.  In 2003 alone, $964 million was spend on the devices.  These seem like huge numbers, but they are only a blip in the vast Medicare system — which is part of the reason why it took so long to meaningfully tackle the problem.

The Medicare system now says that it has effectively addressed the scooter scam, and the amounts spent on motorized wheelchairs fell to only $190 million in 2013.  Should we have confidence that all of that money — and all of the billions of dollars shelled out for other forms of medical equipment — is being spent in response to legitimate medical needs?  Not really.  The system is too large, oversight is minimal, and there are too many gaps where the fraudsters can take advantage.  And, perhaps most distressingly, there apparently are lots of “recruiters,” doctors, and seniors who apparently are all too willing to participate in a criminal scam so long as they get something out of it.

The Washington Post article about the Great Scooter Scam should be required reading for every Member of Congress who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to create a governmental program that pays out money to address it.

Silicon Valley

Thank God for HBO On Demand!

I missed Silicon Valley when the show was first aired earlier this year.  Over the weekend, though, I sat and watched all eight episodes from Season One in one sitting, with only an appropriate mid-season bathroom break.  It was tremendous, and I would argue that the final episode of Season One ranks as one of the great single episodes of any TV sitcom, ever — right up there with the Death of Chuckles episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show or the Seinfeld episode about The Contest.

If you haven’t seen the show, the plot is straightforward.  Four computer geeks decide to start their own company, with a product based on an advanced compression algorithm one of them has developed.  The show is a satire of the Silicon Valley culture — drenched in cash, but also insisting that it is altruistically making the world a better place — and is chock full of memorable characters and scenes.  It’s about time we saw a lampooning of the technology/money culture in America, and this show really delivers — with a few detours into Satanism, American immigration policy, technology shows, billionaire egos, and some other sources of hilarity.

The principal actors on the show — Thomas Middleditch as the vomiting software genius, T.J. Miller as the brash and self-deluding Erlich, Martin Starr as the deadpan, Satan-worshipping Gilfoyle, Kumail Nanjiani as the acerbic Dinesh, and Zach Woods as the boring but capable Jared — are spot on in their depiction of nerds and geeks trying to find their way in the cash culture, and the rest of the cast is equally good.  The writing is terrific and sharp.  If you haven’t seen it, give it a try.

Get Some Sleep!

It’s hard to imagine that we need scientific studies to encourage us to sleep, but the evidence is mounting that getting enough shut-eye at night has crucial, lasting benefits for human beings.

The latest study examines the role of sleep in improving memory and learning.  The study found that sleep promotes the creation of brain synapses — the connections between the brain’s neurons — that are essential to learning.  That study follows countless others that demonstrate the physical and mental benefits of sleep — a state that allows the brain to discard toxins formed by daily activity, helps us recharge and reduce the risk of many different diseases, and restores the body to the ancient circadian rhythms that human beings have followed since the dawn of the species.

I’ve always tried to make sure that I get enough sleep.  In law school, on the day before our final exams when some of my classmates would stay up until all hours cramming, I  put my books aside and went to bed early so I could be fresh and ready for the big test tomorrow.  I always felt like my rested state gave me an advantage in terms of energy and mental focus, and I’ve tried to carry through that practice in my career, too.

Many of us — in our zeal to be SuperMom, or our focus on our jobs, or our desire to cram every conceivable bit of activity into the waking hours — have cut significantly into our sleep time.  Obviously, it’s a mistake.  If you want to help your kids do better in school or on the job, make sure they get a good night’s sleep.  And instead of staying up to watch a late night talk show or another Seinfeld rerun, why not hit the sack yourself?

The Science Of Bad Dancing

From the teenage years forward, every modern male is bedeviled by the same nagging question: how do I dance without looking like a spastic imbecile?

John Travolta may be the only man alive who is truly confident in his dancing abilities. Most other guys are worried that their attempt at a cool dancing persona in reality mirrors the humiliating leg-kicking, arm-jerking efforts of Elaine on Seinfeld. And, if you’ve seen your average guy on the dance floor, you know that those worries are painfully well-founded.

Fortunately, science now offers an answer. Researchers have studied how women respond to dance floor moves, using neutral, genderless depictions of dancing figures in an attempt to take personal looks out of the equation. The results are surprising. It turns out that women like large movements of the head, neck and torso, as well as quick movements that involve bending the right knee. Putting all of the moves together looks something like the funky chicken — except that there is no apparent relation between arm movements and perceived dancing ability.

