Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pay It Forward: Free Coffee Edition

In case you haven't heard yet, there's a heartwarming tale of a chain of "pay it forward" customers as a Florida Starbucks late last week.

In summary, in case you don't know (or don't even know what "pay it forward" means): Paying it forward generally means doing a kind favor to someone else for no reason other than kindness; ideally, if someone has done an act of kindness to you, you do the same to a different person. Often, this is done by paying for the person's meal behind you at a place like, say, Starbucks. There are plenty of other ways of doing so, but this is the easiest and most common.*

As such, last week there was a 450+ chain of customers, all of whom "paid it forward." For over two days, anyone going to that particular line got their order paid for, and then they in turn paid for the next person in line--a long, unbroken succession of kindness and charity.  It was finally and abruptly stopped when one customer went there with the deliberate act of stopping this chain, refusing to pay for the next person's order.

Most of the stories you'll read about this incident, like the one I linked above, are focusing on the man who broke the chain--referring to him (indirectly, of course, because this is an unbiased news source) as a Grinch and a curmudgeon. And--horror of horrors--a crank.

The thing is--he's not wrong.

The entire point of the concept of "paying it forward" is to do a kind thing for someone else. Sure, maybe some day in the future it will come back to you, but maybe not. Getting rewarded is not the point or the main reason one should be doing this in the first place--it should simply be an inherent kindness, a reflection of one's good character.

Participating in one of these chains, of course, eliminates the entire point of the thing. If 1) you are socially pressured to pay it forward, rather than doing it from your own sense of kindness (supposedly, the Starbucks baristas were proactively asking people if they wanted to "pay it forward", and 2) you know you're going to be immediately rewarded, it's not an act of kindness or charity at all. Every single person who showed up at that Starbucks last week knew that their drink was going to be paid for, even if they did then pay for someone else's drink. That's not how it is supposed to work. Everyone involved paid for their order, and got their order paid for, roughly making a net gain or loss of not very much. It's a completely empty gesture that accomplishes nothing except free advertising for Starbucks and a feeling of self-satisfaction by the participants. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the one thing it's not is kindness.

So, you say, what's the harm in participating in such things? While there's nothing directly wrong with it, empty acts like this crowd out actual, necessary acts of charity and kindness. How many people went to sleep that night feeling good about themselves, even though they did absolutely nothing of value? Did they feel as if they did their "good deed" for the day and didn't do anything else? Maybe, maybe not, but there's a good chance that at least some of the people in that line didn't do something else because they figured they had done their due diligence for the day.


I'm passionate about many things, but I'm also reasonably open-minded about most stuff. But one thing I can't stand is the empty gesture. A lot of people do a lot of meaningless things in this world, then use said things as "proof" that they are good and kind people. That's not how it should work--your actions should speak for themselves. There's also nothing wrong with doing things to make yourself feel better--everyone needs a self-esteem boost now and then, so long as it doesn't become your dominant personality trait. But if you're doing such things, do something meaningful and worthwhile. Sure, go ahead and dump ice on your head, but make sure you can still sign the check afterwards.

The Pledge: We're not living in a better world because you did something that made you feel good about yourself. This world is already full of empty gestures and meaningless actions all in the name of self-gratification. Don't just be kind; do something meaningfully kind.


*Of course, the biggest "pay it forward" charity decision of all time is calling this a "good movie."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Back In The Classroom: Some Helpful Tips

It's almost time for school to start--and for some ridiculous reason, has already started for some districts--and that means there are millions of students entering a new grade, encountering new experiences, and making it possible to go shopping during the midday without feeling like a scene out of World War Z.

