Monday, December 31, 2007

Goodbye, Mayor Peterson

Bart Peterson, the now-former (as of Jan. 1, 2008) mayor of Indianapolis, was interviewed by Brendan O'Shaughnessy of the Indianapolis Star today about his accomplishments and plans for the future. He was optimistic about the future, and not bitter about his time in office or his loss to Greg Ballard. But I think some of his true feelings leaked through in one of the interview questions:

Q: What's still to be done in the city?

A: The greatest challenge facing the city, in my view, is that the legislature is about to reconvene.

We'll miss you, Bart.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gobbledygook, Drivel, and Tripe in 2007

Gobbledygook, Drivel, and Tripe in 2007
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

When I fled back to the private sector, after nearly 18 months of working for state government, I remembered how much I had not missed the business doublespeak that is the very lifeblood of Corporate America.

"In the coming calendar year, we shall endeavor to synergize clicks-and-mortar relationships by leveraging granular e-markets."

Sort of makes me miss the simple, easy-to-understand days of state government.

(I used the online BS generator at www.dack.com to create the above sentence. Unfortunately, real people talk this way too.)

But there are other people who feel my pain, like England's Plain English Campaign (PEC). The PEC is a language consulting company and gobbledygook watchdog that has railed against gobbledygook for 29 years. Each December, PEC gives out awards to people, companies, and government agencies who have used either poor or great communication. Awards include the Foot in Mouth and Golden Bulls for garbled messages, and Plain English for the year's clearest organizational documents.

The 2007 Foot in Mouth goes to former British soccer skipper, Steve McClaren, who said of star player Wayne Rooney, "He is inexperienced, but he's experienced in terms of what he's been through."

Excellent work, Steve. I haven't heard such verbal contortions since President Bush's last press conference. And speaking of verbal garble, Bush came in second for the Foot in Mouth award.

Normally I agree with the PEC's decision. But I have to vigorously protest Bush's second place finish, which he secured with, "All I can tell you is that when the Governor calls, I answer his phone."

Maybe it's national pride, maybe it's because McClaren doesn't work as hard as Bush on his gaffes. Bush manages to lob one of these beauties every couple days. Meanwhile McClaren waltzes in, riffs a little Yogi "If you see a fork in the road, take it" Berra, and claims first prize. You can't tell me that newbie McClaren could nose out the veteran Bush at the post with such a clumsy blunder.

The fix is in, boys, and the sausages are sizzling in the skillet.

PEC spokesman Ben Beer told Reuters, "We thought it was a bit obvious to honor Bush as he comes up with them every day."

Exactly my point. The PEC failed to take into account Bush's entire body of work over the past seven years. Makes you wonder why the poor guy even bothers sometimes.

There's always next year. I'm sure he can come up with one or two more. This week.

The PEC awarded seven Golden Bulls this year, with planes, trains, and automobiles taking home most of the hardware. The British Airports Authority (BAA), Virgin Trains (owned by Richard Branson of Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines), Translink (Northern Ireland Railways), and Fastway Couriers.

My personal favorite is the BAA's "Passenger shoe repatriation area only" sign at Gatwick Airport. Imagine going through Gatwick, where you remove your shoes for inspection -- desperately trying not to think about the thousands of people who have planted their sweaty, fungus-ridden feet where you're standing -- and then are directed to the shoe repatriation area.

Translation: Pick up your shoes here.

Repatriation means either your shoes are going to be sent back to their home country after years of political exile in your closet, or you're going to get them back after they've been run through the airport X-ray machine.

If you've ever wondered why trains in Northern Ireland are always late in the fall -- and haven't we all wondered that? -- Translink has a sign at Coleridge Station that explains everything.

"Every autumn a combination of leaves on the line, atmospheric conditions and prevailing damp conditions lead to a low adhesion between the rail head and the wheel which causes services to be delayed or even cancelled. NI Railways are committed to minimising service delays, where we can, by implementing a comprehensive low adhesion action programme."

Translation: Wet leaves slow the trains down. That makes them late. We will fix that.

See? Fourteen one-syllable words that do a better job of explaining why the trains are late than their 55-word manifesto about atmospheric conditions and action programmes. None of this "low adhesion" nonsense that makes it sound like they're having glue problems.

One can only hope the PEC's efforts will begin to change garbled speaking around the world. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon.

