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Tuesday, September 30, 2008


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Jodie Foster one time said she’s the most boring person in the world, but I believe I could give her a run for her money. If we had an out-bore duel, I could pull off the deadpan with aplomb, while her acting reflexes would force her to do something responsive, like maybe some dramatic twitch that’s a remnant of Taxi Driver or Silence of the Lambs. Surely there’s some latent simulated fear of hers that could be drawn out after those episodic ventures. But if I didn’t have to make money, I’m confident I could win human statue contests — even against Jodie Foster. And I could be very dull about it too.

Maybe patience is just the degree to which you tolerate boredom. I’d like to think I’m relatively patient. If I don’t get through the light before it turns red, I can happily wait for the next cycle. I’ve been to the other side of town, and there’s no finish line over there. Time is a renewable resource, and it doesn’t go away, even though it may seem like it’s moving. What goes away are opportunities, so if we focused less on time and more on opportunities, we’d probably be happier with our situations.

Have you ever wondered why they call it a rat race? Why are we racing each other in the first place? In a perfect world, it would be more of a rat stroll. Just a casual jaunt through town, a bunch of hip rats with sunglasses, gallivanting down main street, meandering about aimlessly while following Chuck Berry’s credo of having “no particular place to go.” That’s a much more pleasant visual. We make it too hard on ourselves, all in the name of being titillated. Don’t alarm the rats.

When people say things like “there’s nothing to do in this town,” that kind of sentiment doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t mind being bored, so then I guess that means it’s not boring to me. I say it matters less where you are than who you are or who you’re with. Life isn’t about places or even events, but more about people and feelings and attitudes. The Garden of Eden was more of a condition than it was a well-kept nursery.

And besides, I don’t really need to “do” anything to keep myself interested. When youthful folk say “there’s nothing to do,” ask them why it is that they would need something to do. Where is that written in the book of life? Is there an entitlement clause in there somewhere that I overlooked? Let’s see… There’s the part here about early mornings being the bane of our existence… yadda, yadda, yadda… death and taxes… it says there’s no fairness doctrine… and no free lunch… it says there will be peaks as well as valleys… it says you can’t draw blood from a turnip, though it would ruin your salad anyway… it says the only constant is change… oh, this is interesting… it says term life insurance is the best policy, not honesty as previously thought… it says don’t kill the golden goose… let sleeping dogs lie, but it’s OK to wake the cats… necessity is the mother of invention… greed is the father of invention… narcissism is the second cousin of invention… let’s see, what else? … Rome was built in 2 days… didn’t realize that… the proof is in the pudding, which makes for a rather messy thesis… and then fast and steady actually wins the race… hmm, no mention of life always providing something to do. Very curious indeed.

People who are always looking for something to do should sometimes just trying “being” instead of doing. Thinking is actually doing something anyway, it’s just that the movement is internal. It really is possible for the body to be at rest and still be conscious. You won’t sink to the bottom of the ocean, trust me.

It’s said that only boring people get bored. Whenever I hear kids say “I’m bored,” I would just respond with, “Boy, I wish [I had so little to do that] I could be bored too. You’re lucky,” letting them read between the lines and catch the dripping subtlety themselves. Then they correctly realize that the sympathy has shifted from shining on them to me. It’s very cumbersome to complain to someone who is in worse condition than you are. Really messes up the whole equation.

I think being bored can actually be good for you. It’s one of those dratted character builders. How do you deal with down time? If you’re stuck at a bus station for an hour with nothing to read, what do you do? Do you have to text somebody or go shopping for something? Or do you enjoy the time alone with yourself?

Are you ever listening to a speech that after about ten minutes starts sounding like the grown-ups in Charlie Brown? And you’re thinking to yourself, “What is it they’re saying?” You recognize the words all right, but you start to wonder if they know some mysterious sentence structures that you don’t, or vice versa, and so the message is simply falling to the floor before it reaches you, like a ton of bricks in July. This can be agonizing for some. But it doesn’t have to be.

Make a game out of it. Play catchphrase bingo. (paradigm, synergy, empower, hubris, egalitarian, cowabunga, etc.) Or try to guess the next adjective they’re going to use. Think of a less-common three-letter word, and see how long it takes them to say it. Count how many “uh’s” they say per sentence. Or if you’re bored with them, look around the room. See which people are dressed color coordinated with one another. In a large auditorium, particularly with stadium seating, it’s fun to see how many people bring their hands up to their faces. Among a few thousand people, it’s happening constantly. A lot of scratching, rubbing and wiping going on. Like one giant centipede lying on its back. Listen for all the coughs, and time the duration between them. Play dot-to-dot with all the blondes’ heads, and see what shape it forms. See which person looks like the best candidate for falling asleep next. Pass a paper around the room asking to take roll, and see if everybody signs it. And ask them to also include some other obscure bit of data like their favorite toothpaste, with no explanation. And at the bottom, indicate to turn it in to some person who will be very confused when they get the list.

