8 Vaguely Named Professions: Explained!

"What is it that you do, exactly?"

You asked, we answered. We dug deep to find the dirt on a few of the most vaguely named and/or unknown professions in our American capitalist system.

1. Surveyor

"What could he possibly be looking at? How long does he have to stand there? Are they even writing anything down?"

Be honest, you've been DYING to know what those people with the little tripods are staring at on the side of the road. According to, those vest-wearing folks are out there to "mark the boundaries of land, create maps and legal descriptions, and plan and organize the development of property." Inspired by the persisting spirit of Manifest Destiny, these men and women are soldiers for one of our most cherished rights: the right to own property, put a fence around it, and grow hedges to keep out the neighbors.

Those nifty little tripod doohickeys (actually called "transit levels") are just one tool used in a massive amount of data gathering about any plane of land space. From there, surveyors can determine the best place to mark the corner of a property, re-establish property lines, give advice and council to a building developer, and (perhaps their most important job) interpret the legal speak from a land deed written 65 years ago.

Despite the many hours of painstaking measurements that a surveyor might take on a piece of land, surveyors apparently like to think of their job as "much an art as it is a science." Which is a poetic way of telling you up front that no two land surveys are likely to be identical, and that the way we draw boundaries and maps remains fluid and changing over time. That means as long as the way we look at land is always changing, there will always be work for the guys in the vests with the little tripod thingies. Well played, surveyors. Well played.

2. Orderly

First things first, let's get this straight—there is absolutely nothing orderly about cleaning out bed pans for the invalid, infirm and elderly. It should most definitely be called something more like, "unavoidably messy" or at the very least, "somewhat tricky". Nevertheless, Orderly is the title that has been applied to the multi-functional hospital employees who, for a lack of a better explanatory phrase, do all the dirty work. Orderlies can be called upon to do just about anything in a hospital room, except administer any kind of medicine. They lift, carry, clean, restrain, record vitals, give sponge baths, and encourage/assist patients to ingest questionably edible hospital cuisine. You know the guy who rolls patients to the door of the hospital in a wheel chair even if they were admitted for measles? That's an orderly. They do it all!

The common myth is that "orderly" is another word for male nurse, but there is nothing exclusionary about the gender of this chosen profession. The reason that it tends to be dude-heavy is just simple physics: lifting heavy, incapacitated patients in and out of bed is not a job for the petite. Strong ladies with developed upper bodies: feel free to apply!

3. Surgeon General

We felt kind of stupid for having to put this one on the list, but seriously, what does this person do other than come up with tiny little warnings? Do you actually have to be a surgeon to claim this title?

west-wing-sg.jpgMost of what I know about the Surgeon General comes from an episode of The West Wing. Once I decided to research beyond our nifty West Wing DVD box set, I discovered that the Surgeon General is responsible for articulating and orchestrating federal health initiatives on issues like worldwide disease, illegal drug use and safe sex practices. They also educate the public on a variety of pressing health concerns. (For example, how to eat your food in a pyramid-like fashion, how many minutes a day you need to move your lazy butt so as to avoid getting diabetes, and, of course, how smoking is nuts.) And no, they don't actually have to be a surgeon.

So where does the "general" part come in? The Surgeon General holds the rank of a three-star Admiral while in office, authorizing him or her to command the 6,000 Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service who are on call 24 hours a day, waiting to jump into action in the event of a national health crisis (mad cows, flu-ridden birds, salmonella salad dressing on spinach, etc.). So when our worst nightmares come true and someone drops a vial of the plague in Times Square, it's the calming voice of the Surgeon General that we will be turning to for advice, counsel and directions to the closest quarantine facility.

4. Best Boy

In an industry lousy with panty-less starlets, Christmas-tree-tackling alcoholics, and sex tapes that get released "accidentally on purpose," we wouldn't be surprised if movie studios handed out a job title just for showing up on time and being on your best behavior. However, the true origin of "Best Boy" comes from the days of merry Olde England, when a master artist would take on apprentices, who would learn his craft. The best boy in that case was the Master's oldest, most trusted apprentice, who would keep the other yahoos in line.