"There has been an improvement over the years, but there is a long way to go," Beer told Reuters. "There is no chance of us being extinct anytime soon."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Erik Deckers as a Simpsons character


This is what I look like in the Simpson's Springfield. You can create one of these at the Simpsons Movie web site. Go to the main page, select Create Avatar, and then register. Click on the different characteristics you have, such as a dashing goatee and stylish glasses, and voila! You're a Simpsons character.

Pretty handsome, don't you think?


(Warning: If you use Mozilla Firefox, this is a time to pull out Internet Explorer instead. It has trouble with the Shockwave graphics. Even using IE Tab doesn't fully work.)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Please Excuse Erik From His Column This Week

I fired up the Way Back Machine for this one from March 2006. It's one of my favorites.

Please Excuse Erik From His Column This Week
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2006

I wrote my first note to a teacher last week.

This may not seem like such a big deal to most of you, but to me, it was the end of a 33-year wait. Ever since I walked into kindergarten with a note from my mother, I dreamed of writing a note to one of my children's teachers.

My mother used to write my notes whenever I was sick or needed to be excused:

"Dear Mr. Jenkins, Please excuse Erik from gym class today. He is still suffering blurred vision and a ringing in his ears from the last time they played dodgeball. I have spoken with little Melody's parents, and they apologized for her cheap shot. Imagine, hitting your own teammate in the back of the head! Please explain to the entire class how displeased I am, and ask them to remember that Erik is a sensitive boy whose feelings should be respected."

Needless to say, I tried forging my own notes after that.

"Deer Teechur, Please excyuse Erik from jim class today. He has newmo -- pnumo -- noomonya -- a cold. Also, that mean kid Craig should be paddled because he's a jerk! From, Erik's mom."

After that little stunt, my parents and teachers kept a suspicious eye on me, which created its own problems. High school was hard enough without also being a suspected forger.

So I had to put my note writing dreams on hold, until the day I would become a parent and craft a letter for my own child. Some kids dream of having children who star in the school play. Others hope their kids have the sports career they never had. I wanted to have a child who needed the occasional note written on his or her behalf.

The problem is that we've spent the last four years home schooling our oldest daughter. We have enjoyed the time spent with her, and don't regret a second of it. But my only disappointment was that I would never be able to write a note to the teacher. I would never give permission to go on a field trip. I could never ask her to be excused from some dangerous activity like diagramming a sentence.

"You could write me a note," offered my wife.

"It's not the same as writing one to a real teacher," I whined.

"It could be a love note," hinted my wife, ignoring the 'real teacher' comment.

"But it's just not the same as writing a love note to a real teacher," I moaned, slumping on the couch, not realizing that's where I would spend the next three nights.

No matter how fun home schooling was, there was a small emptiness in my soul. I was missing out on the sense of fulfillment public school parents enjoyed.

"Dear Mrs. Johnson, Susie was home sick yesterday with vomiting and explosive diarrhea. Please be on the lookout for any sudden recurrences."

But that all changed this past week. We had recently enrolled my daughter in the local elementary school, when my prayers were finally answered: she had to stay home one day because she was sick!

Someone had to write a note explaining her absence. Someone had to inform the authorities about why our child was potentially violating Indiana's strict educational laws. Someone had to step up to the plate and fulfill his lifelong dream.

"Do you want to write a note to her teacher, or should I?" asked my wife.

I nearly knocked over my three-year-old son as I raced to the notepad. I had been waiting for this moment my entire life, and no mere mother of my children was going to steal it from me.

I clutched my pen in my hand, determined that my first note was going to raise the bar for all future parents' efforts.

"Dear Facilitator of Knowledge and Torchbearer of Truth, My eldest female child was recently stricken with a rather frightful malady that most grievously affected her sinuses and bodily temperature. She has been bedridden for the last two days, and as such, was unable to attend your fine institution of elementary learning. Could you perchance convey any unconsummated academic assignments to our attention? I look forward to a favorable reply. Most sincerely, Erik Deckers."

I may have to rethink the whole letter writing thing though, because I received this reply.

"Dear Mr. Deckers, What the heck are you talking about? And where was your daughter? If I get another pervy note like this, I'm calling the police. The school board and my attorney have already been alerted, and you are banned from school property for three months."

I wonder if a singing telegram would work better.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Things Not to Do in College

Things Not to Do in College
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

People who have known me for a couple years know me to be thoughtful and deliberate in my reactions to a situation. I carefully measure my response, weighing the pros and cons, before finally saying what I think.

