9/28/2004

Jack Sheldon and the meaning of life

A couple of months ago, when Linh was visiting me down here, we went to a bar & grill down in Hermosa Beach to see some live jazz. It was a Sunday morning, so it's not like we were heading over to Catalina's to catch Brad Mehldau or some other hip youngster stopping in L.A. for three nights of shows. It would probably be a laid-back performance that you would not likely consider noteworthy enough to write about in your blog.

Anyway, the draw was not the guy who was ostensibly the bandleader at this particular gig. I can't even remember his name. The draw was that, according to LA Weekly, Jack Sheldon often sat in with this band on Sunday mornings in Hermosa Beach. This, I figured, would be worth seeing. Sheldon is a trumpeter with a resume as long as your arm who's played every spot on the West Coast, with just about everyone who's ever made a name for themselves in the local jazz scene. Additionally, like a few famous trumpeters before him (Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker), he's had a side career of sorts as a singer and voice-over artist. You may have heard him as the voice of the bill sitting on Capitol Hill in an episode of "Schoolhouse Rock" (and also as the voice of the Constitutional Amendment in the parody of that same episode on "The Simpsons").

Unfortunately, the day we drove down there was the same day the AVP tournament was being played on that very beach, and we had to park several blocks away and hike down to the sanitized, bourgeois promenade development where the bar is located. It was a warm day in June or July and the sun was not hiding behind any clouds. But we made it, and sat down in the uncrowded bar, and ordered our brunch. The band was in the middle of a song, and when they finished, they took a break.

At that point in my life, I'd only ever heard Sheldon on the radio -- and on jazz radio stations, they typically back-announce three or four songs at a time, if at all, meaning that unless you're paying close attention, you won't remember which of the last few songs was played by whom when they get around to telling you the personnel. So, I couldn't be sure that the late-middle-age guy playing trumpet with the band was him.

The band came back about ten or fifteen minutes later, and once they started playing again, it became apparent to me that this was either Jack Sheldon or someone who was at least as good. The guy had it all. Trumpet isn't the best instrument for a small setting, because it's so loud; and it's a directional instrument, meaning it's loudest in whatever direction you are pointing it. (A flute, for example, is not directional.) But that didn't present any obstacle. He was able to keep the volume under control, bringing it up if necessary, and keep it a nice mezzo most of the time, even in the high register. It wasn't just the volume control that was impressive, of course. Every note fit just right, like each one was a piece of marble finely sculpted so it would link with dozens of other pieces to form a larger, beautiful composite.

So we watched and listened, and it was really good. But before long I began to notice a few things, which, when put together, seemed a little bit out of place. First of all, in between songs, Sheldon would take the microphone and do the standard crowd patter, "thanks for coming, it's good to be here," etc. Except he mostly told dirty jokes and talked about how hot the waitresses looked. At one point, the manager walked by, a blond woman wearing tight pants and a low-cut shirt, and Sheldon says, "Wow. Look at that. I love to see you coming and I love to see you going." Also, while his voice wasn't exactly slurred, I got the distinct impression that he was either hung over, drunk, or really tired. He kept saying the same things over and over, like it was hard for him to think straight. "What a great day, great day, good to be here on such a great day." And then there was the way he played.

Like I said before, the guy sounded great. He knew every song inside and out, and his solos were impeccable. Keep in mind that most of jazz music is something you make up on the spot. You play the opening to the song, and then each musician takes turns improvising something on top of the same chord structure. It can range from basic stuff that sounds kinda boring to incredibly complicated ad-libbing that includes substitute chords, polytonality, "quotes" from other famous jazz songs, improvised melody and counter-melody, and give-and-take with the other musicians, all at once and all live. I've studied calculus and deconstructed postmodern literature, and I consider jazz improvisation to be far more difficult. I was never any good at it, which is probably why it was a good idea for me to give up on a career as a saxophonist.

Anyway, I didn't really notice much about the way Sheldon played until I watched the sax player who was there with him. This was a younger guy, in this thirties, who had great chops and knew it. He mostly played alto, and played it extremely fast. His solos were big, complex constructions, involving dozens of fast licks, altissimo tones, false fingerings, Charlie Parker quotations, and blue-in-the-face circular breathing. Now, I like to imagine that when one musician is blasting through their solo, the other musicians are at least listening to it, grooving off of it, thinking a little bit about what the soloist is doing and how it fits the song, maybe trying to figure out something they can steal for themselves. That's what I tried to do when I was in that position. I always found it disrespectful, at least, when the other guys in the band would be picking their noses or even talking while someone else was playing. So I was a little surprised when, during one of the sax player's solos, I looked at Sheldon and saw that he was not even paying attention to the music. He just sat there, looking fat and tired, ogling the waitresses as they walked back and forth.

This was a little confusing. Here was a guy who played like every song had been written expressly for his talents, and he couldn't even be bothered to pay attention while everyone else was playing around him. What could this mean? Obviously, Sheldon is good enough that he doesn't really have to listen to the other solos. There's not a whole lot more for him to learn from jazz. He's been doing it extremely well for decades. But isn't there still some enjoyment in it for him, to listen to someone else doing it well? I thought about that as the sax player continued flapping his fingers 180 times per minute, his lungs working overtime, the notes flying high and crowded into the air. Impressive stuff, I guess, but I found it wasn't doing much for me. I was struck with the feeling that he was trying too hard. Then I watched Sheldon again, when they all came back in together at the end of the song. He calmly lifted his trumpet to his lips, played everything perfectly, and finished.

We stayed long enough to hear a few more songs. They were all pretty much in the same vein, though something had changed about the experience for me. I was no longer just hearing a jazz band play some live music. I was now hearing a great musician, a decent backing band, and a young saxophonist trying to get attention. Listening to Sheldon's solos only solidified this notion. They were not fast or overwrought, not dizzyingly complicated. They were melodic and fluid, and meshed with everything just right. He made everything look easy. The sax player, meanwhile, continued to make everything look difficult. This is not a slur against that guy, whose name I can't remember. He was really good. But he wasn't great.