Most movie sets will actually have two best boys—one who serves as the first assistant to the Gaffer (chief electrician) and one who answers directly to the Key Grip. Which of course, begs the question, "What the heck is a grip?" Grips are the guys (or gals) who literally hold and/or move things around on set. They might grasp a boom mic, set up lighting equipment for the gaffer and his electricians, or haul materials around for the set builders to use to create another scene. There is a small sub-set of grips who specialize in the set up and use of dolly tracks—smooth moving tracks upon which they set a special camera apparatus—which are used to get those fluid, moving shots where the camera has to follow the action (called "tracking shots"). The one person that is in charge of the subset of dolly setter-uppers is of course, the Head Dolly. (Yeah, we had hoped that one would have a cooler story behind it too.)

5. Baby Wrangler

This is our new favorite movie credit job title. "Baby Wrangler" is the cutesy name given to credit the Registered Nurse who is required by law to be on set if there are any babies in the production. If you want, feel free to join us as we instead choose to visualize someone guarding an entire pen full of babies and then, when called upon, searches her herd for the one who isn't pooping or crying and hands them off to be in the next shot.

6. Ombudsman

This has to be one of the more ominous sounding job titles out there "“ possibly because it starts with the same two letters as "ominous," but also because if you need an ombudsman, it probably means some dank, smelly excrement has hit the fan. Whenever you've got a potentially explosive and litigious conflict between two entities, these guys are called in to be the middlemen, the mediators, and the last stop on the train to Lawsuit City. They attempt to resolve conflicts between private citizens and the government, disgruntled students and their university, or between an employee and his or her soul-sucking employer. Fired unfairly? Expelled without due process? Denied federal benefits? Tell it to the ombudsman.

Many news organizations (mental_floss excluded) appoint ombudsmen to handle reader complaints. We'll put this on a list, along with "airline counter employee" and "DMV clerk," of Jobs for Masochists Only.

7. City Controller

Okay, at first glance, this seems like one of the more awesome jobs in existence. The title conjures images of a guy in front of a huge computer screen that takes up an entire wall, manipulating traffic lights, launching helicopters, and barking orders at his meek mayor and subservient councilmen, all while looking down on the city he controls from the top of its highest sky scraper—and (it should go without saying) cackling maniacally. In actuality, the person with this title is probably sitting in front of a desk covered in balance sheets, ripping handfuls of hair out of his or her head while looking over the budget and expenses from every single city department, agency, board, commission, and elected office. Yup—a city controller is an accountant.

As it turns out, there is more than one glorified term to describe a number cruncher. Perhaps you've heard of a comptroller? Guess what: same thing as a controller "“ just with one über-annoying letter change. Ditto for the title of Bursar, except they manage the money owed by piss-poor college students (or their parents) for tuition, housing and other miscellaneous and expensive fees associated with higher education.

8. Riverkeeper

If a riverbed dries up, does it make a sound? Yes—the sound of a sobbing Riverkeeper who then tries to refill the river with a million tiny tears. Okay, we're being a tad dramatic, but the job of Riverkeeper (along with coastal keepers, inlet keepers, creek keepers, stream keepers, and lake keepers) is to monitor the status of his assigned body of H2O, keeping careful watch over pollution, water levels, and erosion. Riverkeepers also have to stay on top of water usage habits and commercial and residential development in any area that feeds off of the river's water supply.

If a land developer or business is abusing their water source or polluting, riverkeepers get to play the role of whistleblower. In other words, if Captain Planet and his pre-teen Planeteers were around today, this would have been the primo dream job for the kid who represented "Water." Meanwhile the kid who was assigned to "Fire" is still waiting around for Smokey the Bear to step down and retire.

Jenn Thompson is a freelance writer for publications including Charlotte Magazine, Variety, and Time Out.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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