It's an exciting time for a lot of reasons, but with the new experiences comes a lot of trepidation--whether it be in grade school, a high school class, or a college course. So here are some helpful hints to help you navigate your way through your educational journey!
  • Just like prison, you need to establish your reputation immediately. In your very first class, find a cafeteria tray and pound the instructor in the face repeatedly, then urinate on their prone body. Teabagging optional but preferred. After that, no one will mess with you.
  • Get all your supplies ready! You need the basics like notebooks, folders, and pencils, but also things like the phone number for the family lawyer and name-brand Ritalin.
  • Cell phone management is a must! Since you often can't use phones in class, you'll have to find new and inventive ways to secretly play with SnapChat or message that cute girl during class, which are both much more important than learning about the agricultural revolution. The best way to do so is to repeatedly and deliberately get caught looking at your crotch in frustration or adoration without your cell phone, creating enough false alarms that no one will bother you after a while and you can text to your heart's content.
  • Make sure you eat right. Build up a tolerance of sugars and saturated fats by eating garbage all year long, so when the end of the year rolls around and all the procrastinated projects are due, your body won't feel so horrible when you start eating Zingers by the boxful and drinking Code Red Mountain Dew to pull an all-nighter.
  • Make friends! It's easy to get caught up in academics, but not only is socialization part of the educational process, you need to establish a good friendship with someone who is willing to take notes when you inevitably skip class after a wicked hangover at a party that you deliberately failed to invite them to so they could take notes for you.
  • Establish a rapport with your teacher. For grade school kids, the traditional apple always works; for high school, talking casually about the football team or solving the world's problems; and in college it's hooking the professor up with a good and reliable dealer that won't narc on them for grades.
  • Don't exclude social activities. Study is important, but so is playing sports, being creative, and doing something to get you out of your parents' house so they can have some damn peace and quiet for once in their lives.
  • Learn good study habits. You can get away with rote memorization in grade school, but once you hit high school you have to use your study skills wisely--time management and selective subject focus being two main ones. Once in college, you must be able to concentrate when your roommate is trying to learn Wonderwall on his shitty acoustic guitar while microwaving a burrito that was sired by (apparently) dead skunks.
  • Double-check your schedule. Nothing is more embarrassing than sitting in Advanced Calculus and thinking you're in Home Economics, fork and knife in hand. (The lack of sinks and the multitude of differential equations on the chalkboard might be your first clue.)
  • If you are in high school, keep up with the latest fashions. You don't want to be That Guy, wearing last year's wardrobe. That's a one-way ticket to becoming a pariah. In elementary school, it doesn't matter because everyone is wearing something that's easy to get juice stains out of, which I primarily assume is a lot of red Teflon. In college, you could literally wear a hollowed-out chest of drawers with a boar's head overcoat and no one would bat an eye.
  • Keep yourself motivated! It can often be difficult to stay positive; education involves a lot of stress, projects, and a constant portent of abject failure. Everyone has different methods to keep their spirits up; some people enjoy posters involving cats hanging from tree branches, or perhaps Ziggy dispensing some sage life advice. Some people like to listen to uplifting music, or perhaps an insightful podcast. Other people like vodka.
  • Always be thinking about your future. For elementary kids, the pressure's off; the only thing you have to plan for your future is to not end up in an assembly immediately after you pissed your pants, which is presumably (but sadly not always) a low bar to aim for. High school kids, on the other hand, should make sure they figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives in between dealing with acne and watching superhero movies. In college, make sure you have internships or contacts lined up so when you graduation, the fight for millions of other people who now have the exact same qualifications as you and are trying to get jobs all at the same time will be slightly more in your favor. Good luck!


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paul Muad'Dib Does Some Charity Work



Edit: I realize that "ice water of life" probably would have been more clever, but I'm assuming that barely anyone is going to get this as is, let alone using a more obscure term.

The Nero Wolfe Project: The SIlent Speaker to The Second Confession

This is the third installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.



This time, we're going to look at The Silent Speaker, Too Many Women, And Be A Villain, Trouble in Triplicate, and The Second Confession

By this point in the series, Stout has everything down to a reasonable formula. Not that the series is formulaic--far from it--but the characters have all established their traits, the reputations of all the major and minor characters are set, and readers more or less know what to expect.