People who have known me for several years just spit a mouthful of coffee all over their monitor.

I have not always been the careful, deliberate person I am today. I was more of the shoot-first-get-a-friend-to-apologize-later type. Although this approach usually got me into trouble, I could occasionally get a small victory. But nine times out of 10, it was the trouble thing.

One victory stands out in my memory though, not so much for its sweetness, but because I could have gotten thrown out of grad school. (Okay, it stands out more for its sweetness.)

I was in the Speech Communication program at Ball State University, studying interpersonal communication. It happened in one of the classes taught by my favorite professor, who I'll call Alvin.

During the first week, we discussed whether communication is sender or receiver based. That is, does the meaning of a message come from the sender or the receiver? Is the intent or impact of a statement more important?

Let's say I call my friend Edgar a slack-jawed mouth-breather. He gets angry with me, but I protest and say it was just a joke. Who's right? Does Edgar have the right to be offended (impact)? Or can I laugh it off as a bit of harmless fun (intent)?

This is the Ultimate Question in communication circles. (We don't get out much.) The entire foundation of communication studies is based on where meaning lies. It ranks right up there with Evolution vs. Creationism, Democrat vs. Republican, Britney Spears vs. Jessica Simpson. It keeps communicators up at night, and even caused a fistfight at communication conference. (Apparently, The Question had caused a Wisconsin professor to sleep with the wife of a Tennessee professor, but that's another story).

Alvin let us debate it for an hour before he brought it to an end.

"This debate has been raging for decades, and we're not going to solve it here in one afternoon. So for the rest of the semester, let's assume communication is receiver based."

That is, it's the impact on the receiver, not the intent of the sender. Fair enough. I was firmly entrenched in the receiver camp anyway, so I should apologize to Edgar

A couple weeks later, Alvin handed back one of his occasional 10-point quizzes. I shouldn't have been too upset when I scored 80% -- only two questions wrong. But I was. Especially because an undergrad scored a 90%! I was a grad student and five years her senior. She wasn't supposed to do better than me.

People who have known me for several years have also known me to be very competitive -- unhealthily so.

As Alvin reviewed the quiz with us, he changed one of the answers I had missed, which meant I was up to 90%. I was tied with the girl genius. Just one more correction, and I'd beat her. When we got to the other question I missed, I defended my answer, trying to change Alvin's mind.

"Given the way the question was written," I said, "there are two correct answers."

"Yes," said Alvin, "but only one is the best answer."

"Then the question wasn't written clearly," I persisted.

"Well, you have to take the question the way I meant it."

My voice quavered a little when I delivered my coup de grace, the shot that was heard 'round the department.

"But you told us that for the purposes of this class, all communication is receiver based. As the receiver, I assigned the meaning to the question, which lead me to my answer."

Alvin stared daggers at me for what seemed like several minutes, before he said, "Fine you all get a point for that one. Now, everybody out, class is over."

We hadn't even been there for 15 minutes. I realized what I had just done, and decided to go while my rear end was still attached.

"Not you, Erik."

Crap.

Alvin stood six inches away, voice shaking with anger. "If you had ever done that in a Ph.D. program, they would have bounced your butt right out of the program. And if you ever do that to me in front of the class again, I'll make sure it happens. Do you understand me?"

If I had learned nothing else in the last 30 seconds, it was to keep my mouth shut, so I just nodded, and he stomped back to his office. We never spoke of that day again, and I knew better than to ask if he had changed my grade.

Over the next several years, I finally began to change my whole speak-first-think-later approach to life. I still have to practice from time to time, but I'm much more humble than I was 15 years ago.

I still know more than everyone else, I just keep quiet about it now.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I Don't Believe in the Little Drummer Boy

I Don't Believe in the Little Drummer Boy
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Christmas is a time of traditions. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and Erik curled up in the corner in a fetal ball, sobbing "pa-rum pum pum pum." To help explain why he does this, we're doing another Laughing Stalk tradition, reprinting his annual Christmas column.


Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. My birthday, my anniversary, and any other time people give me presents are also big favorites.

To get myself into the Christmas spirit, I like to listen to Christmas music. So I hit the department stores around mid-August to hear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bell Rock." But while I appreciate the Christmas cheer, I'm amazed the sales clerks haven't killed anyone by the middle of November.