It may be stupid to try to draw any sort of lesson from this experience, or to craft a new weltanschauung from the performance. I'd like to think it shows that you don't have to make life complicated for yourself, and that if you just take things as they come, and stay calm and in control, life will be easier. But that's not really fair. The performance at the bar can't necessarily be extrapolated to such concepts because there could be a million other reasons why things went down that way. After all, Jack Sheldon is a seasoned veteran of jazz music, who is probably at the top of his game right about now. Additionally, the songs the band was playing that day were all tailored to his style of playing, and did not lend themselves to the sax player's style. Sheldon made things look easy, but the deck was stacked in his favor that morning. So it might be inappropriate to leap to the conclusion I've outlined above. But if you had been there, and if you had seen what I saw, and had heard what I heard, you might forgive me for thinking that way.

9/24/2004

What do they do in the tent?

Right now, at all Toyota dealers, they are having the Toyota Tent Event. I think that whoever came up with that name should be fired. Tent event? Okay, it rhymes, but it doesn't really say anything. It tells me that they've got a tent, or maybe tents, and there is something going on there. But what? Are they camping? Are they having a revival? Is Cirque du Soleil in there? "Event" could be anything. It could be a guy offering free rides to Burning Man. It could be Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds fighting with samurai swords. Someone at Toyota probably came up with "tent sale" at first, but someone slightly smarter (though still not really smart) said, "No, we're not selling tents. Make it tent event." This is my problem. Maybe they've got a big tent where they try to convert you to Scientology. Or shoot you up with heroin. Maybe in each tent are two DJs, and they battle to see who gets to mix the next Toyota commercial. I think that qualifies as an event.

"Obviously, they are having a sale." Is it that obvious? The sale is not what they're pitching to us. Car dealers have sales all the time. Clearances, factory inventory buybacks, etc. This is different. This is an event. It's eventful. When I get there, I will say to myself, "Now, this. This is an event." They don't even really pitch the notion of all the savings you can get on exciting new cars or something. Sure, maybe they mention their low APRs on the commercial, but no one ever perks up when they hear a car commercial that screams "only 1.9 percent!" Did you ever take note of those low, low annual percentage rate offers? Did you ever turn to your loved one and say, "Honey, did they say 1.9 percent? And nothing due at signing?" Of course not.

Besides, I didn't hear about the Event in a commercial. I don't watch TV. I saw it on a billboard, and then again on the side of a bus. It said: Toyota Tent Event Going On Now. Also, there was a picture of a tent. Wow. I think my heart skipped two beats. Talk about an event. I mean, come on. They've got a tent. A big, white tent, with a little red flag on top of it, waving enthusiastically in the breeze. Think about what that could mean for me. My life could finally have meaning. I could actually own a 2004 Corolla, at a close-out price, with factory cash back. Apparently, factory cash is better than regular cash. I bet the phrase "factory cash back" tested higher in focus groups than the more quotidian "cash back."

I wonder if the Tent Event offers better deals than all their other sales. It's hard to say. On the one hand, I would think it does not, because so much effort is being made to pump up the Event's event status, which makes me think there is not a lot of substance behind the dazzle. It's like when I look at job ads, and the decent newspapers simply list the job they have open and some basic info about their paper (circulation, location, etc.), but other papers write long, self-laudatory descriptions of their operation, often using tons of cliches like "hard-hitting journalism" and "hold public officials accountable." Who do they think they're fooling? The harder you try to sound really good, the more suspicious I am that you're not all that great. Sometimes they even lie, like the ad for a paper in Victorville that described its locale as "the heart of Southern California." I guess that is arguably true, but I think anyone who went to Victorville with that phrase in mind would be a little bit disappointed.

However, it's impossible to judge the relative value of the Tent Event on the basis of how hard they sell it, because car dealers are always selling everything they've got as hard as they can. There's really no baseline to compare anything to. Let's face it: I have no way of knowing if the Toyota Tent Event is more or less important than the Toyotathon. They both sound pretty impressive. And then there's all those other Toyota sales whose names are less catchy. I can't remember what they're called, but I bet they have low APRs.

Today, I drove past Hollywood Toyota. They didn't have a tent.

9/21/2004

It's 3 a.m. -- do you know where your co-workers are?

I mentioned cryptically in a previous post that I was going to bed at 7 p.m. because I had to get up at 2 a.m. and go to work. This was not a typo. Before my temporary employment ended about two months ago, I had the pleasure of working, for several weeks, a shift that began at 3 a.m. and ended at 11 a.m. As you can imagine, this schedule took its toll on me, which means that even though it has been a while since I last endured it, you get to read about it right now.

The reason they even have a 3 a.m. shift is unclear. When I first worked for this particular unnamed news agency in 2001, some poor sap who later left the business had to tough out an overnight shift that began at 11 p.m. and ended eight hours later, and consisted entirely of broadcast writing. For the uninitated, broadcast news writing is slightly different from print writing, in that you use "says" instead of "said," you spell out long numbers, like 25-thousand dollars, and various other things that don't even meet my low-threshold definition of interesting. (Area codes, on the other hand ... ) Anyway, at some point in 2002, that shift was changed to the 3a-11a monster that it now is, and became half-broadcast, half-print. Meaning you do broadcast writing from 3a-7a, and then switch modes, becoming a print reporter until 11.

It actually makes a little bit of sense to have the shift organized this way. Because 3 a.m. Pacific time is 6 a.m. Eastern time, someone needs to be staffing the broadcast desk in L.A. this early, so that news from California can get into the early national report heard by people in New York, DC, and other, less-important eastern time zone cities. Now, this is not to say that there is actual news happening in California at this ungodly hour. On enormously rare occasions, yes, like the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which struck at 4:31 a.m. But for the most part, the 3 a.m. broadcast editor just rewrites a bunch of stories out of various local newspapers, whose websites were all updated at midnight.

Carrying on this line of thought, it is convenient for editors to have an extra print reporter available for light morning duty, which is what typically befalls the poor sap stuck on this shift. I usually rolled out to morning press conferences, or celebrity trials, or some such nonsense, and was able to wrap up my story by 11 or so. If I went over, I got overtime, so that's even better.

Yet, while this is all very convenient for the anonymous news agency, I can't say it was convenient for me, or for any of the other victims who were dumped into the time slot. Let's face it: do you want to go to bed at 7p and wake up at 2a every night? That's the opposite of my life. The guy who lives upstairs from me doesn't even start watching his DVDs with the volume turned all the way up until about 1:30a. I've already got sleep problems, and working for this company did nothing but exacerbate them. I worked shifts that began at 3 a.m., 6:30 a.m., 7 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 8 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 4 p.m., usually with at least one day of the weekend included, and often two different starting times each week. At the very least, when I was put on the 3 a.m. shift for my last three weeks, it was consistently M-F, same shift. This was good. Except that, by its very nature, this shift is impossible to keep consistent. Because, really: who is going to continue going to bed at 7 p.m. and waking up at 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday? If that's you ... well, if that's you, I'm rendered speechless.

So you get screwed on the weekends, and then you have to get up early again on Monday. That doesn't sound much different than a regular schedule. But this is the regular thing times ten. Additionally, your body is highly confused by what you are trying to do to it. Many people work overnight and graveyard shifts on a regular basis, for years, even, and I feel their pain. I've read that no matter what you do -- setting your clock to a different hours, blacking out the windows, wearing sunglasses when you drive home in the morning to fool yourself that it's evening -- your body is not fooled, and it never fully adjusts to being awake at night and asleep during the day. You'll notice that I said I would go to bed at 7p and get up at 2a. That's only seven hours of sleep; shouldn't I try to go to sleep at 6p? I suppose, but since I would just lie around for a few hours getting a headache from all the cognitive dissonance ("gotta sleep, sun's still up; gotta sleep, sun's still up"), I don't see any point to that.

Naturally, like any good American, I turned to drugs to solve my problem. Long ago, I discovered that Benadryl and its generic spinoffs not only make you drowsy, but have the same active ingredient as some sleeping pills. And I had also discovered the allergy-suppressing ability of this physic was highly overrated. I think you can see where this is headed. Every day around 6:30p, I'd pop two bright-pink Bennies and get ready to hit the hay. But, again, there is a limit to how much you can fool your body. The drugs made me drowsy, but my body managed to keep me from falling completely asleep. My body was saying, "Dude. First you try to make me sleep at all these weird times, and now you're drugging me like crazy. That's messed up." So, I would float in and out of wakefulness, drug-induced stupor, and half-sleep for about four hours before finally nodding off, only to be awakened three hours later.

I wonder what my neighbors thought of this, if anything. I would think someone must have heard me showering at 2 each morning. I have a lot of actors (i.e., unemployed folks) in my building, so they're up and about at that hour. And among my employed cohabitants, I wonder if any of them got up for work early -- say, 6a -- and saw my car was always gone from its spot when they left. This probably all escaped their notice. Actually, I know most people in my building don't care what time I'm sleeping, because they make so much noise all night.

Regardless, as a result of all this drug abuse, I have since become immune to Benadryl's drowsiness factor. I took three pills last night and still sat around wide awake for two hours. This is the same pill that used to cause me to black out in my office when I took one at 2 in the afternoon. So when I can't sleep because of unemployment anxiety, which happens about once a week, there is really no longer anything I can do about it. Can't take a pill. Can't knock myself out with a sleeper hold. Two nights ago, I was up until 6 a.m. Not for any real reason. I just couldn't sleep.

There was one silver lining, and it has to do with my inability to get up on time. (Reading this blog might give you the impression that I am unable to do anything. Yeah, that sounds about right.) I've always been a chronic abuser of the alarm clock's snooze button. Or its "off" button that I swear I can't remember pressing when I wake up two hours after my alarm was supposed to have gone off. I was an hour late to a final exam my freshman year of college -- in other words, this has been going on for some time. After that final exam debacle (I still got a high B, I think) I started using a wake-up call service -- 213-976-WAKE -- every time I felt like I couldn't afford to sleep that extra half-hour. This cost me $2 per call, but was totally effective, because when the phone rang, I pretty much leaped out of bed and was fully awake. Anyway, once I started the 3 a.m. shift, the combined forces of a nagging girlfriend, an incredulous co-worker, and an empty wallet prevailed upon me to simply purchase an alarm clock that would successfully wake me up. So now I have one that has an actual bell and sounds like a goddamn fire alarm in my apartment when it goes off. It cost ten bucks at Target and has already paid for itself.

Of course, I don't oversleep any more, but I still can't fall asleep when I need to. To quote Ice-T: "Is this a nightmare? Or the American Dream?"

9/19/2004

Welcome, Strangers

Hmm, people I don't know seem to be ending up here somehow. Well, uh, welcome. Stop by any time. If reading turgid and turbid essays on subjects like car accidents, area codes, and Google algorithms is how you want to fill your afternoons, then I guess you are in the right place. Just try not to spill any beer on the sofa while you're here; I just had it cleaned.

9/16/2004

There is no one by that name here

One of the biggest problems with the way people think is that they tend to generalize. (Even that last statement is an oversimplification.) More specifically, humans are very good at assuming that their personal experience somehow reflects the aggregate, which there is no good reason to believe. The opposite of this is when something that is actually rather mundane happens to us, like having our flight delayed a few hours, and we think it is so extraordinary that we compose 1,200-word essays about it, describing in hushed tones what it was like to sit in the same place for an entire morning, as if no one in this city of 4 million had ever had such an experience.

I think the urge to believe that events that have a big impact on us (i.e., losing one's car, falling in love, getting arrested) are unique, even when they are not, is related to the impulse that tells us everyone else experiences many of the same things in the same way that we do, even when they do not. Both are simplifications of our individual experiences and places in the world that stem from our inherent isolation as human beings. It is therefore ironic, when you think about it, to realize that the shared yet contradictory notions that "I am unique" and "I am just like you" are, in reality, symptoms of our collective inability to come to terms with the fact that we are, in the end, unutterably alone in a cold, indifferent universe. Which brings me to the topic of wrong numbers.

That is, people who call you on the phone and turn out to have been seeking someone else. I have noticed that I get more wrong-number calls here in the 323 area code, where I have lived for three years, than I did during the five years I lived in 310 -- which was still more than I remember receiving back in 714 (before it was halved and we became 949). Since there is no obvious reason why I personally should be getting wrong-number calls -- for example, if my phone number were one digit removed from Pizza Hut's -- I naturally assumed that my experience is shared by everyone; or, at least, everyone in my area code. For some reason, we 323 residents get more wrong-number calls.

This may be an assertion that I have no evidence to support, and pretty much made up to explain my own situation, but let's not dwell on that for now. The important question is, why does this happen? My hypothesis, and I like to think this makes sense, is that 323 is a particularly crowded area code, meaning that there are more people dialing numbers in my area; and since the average number of incorrectly dialed numbers is probably rather constant, more people means more wrong numbers, which means more people ringing my phone and expecting to find someone else on the line.

Of course, my blog has rigorous fact-checking standards, so I went in search of documentation that would support my theory. Let me just say that for anyone interested in the administration of telephone area codes, there is a wealth of exciting information available for your perusal on the Internet, as long as you have the time and inclination to search for it. I know I do, and, as a result, you can now share in the bounty. However, if you would prefer that I cut to the chase ... come to think of it, if you would prefer that I cut to the chase, perhaps it is high time you realized that this blog is not for you. I mean, come on. Haven't you noticed in these posts that the chase is never cut to, that it is usually buried beneath pages of flotsam that not even a Jeopardy! writer could appreciate? Get with it, man.

Anyway, I did discover that my area code is by no means the most crowded. According to the North American Numbering Plan Administration (a government service contracted out to Lockheed Martin), 323 is not projected to be "exhausted" until 2010. Compare that to area codes like Mississippi's 601, or Illinois' 630 and 815, which will exhaust some time next year. (Of course, area code 671 in Guam is not predicted to exhaust until the year 2295, so there's still time to change your number to get those coveted digits.) This is a tricky and by no means exact calculation, though. An area code is considered to be exhausted when all possible three-digit prefixes have been assigned to telephone service providers, such as the company that handles local service (here, SBC) or cell phone providers. That doesn't mean there are no numbers left; it simply means that when Sprint PCS uses all the 252-XXXX numbers, and tries to get more numbers, there won't be any new prefixes for them to get. Understand that each prefix represents 10,000 different possible phone numbers: everything from 252-0000 to 252-9999. In my area code, there are more than 100 prefixes that have not been assigned, meaning there are at least a million 323 phone numbers just waiting to be given out to teenaged cell phone users.

Since nearly everyone in Los Angeles who wants a cell phone has one by now, the area code bigwigs aren't predicting that much more demand for new numbers in 323. That's why we theoretically won't be exhausted for another six years. Across town in 310, it's a different story. That code is predicted for exhaustion in 2004. Also, last year, it was predicted to exhaust in 2003. There are more than 100 available prefixes left in 323, but in 310, there are just seven.

(I find the phenomenon of unassigned phone numbers intriguing. For example, there are no numbers in the 310 area code that begin with 986. They just haven't been assigned. If you dial 310-986 and then any four digits, you get the "this number is not in service" message. And yes, I have tried this. These numbers are kind of like ghosts of people who haven't been born yet. I feel like it should be a closely guarded secret which phone numbers are unassigned. We shouldn't be able to know what they are, just like we shouldn't find out that our children have already decided how to spend the money we bequeath to them. But there it is.)

In theory, something should have happened to 310 a long time ago. Actually, it was already split in January 1997, which is why Long Beach is now 562. But flash foward a single year later, when every man, woman, child, dog, cat, and tropical fish in the remaining 310 decided to get a cell phone or two, and you've got problems again. The area code was declared to be in "jeopardy," and "relief" was planned, in the form of the 424 overlay code. All would have been well, had people like then-Assemblyman Wally Knox and Rep. Jane Harman not gotten involved.

At the time, Knox represented a large swath of 310, and he started getting a lot of calls from people who didn't want to dial extra numbers all the time. The new area code was planed to be an overlay, meaning the geographic area would not be split, and only new numbers would be given the 424 code. All old numbers would have stayed the same. The rub is that because there would be one geographic area with two area codes, every time you made a call from there, you would be required to dial the area code -- so if you were calling your friend across the street to come over and help finish off the keg, even if you both had 310 numbers, you'd still have to dial the area code. Those of us in 310 actually had to do this for six months in 1999. Oh, the horror. How did we ever survive? Thankfully, Wally Knox and others stepped in to help end the nightmare. (Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky supported a meaningless county resolution to this effect, as well -- but, being Zev, and being smart, he was actually able to articulate some good reasons why the overlay should not take effect: thousands of security devices, like your home burglar alarm, or elevator emergency phones, use pre-programmed numbers to call for help, and the amount of required reprogramming would have been massive and probably overlooked.)

