Friday, July 27, 2012

Free will

I feel like I am choosing my socio-economic position in life based upon what I feel I deserve as a person.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Power in Numbers

"Put the car in neutral and turn your engine off," I said to my friend Crappy (Person made me change the name). "You can coast for 3/4 of a mile here."
 "What?" She said, asking me to repeat myself: she is profoundly deaf in her right ear.
 "If you turn your engine off and put the car in neutral you can coast for almost a mile." I made sure that said it loudly enough so that she could hear me over James Mercer's Lyrics. Caring is Creepy was playing from her iPhone.
 "What?" She said, this time flabbergasted by what she had heard. "Why would I do that?"
 "Better gas milage, less carbon emissions, saving you money, cutting our dependence on foreign oil, using potential energy to your advantage, being smart. Um I think I can think of a few more reasons to do it." She obviously still did not trust me, and her foot was still on the accelerator. "Just put the car in neutral and watch. You don't have to turn the engine off."
 She did what I asked her to do, but still looked pretty skeptical.
"See how we aren't slowing down?" She nodded. "Now look at your RPM's. We are at less than 1000 going 65 in a Jeep. That usually takes you more than 2500 right?"'
"I don't know, I don't normally pay attention to that." She replied, sounding frustrated. 
 "Well you should, It will save you a little money."
 "I don't need a lecture, Aaron."
"Well can you at least see what I mean? Think if your engine had been off, zero gas usage for the next 3/4 of a mile. That's infinite mpg's!"
"I get it." She reached down for the iPhone to change the song and subject. 

It's probably unfair to say that turning your engine off while driving provides infinite gas milage, because any speed lost while coasting must be regained by reaccelerating and engine start up uses the same amount of gas as idling for 7 seconds, but driving this way definitely results in better gas milage. It's part of a driving technique called hyper miling, and for me, it has turned driving into a game.

"Oooo see that red light up there?" I said pointing to a light that had just turned red two lights down. "Put it in neutral and coast up from here. The object is to be going the same speed as the car stopped at that light when we catch up to it."
"I see, less breaking?" 
"Exactly, breaking means you wasted energy." 
As we rolled through the next light, we had slowed down from 45 to 35, then to 30 as we approached the stopped car. She hit the breaks, slowed to a near stop, and watched the other car drive off leaving us behind.
"Almost got it, try breaking a little sooner next time. We would have caught up a little later and been right in line with him/her." I explained, trying to sound as encouraging as possible. 
"Saving gas is cool and all,but I didn't invite you out to get driving lessons."Apparently I sounded more condescending than encouraging.  I invited you out for trivia." (It turned out that she invited me out to trivia so that I could answer all of the questions. The two roads that line the National Mall are Independence and Constitution, not magna carta and North Carolina is the closest state to Burmuda, not Florida. Seriously, I make a good trivia partner, invite me out sometime.)
I eased off the criticism the way I wished she would ease off of the accelerator.

     I started hyper miling less than a month ago and I'm getting pretty good at it. On my last tank I got 30 mpg in my 98 Honda Accord, which with it's 6 cylinder engine get's an EPA estimated 23 combined (city/HW) mpg's. I pretty happy with that, but I know I can do better.
    There are a few things that I will be doing over the next few weeks to my car that will help me make this number even higher, also partly so that I can pass inspection. I'm getting new air and oil filters, an oil change, a new EGR valve, some better spark plugs and probably some really high octane fuel to mix in with my next tank to burn some gunk off of my engine. Keeping my car well maintained will be the easiest way to push me close to 40 mpg's on my next tank. This by the way includes keeping my car clean: less weight.

After finishing tenth ar trivia (could have been ninth damnit!) we decided to go across the street for some 25 cent wings at a different bar. As we left the building, Crappy started walking towards her car.
"We're walking"I said, veering my course for the street.
"What? Nooo, I don't wannnaaa." She said in an infantile voice. (Appropriate choice if you ask me.)
"Do you really want to waste gas to get across the street? It's a longer drive than walk." I was nearly at the street, talking to her from across the parking lot. "Having a car hasn't made you forget about your legs has it?" I figured making the situation seem a bit absurd would be the easiest way to convince her to follow me.
"But I have an injury!" She replied, following suit with jest. She was walking towards me pointing to a bandage on her foot.
"Yes your a-topical Straitening iron injury should really keep you from walking. Wait how the hell did you burn your foot with..." I didn't really want to know.

It's really unfortunate how adverse and resistant to change most people are. They enter routines, find a comfortable way of life and sette into it as THE way of life. In my experience, people will remain static even when confronted with new, potentially enlightening information. They learn something that has the potential to change their lives, are forced into in ultimatum, and usually rationalize their way out of the cognitive dissonance they are feeling to continue living their lives as before. This, my friends is stupidity. 
America seems to be the only place on Earth where the environment is a contentious issue. Yes any article about mpg's must eventually revolve around the environment. Gasoline is made of a slurry of hydrocarbons. When these hydrocarbons combust they produce C02 ad a few other green house gases. Green house gases hold more heat in the atmosphere than regulare gases. These are scientific facts. We know this. And even still people in America have not changed their behaviors to counter act global warming.
Sure there are more hybrids on the road, but how many people maximize the potential MPG's of their vehicles? They may have swapped their suburban for something with a battery (kind of like my Hess trucks as a kid) but their driving habits and routines have remained the same. Nothing elicits more cynical laughter from me than a Prius going 80 mph passing me on I-40. Congrats on defeating the purpose douche bag. 

   The bar ended up being out of 25 cent wings by the time we got there. The place was desserted at 9:30 and I know the servers still working were happy that the tsunami of people who rushed in to eat had rushed out equally quickly. Every one of those guests (and probably the servers too) probably sped up to at least one red light; made a frustrated move, because the person in front of them was not their style of driver; or just sped home, which got them there no more than 5 minutes sooner.
    Crappy and I decided to indulge in some guilty please: Chicken McNuggets. On the way there I got her to put her car in neutral to coast a couple times, and she correctly read a stoplight, making the best use of her gas. When we were approaching McDonalds, I looked several lights up and saw that the light where we would have to make a left turn at was green, but needed to cycle through again before allowing a left turn, meaning we would have had to stop. I told Crappy to turn left at the immediate light, it did not require a left turn arrow and was green. We drove around some back roads and got into the McDonalds drive through without having to sit at a red light. Forward thinking is key to being efficient.
    When we got there the line was taking forever. We made it through at least a song before getting to the order window and 2 more before we even got to order. I was proud when she turned her engine off while we waited. 
    The experience begged the question though "How much gasoline is used at drive throughs each year?" The average wait time at a drive through is 3 minutes, and getting longer. Businesses including 7-11 and Starbucks and many others are adding drive through options, increasing the number of drive through experiences that Americans will have each year. Each time these people enter a drive through, they are wasting gas because they might save a minute and are too lazy to get out of their cars. It's stupid, park your damned car and go inside.

They say that there is power in numbers. I agree. Although each mili-second by mili-second act of each of person on this planet might seem insignificant when taken alone, but the sum total of the effects of each choice can have profound consequences, like a planet whose atmosphere makes life intolerable. So next time you get in your car, think a little ahead, stop day dreaming, and worry about that MPG number, it's pretty powerful.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Survey the Situation

       "Welcome to Maggiano's, my name is Aaron and I will be taking care of you this evening. Is it anyone's first time at Maggiano's this evening?" I said, greeting the 4 top that was just seated in my section at table 83.
       "Nope," they all replied.
       "Excellent. That will save me some time boring you to death going over the menu. I'll point out our new features though. They just changed two weeks ago, and are all great for the summer. The ingredients are reach--" I looked at my guests as I was speaking and saw that only one of them was paying attention. The others were staring at their menus, probably assuming I was just trying to sell them the most expensive item on the menu.
      "-- It probably wasn't the healthiest choice, but I've had the spiedini four times in the last two weeks." Two of them laughed softly, probably out of courtesy.
      "Do we want any drinks other than just water, say maybe a glass of wine or a cocktail this evening?"
       All of my guests were looking at me at this point. One of the gentlemen grabbed the drink menu and began looking at it and discussing the options with his wife. The other gentleman looked a little peeved that I had referred to his glass of water as "just" water and so decided to uphold his water's honor by "sticking with water." His date got a lemon drop. 
       I walked away from the table to put their orders into the computer, the same way I do now 6 days a week. I'm now through my first month as a server. I'm having a blast.

      "I've got the lemon drop for you ma'am." I reached across the table to put the drink down in front of her. She was at the back left of the table.
      "And is this the correct bottle of wine sir?" I held the bottle of Copala Claret, being sure to cradle the bottle and place two fingers in it's bung.
      "Yessir," The man answered. He was sitting a little distant from his wife, who was now beaming at me with a large genuine smile.
      " Hopefully either her husband doesn't see that look on her face or she is tipping," I thought to myself. I poured the man a taste of the wine, waited for confirmation that it was good and then poured his wife then him a glass. Ladies First.
      "Are you going to be the only one not drinking tonight sir?" I said to the man on my left, who was at that moment sipping his water.
      "Yeah I'm good with water." he replied a little sheepishly.
      "Well I can never knock a fiscally conservative choice." I said quickly, being sure to reply before his friends had a chance to gang up on him, I was pretty sure he is tipping. Always Paint Situations in a positive light.

      In the service industry, I meet people from all walks of life. I've waited on doctors, lawyers and business executives. People come in from the suburbs in suburbans and from the bad parts of Durham. I've seen 20 somethings with no intentions of pursuing higher education sit down next to three very attractive girls who had just finished taking their board certification tests to be physical therapists.

     I walked up to table 82 to give them their check, after having ran their card.
     "Thank you for coming in tonight, it was a pleasure and I'm happy that you all enjoyed everything. Oh, I forgot one thing. On your receipt, there is a code for a survey to take online. I know that look. Surveys are boring, I know, but if you take the survey and sign up for the mailing list we will send you a ten dollar off coupon for the next time you come in. We pay you for you time, so it isn't that bad."
      "Of course we will do that for you. It's the smart thing to do right?" the man who was paying for the meal said.
      "Yessir. Have a great evening guys. The man stood up, thanked me and shook my hand, being sure to call me by my name. The verbal tip. his receipt could not have more than 15% gratuity on it, hopefully not less.
        As I walked away from the table, I hoped that 83 did not hear me. I was sure that they felt the way I do about surveys in a fine dining restaurant: It's oxymoronic. There's nothing worse than getting great service, giving a big tip and then being asked by a robotic waiter to fill out a service about whether or not he or she made you feel special. 
       I guess that's what you get when a large multinational corporation owns a restaurant, or anything. Their goal becomes "Building a billion dollar brand," instead of delivering excellent food. Profit margins become more important than quality. They stuff people into dining rooms so that the people can stuff their faces, so corporate can stuff their wallets.
       As Part of one of our pre-shift meetings last week, we watched a video sent from corporate, which listed off percentages from an employee survey. Apparently I was the only person in the room who thought the whole thing was hilarious and ludicrous
       "employee satisfaction is up 2% over last year, and we've been handlin problems for our team mates 5% better this year." To me that means absolutely nothing. "We're up 16% on people who love their job, this is just fantastic!" Maybe the surveys do do something. More likely it means that because the corporation is so large, I'll never meet the man who is so worried about my employment satisfaction (probably doesn't want me to accept the real truth that I am 100% disposable) and so requires a survey "to get to know me."
       For every corporately owned restaurant, there is one less restaurant run by a small business owner who knows all of his employees by name and many of the customers as well. It's a bit of an absurd evolution of the food industry when owners replaced by tiers of managers.