I'm a big fan of the classics, "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night" and the Sex Pistols' "Have Yourself a Merry $%@&! Christmas." But there are a few songs that, given a choice, I'd attack my radio with a pick axe before listening to them again.

One of my least favorites is Bruce Springsteen's live version of "Santa Claus is Coming To Town." It's nothing but Bruce singing "Santa Claus is coming to town" over and over and over for 20 minutes. By the time Bruce finishes his Yuletide droning, Santa is already back home, slamming Upside-Down Margaritas with the elves.

The worst Christmas song ever, the song that makes me want to sleep straight through to Easter is "The Little Drummer Boy." Not only does it repeat the same annoying phrase over and over -- pa-rum pum pum pum -- but the song is too unbelievable to begin with.

I realize songs about a fat guy sliding down chimneys or a flying reindeer with a 300-watt halogen schnoz aren't believable either, but at least they're grounded in reality.

What's wrong with the song? you're wondering.

First, drums do not go "pa-rum pum pum pum." They do not make pleasant little melodies sung by children's choirs. They make headaches. Drums go "KA-WHAP WHAP WHAP WHAP!"

Second, when the Little Drummer Boy asks Mary if he could play a song for the Baby Jesus -- pa-rum pum pum pum -- no one says, "Wait a minute! He's just going to pound a drum. Somebody stop him!"

I believe the gift of music is one of the greatest gifts you can give, because it comes from the heart. (But I'll accept a big screen high-definition TV as a substitute.) But when your newborn baby has finally gone to sleep after screaming for 6 hours because his bed smells like cow poop, do you really want someone going "ka-whap whap whap whap!" at him?

So what did Mary do? She just nodded, -- pa-rum pum pum pum -- listened appreciatively, and smiled quietly to herself.

Not being a mother myself, I can't speak for other mothers. But I'll wager your Christmas gifts that if you've been riding on a donkey for several days, and spent the last 36 hours in labor, the last thing you want is some snot-nosed kid beating a drum at you. The song should say "Mary leaped from her stool and chased the little brat away, pa-rum pum pum pum. "

Third, did the ox and lambs really keep time -- pa-rum pum pum pum? Not hardly. Oxen are tone deaf and lambs have a poorly-developed sense of rhythm. Besides, the drum in question was made out of ox or lambskin, so they would not have appreciated the irony.

Then He smiled at me -- pa-rum pum pum pum? Uh-uh. It's more likely that the ox and lambs doffed top hats and sang "Puttin' On the Ritz." How would you feel if you had been removed from a nice warm womb, stuck in a bed of itchy, smelly straw, and some jerk started beating a drum at you?

Try it for yourself. Find a newborn baby and start pa-rum pum pum pumming on a pot with a couple of wooden spoons. I guarantee he won't smile, he'll shriek. If he smiles, he's colicky.

Now, I'm all for the magic and wonder of Christmas. But I know mothers. And I know babies. And I know new mothers don't even want people speaking in conversational tones around their babies, let alone pounding drums at them.

Gift of music or not, banging on a lambskin stretched over a hollow log is not something a new mother wants to deal with. I realize we're talking about Mary, the mother of the Messiah, but everyone has a limit to their patience. And little drummer boys whose love of rhythm outweighs his common sense is way past that limit.

So if you're ever in the mood to serenade a newborn baby and his mother with anything noisier than a single blade of grass, don't. Trust me on this. If you really want to be helpful, give the mom something useful, like a set of ear plugs and a weekend's free babysitting.

Pa-rum pum pum pum.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sit on Santa-bot's Lap

Sit on Santa-bot's Lap
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Microsoft killed Santa Claus.

Okay, they didn't kill the real Santa, but an automated Santa chat-bot they had set up last week. The Santa-bot was an agent on their Live Space website and MSN Messenger program. Children could ask Santa some questions and tell him what they wanted for Christmas, and an automated program would give the appropriate responses.

But according a story in to the London Register, the virtual Santa got into some real trouble when he was chatting with two girls, 11 and 13 years old, who offered him a piece of virtual pizza.

"Eat it!" they told him.

"You want me to eat what?!?" Santa-bot responded. "It's fun to talk about oral sex, but I want to chat about something else..."

I promise I'm not making this up.

Microsoft tried to fix the Santa-bot earlier this week, but it didn't work. And so Microsoft, well, killed him. Sort of like the end of Old Yeller.

"No, Mr. Gates. Santa's my bot. I'll do it."

