All posts by Richard

About Richard

Richard Kiss was born and raised in Canada. In 1991, he moved to California, ultimately receiving an (or is it “a”) M.A. in mathematics. This goes a long way to explaining his obsession with numbers, structure and literalism. His personality is tempered with a heavy dose of wit and opinion. He enjoys donuts and writing in the third person. He also performs stand-up comedy.

Lost in the Supermarket

Tuesday night, on the way home from a couple sets in San Francisco, I knew I was out of milk, so I stopped at the 24 hour Safeway near my home at around 1 in the morning.

As I was walking into the store, I decided I may as well do a full-fledged shopping trip.

Late night grocery store is kind of surreal. The staff, although skeleton, massively outnumbers the customers. It’s an opportune time to restock the shelves, so it looks like an industrial wasteland. Flattened empty boxes and heavy machinery are all over the place. A couple times I had to abandon my cart at the end of the aisle because the entryway was blocked by cardboard and forklifts. So I’d hike down on foot and carry my selections back to the cart. It sounds really inconvenient, but this clutter was more than compensated by the fact that there were almost no other shoppers anywhere. At least clutter can be pushed aside without regard for personal space and autonomy. And it doesn’t narcissistic, irritatingly wander back into your way.

My hunger and late-night induced laziness meant I bought a lot more prepared and frozen food than I might otherwise. But wow, the weak economy has really made bargains easy to find! Especially if you have a frequent shopper card.

By the time I got to the checkout, it was around 1:40 AM, and I was nearly drunk with over-tiredness. Just as I put the first item on the belt of the lone available checkout stand, a poor Apple Security guard, holding maybe two items, stepped behind me, his face falling at the sight of my forty or so items. I told him to go in front of me, and he was out of there in a minute. I Am A Good Person.

I suspect some of my shopping decisions were not ideal, but it was nice getting a mundane errand out of the way without dealing with other shoppers. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. While writing this, I realized I left approximately seven hectares of toilet paper in the bottom of the shopping cart. Oops.

The Sexification of Science on TV

TV continues to evolve. There’s been a trend lately in television to feature characters that not only know some rather complicated things, but also use critical thinking skills. Science sells. Now that’s intelligent design!

Take CSI. When I first saw CSI on TV, it was pretty unique. I remember being impressed with the computer graphic-based clips featuring extremely scientific recreations of crime details like blood splatter, or showing bullets tearing through human organs. It’s rather innovative how they teach people about forensic science by embedding it in a relevant plot line. Most crime dramas just tug on your emotions; if they make you think at all, they just make you think about people or society in a “aw, ain’t it too bad” kind of way. CSI makes you think about facts. The reasoning is part of the story. The value of critical thinking is shown, not told.

Then came NUMB3RS. In this show, a math genius helps his FBI brother solve crimes using advanced mathematics. Although the math is generally quite good, this is a bit of a stretch. Most of his work seems to involve statistics — as applied as applied math gets, and no snobby elite math genius would touch applied math with a ten unit-length pole. I’d love to see him try to apply some group theory, maybe to catch the Rubik’s cube murderer or something. Still, kudos to the message of the power of reason.

It’s not just dramas, either. The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom that attempts to humanize nerds. I haven’t seen this show except once on an airplane, and I suspect it would make me cringe more than laugh (“There but for the grace of God, go I.”). My understanding is that the main male characters are rather geeky physicists who somehow manage to have the amazing fortune of having beautiful women living across the hall. Fish out of water. Two worlds collide. Bla bla bla. The fact that this show was even considered by network TV goes to show how trendy science has become.

And just in the past month or two, I’ve been watching – and enjoying – Lie To Me, which features some kind of mix of psychology, sociology and anthropology. It’s an interesting show whose recurring characters are mostly focused on figuring out what emotions a possibly deceitful person is trying to conceal, and their methods seem to be based on actual research. I wonder how long they can continue to bring up original points about how to tell if someone’s lying. Maybe they should provide fellowships to further this research. Academics work a lot cheaper than writers (but probably proportionally slower too).

It’s a fresh bounty for scientific consultants. Anyone got a comedy about math in the works? Sign me up for creative consultant… ’cause I gots me some gut-busting theorems just itchin’ to be proven in the most hilarious of ways!! A laff riot! Hilarity, then QED!

Nader Vote = 1/2 Bush Vote

In the 2000 Election, which was primarily a duel between the two four-letter candidates Bush and Gore, the warning “A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush!” was often bounced around.

Of course, in one sense it’s kind of right. Nader tallied 97,421 votes in Florida. Most of these voters probably would have voted for Gore if they had known the actual outcome in advance, and our world would be quite different today. Of course, if they knew the actual outcome in advance, then it wouldn’t have been an actual outcome, but now I’m arguing myself down an infinite wormhole in space.

There are problems with this aphorism. The electoral college voting system, where “winner takes all” in a state meant that voting for Nader in a state that was statistically safe for Gore (or Bush!) was irrelevant to the outcome. In most states, you could send-your-message/throw-away-your-vote care-free. Not Florida, of course, but most states.

Most annoyingly, for me at least, is the numerical inaccuracy. A vote for Nader is not as destructive to Gore as a vote for Bush. It’s half as destructive.

Consider a simplified election with 15 voters: 9 left wing, who prefer Gore or Nader, and 6 right wing, who prefer Bush.

If all lefties vote Gore, he wins, 9-6.

If 4 of them to vote for Nader, Gore loses, 5-6 (and Nader gets 4).

If 2 of them vote for Nader, Gore wins 7-6 (and Nader gets 2).

If 2 of them vote for Bush, Gore loses 7-8.

So as you see, a vote for Nader is not the same as a vote for Bush. You need twice as many voters to switch to Nader for Bush to win, so it’s only half as damaging.

I guess “A vote for Nader is half a vote for Bush!” sounds a little weird. Nevertheless, it’s sad that once again, mathematically accurate details lose out to marketing poetry.

(Ah yes, a blog posting in 2009 about the election of 2000. Whattya think: Too soon?)

Click to Make My Ears Burn

When I was on Guy MacPhereson’s “What’s So Funny?” radio show, off air he mentioned to me that he had a short discussion with Irwin Barker about one of my jokes on air in a prior episode. Well, Guy emailed me last week to tell me that the episode was going to re-air, so I listened to it.

Here’s the excerpt (2 minutes, 32 seconds):

(Click here if you don’t see any way to play the audio above or if for some crazy reason, you want to download it.)

Here’s the joke he’s talking about, from the night he saw me (70 seconds):

(Ditto)

I continue to maintain, the only thing worse than being talked about… is not being talked about.

Adding Ten Pounds

I’ve had a video camera pointed at me a fair bit in the past week.

My comedy friends Chris Schiacappasse (she-ack-uh-PASS-ee) and Vahé Hovak have a recurring YouTube show called “Hanging Out” where they come over and for some unscripted hang out. A genuine reality show.

In our episode, after seeing a TV commercial for some 99¢ fast food hamburger, we decided we would hit a handful of fast food joints, buy one burger-thing that costs a dollar from each, then take them home to sample and compare them.

We hit McDonald’s, KFC/Taco Bell (two purchases from each substore there), Wendy’s, Jack-in-the-Box and Burger King. We also stopped at Arby’s and Carl’s Junior, but neither of those snooty establishments had any burgers that met our thrift constraints.

My surprise favourite was Jack-in-the-Box’s Junior Cheeseburger, which despite looking like it had been run over by a truck and not really tasting like actual food, had a wonderful salty delicious flavour of chemical that made me crave more.

Unfortunately, various technical problems (a low battery, then we ran out of tape) means that large portions of this part of the taste test were not taped, so this info probably doesn’t qualify as a spoiler.

This episode will be probably be available on YouTube eventually. In the future.

Then, last night I went to the monthly taping of “Paint with Lynn”, a show on public access cable TV channel 26 in Pacifica, California, where host Lynn Ruth Miller, a near-octogenarian comedian, painter and ne’er-do-well comes up with an art project.

I haven’t done an art project since elementary school. We worked on our projects separately while trading quips. It was a blast and I’m simultaneously curious about and dreading the final cut. If you have access to Pacifica cable, “check your local listings”. I’ll be getting a DVD (also in the future) which maybe I can post on the internet.

Free! Samples!

I used to work next door to a Trader Joe’s grocery store, and although not as famous as Costco’s, they have a pretty great free sample table. For months, every day around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I would head over (often with coworkers in tow) to see what the sampler table whiz kids were up to.