In more formal settings, some of these things may not be feasible, however you can always use your imagination. That’s your own domain. Dress everybody up in togas. Or gladiator garb. Or pretend it’s the 1700s, and you’re all part of a large spy operation to seize Western Europe. It gets much more interesting when the stakes are raised like that. Just be sure you know when to break out of your self-induced hypnotic state, otherwise there is the slight possibility you could be taken into psychiatric care. Well, yeah, there are downsides to everything.

Our friend television gives the mistaken impression that every moment should be filled with excitement or drama and entertain you non-stop, and that you don’t have to provide any of it yourself, but that it will be bequeathed to you as a birthright. Television careens into our living rooms, being so explosive and violent. And I’m just talking about the commercials. They’ll change frames about every half second, which can be a little unnerving when you’re trying to sit down to a calm cup of simmering beverage. I think they’re trying to get us to blink more often, and it’s working. Their sponsors are Visine and Claritin, so I’m just a tad suspicious.

The rapid-fire images are there for effect. They show us something and then quickly take it away. They keep moving from one thing to the next, as if there is some urgency to act in furious haste. Don’t dress it up. Just dress it down and show it like it is. Radio ad voice-overs are the same way. The narrator’s own voice interrupts himself before he can finish the last syllable of a sentence. It’s an attention grabber, or at least it was the first 4000 times they did it, but do they really need to try to fit 150 unintelligible words in a 30-second time slot? Is quantity to be revered above quality? Remember: less is more. I think that was on page 28 of the book of life.

Take time to stop and smell the roses. If you’re always rushing from one thing to the next, always looking to be entertained, then you’ll need to keep turning it up another notch just to stay satisfied. The key to satisfaction is not merely in keeping your expectations low — which is a nice trick in its own right — but in letting the little things in life keep you happy. How does the saying go… He who is rich is not he who has much, but he who appreciates what he already has. If you gather, you’ll always want more. If you properly utilize what you have, often you won’t have need for more.

We all have a pause button, but we seem to forget that we have one. Meditation — it’s a self-inflicted timeout, and a well-deserved one. You can live your life in running time for most of the day, but you can also hit the pause button and put life on hold. Try it. It’s very liberating. The “ohm” chant is optional. And the world will still be there when you’re done. Amazing, isn’t it?

So my advice today is slow down, be bored, and if you start to get overly disinterested, then just make it into a game. Boredom can be very invigorating if you let it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Day the World Forgot to Blog

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It had to be on a chilly November morning in the not too distant future, sometime within the deep clutches of autumn. The trees were barren, steam was rising up from the gutters, the sun was starting to peek over the cold horizon, and a very curious incident was unfolding. The erstwhile expert armchair force of blogorama around the globe was about to go atypical. Instead of ingratiating themselves in front of their laptops or other sundry hardware of choice, the collective took on this rather unusual turn of events.

Marlene of Freiburg, Germany walked into her study to put in writing some of the insights she’d gained attending a business seminar over the weekend, and as she attempted to do so, her hands mysteriously froze right above the keyboard. She sat looking at them as if waiting to see what they’d do next. She couldn’t move. After an extended moment of awkwardness, she had to step away from her machinery. She checked herself into the hospital and was treated for zombie blogaritis.

In Osaka, Japan, Akinori was going to update his recent hang gliding exploits, but as he turned his computer on, an error message came up which translates to “Insufficient memory. Do I know you?” He rebooted only to see the same message again. He would have to get reacquainted with his computer before he could blog again.

Bradley, a 6th grader in Auckland, New Zealand was perched atop a tree waiting to access his site on astronomy. Though he generally typed only eleven words a minute, it didn’t prevent him from sharing his thoughts on the stars. On this day, however, even 80 words a minute wouldn’t have mattered. Suddenly he couldn’t spell. Three-letter words like ‘the’ and ‘you’ and ‘get’ became too complex. He couldn’t hit the right keys to save his life. So after a spat of entering gwl ev fio eer ykyh dlr wel doxy wjer zunthc v prwim dn qf icxf jby, Bradley astutely gave up.

Nobody could seem to blog. As hard as they tried, it wasn’t working. Even those plugged in from phones, handhelds or implanted microchips could not access the ports to upload their vaunted commentary. Each thought it was just them, but little did they know it was an epidemic.

Dave Barry’s personal assistant, Penelope, was loading his latest essay but didn’t realize that all the words were getting juxtaposed. When readers went to Dave’s blog, all they saw was “Messing Mind With Are Mutant My Porcupines,” and the article itself was completely illegible, as opposed to how it was usually only somewhat illegible. Fans flooded his e-mail box with complaints, calling him awful things like “dupe” and “miscreant.” Dave instructed Penelope to hold all his calls and sought exile in the foothills.