The Silent Speaker: When a representative from the government is killed right before a major speech to a hostile, industrial association, it's up to Wolfe to find out who the murderer is. The search for a missing dictaphone cylinder which likely holds the key evidence starts a race between Wolfe and the police.

An average mystery is made exceptional with the injection of a few points: the "race" to find the evidence is a nice deviation from previous books, the dismissal of Inspector Cramer (and Wolfe's genuinely compassionate opposition to this action) and Wolfe's politics inject some needed amusement, especially after the fact.

Too Many Women: Wolfe and Archie are starting to get on each other's nerves. A large company had one of its employees killed by an accident; but in the course of filing the paperwork, a manager declares it an "unresolved murder" instead Internal strife (and huge egos with lots of money) lead one of the managers to hire Wolfe to get to the bottom of it; as a result, it gives Archie a good opportunity to be "hired" by the company undercover (and away from Wolfe for a while). When the manager who initially approached them is killed in the same manner as the original victim, it's clear that it was murder...and Wolfe tries to see it to the end.

Again, this breaks from the formula in a refreshing way--we, through Archie, get away from the brownstone for a while. Most of the tactics rely on injecting false gossip into the steno pool (the "Too Many Women" of the title) and watching the dominoes play out. (To be fair to Stout, the men are seen as just as much gossips as the women; it's just the concentration of them in the steno pool that enhances it.) It also solidifies Archie's luck with the ladeeeeez...and the tacit acceptance of those skills by Wolfe in pursuit of the investigation.

And Be A Villain: When the guest on a popular radio show is killed on air from drinking the sponsor's product, the hosts, producers, and sponsors of the show approach Wolfe to find out who did it...since the police haven't figured it out and Wolfe can be discreet (and, incidentally, protect the sponsor's name). Just gathering all of the suspects is a trial in and of itself--one, a minor, ran away with her mother to get away from the publicity and required trickery to bring back--but when the attention focuses on the victim himself, things get much more interesting than lousy-flavored soda.

This is the first book in what is known as the "Zeck Trilogy," one of the few multi-book plot lines in the entire series. To be fair, this merely introduces Zeck as a character--a shady criminal overlord who warns Wolfe not to dig too deep. While it's not a major plot point, it's clear that it's set up for future stories. Otherwise, this is a good mystery with a lot of bright, engaging characters.

Trouble In Triplicate:This book has three short stories: Before I Die, Help Wanted, Male and Instead of Evidence.

In Before I Die, a notorious gangster approaches Wolfe with an unusual problem: he has a daughter who doesn't know who he is, and her existence was found out by rival gangsters. So to divert their attention, he hired someone to pretend to be his daughter, who was starting to extort him for the work. Normally Wolfe wouldn't take the case from such a high-profile criminal, but there is a meat shortage and the allure of black-market meat makes him take the case.

In Help Wanted, Male, a client who receives a death threat turns to Wolfe for protection; advising he doesn't really do that sort of work, declines. Of course, he ends up murdered--and since Wolfe had previously done work for him in the past, the investigation involves Wolfe. Wolfe then receives a similar death threat, and undertakes a body double to suss out the murder.

Instead of Evidence: A client, a wealthy novelty manufacturer who believes he is going to be murdered by his partner, comes to Wolfe, pre-paying the investigation into his murder. When he, of course, ends up dead, Wolfe had to take on the case posthumously.

Before I Die is an interesting mystery, but both Help Wanted, Male and Instead of Evidence capitalize off of the formula of the series. Both are hilarious in parts--watching an imposter have to act like Wolfe in character is something to behold, and the novelty-maker who attempts to sway Wolfe with the ridiculous notion of a talking flower ("Orchids to you!") which prompts him to leave his own office in disgust--show humorous writing that loyal readers can truly appreciate.

