Friday, January 19, 2001
GEORGE QUINCY BUSH AND RICKY MARTIN. I'm struggling to think of two figures from history whose joint presence I would find more distasteful.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED to expertise? I could talk about writers and editors who have only a passing acquaintance with the language, but that would be on-topic.

Two more-universal recent experiences leave the idea of expertise fresh in my mind. Earlier this winter my wife and I, having lived with a frigid first floor for five previous winters, decided a natural-gas fireplace might be the answer to our problem. So we chose a company recommended by our local utility and agreed to pay a not-insignificant sum of money to replace the dainty little decorative gas fireplace that came with our renovated 1909 row house with a blower-equipped, fire-belching, form-follows-function model.

First came the problem getting the installer to actually show up. This little dance has become so prosaic that I scarcely recall the details. (Have I mentioned recently that people suck?) But finally somebody did show up, and he installed the requested fireplace. What a revelation. This house is not only long on cracks, short on insulation and lacking a subfloor over the crawl space; it also lost its radiators in the renovation, in favor of forced-air heating and cooling with ducts and vents at ceiling level. If the concept of heat rising never really hit home with you, come on over.

So we're now able to come up with a toasty living room and a bearable den and kitchen, but heat still does rise, and this means that the air whose kiss brings welcome warmth to the downstairs still eventually ends up upstairs. And this, in turn, means the upstairs thermostat doesn't bother turning on the furnace. So (I'll just begin every sentence with "so," if you don't mind) this little fireplace is basically heating the entire house. News flash: The week our fireplace was installed, natural-gas prices hit record highs. We expected a four-figure gas bill, but (fast-forward ahead) we were pleasantly surprised. The gas bill was well under $300, and the electric bill was much lower than usual. Assuming gas prices fall back to earth, we're even more golden. But I digress.

The installer said the smell would eventually dissipate, once all the new-equipment residue or whatever burned off, but the smell stayed and it was never a residue sort of smell -- it was natural gas. I even mumbled something about this to the installer on Day One, but I didn't press it, figuring he had some expertise in this area. After two weeks, we got alarmed, gradually and then suddenly, and we called the utility. The man arrived promptly (this is an area where suckitude appears to have been held at bay, at least for now), and his little Geiger-counter-like wand started beeping wildly as he moved it toward the piping that fed gas to our fireplace. He declared it unfit for use and said we had to call the installer to fix it.

Sure enough, the original installation guy showed up to make the repair. He sniffed around and used some sort of soap-bubble solution to detect the leak, then set about fixing it by violently tightening the pipe joint with pliers. There you go, all set, blah blah blah, he said as he headed for the door and I remained skeptical. I didn't trust the guy all that much, but I was reasonably sure he tightened the thing properly the first time. So he's almost to the door when I put my nose to the pipe and smell the telltale smell.

"Uh . . .," I said.

"Wow, you've got a sharp nose!" he said. Gee, thanks. I guess when you smell like you spend the rest of your life smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, Coneheads-style, in a phone booth in Winston-Salem, N.C., Mr. Installer, your nose might not be all that sharp. Oh, and thanks for the attempted murder.

He took the pipe joint apart, and sure enough there was a crack in one of the pieces. I e-mailed the utility to complain about this attempted murder. If I am needed to detect gas leaks, I'm sorry to inform them that I won't be available beyond this one case. The utility got back to me, and so did the installer's supervisor. Both were extremely eager to insist that nothing bad really happened, and frankly so was I, to a point. I mean, this Eddie Rabbitt look-alike didn't have a great life, judging from the numerous personal phone calls he made from my house, and I wasn't all that eager to add to that by getting him fired, but a little more "We must improve our training" bullshit from one or both of these authority figures might have been a nice touch. The guy from the gas-fireplace company was even nice enough to lecture me on the fact that natural gas has no smell, that what you smell is an agent added to the gas. Um, yep. Been there, knew that; if anything it bolsters my point, but thanks for the lesson.

THE OTHER INCIDENT happened just yesterday. One Sunday not long before Jacqueline and I got married, we were traipsing through a stranger's residence while participating in Capitol Hill's No. 1 spectator sport, the open house. The Realtors love us. Just looking! Anyway, we saw a wedding invitation framed and matted, with the mat signed by the wedding guests. Great idea!

We took the invitation to one of our local framing shops and picked out a mat to take to the big April Fool's Day extravaganza in Las Vegas. People signed it (they also wrote sweet little notes, when I explicitly specified signatures only, but what are ya gonna do?), and we procrastinated. So here I am nine months after the wedding (don't like the sound of that much at all!) finally getting the thing framed. Our wedding invitations were, to use an overused word, unique. They included a $1 casino chip from Bellagio, the wedding site. Of course, we pieced these things together one by one, so we didn't actually have one intact to use for this purpose. Luckily, my toiletries bag had been home to one of those chips for many months, and that chip was ready to be called into service.