Sue from Utah had a flash of brilliance that morning as she usually does at 4:00 a.m., and she jumped sprightly out of bed and put on her pink bunny slippers to post once more. As she was sipping her caffeine-free candy apple mocha lite with coconut marshmallows and a twist of fermented lemon, she logged on and noticed to her astonishment that her blog provider had inadvertently failed to pay its power bill that month (the one that says powered by Zapotech — that kind of power), and so the site was down for the count. She pounded her fist into the mocha, creating a cacophony of liquidous sounds that are suitable only for mature audiences and some species of crustaceans.

This was developing into the worst disaster in the history of blogdom. Mothers were taking their kids off the streets. Wall Street was in disarray. Wolf Blitzer was stuttering uncontrollably. But it only got worse.

Over in Alberta, Canada, a becoming something mom named Natasha was about to reveal an exclusive to the world that she had discovered a natural remedy for all chronic conditions through a mixture of non-alcoholic moonshine and pomegranates, and she was all prepared to tie it into a story involving unsuspecting citizens she encountered and vagrant animals that came onto her property. However, as fate would have it that morning, she accidentally grabbed the epoxy to apply eyelash, and before she knew it, her eyelids got stuck shut. Like any dedicated blogger, Natasha still faithfully tried to type out her decree to the world. I can type by touch, she thought. But no such luck. The spell checker was having a field day zinging her every offering, and nothing was coherent. She had her kids look up a remedy for diffusing skin, reasoning that eyelids might be expendable. The closest they could find was embalming fluid, which unfortunately they had run out of the day before. And since the combined age of the kids was still under the driving age, the blog would have to wait.

Dominic, a businessman in Italy, had an emergency appendectomy and didn't make it to his blog. Stephanie contracted 24-hour malaria, and was bedridden all day, postponing her posting. Alphonse got amnesia and started acting like a petunia. Yvonne temporarily turned into a tree sloth, losing her opposable thumbs.

Alice from New Jersey thought it was just another normal day. Her house phone and cell phone were ringing simultaneously, her dog had just produced a puddle in the entryway, and her hard-boiled eggs turned out to be overboiled when she negligently left them on for an hour and all the water went away. With smoke everywhere, she slipped while reaching for the dog, the first person hung up, and the second heard her scream as her feet were going out from under her. It was her literary agent, and they needed a little more promotional material, figuring her latest local publicity could spur more subscribers, if she would just post something today. She grimaced with the pain in her foot, and then consented just to get them off the phone, now realizing that she had twisted her ankle, and was still sitting in the present her little Fifi gave. The doorbell rang, the smoke alarm went off, she opened the door, the dog ran down the street, and a man in a blue suit wanted her to sign for a package. Looking up from the floor while holding onto the doorknob for stability, she muttered, “You can keep your lousy package.” And she slammed the door on the world, and just lay there, wallowing in her circumstance.

Jed wrote daily from the snug confines of his darkened Manhattan studio. His electric bills were low since he eschewed light bulbs. He even took the one out of the fridge to keep the food from getting perky. Jed wrote of the seamier side of life, and had a penchant for the vernacular. Jed was a basket case. As he was about to write his blog, Jed's computer started talking to him. It said, "Welcome to your worst nightmare. Would you like to play a game, Jed? Keep typing for the curse." Each time he dared enter another character, it would audibly count down. He thought it was a prank until the computer started carrying on a conversation with him and reading his mind. He ran out of the building like a lunatic, and was later admitted as one, with mouse still clutched in hand. Jed's blog didn't go out that day.

Maria mistakenly pressed "Reformat Hard Drive" instead of "Submit" when her blog was ready, so that minor technicality kept her from being published that day. Gustav was hallucinating and thought his keyboard was a calzone, and he ate it. Hortens had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t restart. Cornelius spontaneously combusted. Frank lost his Internet connection when a boa constrictor got inside the utility panel and chewed up all the wiring. And this phenomenon perpetuated around the Internet.

All these people who were used to writing their blogs were suddenly unable to do so. Their readers didn't know what to do. At first, they just went looking for the next blog on their reading list, but after several unsuccessful attempts at finding fresh entries, they soon realized that it wasn’t going to happen, and they panicked. Their worst suspicions were realized: the blogosphere had been compromised. All was not well in Xeon.

Off in the distance, the faint echoing of a wistful dog bark could be heard. The streets were motionless. For a delicate moment in time, the world stood still. All awaited the next move. Hidden near a park bench somewhere in downtown suburbia, another leaf broke away and fluttered gently to the ground, anonymous to the masses.