Anyway, the plan for the 424 overlay was abandoned, but the fact that 310 was going to fill up did not disappear. Unfortunately, the FCC made the dumb decision of recommending an area code split instead. Enter Jane Harman. Harman, you will recall, had her ass whupped in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary after Al Checchi ran commercials featuring a clip of her at a Republican gathering some few years prior, in which she declared herself to be the best Republican in the Democratic party. Of course, she went at Checchi just as hard, and they both ended up losing to a charismatic golden boy by the name of Gray Davis. Regardless, Harman also represented a lot of 310, and she was on the receiving end of a bunch of phone calls from cranky elderly people who complained that if the area codes in their neighborhoods were changed, it would be impossible for them to use the phone. I am not exaggerating. The possible situation noted was: let's say there's an old woman who doesn't know her doctor's phone number has changed, and she tries to call, and can't get through. Panic. There were also a lot of business owners who complained about changing their stationery and business cards, which I suppose is a legitimate complaint.

All this, apparently, was too complicated for Jane Harman's constituents. To her detriment, Harman began lobbying against the area code split with the argument that people are too stupid to dial four extra digits. One imagines it would be quite a feat to flagrantly insult the intelligence of the very people whose support you are attempting to woo, and still win their support, but one need only look at, say, every election ever to disprove that notion. Anyway, 424 was slated to become the state's 26th area code (more than Canada) back in 1999, but the intrepid congresswoman from Torrance put the kibosh on such wild and freewheeling ways through repeated press conferences and appearances at meetings of the state Public Utilities Commission.

Some people might suggest that the PUC's time would have been better spent looking into how California's energy system was ripe to be gamed for $15 billion by a bunch of Texas-based swindlers, rather than making sure Grandma is not inconvenienced by having to push four extra buttons when she calls the editor of the Daily Breeze to complain about Dear Abby's descent into moral degeneracy. But it turns out that the PUC's actions really did bring about at least a small measure of reform in the way phone numbers are assigned. (Of course, that's still rather inconsequential, but at least it gives me something to write about.)

What happened as a result of the PUC's actions is that new prefixes in 310, and in most of California's crowded area codes, are now rationed. This includes the beloved 323, as well as 408, 415, 510, 619, 626, 650, 714, 760, 805, 818, 916, 925, 949, and even a few area codes where no one I know lives. In area codes where there is no rationing -- i.e., the rest of the country -- a phone service provider can simply request blocks of phone numbers and be granted them. I'll bet Verizon could ask for 500,000 numbers in Virginia's 434 area code, and they'd get them just like that. In most California area codes, there is a complicated lottery system to determine which providers get the next available bunches of numbers, and when they can do so, since only so many can be given out every month or so. Also, the commission created new rules about whether a service provider can obtain new numbers if they already have a bunch on hand. The problem in 310 was never that everyone ran out and bought a cell phone. The problem was that providers like Verizon (known back then as Airtouch) and AT&T Wireless started picking up phone numbers a half million at a time and hoarding them so they'd have them on hand when new customers walked through the door.

You can see how that created the appearance of a shortage. In response, the PUC created a rule saying service providers could only request new blocks of numbers if they had used up 75 percent of the numbers they already had. Additionally, the commissioners decided that if a service provider has held unused numbers for more than six months, their rights to those numbers vanish, and those particular numbers return to the pool to be distributed again at some other time. These steps prevented 310 from imploding and, more importantly, won Jane Harman about 60 votes.

However, 424 was merely delayed, not killed. The rationing and other strictures only forestalled the inevitable in 310, and that new code is coming. The current plan calls for a split, although people (like Harman) are pushing a technology-specific overlay, meaning new cell phones get 424 and new land-lines stay 310. But the chance of a traditional overlay is still there. A reporter friend who covers the South Bay told me that if Kerry is elected, Harman will angle for a position in the administration, at which point there would be no more obstacles to instituting a new area code. (A vote for Kerry is a vote for 424.) As for the elderly, they'll just have to deal -- people in more than 30 other areas in the United States have already had overlays imposed on them, and I haven't heard about any mass die-offs.

The question is whether changing the way numbers are distributed was a good thing. The dissenting PUC member complained that imposing all these restrictions on allocating phone numbers is bad for business, but I have a better complaint. Before all this rationing nonsense, phone service providers snatched up millions of phone numbers that were going unused and would never be used. At that point, the number administrators declared an area code to be too crowded, and either split it or created an overlay. The thing is, the area code was never truly crowded to begin with. Thousands of those phone numbers owned by the phone companies were not being used -- they created a cushion, of sorts, for the system. Now, however, thanks to the rationing system, service providers can no longer provide that cushion, because they aren't allowed access to those phone numbers unless they can prove they've already used the ones they have. Think about the consequences of that. Not only does it mean, yes, more wrong numbers, since they are cramming more people into an area code than before, but it also means there are fewer numbers to go around. You might remember that Seinfeld episode where Elaine has to get a new number, and is stuck with a 917 area code, which negatively impacts her ability to give her number to attractive men. So, when she hears a neighbor with a 212 number has died, she calls the phone company to get that newly available number.

It's funny because it alludes to the housing situation in New York City, where the only way to get a decent apartment for cheap is to find out a previous tenant has moved, or died. You don't have to believe in a Blade Runner-style dystopic future to see that this is where we're headed. Housing crunch is one thing, but what happens when we run out of phone numbers? It's very easy to imagine phone companies charging a premium for a more desirable area code. Once 310 is declared "closed," which it will be, you can bet that cell phone companies that have 310 numbers left over will advertise that fact. Plenty of people would pay an extra $20 a month for a cell phone with a 310 area code, rather than 424 or, God forbid, 818.

Imagine a subway car -- we'll call it 310 -- that is crammed full of people. It's packed. Standing-room only. The conductor comes along and says, "Well, folks, we'd like to put some of you over in car number 424, but the rules say we can't go over there until this one is really full. So we're going to pack a few more people in here. Just go ahead and sit on each other's laps, and take a deep breath, so we can fit more of you in." Now imagine you're on this subway car. You are obviously not pleased with the situation. You can see the other subway car sitting empty a few feet away on the tracks, and you wonder why this is somehow better than just opening up the other car. You see an elderly woman with a walker on this car, and you figure that even though she might be old and weak, she could probably manage to walk the extra ten feet to the other car. But you don't say anything, because you don't want to be the person who makes an old lady do any extra work.