The Second Confession: A client arrives to hire Wolfe to investigate his daughter's boyfriend, who he suspects is a communist. Archie, clandestinely, spends a weekend at the family estate, only to be immediately identified by a scrapbook-keeping fan ("I was seventeen. I had a crush on you for nearly a month.") After some failed attempts to identify him as a commie, Goodwin has to resort to more violent measures--which ultimately end up seeing Wolfe's car used as a weapon (and the unhappy eye of the local DA). When Wolfe gets a phone call from Zeck telling him to back off the suspect, Wolfe does not comply, and Zeck retaliates through violent means of his own. Still, the resolution ends up not interfering with Zeck's affairs, and is then duly compensated. An awkward alliance with the local communist party, the police force, and

This is one of the best novels yet; even though the secondary story of Zeck is fascinating in and of itself, the main mystery is full of interesting characters, innovative plot points, solid action scenes, and some grand characterization.

Of these five books, none of them are bad--in fact, this is where everything just sort of comes together. We now know all the characters, so when they are out of their comfort zone it's all the more enjoyable. Stout has also improved his humor and writing skills; the mysteries themselves are plotted well, and nearly all of these are at least somewhat believable.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: From Some Buried Caesar to Not Quite Dead Enough

This is the second part of the Nero Wolfe Project, where I review each of the books from this classic mystery series.


The next set of books includes Some Buried Caesar, Over My Dead Body, Where There's A Will, Black Orchids, and Not Quite Dead Enough.

Some Buried Caesar: Archie crashes the roadster on the way to an orchid show...with Wolfe in the back seat. Stopping to get help, they encounter a family who owns a prize bull, of which the owner plans on slaughtering for a barbeque out of spite a marketing ploy for his restaurant. When a fellow is murdered (but covered up as being gored) and then the bull is infected and destroyed before evidence can be cleared, it's up to Wolfe to solve the murder.

This is rightly classified as one of the classics of the Nero Wolfe series. It's a good, solid mystery; it introduces Lily Rowan, a long-running companion to Archie; it has some good humor in it (and Archie's wisecracking is second to Wolfe's reactions to being out of his element) and the dialogue and situations flow fairly well. For those being introduced to the series, this is usually a pretty good entry point: at this point, Stout has got the characterizations right and has honed his abilities, it's an easily relatable story, and it introduces everyone in a natural manner. The only drawback for newcomers is a lack of Inspector Cramer.

Over My Dead Body: When Wolfe's long-lost daughter turns up (don't ask) and she seeks help after being falsely accused of stealing diamonds at the fencing school she frequents, Wolfe gets involved after a Archie ends up with the incriminating weapon of a subsequent murder at the school. In a game of international intrigue (and the use of Wolfe's office as an unwitting dead drop for important documents) Wolfe has to disentangle not only the passions of the accused, but his own background, Cramer's insistence of sticking around the office, and the occasional appearance of an FBI agent.

This is one of the more famous Wolfe novels for one main reason, and that is that, during an interrogation with the FBI agent, Wolfe claims to be born in America. This is in direct conflict with all previous evidence, and seemingly was forgotten for the remainder of the series. In real life, the publisher of the stories, The American Magazine, objected that Nero Wolfe--the master of detection!--wasn't a full-blooded American, and demanded the change. Stout complied, and then completely ignored it. It's been effectively retconned by fans as essentially Wolfe acting impudent to the G-man instead of an honest declaration of facts, which is within Wolfe's characterizations (although not really with the tone of that passage).

Likewise, the fact that it delves into some of Wolfe's background--for which we previously knew very little--is a treat for fans of the series.

Where There's A Will: I screwed up and read Black Orchids first. Oh well.

Wolfe, whose back account is dwindling rapidly, hears a case of a famous family of successful sisters who want a will contested. Reluctantly, he undertakes the job--only to have Cramer announce that it was actually a murder. And when Archie goes out to help Fred Durkin with a job, Wolfe has to rush to the sisters' home to deal with the ensuing chaos. Add in the widow, whose face was terribly mangled in an accident and thus wears a veil, and a (presumed) mistress, who is ending up with the bulk of the estate, sets up a crime scene full of mistaken identities, missed opportunities, and yet another murder.