Monday, September 22, 2008

You Say Potato, I Say Chips

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The theoretical realist improperly assumes that the most homeocentric or perceived static entity is necessarily the default concept. Take for instance our Earth. When our predecessors saw the sun moving around us, they took it to mean that our Earth was the ultimate reference point, and they trusted our senses to tell them that the sun was moving and the Earth was stable. It wouldn’t have made sense anyway, because spinning at 1000 miles an hour while rotating around the sun through space at 60,000 miles an hour, yet only seeing 30 mph winds as a result would be hard to fathom. Not only that, but how am I supposed to feel secure about any real estate holdings under such conditions? Homeocentric is a little more reassuring, and a much better marketing tool. But eventually, Galileo blew the top off the real estate industry, and domicile prices plummeted. Galileo had proposed that a free-falling body would descend with uniform acceleration having negligible resistance, and for the time being he was close enough.

As far as default concepts go, take this example. I put a key in a lock. It does not fit. Rather straightforward, right? Not so simple. The default cause of it not fitting seems to be that it was the wrong key. But that is not a good assumption to make, because it's not necessarily the case. It could be instead that it was the wrong lock. Maybe the key is right. Why do we assume that when the two do not match, that it's the key that must be at fault? We somehow say "the key doesn't fit," but we don't ever say "the lock doesn't fit." But why should the lock necessarily define the relationship? It shouldn't. The lock has no intrinsic authority. The only authority it has is whatever we assign to it. Thus, it's an arbitrary designation to assume that it would always take precedence as the default entity.

Since a lock is not as ambulatory as a key, we tend to lend more credibility to locks than we do to keys. It’s the unwritten law of precedence. It can appear in all sorts of manifestations. If two entities are approaching one another, the faster of the two is expected to move out of the way, because they can remove themselves from the path more quickly and easily, or because the slower of the two is the sympathetic figure to which more respect is given. This is innately understood, and we’re not even aware that we understand it. If a pedestrian and a bicyclist are converging on a pathway, it doesn’t work as well for the pedestrian to make the first move to the left or the right. If attempting to do this, the pedestrian may not properly anticipate the cyclist’s moves, and end up in the same alternate path. A pedestrian’s maneuverability is often about 25% of the cyclist’s, which means that starting to walk in another direction can take four times as long to reach a certain spot for the pedestrian. A pedestrian could be halfway through this maneuver only to find that the cyclist has just started in the same direction, with the cyclist beginning later and ending sooner in the new trajectory. That’s why it’s best to defer to the faster entity. Let them make the first move.

This would not apply to territorial concerns. A car has the assumed right of passage in its well-defined street lanes. Even on unmarked streets, the car is to maintain a position on the right side just to the right of an imaginary center line. But all else being equal, if a car were coming down a path toward a cyclist, the car is the one that should move out of the way. The fact that cars can’t usually take alternate routes or go onto the sidewalk is an ancillary matter not affecting this premise. Taking the faster vehicle hypothesis, a speeding car shouldn’t expect a car already going 70 mph to get out of the way for them. A lot of times they don’t even realize that you have no room to pull over into the next lane, and in order to accommodate them, you’d have to increase your speed by 5 mph to be able to get up into an empty pocket. But I’ve noticed something peculiar about civilian vehicles. They don’t have the capability of giving you a ticket, so I don’t lend them as much credence as I would a radar-toting, ticket-ready officer of the law. In any event, it all comes down to our reference points. Take a look at them and you may find that some of the objective ones turn out to be more subjective.

And then there’s the holiday conundrum. New Year’s Day, as an institution, is confusing to me. But I guess if you don’t think about it, it doesn’t have to be confusing. Alas, it’s too late for me now, and anybody else who’s reading this, so we can’t very well stop at this point. The basic idea is that we’re celebrating the new year. Think about that — we’re celebrating something we haven’t experienced yet. What if it turns out to be a really lousy year? We should wait to see how it materializes before we make such a big deal out of it. It should be conditional on how good it was. Have a pre-nup with the coming year so that we can have a sort of safety net.

But even beyond all that, why are we celebrating another year coming? Because we’re happy we’re getting older? Maybe it’s the impending tax returns we’re anticipating. I can’t think of what else it could be. I hereby propose instead a salute of Old Year’s Day. If 2008 ends up being a decent year (as Ed Grimley must say), let’s have a party in its honor, rather than shoving it out the door at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Reverse engineering is the key. Or maybe it’s the lock, I can’t remember. Either way, stay in school and don’t do drugs, that’s the bottom line.

For literal theorists, logic is always that default concept which trumps all else. To them, everything revolves around logic, because it appears so static. They never consider that logic could be subject to some other set of laws. So when they see a contradiction, they never think that it may actually be the logical structure itself that is faulty (meaning human interpretation of logic). Curiously, we have various versions of what entails being a realist, which answers fewer questions than it asks. What is the alternative to being a traditional realist? If you’re not living in the real world, are you therefore a fantasist? If you shun reality, what kind of psychiatric slew of denials is that? Sure, I’m willing to face up to all my fears, but as long as I can carry on my operations in Tomorrowland, and watch as the frightful fears go by before my face.