What about the study tell us about bad dancers? Click on the link above, and then click on the short video that women uniformly found to represent bad dancing — then tell me if you haven’t seen the precisely the same pathetic, shuffling, inane moves on the part of 99.9 percent of the men who give dancing a shot. And guys . . . take a good look, and then vow never again to trip the light fantastic unless it’s at one of your kids’ weddings. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

Best Series Finale Ever?

Kish and I enjoyed the last episode of The Office on Thursday night — and I’d venture to say that it stacks up as one of the best series finales ever.

We’re all familiar with the Seinfeld syndrome, where a beloved series hits the creative wall, limps to the finish line, and then ends with an over-the-top last episode that is hopelessly sappy, or confused, or kills off (or imprisons) long-time characters.  That is the unfortunate fate of too many shows, and for a time this season, as Jim and Pam seemed to grow apart and a behind-the-scenes cameraman seemed to enter the fray, I was afraid that The Office might take that wrong turn.  I’m glad that Jim and Pam reconciled and the show returned to its first principles.

Sure, the final episode had its saccharine moments, such as where an orphan found her parents and Michael Scott returned for the wedding.  For the most part, though, I thought the characters remained true to what we’ve seen over the past years.  I particularly liked the way the last episode, and those leading up to the finale, believably sold the notion that all of this was the part of a long-in-preparation PBS documentary — and then managed to poke some fun at PBS executives, tote bags, and viewers in the process.  And while the resolutions of relationships was undoubtedly a bit too pat, and prior animosities seemed to vanish, it’s satisfying to see characters you’ve come to like have a happy ending.

Kish’s question at the end of many movies is:  “Do you think they get together at the end?”  With The Office, it’s nice to know that they did.

The Office Gets Ready To Turn Out The Lights

The Office is counting down to the last show of the series.  Kish and I enjoy the show, and we’re holding our breath that the characters we’ve come to love aren’t ruined forever as the producers seek to build tension for a big finale.

I may be the only person in America who was happy when Steve Carell left The Office.  I thought the Michael Scott character had become so painfully awkward and outlandish that the series was difficult to watch, and the Michael Scott stories were interfering with the show’s real strength — which is the ensemble of office workers.   Every moment of Michael Scott angst took time away from a Jim Halpert practical joke at the expense of Dwight Schrute, or droll Stanley Hudson comment, or Creed Bratton weirdness.  When Michael Scott finally left it cleared the way for the other characters to shine, and they did.

Many of the great American sitcoms have been ensemble efforts, rather than solo star vehicles.  Cheers, Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi, among many others, all have been classic multi-character efforts.  What would Cheers have been without the characters shouting “Norm!” or listening to Cliff’s latest blowhard theory?  How much did Newman bring to Seinfeld, and the Reverend Jim add to TaxiThe Office characters are similarly capable of carrying their show as a group, and since Steve Carell’s departure the show has remained hilarious without the downside of the pitiable Michael Scott storylines.

This year, though, the show seems to have lost its way.  Pam and Jim are having marital difficulties, and a lbehind-the-camera sound technician has emerged as a suitor for Pam’s affections.  Andy Bernard, who may be the most unevenly written character in TV history, has gone off the deep end.  It’s as if the producers are searching for a dramatic conclusion — and I wish they would resist that temptation. We want to remember Jim and Pam as the young lovers who finally found each other or the happy newlyweds, not as some estranged couple fighting in a way that seems inconsistent with their well-established characters.

I’d be perfectly happy if the last episode featured more of the enjoyable antics of Dwight and Angela, and Oscar and Kevin, and Phyllis and Meredith, and the show ended with a Jim Halpert prank and Pam simply turning out the lights of the Dunder-Mifflin workroom a la The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as another workday ends.

The Dreaded Double Dip

Today Great Britain published statistics indicating that its economy has slid back into recession, making England the victim of a dreaded “double dip” recession.  Economic officials in the United States are holding their breath and hoping that the American economy doesn’t suffer a similar fate.

“Double dip” recessions are no laughing matter — but we can all use a laugh now and then.  And who can hear the phrase “double dip” without thinking of this classic scene from Seinfeld: