Milk! But it Worked!

A friend of mine is studying in Italy, where (you’ll be shocked to learn) there are some cultural differences.

She just told me the story of the day she was running late to class, so she brought a modest breakfast along with her — a croissant and a small glass of milk.  This earned  her some strange stares during the lecture, and afterward a classmate approached her:

Classmate:  What were you drinking during class?

Her: Uhh… milk…

Classmate: (horrified)  Straight?!

On really rough days I take mine on the rocks with a twist.

This reminds me of my favorite scene in the musical Bye Bye Birdie, which we once performed in high school.  Young Hugo Peabody tries repeatedly to get a drink at Maude’s Roadside Retreat (where I portrayed Maude) but gets kicked out every time.  Later, he staggers out of the same bar completely drunk.  His mother is shocked:

Mrs. Macafee: Hugo Peabody, what have you been drinking?

Hugo:  Milk!  But it worked!

(For the record, I heard this story the day after seeing Sophie, who drinks over a liter of milk every day.  That just makes it funnier.)

Death Over Taxes

This is my favorite instruction (so far) for this year’s Form 1040 “U.S. Individual Income Tax Return” (regarding Line 33, found on page 30 of the instruction booklet):

If you were age 70½ or older at the end of 2008, you cannot deduct any contributions made to your traditional IRA for 2008 or treat them as nondeductible contributions.

First of all, didn’t most of us stop counting half-ages at around five or six?  Only our government still distinguishes between age 70 and 70½.

Disregarding that, this instruction tells the 70½-year-olds they simultaneously cannot deduct IRA contributions and cannot treat them as nondeductible.  They can’t deduct them, but they can’t say they’re “not deductible.”

Yeah… this will just be our little secret, okay?  We both know you can’t deduct this money, but if anybody asks you just tell them you could have deducted it, but chose not to.

Paraphrasing Galaxy Quest, “Didn’t you guys ever read the booklet?”

Cash Cab

I switched on the television briefly this morning and discovered a game show called Cash Cab on the Discovery Channel.

Someone hails an ordinary-looking cab in Manhattan (branded with the Taxi and Limousine Commission markings), announces their destination, and then unexpectedly becomes a contestant.  They win money (starting at $50) for each correct answer to a trivia question.  After three wrong answers, they’re kicked out of the cab wherever they happen to be.

Although I groaned upon seeing the name, the premise is surprisingly appealing upon further consideration, if for no reason other than that cab rides are not otherwise particularly exciting.  It also adds some interesting arbitrary influences into the game that traditional game shows don’t have.

For example, the length of a round depends mostly on where the passengers asked to go — which they did before they knew they were on a game show.  It’s then influenced by traffic density, traffic control, and other road conditions.  For example, when stuck at a red light, contestants might be given a “red light challenge.”

The screening process to find “worthy” contestants (done on most shows) is also eliminated.  Whoever happens to hail the cab is a candidate.  Certainly the producers only pick interesting rounds to air on the show, but that means a lot of people are playing (and even, perhaps, winning) whom we do not see.

On the other hand, having now watched one episode of the show I have no intention of trying to watch any more.  This sounds like an interesting game to play in a taxi, but not a particularly interesting show to watch on television.

More Convenient than Sliced Bread

Walking down the streets of Montpelier this afternoon, with Sophie carrying an umbrella (a device she loves to use even when there’s no realistic chance of rain, much less actual rain), we sloshed through some puddles of melted snow and mud.

At one point, Sophie tripped and fell, planting her hands in a particularly messy patch of mud.  Unhurt but messy, she ran to me with horror in her eyes and showed me her hands.

Ben: Ooh, yuck!  I bet Mommy has a tissue you can use to clean up.

Sophie: No!  I wanna use your pants!

I guess I can’t complain too much when I’ve been known to do the same thing.

Slippery When Wet

Sophie was very excited to go ice skating today. She first mentioned it weeks ago with high excitement and made me promise we’d go skating during our Christmas visit.

A few days later she realized she didn’t own any skates and called, greatly upset, to make me promise we’d get her some from the “store.”

This remained a major topic of conversation through this morning, when we got out to Cairns Arena in Burlington.  We rented skates, got everybody laced up, and headed to the ice.  Sophie walked with us, balancing somewhat precariously on her blades, and eagerly stepped out onto the rink, holding our hands.  Immediately, she spun around in horror and announced:

It’s slippery!

We insisted she try it anyway (despite the unexpected slipperiness), holding the wall tightly, and holding our hands, but she burst into tears, and skated with us only grudgingly.

After a while she discovered (by chance) that falling wasn’t fatal, and so made her primary purpose on the ice to fall.  Until she fell a bit too hard, and thereafter refused to set foot on the ice again, instead watching us from the sidelines.

Her summary of the event, recounted to anybody who asks anything about skating is simply:

It was slippery!  I fell on my butt.

Winning Numbers

My stocking this Christmas included some scratch-off lottery tickets.  Of course, I asked Sophie to help me scratch them off.

Each time she uncovered a number with the edge of her penny she gleefully announced what number she found.  Being three years old and being thus unable to read, she declared most of them were “eight.” I took the chance to point out the numbers’ correct names.

“That’s a five!” I’d say, after scratching off one of the “winning numbers” spaces.  When she later uncovered a second five under “your numbers,” I was able to say, “That’s another five, just like this one here.  See?  Five… five!”

Attentive readers will at this point suspect that uncovering such matching numbers would indicate a winning ticket.  I, at the time, didn’t even notice.  The only point of having two identical numbers was to show Sophie what they looked like.  Immediately after saying, “it’s just like this other five up here,” I announced to the other adults, “aww, no matches; this one’s a loser.”

They had to correct me.  And then review all the other tickets we’d done.

(It only won $2, but I could as easily have been discarding a $2,000 game in favor of a reading lesson.)

On Germs and Kleenex

Last Monday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Scarlett Johansson appeared with a cold she got from Samuel Jackson (who was in Star Wars with Natalie Portman, who will be in New York, I Love You with Kevin Bacon).

Jay Leno suggested she supply some of the valuable germs to a Kleenex in the usual manner and auction it on eBay.  She agreed, offering the proceeds to USA Harvest (“moving food from people who have too much, to those who have much too little”).

Ms. Johansson: How much do you think I’m gonna get for this?

Mr. Leno: More than ten dollars.

The auction closed last late last night, earning $5,300.

Scarlett Johansson's eBay Kleenex

Scarlett Johansson's eBay Kleenex

I’m somewhat discouraged to see that Charity Navigator doesn’t even list USA Harvest, but if we as a people will only be motivated to feed the hungry when a celebrity auctions a Kleenex for a charity with no rating, then we should stil give all we can.

You Probably Think This Song is About You

I seem to have an over-developed sense of entitlement.

I ordered pizza tonight, and I noticed it was larger than expected the moment the delivery man pulled it from his delivery bag.  The following thoughts went through my mind in precisely this order (in rapid succession):

  1. This pizza is larger than my usual order.
  2. I hope I didn’t somehow order the wrong size by mistake!
  3. I’m certain I paid the right amount, so I must have ordered the right size.
  4. Therefore: they must be having a special!  Yay!
  5. Wait, that means I have way more pizza than I expected.
  6. I guess I’ll just have more leftovers.
  7. Uh oh.  I won’t be able to eat leftover pizza over Christmas.  Now what am I supposed to do with it?
  8. I wish they’d told me they were having a special in advance!
  9. I guess before I finish shutting the door I should check that this was really supposed to be mine.
  10. Nope.  This is addressed to somebody on the next block.

In particular, let me draw your attention to the fact that “they must be having a special” came in at number four, while “I bet this isn’t mine” ranked as low as number nine.

(My pizza was still in his car, and for the record was the best pizza I’ve ever gotten from this restaurant.)

Art and Cartography

In the era of Google Maps, every business should embed a map to its establishment directly on its website.  It’s easy for any competent web developer to do and it’s free.  Not having such a map is embarrassing.

Antiquated "Museum of Science" Map

Antiquated "Museum of Science" Map

Of course, we can sympathize with businesses who simply don’t have the resources to update their websites.  Good web developers are not in infinite supply (and aren’t cheap), so the temptation to “leave well enough alone” is understandable.

The Museum of Science still uses what I call a “hand-edited” map to highlight its location.  Shown at left, it highlights some basic streets and key points of interest, but shows only the features its creator deemed important.

Hand-edited maps give a tolerable overview of a location.  Someone familiar with Boston can glance at this and understand where the Museum is.  However, someone new to the area will likely want more information.  Where is it in relation to the hotel?  What other T stops are in the area?  Is this on the way to the airport?  Are there restaurants nearby?

Large institutions can reasonably answer these questions with an “all singing, all dancing” map.  Boston University Maps incorporates thousands of hours of human effort to catalog campus geography and area attractions, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority shows the location of every bus stop on every route in the city. These are excellent websites, and we should have more like them, but we also can’t expect the Museum of Science to single-handedly offer such a tool to its visitors.

Stephanies on Newbury

Stephanie's on Newbury

Fortunately, a “plain vanilla” Google Map is virtually effortless to install and offers all the context a visitor really needs.  Suppose I’m interested in dining at Stephanie’s on Newbury — a nice restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.  Their directions page offers just such a map.  Building a page like this requires precisely six lines of particularly simple JavaScript, which the creator can copy directly from Google’s own examples (and just change the location).

This gives roughly the same level of detail as the Museum of Science does at first glance, but then any visitor can use the controls to pan and zoom, customizing the view.  I can see immediately that the restaurant is in the Back Bay, and then zoom in to pinpoint its address on Newbury street.  Someone only passingly familiar with the Back Bay might pan from side to side to find other nearby landmarks, then estimate how far the restaurant is from each.

For no added cost, Stephanie’s has provided an excellent geographical tool for its potential customers.

Magic Beans Map

Magic Beans

Many sites prefer to customize the “plain vanilla,” adding their own design elements.  Magic Beans, a toy store in Brookline uses their own “bean” logo instead of Google’s pin, for example.  This improves the site’s overall design while keeping all the functionality.  The map still pans; the map still zooms.

Some sites — particularly those faced with extremely limited budgets or extremely inexperienced developers — take an acceptable shortcut by linking directly to Google Maps (without embedding a map in their site).  Espresso Royale, a chain of coffee shops, offers such a link for each of their locations. Visitors again get the benefits of an interactive map, and site maintainers do slightly less work.  We’ll still call that a win.

All these sites, faced with their own unique challenges, have done a good job.  A site that hasn’t had time to update a page is not embarrassing.  A site that’s updated to include a Google Map certainly isn’t embarrassing; it’s desirable.  What’s embarrassing is a site that specifically updates its map page but still avoids making it interactive.

Moogy’s (a Brighton restaurant), Buttercup Bakeshop (a Manhattan cupcake shop), and the Center for the Performing Arts in Natick each opened Google Maps, took a screenshot, and embedded that on the page.  Doing this takes longer than embedding a map properly, and offers a vastly inferior visitor experience.  Those unfamiliar with the area are again confined to seeing only the landmarks the site designer hand-picked.

Artsy Google Map

Artsy Google Map

Some sites, staggeringly, go a step farther and give their screenshot an artsy treatment.  The Bowery Poetry Club is one example, embedding a soft, faded copy of a Google Map in the lower right corner of the page.

There’s also a great cupcake place in Davis Square that took a snapshot and then cropped it in an irregular shape.  This particular site even has its own custom “popups” on the map for the restaurant and the Davis T stop.

Design is important on a website, but let’s not get carried away.  That puts form before function.  The map design won’t likely win over any customers, and it might drive away a few who can’t figure out where the business really is.

Put a stop to the madness.  Put a map on every site, and make it a fully functional interactive version.  It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s immeasurably useful to those planning even the simplest of outings.

(For the record, I’ll happily offer an hour of my time — gratis — to any of the sites mentioned that wants a proper Google Map.)