I think you all understand the allegory. People are resistant to change, even when that change would do them good. This is one of the few things I feel comfortable generalizing about. It's also the reason why I regularly find messages on my answering machine that are in Spanish, and get calls for people named Tyrone or Jennifer.

9/13/2004

More Whining

On Sept. 4 I made the mistake of attempting to fly from Los Angeles to San Jose. I am quite familiar with LAX, after more than two years in a long-distance relationship, and that familiarity, coupled with a desire to save money during this brief period of unemployment, led me to opt for the public transportation method of getting to and from the airport. This method, which was described in a previous post about my feeble attempts to rent a car while mine was being repaired, has the distinct advantage of costing $6 round-trip, as opposed to the roughly $22 it would cost to park in the cheapest of the airport's long-term parking lots for three days, not to mention the cost of gasoline for me to drive to the airport and back. The drawback is it takes longer to ride the light-rail system to the airport -- but, considering the necessity to wait for a slow-moving shuttle from the long-term lot into the central terminal area, the public-transit method only takes about a half-hour more. Plus, you can read on the train.

However, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were pointed toward the airport that day, and I was caught in the crossfire. Upon exiting the Metro Green Line with the intention of riding the free shuttle to the terminals, myself and a couple dozen airport employees were told by the shuttle driver that the airport had been closed down and at least one terminal evacuated. If this worries you, allow me to note that such incidents are monthly events at LAX. Not only is the airport on a perpetually "high level of alertness," but because it handles so much traffic, the odds of LAX playing host to some jackass who decides to jump the security line or leave their bag unattended in the bathroom are rather high. Of course, not all such alerts are bogus: On July 4, 2002, I flew out of LAX a scant three hours before a crazed Egyptian taxi driver walked up to the El Al Airlines ticket counter with two guns and a large knife on his person and started pumping bullets into employees and travelers. (He died moments later, when two security guards and another man jumped him. The gunman pulled out his knife, but if you know anything about El Al, you know they take their security very seriously, and the moral of this story is that an El Al security guard will kill you even while you are stabbing him.)

So, even though I knew there was little to no chance that anything serious had happened at the airport, I can understand their desire to keep things under control. I took out my phone, alerted the media to the situation, and sat down on the edge of a nearby planter to read my book and wait this thing out.

Two hours went by, and the only change was the number of people waiting to ride the shuttle to the airport had grown from 20 to about 180. I should note that by now I had confirmed what had previously been only a sneaking suspicion: that the Metro Green Line is essentially a taxpayer-subsidized park-and-ride service for airport employees. Of the 180 people who rode the Green Line to the airport that morning, about 140 were either baggage screeners or maintenance personnel. No one else would want to ride the thing to the airport, since, to the MTA's everlasting shame, it doesn't actually go to the airport. This is thanks to the idiot mayor of Redondo Beach, who, while serving on the MTA board in the 1990s, prevailed in his nefarious scheme to have the Green Line run west from Norwalk toward LAX and then, a mile from the fourth-busiest airport in the world, dodge south and carry its passengers into Redondo Beach, an overpriced coastal community with little to recommend it other than a few miles of beach and a crummy facsimile of Balboa Island grafted onto its pier. (At least the seafood is fried to perfection.)

Anyway, we already know that no one rides light rail around here. The point is that nothing had changed by 10:30, and no one where I was had any information. So I called Southwest again, to see what they could tell me. The helpful Dallas-based customer service rep told me her computer said the airport had reopened, so which flight would I like to reschedule myself for? Good question, since the word about reopening hadn't quite made it to the shuttle driver yet. I booked a seat on the 12:30 flight and tried to sit tight.

This proved pointless. I knew the airport had been reopened, and this was largely confirmed by two sheriff's deputies, whom I overheard telling another would-be traveler that the threat had been "cleared" -- and that a press conference was scheduled for 11:30. Yes, that is absurd, but few absurdities succeed in raising my gall these days. (Regular readers of this blog may find that hard to believe, but I stand by my unproven assertion.)

What, then, was going on? The people at LAX are very good about doing some things, but not very good about others. Shutting down the entire airport for hours after a threat has been detected is one of the things they are very good at. Communicating amongst themselves is not. (I could delve into a long discussion about what I have witnessed covering the airport as a reporter in the three years since the terrorist attacks, or you can just take my word for it.) Thus, it's not out of the question that the airport could still be locked down despite the threat being cleared. Or that the order had gone out to restart operations, but that some people hadn't gotten the message yet. Or both.

Either way, there wasn't much I could do. The airport was 2.3 miles away, and I wasn't going to walk that, in 80-degree heat, with my luggage hanging off my shoulder. I wouldn't have to wait long for the shuttle driver to be notified she could start bringing people into the airport. Right?

Yeah, right. I told myself to just wait things out, which meant I sat down and read my book some more. By the time I looked up again, it was 11:15, and we'd gone nowhere. For twenty minutes, I wandered restlessly, listening to the shuttle driver tell people she couldn't leave until she got the OK. Finally, I decided enough was enough, and took off down the road on foot.

This turned out to be the best decision I'd made all day. As soon as I hit the street, it became apparent that even if the shuttle left the station right now, I would still make it to my terminal faster on foot. Traffic was backed up for miles, and I was easily making better time than anyone in a car. I also realized, as I trundled past other LAX shuttles that only occasionally jerked a foot or two in the direction of their destination, that I would never have made it on the first two shuttles to leave the Green Line station, because other travelers had spent the last two hours sitting inside those buses so they could be first in line when allowed back into the airport. And since there are only two shuttles between the airport and the light rail station, that would have meant I'd have to wait for them to return, a trip that takes 20 minutes when there's no traffic. That day, it would have been an hour.