In the end, some say humans discovered logic. Others say humans invented it. If we discovered logic, that would presume that it exists apart from us and does not require thinking agents in order for it to be. If instead we invented it, then that would mean it has limitations just like we do, which would place us right back at square one.

It’s like in the song… I can’t remember the words or who sang it, but it goes right along with this whole principle.

So the message is don’t take things at face value. When they tell you that an obscure burger is back at Wendy’s, question it. Ask why it ever left in the first place. Ask where it went. Ask if it’s going to do the same thing again later and be one of those deadbeat for-a-limited-time-only entrées. They say “limited time only” as if that’s a good thing, but it’s a very, very bad thing. It means they’re dangling it in front of you to grab at, and then when you just start to get comfortable with it, they’re going to yank it away, leaving you on your own in a veritable fast food wasteland. Those are not pretty sights, by the way. That’s what marketing is all about. Keep the consumer wanting more. That’s why Disney magically pulls movies out of its vault, as if done only through pixie dust. But the fact of the matter is that it was three overweight sweaty guys in a boardroom calculating marginal returns on the company’s investments. They took Tinkerbell and locked her in the drawer. And what we’re finding is that it always comes back to a key (and the lock in the background).

Not succumbing to the aforementioned assumptions is called thinking outside of the box, and that's what philosophical skepticism does. So then what can we learn from all this? Actually, it’s more like de-learning, when we realize that we know less than we thought we did. We’re more informed, now knowing that we’re less informed than previously suspected. That’s logic turned on itself, right?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mood Appraisals, Part I

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This is part 1 in a series of explorations into the various moods we feel. Each time, I will highlight either a high, low, or mid-tone. Over time, readers may wish to contrast the various entries for their respective advantages and disadvantages.

When you're feeling content, you may tend to have a sense of closure. However, closure can also be followed up by unfulfillment, which then requires further subsequent closure, leading to the dastardly vicious contentment cycle. For this reason, you should try to avoid contentment whenever possible.

Contentment can be an agonizingly nondescript sensation, though it works fine when you're not concentrating or paying attention. It won't require a lot of thought, so it's a serviceable mood in those situations where you're too tired for cheerful or giddy. An old adage goes that ignorance is bliss, but a more accurate statement would be to say that ignorance is contentment. Bliss will be discussed in a future segment, but sufficeth to say here that contentment is much different than bliss. When you're content, you're settling for the current state of affairs and not necessarily thrilled about them.

People erroneously think that the alternative to being content is to be a malcontent, though the two are not necessarily mirror images. Malcontentment is negatively aggressive, while contentment is only passively positive, putting it closer to neutrality than malcontentment.

Examples of being content would be how you feel when no catastrophes have happened recently, or the in-between feeling the day after a dentist appointment but having nothing to do, the typical non-euphoric malaise of 2:00 p.m., no news being good news, avoiding the radar, or being licked by a dog.

People who are generally content: Julia Roberts, Judge Ito, Bill Murray, Larry King, Buck Henry, John Kruk, Gordon Jump, Father Mulcahy, Larry Bird, the audience at a Jewel concert, Ford Escort drivers, podiatrists, badminton fans, people wearing slippers.

Animals that are generally content: Koalas, goldfish, daddy long legs, cows, seals, dead snakes, most marsupials, Kermit the Frog, pigs and ducks.

Other things that are content: Elevator music, operating manuals, mashed potatoes, bologna, sandals, fettucini, bowling, pork rinds, the color gray, middle class incomes, wax paper, the letter H, Sweden, ruts, habits, margarine, the status quo, conventionalism, and lint.

If you notice yourself getting content, here are a few things you can try:
• Do a pushup. This may help you raise awareness of your circumstances.
• Say to yourself, "I am more than just content. I am extra-content." Anything 'extra' is a motivating tool.
• Eat a peach. The pectin may awaken the endorphins within you, and contentment is the enemy of endorphins.
• Stay away from other content people. Contentment can spread through osmosis.
• Watch a new TV show called "Shut the Stupid Thing Off."
• Do something different with your daily routine. Have breakfast in the evening. Get dressed before you take a shower. Drive another route to work. Let a child pick out your clothes.

Next installment: Verklempt

Friday, September 12, 2008

Reporting From the Intemperate Zone

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Here's the image: A TV reporter and camera crew are sent into a hurricane zone to eventually show the devastation first-hand. It's all rather theatrical. Looking over the reporter's shoulder, you see harsh rain, trees swaying, waves crashing, cows flying through the air, muppets on fire, sharks swallowing Buicks, etc. In other words, just another day at the beach.

The reporter, in a poncho with hood up, may have trouble speaking normally, needing to cover his or her face. It doesn’t matter that they sound like the Swedish Chef, as long as you can take in the atmosphere. They keep trying to look at the camera, but it's difficult to do while maintaining that aura of objectivity. Yet they soldier on. Does the station want us to be in awe of their ability to find the eye of the storm, to marvel at how their station has the unique GPS technology to track down severe weather patterns… or do they realize they’re looked at as exhibiting mass lunacy?

One time I saw a woman reporter who kept getting blown off balance, and the wind was blowing in her face so much that it prevented her from speaking for any length of time. She was getting rained on, and she had to keep closing her eyes and putting her head down. I'm sitting there at home, feeling sorry for the reporter, waiting for the telethon donation requests to follow that I would gladly contribute to if only to get her out of there, then feeling angry at the TV station, and not even able to focus on the real story. I’m throwing jujubes at my TV screen to try to get them to move, but to no avail. They’ve in essence made part of the story about themselves. Not content at being on the sidelines, they must get right in the middle of it all. The narrator has jumped into the narrative.

A few thoughts arise. Even assuming the reporter is not in grave danger (which is not always a given), why even subject them to the inclement weather? Do we need to see a view of the weather complete with a breathing homo sapien in the shot in order to understand that it's harsh weather? I would think the cameramen could get their shots from more secure locations than while looking the beast in the mouth. Reporters used as tokens… film at 11. It’s a little chilling to see windbreakers worn with the station’s logo on them, when combined with the whole idea.

Of course, the reporters are subject to the commands of their employer, so refusal to comply could adversely affect one’s job status, which means they are not necessarily willing participants. How much are people willing to do for money? That appears to be the spectacle we’re all tuning in to find out.

Sure, the news agency wants the best possible, most realistic, story. But are they compromising the integrity of their employees, unnecessarily subjecting them to harsh conditions? Will it take a reporter finally buying the farm before stations stop subjecting them to conditions like these? That’s the way society seems to work. Keep doing it until it produces a disaster, then change course to prevent that disaster from repeating, and then move on to other disasters.

One wonders what the psychology is behind intentionally placing yourself or your representative in a difficult situation that could otherwise be easily be averted. Isn’t it kind of like scaring ourselves on a rollercoaster ride that we consciously chose to get on? They want the dramatic shot, and they want us to ooh and aah, but we have to willingly suspend our disbelief, pretending we don’t know that they’re only in dire straits because they put themselves in dire straits. Is it brave or even advisable to put oneself in danger when that danger isn’t necessary?

One part of me thinks it's cruel and dehumanizing on the part of the stations to subject their employees to these conditions for no other reason but to stand in front of the camera and talk about the weather. Reporter becomes guinea pig. It produces no apparent direct utility that could not be attained in a different manner. Another part of me says it’s a competition between the reporters, as each tries to show off how daring they can be to all of the others. “Woo, Ralph went right up against the shore when the waves were crashing. Did you see that?” (shakes head) “He’s gooood.” Meanwhile, Ralph’s wife is watching at home. “Ralph, get your heiny away from those waves, you imbecile! You are so fired when you get home. Make me worry like this… And if you drown, don’t expect me to cook your dinner for you tonight either.”

Knowing the motives of the media makes it all the worse. They're trying to sensationalize the story, giving it that dramatic edge. They want it to look like the reporter just happened to be there when all of a sudden things got rough. (surprise!) In fact, one senses that they’re secretly hoping that it does get rougher to add to the melodrama — make it all look natural. If you stand in a place long enough and wait for something “natural” to happen, is that a scoop? In reality, they put them there for the strict intent of being in the midst of rough conditions. That was their ideal. But then they act like it’s an unforeseen circumstance. See the disconnect there? 3-year-olds will often repeat something even when it hurts, and then continue to complain as if they’ve been victimized. Adults playing with their camera toys haven’t seemed to graduate from this concept. A storm is nothing more than an excuse for grown-ups to bring out all their equipment that they’ve been waiting to play with.

In principle, reporters should stay removed from their subject. They should not interact with it. The news is not Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The media wants to make its coverage to look so natural, but in fact it's all carefully contrived, and therefore disingenuous. It smacks of grandstanding, and prevents it from being a genuine product or something that can be relied on as an accurate portrayal of the situation. Just one more manifestation that there’s more than a modicum of entertainment mixed in with the news.

In considering the inanity of much of modern society’s arrayed spectacle, I like to imagine whether there was any historical precedent for such things. “We’re standing here on the Ararat coastline with Noah’s Ark in the background, waiting to see if Hurricane Jehosephat is going to take it away or not. All the animals have been evacuated, but there are still some stragglers on the beach who refuse to leave. Forecasters say it’s probably going to amount to no more than a drizzle. Bathsheba, back to you.”

The rational person watching at home says, "Get the heck out of there and get in the truck, you dupe!" Stop sacrificing yourself to give us the better angle. Some things aren’t worth it. Plus, now I’ve got jujubes all over my TV. They’re the only worthwhile thing on my screen, by the way.

What does this all mean? Am I going to petition against news stations? Nah. Will this start a revolution? Nyet. Will it make me look smarter? Not possible.* (*-that statement could be taken two different ways, but I prefer the ambiguity) Are there royalties involved? Hardly. It just fills the blog and makes us aware of the status quo, in lieu of doing anything about it. I get to place more of my typed characters on the worldwide web, and it causes me a sense of contribution to the overall alphabet cybersoup. Does anyone care that I lined up the letters in a certain way? Hard to tell. People will keep doing what they’re doing until they reach a dead end, and then they’ll just look for a way around the dead end. But while they’re doing it, at least we can sit here watching them and throw multi-colored soft candies at them to make us feel better.

Monday, September 8, 2008

No Gift Like the Present

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Maybe you don’t cogitate over things like this, but since I do, I figured I’d drag you through it with me. What’s the deal with gift cards, anyway? Are they any good? They’re decorative, plastic, and fit in a wallet. But then you can say the same about gum. And it doesn’t conceal the fact that they don’t do anything worthwhile, from what I can tell. Gift cards, in essence, are the perfect way to say “I was too indifferent and lazy to put any thought into a present, and you can’t be trusted with money, so here’s the next best thing. Happy birthday.” On such a momentous occasion, one can only be touched by these sentiments. Just give them a ten, and maybe draw a mustache on Hamilton’s face and be done with it. Don’t pretend that you care by dressing it all up to be more than it is. “Here’s some colorful money I got for you, but you can’t use it here, here, here, here or here. Only here. Have a nice day shopping at the one place I’m forcing you to. If you want to get your present, I’m making you go to that store to get it, since I know you wouldn’t if I gave you cash.”

And then when we get a gift card, we act like it transcends money, because when you’re receiving gifts you have to be complimentary about everything so you can get repeat customers to future birthday parties. “Oh, you got me a piece of string for my birthday? It’s what I always wanted! How did you know? It’s perfect...” I always wondered just how low you could go on the gift scale and still get that same sort of response from the person you gave it to. “Hey, this is a cool bag of trash. For the man who has everything, eh? I like it. It says hope your day is special like nothing else does.” “What? A box full of maggots? You shouldn’t have. No— you really shouldn’t have...”

And then there are the birthday greeting cards. (cue the dastardly organ music, please) The funny ones are good for a joke and they have their place, though I haven’t quite latched onto the sentimental cards. A sentimental thought is supposed to be personal. So you buy a card written by a greeting company that distributed the same one to thousands of stores, and they’ve never met the person you’re giving the card to, but somehow they’re supposed to capture your particular sentiments toward that person. What happens is they end up speaking in generic terms. “You’re the person I always thought if I’d love a person for being who they are it would be you for the way you are what you are like nobody else can, and that’s what makes me love you.” Basically, this is paint-by-numbers sentimentality. All you can really take credit for is finding the card in the store, getting the gender and age right, and then either paying for it or stealing it. You did all that successfully, but is that an accomplishment? What’s pre-printed on the card is no more you than the daily horoscope, except that you got to pick your own sign.

(Note: If any of you have given me gift cards or pre-printed greeting cards, I appreciated them tremendously, and I'll appreciate them in the future. I'm just projecting here. My analyst says it's good therapy.)

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I used to go to breakfasts at this lovely diner in the basement of the county courthouse near where I work. This place is run by two sisters who have been going at it for over 20 years, and they always have a lot of helpful insight to give, being great conversationalists. I had been frequenting there until the summer of 2006 two years ago when I went on extended sick leave and then had to watch my diet more closely in the interim. So just this week, I went back there for the first time since then, and note that I’ve never talked to them for more than ten minutes at a time and they don’t know my family or vice versa. We just used to talk in passing. So anyway, what happens when I go back? Not only did they remember my name, they also remembered that I like my toast to be sour dough, and my eggs to be over easy, and that we had been talking about me planting trees when we had spoken before. That’s amazing to me that they just picked up right where they left off from two years before. And eggs and toast is only one of the many orders I used to make, so it’s not like I had a usual that they got accustomed to. They also remembered that I’d bought a house back at that time. Completely floored me. You never know how well people are taking notes on you. You figure it happens somewhere from time to time, but you don’t figure you’re the one that anybody’s keeping tabs on. Kind of a little spooky, but in a good way. Maybe they slipped, and I’m in the Truman Show. (looking around for cameras now)

So going back there turned out being a rather surreal experience. It kind of brought everything from the last couple years full circle, into an unexpected form of closure. I remember the first thing they said when they saw me was, “We were wondering if you had died or something.” It’s nice to be missed like that. I replied that I was wondering the same thing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tower of Psychobabble

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You've got to admire Radio Shack’s marketing chutzpah. Their new slogan has got to be one of the all-time classics: “Do Stuff.” That's it. Somehow... it just doesn’t evoke all that much enthusiasm in me. What if that were the advice your high school teachers gave you? “Whatever happens in life, students, ... do stuff.” Not all that inspiring, is it? But then Radio Shack has been sure to get the slogan trademarked, just in case another company wants to also tell us to “Do stuff” and we inadvertantly don’t attribute it to Radio Shack for coming up with that wonderful nugget of wisdom. “Hey, we told them to do stuff first! We deserve the credit...” “No, it was us! We're the ones who thought of doing stuff'!”