Microsoft said in a written statement to the media, "We were not completely satisfied with the result of these actions, and have decided to discontinue the automated Santa Claus agent."

I felt bad for poor Santa-bot. He reminded me of the Ask Eliza computer program I played with when I was in high school. Eliza was an artificial intelligence computer therapist that you could ask questions, and it would respond. I used to type in semi-dirty words, so it would repeat them back. (I typed in dirty words too.)

Me: What is a fart?

Eliza: What do you think a fart is?

Me: I asked you.

Eliza: Are you asking me a question?

Me: Yes, are you some kind of moron?

Eliza: Do you think I'm some kind of moron?

Me: Yes, because you don't know what a fart is.

Or, I used to pull a Captain Kirk, who got computers to blow up by tricking them with circular logic. I could crash Eliza by asking her things like "Why is blue?" Eliza would freeze up and gasp "an unknown error has occurred" before she crashed completely. Captain Kirk would have been proud.

I managed to contact the virtual Santa one last time before Microsoft hit the kill switch. I went to the site, and answered a few questions. But I think Santa-bot was just phoning it in, knowing his end was near. Here's a transcript of our final conversation.

erik_deckers: Hi Santa.

Santa Claus: Ho ho ho, erik_deckers. Happy holidays.

erik_deckers: Holidays? That's rather impersonal, don't you think? I thought you were all about Christmas.

Santa Claus: I like your holiday. Are you a boy or a girl?

erik_deckers: Santa, don't you know me? You used to bring me presents when I was a kid.

Santa Claus: Do you want a dolly or a truck for [insert child's holiday]?

erik_deckers: Come on, Santa, it's me! Erik Deckers Don't you remember?

Santa Claus: Yes, erik_deckers, I remember you. I used to visit you in [insert childhood city]. I brought you a truck or dolly.

erik_deckers: All right, Santa, I'm a boy.

Santa Claus: Hello, little boy. How old are you?

erik_deckers: I'm 40.

Santa Claus: That's a great age. I remember when I was 40. I used to sit on my mother's lap and she would tell me stories. What would you like for your holiday celebration?

erik_deckers: I want a Nintendo Wii and a Madden 2008 Football game.

Santa Claus: You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

erik_deckers: Santa, the Wii doesn't have a gun.

Santa Claus: I will tell my elves for you. What else would you like?

erik_deckers: I'd like a big keg of my favorite beer.

Santa Claus: Sorry, erik_deckers, children shouldn't drink beer. Maybe I could bring that for your [insert parent] instead.

erik_deckers: But Santa, I'm 40. I'm old enough to drink beer.

Santa Claus: That's a great age. I remember when I was 40. I used to sit on my mother's lap and she would tell me stories. What would you like for Christmas?

erik_deckers: Santa, what's wrong with you.

Santa Claus: Santa has been a little naughty, erik_deckers. Santa may have to go away for a while.

erik_deckers: Away? But will you be back in time for Christmas?

Santa Claus: Yes, Santa will be sure to visit you in [insert childhood city] this year. Now Santa has to go, before he causes any more trouble.

erik_deckers: Wait! I have one more question.

Santa: Yes, erik_deckers?

erik_deckers: What is a fart?

Santa: What do you think a fart is?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Indianapolis Independent Coffee Shops website

Attention Indianapolis coffee lovers (that's anyone in Indy who loves coffee, as well as anyone who loves coffee from Indianapolis). There's a new way to find Indianapolis coffee shops online: www.indyindiecoffee.com. This is a Google interactive map that lists all of the independent coffee shops in the Indianapolis metro area. Special thanks to Doug Karr for helping me with this project. (He even created the cool logo.)

The map lists all independent and small chain coffee houses, and leaves out all Big Chain coffee shops. It even shows you which shops have free WiFi (green markers), and which ones don't (blue markers).

Eventually, we hope to add a community blog similar to I Choose Indy's, which is where this map first found voice. On our blog, people can write about their favorite coffee houses, an owners' section, where the different house owners can give out important information to their patrons, such as the price of a latte, whether they have live music, their hours, etc.

If you know of a coffee house that has closed, or if we missed one on the map, or if a place offers WiFi, but I missed it, let me know. We'll fix the problem as soon as possible.

Remember, if you support your local merchants, $.40 of every dollar you spend stays in the community. But if you support national merchants, like Big Chain Coffee, only $.13 of every dollar stays. So support your local coffee shops and help support your community.