Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Rapid Generational Shifts

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

I remember some email forwards awhile ago that talked about the things each generation loses – an awareness of rotary phones, life without a microwave oven or cable TV, etc. It occurred to me that the changes of the last 10 years have brought even more rapid generational shifts. Here are some things future generations may never know:

Friendship without a virtual/digital component. Rarely if ever will anyone call a friend on the phone and decide to go do something. Text messaging and social networking websites will facilitate this. I remember in elementary school when I was bored, I would call my friend Carl and just say “can you play?” Which brings me to…

Memorization of phone numbers. With cell phones, whose phone numbers do you memorize anymore? I still remember my friends’ phone numbers from childhood (Carl: 741-1720, John Mark 741-5905, Elizabeth 741-5956) but these days the only phone numbers I really know are my parents and my friend Heather. This may eventually present a problem if I’m in an emergency without my phone. (This sounded like a familiar topic, and indeed I wrote some predictions for the future back in 2003 most of which still seem valid.)

A world without on-demand video access. Whether through YouTube, Netflix, or cable TV providers, today’s kids can pull up any visual or musical pop culture artifact at any time. It’s an exciting time to be a young musician, as footage is available online of just about any musician born after 1940. I have a vast library of bootleg guitar videos that I maintained and traded assiduously as a teenager and now they’re mostly valueless because nearly all of it is available on YouTube.

Non-rewindable TV. With DVRs, there is nothing that will be missed if the VCR wasn’t running. Didn’t catch that last statement? Missed something because of a bathroom break? Never again.

Retail music stores. This is the hard one for me. There may always be secondhand record shops and Walmart/Target, but standalone retail music stores are already done. I haven’t seen a CD store in a mall in a very long time. I’ve attended the going out of business sales of two Tower Records, two Virgin Megastores, a Circuit City, and a Camelot Music. Some of my fondest memories are of browsing the bargain bins at Camelot Music in Battlefield Mall in Springfield and McCain Mall in North Little Rock. It was thrilling to be confronted by all these albums by artists I had no clue about, and to try to glean something about them from their album covers. I’ve bought a lot of bargain CDs in my life; most of which weren’t great, but some of which changed my life forever.

Maps as paper objects. With GPS and smart phone navigation, who needs a Rand McNally road atlas anymore? Or maps of individual states? Or a giant set of World Book Encyclopedia volumes for that matter?

Ever again wondering who was that guy in that movie. With IMDB.com, you’ll never wonder again. The guy with the TV mailbag column in the newspaper will lose his job if he hasn’t already.

Ever again wondering what that song lyric is. It’s interesting to me that out of the literally hundreds of lyrics websites, not one of them has become a clear winner over the others. I guess because song lyrics aren’t proprietary information like IMDB’s databases. Any fool can write down their version of a song’s lyrics and put them online with a ton of pay-per-click ads and popups.

Some other physical items that I find myself without thanks to the Internet in general and the iPhone specifically: a wristwatch, an alarm clock, a compass, maps, notepads, a dictionary, a microcassette voice recorder, a calendar, a calculator.

If nothing else, our lives will be less cluttered by physical objects, but I wonder how much our brains will be cluttered with information. For everything we gain, we lose something I suppose.

Jaden, Caden, Jayden, Kaden

Monday, December 7th, 2009

As someone with an unusual name, I suspect I’m more sensitive than most to the topic of baby names. So when I hear the latest trendy made-up baby names, I cringe inwardly. The sensation is not unlike hearing someone beat a frying pan with a wrench.

Baby names are a unique part of language in that they are almost entirely connotative in nature. To be sure, names have denotative histories, but these often have little bearing on the naming of a particular child. I wasn’t named Colter because of any predilection for tending to horses. Instead, baby names are built on a tangled mass of personal associations and cultural reference points. Certain baby names achieve permanence while others ascend and descend in popularity over time. Caden and Jaden apparently popped into existence at roughly the same time: 1994.

Baby names are chosen almost exclusively on extremely subjective “coolness” or “prettiness” factors[1], and maybe I’m wrong but recently we as a society seem to have reached a tipping point where we are so susceptible to trends that we’re actively making up baby names and finding ever more esoteric ways of spelling common names[2] in a misguided effort to brand our children as unique.

To wit, I give you the Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1,000 baby names of the ’00s and the curious case of the “-dens”.

On the boy list alone we have:

54 Jayden
93 Jaden
95 Brayden
261 Jaiden
113 Caden
120 Kaden
168 Braden
281 Kayden
259 Cayden
956 Zayden

Now, “Braden” and “Brayden” are variants of actual Gaelic names, so I have no quarrel with them (good job, Jenny, you chose the real one!). In fact, I should make the disclaimer that I have no rational argument whatsoever against any of these made-up names. All I can say is that when I hear “Jaden” or “Caden” some strange, completely irrational part of my brain becomes unhinged[3]. I don’t know why; I can only give you my suspicions. My primary suspicion is that I apparently have some serious reservations about making up baby names that sound like other names. My secondary suspicion is that I wince at parents’ foolhardy attempts to be original, yet just safe enough that they don’t go overboard and name their child something truly bizarre like Apple or Tuesday.

And you can’t escape unoriginality with baby names. My sister thought she was being a little on the creative side when she named her kids Emily and Austin. Turns out those were two of the most popular names in the mid 90′s. Indeed, Emily reigns as the #1 name for girls in the 00′s. There must be some strange mass-consciousness gravitation that can only be escaped by going whole hog and naming your child Dweezil.