      I walked back to 83 to drop off their desserts and check. The water guy had decided mid-way through the meal to have a bourbon and coke. The man who ordered the bottle of wine was now holding hands with his wife. Everyone was smiling.
     "I'll let you fight over who get's the check." I said to an almost raucous laughter as I placed the check in the center. The two gentlemen reached for the check, but the woman who had had the lemon drop handed me her card before even looking at the bill.
     "Well played Ma'am," taking the card from her. The name on the card read Lynda Johnson. She had been mostly quiet during the meal. Apparently the other three were long time friends and she was new to Mr. Bourbon and coke's life. Her bold move won her favor at the table.
     "Thank you all for coming in this evening, it was my pleasure. Come back any time and ask for Aaron, I'd be happy to take care of you all again."I said after giving Lynda her check, being sure to call her by her name.
     They each said thank you in some form or fashion, so I started to walk away.
     "What, you aren't going to ask me to take a survey for you?" Lynda said, teasing me. "You think I'm too good for surveys?"
      "Oh, no. I was hoping that you had not heard that." My voice was garnished with laughter.
      "Oh so you think it's funny?" The entire tabe was now quiet. My face became very serious and I began effusively apologizing, she had not yet signed the receipt. My heart was racing, I could not tell if she were kidding or not. Neither could the other three at the table.
       "Gotcha," she said witha  smart smile on her face. Everyone began laughing. She left me $50 on $200.

       My favorite part of serving has to be the conversations that I have with people right before they leave. At this point I forget everything that happened during the meal, am no longer thinking about making a tip, and become myself. Well, unfiltered anyways. Often times tables will aske me about school and my plans after school, and when I tell them my aspirations to enter the medical field in some form or fashion, there is nothing but encouragement. From the dermatologist who took three tries to get into med school, to the 9-5 ladies who never got a BS degree, the motif is that I should go for it. It being whatever my goal, aspiration, or dream is. While my dream may not be to wait tables or to build a billion dollar brand, this job turning out to be a good stop along the road.
       Waiting tables might not be the good life, but it is a good life.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Bright Side of the Moon