The evidence Wolfe uses on this mystery is a little bit shaky, and isn't one of the best. Yet it's still a fun book to read; especially poor Fred Durkin who somehow manages to screw up not once, not twice, but three times. It's a solid book but not a great one.

Black Orchids: At this point, Stout was beginning to writer shorter stories, and from this point on there are just as many "collections" as there are full-length novels. This book has Black Orchids, in which a public flower display unwittingly hosts a murder--of which Archie ends up (accidentally) pulling the trigger. Wolfe uncovers a plot to intentionally infect rivals' flowers and other plants with a horticultural disease, and when confronted in Wolfe's plant rooms, attempts to murder everyone with fumigation.

In Cordially Invited To Meet Death, a party planner wants Wolfe to investigate who is sending reputation-destroying letters to people. While Archie investigates, he arrives at a house full of highly trained animals as well as people. When a chimp smashes a tray, the party planner cuts her foot, and applies iodine. Her death a few days later ends up being because the iodine was replaced with a poison. A failed attempt by the murderer to "replicate" the poison (and thus put her above suspicion) fails, and Wolfe catches the murderer.

The short stories operate a little differently than the full-length novels (we'll see the same in the next book). In the novels, it's a spiraling confluence of evidence that eventually gets the murderer to crack; but with the short stories, there's only enough time for one, maybe two pieces of evidence to introduce. While in and of itself it's not a bad thing, they can sometimes feel rushed and implausible, and yet one gets the feeling that fleshing it out to a full story wouldn't add too much to the plot. Still, both of these stories are solid if not groundbreaking, although the fact that Wolfe deliberately causes the suspect to unknowlingly murder himself seems...weird and out of character. (And also probably a crime!)

Not Quite Dead Enough: This book includes Not Quite Dead Enough and Booby Trap. This is unique in that it was the only book set (and written during) World War II, and Archie is actually a Major in the army's counter-intelligence division and not in the employ of Wolfe (although, for all practical purposes, he is.)

Not Quite Dead Enough involves Archie coming back to New York, in Army uniform, to find that Wolfe and Fritz have decided to join the infantry to help out in the war. ("I am going to kill some Germans. I didn't kill enough in 1918.") It's up to Archie--with orders from the Army--to convince Wolfe he's more useful in counter-intelligence than on the front lines. A modest little murder is enough to whet his appetite again, and agrees to help out the Army.

Booby Trap involves some good old-fashioned espionage; letters accusing some commanders of profiting off of the war (at least potentially) sparks an investigation into a death that previous was ruled a suicide. When Archie, who had a prototype grenade in his possession from a previous mission, returns it (Wolfe not wanting it in the house), it becomes the instrument in yet another murder. It's up to Wolfe to find out who did it.

This is probably one of the few misfires of the lot so far. At least for Not Quite Dead Enough, which is a shame, because it has one of the funniest chapters written yet (Archie, coming home to find Wolfe not only eating nothing but non-black-market food, but has actually tried to lose weight and is wearing one of Archie's sweaters). It fails for two main reasons: one, Archie implicates himself in a murder to get Wolfe's attention, which is out-and-out batshit crazy even in the fictional world of Nero Wolfe. Secondly, it re-introduces Lily Rowan, who in the past was presented as a reasonably non-stereotypical (for the time) independent woman, is sadly reduced to hysteria, and the main piece of evidence hinges on her acting like a hormonal mess. It's an uncharacteristic step backwards for the usually culturally progressive Stout.

Booby Trap is better, although the ending (letting the murderer kill himself in a rather gruesome manner) is also a bit odd; the evidence is pretty skimpy to begin with and Wolfe's prodding him into suicide seems almost cruel.

One thing to note so far, after ten books: although one of the main gimmicks of the series is that Wolfe never leaves his house, he leaves an awful lot so far--in fact, I think in only two of the stories he spends the entire time at home.