I’m imagining the board meeting where this slogan was brought up. “OK, it looks like so far we’ve got... ‘Your Witness,’ ‘Gooba Gooba,’ 'Yo-Yo Ma,' and ‘Bite Me.' So, any favorites here?” Then some bespectacled pencil nose with an advanced degree in Geekology intones, “Not vague enough. How about ‘Do Stuff’, dude?” And then another chimes in. “Yeah, that just sort of does it for me. It’s quixotically non-committal with a sort of post-modernistic appeal to it, and stuff.” To which everyone else in the room voices their rousing approval, and then the rest is history. So come to our store, do stuff, pay us money, and then go home again. But don’t forget to do stuff during that time. It’s crucial that stuff is done. If stuff is left undone, no telling what might happen. If you don't do anything else in your day, be sure that it's stuff. Don't settle for imitations.

What a marketing strategy, eh? I'm putting my stocks in Radio Shack right away. I want to catch this rising star, boy. Forgive me if I trip over you in my excitement while rushing to the nearest outlet. That was the missing ingredient in my day, and I just couldn't put a finger on it. Now I finally have direction in my life, and I can retire in the Poconos. All over the world now, people are hitting themselves in the forehead, exclaiming, "Why didn't I think of that?" Thank you, Radio Shack, for bringing meaning to my existence. I don't think it's too early to say there could be Pulitzer in their future. Don't want to spoil anyone's surprise, but I'm just sayin'.

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Recently, I've found that I like to live more than one day at a time. Up front, that may sound peculiar or even trite, but there is some substance to it. It becomes too hard for me to focus on just one day, and 24 hours is merely an arbitrary time period anyway. Well, it is a cycle that your mind/body responds to and has adapted to, though it could just as well be shorter or longer if the earth's rotation were different. Chess masters can think dozens of moves in advance, which can provide a facsimile for this discussion. In a sense, they're playing the game in the present and in the future. So I'm of the opinion that focus is overrated and largely undefined anyway. I think I can focus on two days at the same time as if they were one day.

While we may commonly think ahead to later in the week or next week, we don't tend to group these futures with the current time. This nuance might not matter to many of you, but to anyone for whom it does, it's important to make the distinction. We tend to categorize the nowness of our experience with the patterns of light and dark. Once we're deep into the night, the old now concludes and makes way for a new now. Indeed, the light period itself is referred to as "day", even though a day includes the nighttime. In this sense, the word "day" is ambiguous. It carries two meanings in very similar areas. When we say, "What a day," we're not excluding the evening hours from the equation. The day starts at midnight and ends at midnight, at least by the calendar. It would seem to make more sense to have the day start at sunrise instead of midnight the night before. Plus, New Year's Eve parties would be a lot more interesting that way. The ancient Egyptians actually measured days from sunrise to sunrise, and I think they had it right.

When making our immediate plans (for the "day"), out of convenience we typically set aside tomorrow's agenda for safe keeping to use only after we get to the end of the current day. If someone gets too deep into discussion about tomorrow while today is still going strong, they're likely to be encouraged not to "get ahead of themselves." This would suggest an attention timespan of no more than till the next sleep.

Is it just a psychological block, though? Why is it acceptable to be thinking of tonight's plans at 7 a.m., but not quite as acceptable to be thinking of tomorrow's plans at 3 p.m.? Why are we wont to discourage people from thinking past their next sleeping pattern (unless it's right before bedtime and the current day is "done")?

So then what is the utility of considering such ramifications as these? Stretch the mind, give it some elasticity. There's a lot more room for thinking outside the box. Aristotle would approve.

* * * * * * * * * *

Psychologists have said that no two people can tell whether they are seeing a color the same way, because we can't see what they're seeing through their eyes. And it has nothing to do with color blindness or not, but just speaks to the relative aspect of a property of color. There is no single correct perception of red. We can pretty much all agree on what represents red to us collectively, yet we don't know if we're seeing it the just the same way as the next person, or which version would be "right". Why would consensus determine a physical property anyway?

Which is the true red? Or is there a true red? (each of the boxes is different)

Red (or redness) can be represented as a reading on the color scale, but is mostly an approximation measured in wavelengths of light between 625-740 nanometers, with a frequency of 480-405 Terahertz. But this still doesn't tell us how various non-colorblind people may view it. Your red may be a slightly different shade from my red. It's kind of neat, if you think about it, because we each get to invent our own colors and make our own uniquely authoritative palette. Yeah, that is kind of neat, actually. Let's run with it.

(Ed. - I just realized the definition of blog is: Things you thought of in passing but ran out of time to make any sense of. Gotta love it.)

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