So, I walked, more than two miles, in the sun, carrying my luggage, to the airport. When I finally got inside, the line at the Southwest counter was moving quickly, but not quickly enough for me to get onto the 12:30 flight I had re-booked, and I had to re-book again. By taking matters into my own hands, I'd gotten to the airport at least an hour before I would have otherwise, but because I sat around the previous hour like a cow waiting to be slaughtered, I missed the earlier flight. I guess it's best to know when to cut and run.

There are two dumb codas to this particular misadventure. For those of you who don't know, the evacuation of the terminals was caused by an explosion: corroding batteries in a flashlight somewhere caused it to blow up, which naturally sent everyone into a tizzy. That was cleared up pretty quickly, but then some jackass jumped the security barrier, and the whole place had to be searched, which took another couple of hours. This is humanity.

The worst part, however, was after I returned, on a flight that landed me at LAX around 11:45 p.m. As I exited the terminal, I saw the shuttle to the Green Line station, and ran to get on it. I then caught the Green Line and arrived at the Blue Line transfer about five after twelve, at which point a helpful cab driver told me that the Blue Line does not run north to Los Angeles after midnight. I didn't believe him, which means I spent another 20 minutes sitting around doing nothing, until a southbound train passed by and the driver announced to me and a half-dozen other stranded travelers that there were no more northbound trains. So that cheap alternative to driving to the airport ended up costing me $50 for two Metro day passes and a taxi ride from South L.A. back into Hollywood. Sucks.

9/07/2004

Snap, Crackle and Pop vs. the Keebler Elves

So, here's another abomination I'd like to take a few minutes to complain about. Apparently, this is the kind of thing that is important to us in this society: while thousands of people are being slaughtered on the basis of their ethnicity in another country, we ponder which advertising gimmick is superior to all others. In America, life is so good that we can blow it on pointless crap like this.

It is not surprising that USA Today is behind this particular waste of time; the paper is the biggest contributor to the dumbing down of America since presidential debates were first televised. I laughed when "The Simpsons" parodied USA Today, portraying it with a top story headlined "America's favorite pencil: No. 2 is No. 1!" Then I laughed again, when on the DVD commentary, Matt Groening observed that the cheesy drawing the Korean animators had created for the show was actually better looking than most graphics in that paper. Then, I remembered that we're talking about the nation's most popular newspaper, and I cried.

But back to the point here, which is cartoon characters who convince us to buy their products. Maybe I was wrong to get upset when I saw this ad appear next to a story about genocide, thanks to the good people at Yahoo! News. Perhaps what seemed at first to be insensitive (or, at the very least, the unfortunate result of an automated Internet ad-placement system) is actually a serendipitous event. After all, there is value to mindless entertainment, and that value increases in inverse proportion to how bad the real world is. We all want to be distracted from our crummy lives. That's the reason I go to the movies, not because I have any sort of affinity for Owen Wilson or Meryl Streep. And it's well-documented that there was an increase in pregnancies following the 9/11 attacks, which I think is a similar attempt to avoid thinking about bad news. So it makes sense that after I read about refugees and other depressing things that I would want to do something mind-numbingly silly, like weigh in on whether the Energizer bunny is better than the Aflac duck.

In fact, now that I think about it, this little contest doesn't go far enough. What we need is a Corporate Logo Smackdown game for PlayStation or Xbox. Voting for your favorite animated spokesperson is one thing, but wouldn't you rather pit Grimace against the Jolly Green Giant in a battle to the death? Or resurrect Joe Camel so he can duke it out with Tony the Tiger? The Budweiser chameleons could deliver ringside commentary. Questions that have haunted humanity through the ages could finally be answered, like whether Idaho's lame potato spokesman Spuddy Buddy is tougher than a California Raisin. (I think we all know the answer to that.)

In a perfect world, this game would already exist, as would the Bud Bowl football game for Nintendo that I dreamed up back in junior high. Of course, this is not a perfect world, meaning that not only do people continue to be killed because of the color of their skin, but that we can never have this video game. Pillsbury has way too much invested in its lump of anthropomorphic clay to let him be thrown to the mat by the red M&M. Let's face it, the guy spends all his time making refrigerated cookie dough out of questionable ingredients and nagging Mom to bake it for the kids. He's clearly not a fighter. As explained in this great article, the Doughboy is "a helper, teacher and friend," which I don't think includes kicking ass.

See, the companies that own these icons have huge, EIR-sized binders containing the guidelines on what the characters can and cannot do, which really makes you wonder about where our priorities are as a culture. Mr. Peanut, for example, is not married -- "He's a cosmopolitan guy," a spokesman says. "He's busy." And imagine the problem faced by the ad creatives who were charged with the recent animated redesign of Colonel Sanders. They had to figure out "exactly how an elderly gentleman in planter's whites is supposed to retain his master-of-Tara dignity while slam-dunking a flaming basketball." (The article I reference, from Salon, is quite fascinating. Even if you never click on one of my links, you should click on that one.)

I guess it makes sense that these company mascots are as well-guarded as they are. Ronald McDonald doesn't remain one of the world's best-managed corporate mascots just by luck. There are probably a few great semiotics essays just waiting to be written about this phenomenon, as well as corporate-sponsored grade school study guides. (What does Chester the Cheetah mean to me?) Regardless, the upshot is that I will never get to watch the Snuggles bear body slam the Kool-Aid man. Which is really just a shame.

9/02/2004

The Trouble with Google

Let me start this off by saying that I am a huge fan of Google. If Internet things were ranked on ease of use and utility, Google would be atop the list, with pretenders to the throne far below. There are other tools that are more useful than Google, but many of them are not as readily accessible, meaning that using them can be a chore. Google is so simple, and so powerful, it boggles the mind. As a working journalist, not a day goes by that I didn't use it. (Unemployment is another story.)