The people who worked the sample table always worked the sample table, so it didn’t long before they began to recognize us. You might think that they would be annoyed by the same freeloaders grabbing snacks daily, never buying anything. I thought so. But no. They were always happy to see us, and we even sort of became friends. We kept each other update with gossip and mundane details of each others’ lives like you do with people you see every day. The Trader Joe’s snack run became one of the best parts of the day. Make sense, I guess… it’s not like they were shareholders.

I went grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s today (a different location). It brought back memories. I even recognized Emily, a gal who used to work at my old store. Even though it had a different layout than the one I worked by, when I saw the snack table, nostalgia came rushing back, so I walked up and grabbed a sample of Southwestern salad. It was in a tiny paper cup, like the kind you’d get at the dentist with that gritty tooth polish.

I didn’t know the woman minding the booth. She was painstakingly cutting up lettuce with scissors, which at first I thought rather odd. This seemed to make preparing the prepackaged salad much less convenient. Then I realized that she was doing it just so the large leafs would fit nicely into the into the tiny sample-size cups.

The pleasure of free food brought me back to the days of TJs camaraderie. I pushed my luck. “Does the salad come with the scissors?” I said jokingly. I wanted her to laugh, to chat, to bond.

You know how sometimes people have a talent for just sucking all the funny out of the room? This women had it in spades. She looks up at me and says “These are kitchen scissors.”

That barely had anything to do with my comment. But the follow up was the killer.

“For cutting.”

I considered several possible rejoinders or explanations of the intent of my original comment, but couldn’t see it going anywhere. So I finished my salad and left without another word.

I don’t know what she could have thought I said, but she must have thought me quite the moron to feel the need to explain to me that “scissors are for cutting”. It was an amazingly paralyzing response. Genius.

I guess they’re right: you can’t go home again. Or, in this case, to the grocery store.

The Curse of Originality

I’ve been trying very hard to produce tangible output on a regular basis for my blog. But it’s been challenging. I worry about being interesting, but only a bit, because the “interesting” angle is so much outweighed by my innate need to be original.

Ah, the curse of originality, or as comedians like to say, “not hack”. I strive to be a brilliant computer hacker while I strive to avoid being a comedy hack. Hack computers, not comedy.

Upon reflection, this desire – this need – to be original has been a constant driver in my life. I’ve always felt different, and always felt the need to be think about things differently. When everyone else zigs, I zag. I don’t know why. It’s in my nature. I can’t help it any more than the scorpion can help but sting the frog.

My blog and my comedy suffers because I so quickly and naturally filter out ideas that seem obvious and unoriginal automatically. They’re considered, but only considered as ideas that have been seen and noted, and never considered to be used on stage or in public. A lot of times, I’ll even dismiss as unoriginal ideas that I’ve come up with myself, but in the past, so they are unoriginal in that “I’ve thought of them before”.

I suppose this blog post is personal enough that it’s guaranteed to be original. Even if someone else has written these exact ideas, or even somehow these exact words, I’m still original because they (probably) weren’t writing about me. Maybe that’s the answer: write about myself.

SEEN IT

Huh. I guess that’s been done. To death.

Django on Dreamhost

I went to the San Francisco Django Meetup last week and met some smart, nice people.

There was some talk about host to deploying Django. There were many good things said about Slicehost. Of course, to my mind, the cheapest and easiest way to deploy is Google App Engine. I say let the good employees at Google deal with the hard work of keeping these thousands of machine online and responsive. If your GAE site goes down at 4 AM, there’s no point in waking up to take a look at what’s going on, because you can’t even log in to those Google machines, much less have root access, so you may as well… keep sleeping. Which is what I prefer to do at 4 AM.

Anyway, I’ve used Dreamhost for years to host both my blog and my personal web site, which is actually a very simple Django app. It’s met my needs perfectly; it’s a very low traffic web site, and at less than $10 a month (including ssh access!) incredibly cheap.

You don’t get root like you do on slicehost.com or other VPS, but I consider that a feature, not a bug. Do I really want to be the one responsible for keeping system software safe from the hacker attack du jour?

If you feel like sending some kickbacks my way, enter my email address as your referrer (him at richardkiss.com) or sign up here.

I expect to release my Django Dreamhost configuration as a github project Real Soon Now™.