Framing. What a racket. Our immediate neighborhood has a bunch of framing shops, two of which I have patronized. One is top-notch, very artsy but quite down-to-earth -- until you see the invoice. You couldn't cover your hand with a piece of glass there for less than $5 billion. So for the easier jobs I've been going to the do-it-yourself place, where the do-it-yourself part is strictly optional. Do it yourself and you pay only $2 billion; let them do it and it's $3 billion. What a bargain! This is the place where we got the mat for the wedding invitation. I returned and picked out a frame and pointed out an unforseen difficulty -- that the signers had used the whole mat, all the way to the edge. The proprietor suggested "floating" the mat atop another mat, and I thought that sounded just fine.

When I went to pick the thing up, I immediately noticed it was crooked. It wasn't horribly crooked, but it was obvious. The proprietor and her assistant tried very hard to convince me it was as straight as it could be. The proprietor even blamed it on a not-quite-square mat. I bought the mat here, I pointed out, and I wanted one with properly squared sides. The assistant finally grudgingly agreed to take another look, and he made it right. But why did I have to be the one to tell 'em it was crooked? Is there any expertise involved in the high-margin world of framing, or is it just a "High Profit! Act Now!" franchising opportunity sold to any dufus willing to front the start-up money?

Saturday, January 13, 2001
YES, I WATCH "reality" TV shows. "The Real World," "Survivor," "The 1900 House" -- even "Big Brother." Fox's new entry, "Temptation Island," has made its share of enemies, and now it's my turn. You won't hear me complaining about the moral issues involved -- these people knew what they were getting themselves into.

I will, however, be complaining about these people: They are slack-jawed dumbshits.

And anything mean that anyone said about Jeff Probst goes quintuple for "Island" host Not-Marky Mark. This is the kind of host who uses the word "gentlemen." A lot. This is a stupid word. It has always been a stupid word, but in certain contexts (that is, any context after 1958) it is beyond ridiculous. My favorite such context, which has nothing to do with Not-Marky Mark but which I will share nonetheless, is when prosecutors and witnesses in a murder trial refer to the cretinous murderer as "that gentleman."

Anyway, to repeat, they are slack-jawed dumbshits. And I will keep watching.

Saturday, January 06, 2001
THIS IS DANGEROUSLY close to being on-topic, so I offer my apologies to the tiny if not nonexistent subset of those who care to read my rants about anything but language. My topic today is the new vowel shift. Those of you who know something about linguistics know about the original vowel shift; I, a veteran of one linguistics class, retain only the skeleton of the idea.

I first heard the idea of a new vowel shift 15 or so years ago from my brother Terence. One of his professors noted that before long the standard pronunciation of "desk" would be "dusk" and the standard pronunciation of "test" would be "tust." It sure doesn't seem like 15 years ago, and so this prof's time frame was probably a bit off, but I'm noticing a very strong trend, especially among young women, toward reaching for the laziest vowel possible.

A resistance to the "desk" version of "e" is well established among young women and, at the risk of exhibiting regional prejudice on top of my apparent age-ism and sexism, Southerners. That's why we have "ink pen." Of course pens have ink, but members of the vowel-shift set have to add this bit of clarification to alert listeners that this "pin" they're talking about isn't the cousin of the needle.

My vowel-shift theory centers on an aversion to the long vowel, or at least to any vowel that betrays some semblance of effort on the speaker's part. (The "e" in "desk" isn't a long vowel, but it does require a bit more effort than the "uh" that produces "dusk.") So the young woman who does traffic reports on WMAL says "Spring-filled" instead of "Springfield." The heavy-metal song "No New Tale to Tell" actually says "Tell to Tell." Dot-com ads talk about "e-mell" addresses. As a shy person and horrible public speaker who tends to mumble his impeccably pronounced words, I find it odd that this lack-of-putting-oneself-on-the-line speech pattern is so common among people who clearly lack nothing in the way of self-confidence.

THERE'S YET ANOTHER phonograph-needle-scratching radio ad. (Sorry to dwell so much on radio; I swear that's a very small part of my life.)

I believe it's that inserts an even-more-nonsensical-than-the-other-ads' needle scratch after something like "Who will enjoy their presents more? Little Tommy? Little Tammy?" before launching into a diatribe on credit-card companies' interest-rate profiteering.

IT'S NO BIG loss to any readers, I'm sure, but I did want to acknowledge that I quickly gave up on my spam chronicle. There's just too much spam to keep up with.

Previously in OFF-TOPIC . . .