When my father passed away, he “left more than a snap shot in the family album” and “just a memory.” Being that he was an avid Pink Floyd fan, I inherited from him a love for Nick Masons smooth rhythms, Richard Wrights groovy synth and piano, David Gilmour’s unparalleled Guitar playing, and especially Roger Waters lyrics. I was 15 when he passed and as such I was 15 when I received my first copy of Dark Side of the Moon. 
From the moment I out the CD in the stereo system that my father had also left behind for me, a set of monstrous polk speakers that still sound better than any Bose sets I have ever heard, I knew that the album was great. Amazing even. I loved the celestial synths that paralleled the astral theme. I cringed as my skin crawled and perked with goose bumps as the vocal solo on “Great Gig in the Sky” was belted from a set of pipes that I used to think belonged to Aretha or Houston. I reveled in the saxophone solos that could have made Bill Clinton put his instrument down for good. I worshipped the ground that Gilmour walked on as his solos took me away and filled me with more energy than I could possibly handle. All of this is still true today, but it was not until a heavy smoking session with some friends while listening to this master piece that I really focused on what was said and put the dots together into something that effected my life.
Dark Side of the Moon was written almost entirely by Roger Waters, which sort of invalidates my angst with his ego. It has some of the most profound and well put themes of any album i have ever listened to. Well I’ll go ahead and give it the superlative it deserves: Dark side of the Moon is the most well written album of all time.
The opening track, Speak to Me/Breath opens with a short segment referencing mental illness, an obvious shout out to Sid Barrett who was forced to leave the band for that reason. I often wonder if “there is someone in my head, but not me”. Evidently Roger Waters thought that Sid Barrett did too, or perhaps all of us.   This is also the theme of Brain Damage (something I narrowly avoided having massive amounts of, by means of botched shallow dives.) I can’t speak for it any better than Water’s words: “If your head explodes with dark foreboding too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.” Absolutely brilliant. I Haven’t quite come up with a satisfactory explanation for what he is using the dark side of the moon, mental insanity being the most obvious. Perhaps to him it also represents the unknown, the other side of life that we aren’t accustomed to. 
Roger Waters spoke of the perpetual work cycle of modern society on several albums throughout his career-- Speak to Me/Breath, Welcome to the Machine-- and chose to end the first track of Dark Side of the Moon with a metaphor of rabbits digging wholes. “When at last [their] work is done,” they “don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one.” Perhaps music was his way of sidestepping the socio-economic process, or avoiding becoming “Another brink in the wall.” Either way he transcended both.
“Time,” is a particularly poignant song for me. I have “Frittered and wasted” so many hours “in off-hand ways” that it nearly makes me sick to my stomach to think about. The songs greater motif is about making the best use of every second of time that we are allotted on this earth. He speaks to some of us particularly with the line: “You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” I will shamefully admit to have missed the starting gun. Through out the 4 years that I have been in college, I have tried my damnedest to avoid being a student, for various reasons supported by weak loops of logic, but all that wasted time has become one of my biggest regrets in my 22 years of life. I suppose I can take solice in the fact that it was only 4 years and not ten. I wont go through every line of the song, but each passing stanza represents a different period of life, from young adulthood until death. It’s genius and my favorite conceit of all time.
Sir Water’s angst with the socio-economic machine appears again on the track “Money,” where he displays where he sees money fitting into society. It isn’t terribly flattering to the greenback, or pound, or peso, or that number in your bank account. The track opens with the sound of jingling coins and opening cash registers, and a phat bass line. That bass line is probably one of the most recognizable of all time. The opening lyrics of this song are spoken from the point of view of someone who is uber-rich and can apparently afford football teams and leer jets, but not rich enough to share a “slice of his pie.” Waters speaks a blatant truth that we all enjoy and need money, but it tends to only bring happiness to those with wheelbarrows full. Perhaps this song is more culturally relevant now than ever, with our economic downturn and growing wealth disparity, movements like Occupy Wall Street might as well make this their theme song. 
War is a common theme throughout Waters Career, specifically his dislike for it. The Wall is rife with references of his fathers death at war, His last album is almost entirely about war (I can’t tell if its a glorification or not) and “Us and Them” speaks directly about the real way wars work. Generals cry “Forward!” from the rear, while soldiers die at the front as pieces on a map. He also touches on war as a part of civilian life. In this setting “It’s a battle of words,” evidently referencing how moral effects the countries ability to work as a war machine. I think the best line of the entire song attempts to encapsulate what war is all about in two words: with or without. No one “can deny its what the fightings all about.” An argument could be made that every war in history has been fought for the acquisition of more resources, so that no one on your side has to go without.
The last song on the album is probably my favorite to analyze. The song is very vague and open ended, so it allows me to have some fun. Here it goes. Waters enumerates many opposing pairs, evidently attempting to list the many facets of life. “All that you save and all that you give” are pretty straight forward, as with most of the pairs in the song. However, the central theme is hidden, because he chooses not to make it as concrete as in “Time” and “Money.” The penultimate and ultimate lines are where everything comes together for me. “And everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” The first line is the end of the list and seeks to generalize to say that everything in the world is ok, and everything in the universe is in order. The last line destroys the hope built by the former. It says that not everything is always under the sun, meaning that not everything under the sun is good and right at all times. I’m cool with that, but the explanation isn’t enough for me. 
To me the image of an eclipse is the most important part of the entire song. I guess that is obvious since “Eclipse” is the song. During an eclipse, it is the only time that the bright side of the sun can appear Dark, garnering the quote that follows: “There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of Fact it’s all dark.” This line might have been intended to be a koan, something to ponder over eternally with no hope of making heads or tails. Our explanations of the song spinning round and round. I have listened to enough Roger Waters to know that every line of every song is profound and intended to push forward a deeper meaning. 
I think he intends to say that both sides of every dichotomy are one in the same. All of the opposing forces and actions listed throughout exist as respective wholes-- depending on which side you looking from. Everything in the universe has unity and seeks equilibrium, if you like chemistry metaphors. What a powerful way to end the album: It’s all about perspective. 
The timeless themes of this album kept it a chart topper for 15 years, a record that has not even come close to being beaten by any band before or since. Every time I listen to this album I learn something know about life, and hear a line in a new way that seems somewhat revolutionary to me. I might be too young to be thinking about this, but this is the first album that I know with 100% percent certainty that I will pass on to my children, preferably before a massive myocardial infarction. It is timeless and I know that I am not the only one intending to pass this on to a third generation of listeners. Well I’m out of gas and have listened to this album 5 times today to write this, so I guess I’ll see you on the bright side of the moon.