However, I come not to praise Google, but to bury it. There is a major logistical flaw with the search engine that threatens to destroy it. You may already know about this, so sorry if I'm boring you.

What has made Google so reliable for so long is its ability to not only search a few billion websites in a fraction of a second, but to return meaningful results. After all, you don't just want a list of 50,000 websites containing the words Bush and Terrible; you want the ones that are most relevant. Google's ability to parse out the best results and put them at the top of the list is what makes it invaluable.

How does it do that? Among other things, what makes Google unique is that its rank is based not only on things like how many hits a particular page gets (i.e., CNN's story on Hussein's capture will rank higher than the one in the Tahoe Daily Tribune) but also on how many other websites link to that particular site, and what for. For example, every county health department in the country has a link on its website that says for more info on West Nile Virus, click here, and the link takes you to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's page on west nile. So because so many hundreds of websites link to that page with regard to the phrase "west nile," if you type "west nile" into Google, the top result is the CDC page.

This is a useful system in that it takes advantage of the Web's collective knowledge. But the Web's collective knowledge can be manipulated. Let's say you own a trendy apparel company called Abercrombie Jones, and you're sick of those bastards at A&F always using your name. You create a bunch of websites that use the word "Abercrombie" to link to your company's home page, and before you know it, anyone searching on Google with the term "Abercrombie" will get your site instead of that other one.

Seems unlikely, you say? Difficult, true, to steal A&F's spot atop the result list for that particular search. But this practice is not uncommon, and even has a cute Internet nickname: Google bombing. It was started in 2001 by some guy who got a few dozen people to link to his friend's website with the words "talentless hack," so when you typed that into Google, his friend's site came up. (Some friend.)

Anyway, this is all well and good, but who cares? The good people at Google, who might not be as suddenly wealthy as they would have liked to have become a few weeks ago, are still at work, and they make an effort to keep this whole bombing thing under control. However, people still try. Consider this blog that I discovered today. People, you have to click the clicky to understand what I'm talking about. OK, you're back? Quite something, that blog. It's just a huge collection of the same phrases repeated over and over again, with links to the home page of what is obviously its parent company. So, it's an attempted Google bombing. Is it working? Not yet: I searched Google on some of those phrases and the site didn't pop up in the top ten.

But people, heed my call. The problem with Google is not that it can be bombed like this. Search engines will always be manipulable. Remember when people would write the same words over and over at the bottom of their website in invisible text, to get themselves higher results on Yahoo!? That blog is an obvious ploy along the same lines. But here's the thing: that blog, and a million other blogs, are all showing up on Google. And that is the problem.

You have to take yourself back to the early days of commercial Internet usage to remember what I'm talking about when I mention "personal home pages." Remember those? Where people would post photos of their dog, and a shout-out to their homies, and some inspirational quote from Robert Frost or something, just for the sake of feeling like they were somebody? Remember those wacky backgrounds, the fun with fonts, the links to other insipid personal home pages? Anyone here an alumni of geocities.com? Yes, the days when the WWW was an amusing novelty are largely gone, and, thankfully, forgotten. However, the advent of blogs threatens to take us back to that horrid time.

In those days, it wasn't unusual for Yahoo!, then the dominant search engine, to return your search request with a bunch of personal home pages. You'd search for something seemingly straightforward, like "saxophone transcriptions," and you would get as your top result some junior high kid's home page, complete with pictures of him biting down on a crummy Yamaha mouthpiece. All this would be courtesy of the fact that he put the word "saxophone" on his page, in invisible text, about 10,000 times.

Nowadays, it's some moron's blog that is jamming the system. I can't tell you the number of times I've been searching for something and gotten a list of results clogged with blogs. This even happens when I search with my own name. (Be glad now that I have not mentioned any of you by name.) Consider this week, when I was looking for info on any recent statements by a certain state assemblyman on the situation in western Sudan, which bears all the hallmarks of a genocide in action. So, I turned to trusty Google. I type in "Mervyn Dymally" and Sudan, and what do I get? A few sites that are useful, of course, and a bunch of right-wing blogs where Dymally was blasted for something he said a month ago on an unrelated issue. These blogs also apparently contained the word "Sudan" in an unrelated context.

The problem is that most blogs (unlike this one) typically include links to all the blogger's friends' blogs, and vice versa. So with a few links between themselves, a handful of blogs suddenly rank a lot higher on Google than they should. Additionally, Google gives high ranking to websites that are updated frequently. They started doing this to get sites like cnn.com to rank higher, so we could have more up-to-date information, but by a sick twist of fate, this particular innovation has doomed us all to drown in a veritable tidal wave of asinine blog posts. No disrespect to my friend who updates her blog four times a day, but that's the kind of thing that kills the Internet's best tool.

So, to recap: blogs are ruining Google by a) making it easier to rig search results, and b) clogging those results with stupid blog entries. The solution? Well, destroying all blogs isn't in the cards. After all, I like my blog, and it likes me. Plus, I'm sure the ACLU or someone would get pissed about that. While I'd probably prefer to simply kick blogs out of Google, the better idea is to create a separate portion of Google just for blogs. So you could keep blogs out of your search results, or search only in blogs. There were some rumblings that a plan like this was in the works when Google purchased Blogger (which is the parent company to my blog's server or whatever), but so far, nothing has come of it. Something must be done, though, before someone takes it upon themselves to do something drastic, like unleashing a blog virus (it could happen) or hacking Typepad's system and deleting every blog there is.

Some people have argued that blogs keep Google healthy, by keeping its search results up-to-date and keeping Google users who are also bloggers happy. (I guess because they're happy to see blogs getting some respect.) I find this position ludicrous. My answer to these people is if kicking blogs out of Google would destroy it, than I'm afraid we have to destroy Google in order to save it.