An entirely connotative universe of baby names leads us here. Logically, denotatively, Apple is just as sensible a name to have as Summer or Autumn[4]. It’s all about establishing a precedent, really. Someone has to go out there and make it safe to name your kid Humphrey or Orson. Maybe someday Caden will be as commonplace as Heather was for girls born in the 70′s. I wonder if I’ll still cringe at the dissonance.

Epilogue: Shortly after posting this I decided to look up “Caden” in Wikipedia. There is a very small town in France called Caden. The particular region of France? Brittany. Apparently all the terrible baby names are being generated by a cabal of evildoers in Northwestern France.

1.) Or family history, but there are limits. There are very few Engleberts and Waldos left in the world for solid cultural reasons.

2.) Britney, Brittany, Britany, Brittainy…will the madness never end!??

3.) If you really want to drive me bananas, remind me that Britney Spears named a child “Jaden James.”

4.) Why is it no one names their kid Winter? I’ve known Springs, Summers and Autumns, but no Winters.

Exercising Perspective

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Kottke mentioned a hilarious site that lists uncomfortable plot summaries of popular movies. It’s a great example of how perspective works. There are any number of ways to describe something based on personal bias. My favorite example on the site is, naturally, the one for Star Wars:

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE: Religious extremist terrorists destroy government installation, killing thousands.

This got me thinking about how even the simplest and most harmless things can be described in ways that are disturbing:

  • Buying ice cream: “Cow exploitation causes thousands to gain weight.”
  • Watching a movie: “Man sits motionless for hours watching colored lights.”
  • Going to church: “Hundreds practice ritualized cannibalism in front of large torture device.”
  • Mowing the lawn: “Innocent creatures slaughtered and landscape devastated in mid-morning carnage.”

The Moon Landing Was Fake

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

In several Internet venues (Facebook, Gothamist, Onion AV Club) I’ve seen moon landing deniers crop up. I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but I’m more fascinated by the mindset of the theorists than I am by their theories.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the moon landing was fake (or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the Holocaust didn’t happen). Facts and evidence aside, this would require a Herculean effort on the part of hundreds of government employees and private citizens to maintain this secret. I just don’t think humans are up to that job.

Has there ever been a point in our history where dozens or hundreds of people successfully fooled millions of people in the United States? Because that’s what it would take for a hoax of this magnitude. Hundreds of people would have to know the truth, many of them civilians at NASA. I would think it an impossible task to keep that many people permanently silent on such a momentous event. NASA is not a military organization; there is no obligation to keep a secret this large, especially when it is of no importance to national security. I would think that in the last 40 years somebody who was actually there at NASA participating in the hoax would have come forward to expose the lie, or that these things would leak out as they historically have a habit of doing. If Nixon couldn’t keep a basic secret, then who can?

Humans are inquisitive by nature, and this is both the reason why so many doubt the legitimacy of the moon landing, and also why the landing has never been proven demonstrably false. For every person questioning the potentially fake broadcast, there would likely be even more individuals questioning the broadcast had it actually been faked. Possible examples: techs at CBS would question the source of the broadcast feed, astronomers would wonder why there’s a craft sitting in orbit rather than moving on to the moon, ham radio operators would have heard something different in the transmissions, and last but not least…somebody would have made millions writing a book to tell the story.

Humans also have a tendency to jump to the most exciting of possible conclusions. Seen a UFO? The answer must be aliens! Strange lights in Gurdon, Arkansas? It must be ghosts! History is littered with examples of exciting but disproven theories, but the news rarely spreads very far because the results weren’t exciting enough for anyone to care.

In general, I’ve discovered that, given a multitude of possible explanations for unexplained phenomena, the truth tends to lean toward the most boring option. The truth also tends to make its way to the people because lies have a short shelf life. Or maybe I’m just saying that because of all the Big Secrets still being kept. Somehow, I doubt it.

12th Century Wisdom

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I found this quotation recently on Andrew Sullivan’s blog from 12th century theologian-philosopher Hugo St. Victor:

The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man extinguished his.

This came as a reassuring message to me, as I’ve always felt like something of a stranger in a strange land. I’m from Harrison, Arkansas, but not of it. I live in New York City but it’s just as foreign to me.

The same statement could be applied to race and religion. Race, place and religion are the primary causes of war. While I lament the homogenization of America, the loss of native languages and cultural practices, I realize that for everything we lose culturally, we gain peace.

What divides us is what defines us. As in my previous post, if I say, “I’m an Arkansan,” then that’s 49 implied statements about the states I’m not from[1]. Ideally, we should not give objective preference to any one place or race (or religion but that’s much harder to do); we should only recognize them as subjective preferences, personal to our life experiences. Pride of race, place or religion may help give people confidence and identity, but they lose a greater understanding of the world at large in the process.

1.) Plus all the lovely inferences and assumptions that come with making that statement.

Twitter Love and Twitter Hate

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

I keep hearing people hating on the Twitter. Maureen Dowd wrote a nasty little interview with the founders (parodied here to genius levels), and my friend Mark is convinced that Twitter is the event horizon of the coming Idiocracy.

I tend to side with the cautiously optimistic. I can see the potential for a vast wasteland of irrelevancies broadcast amongst the foolish, and I can also see the value in knowing what my friends and heroes are up to in something approximating real time. Living in New York, it’s uniquely fantastic when someone like Imogen Heap tweets that she’s headed to Apple Store, so that I might have a chance to bump into her (I missed her), or when my friend Tom tells everybody the admission price to his latest show dropped to ten bucks. It’s also nice to be entertained by John Mayer, who clearly wishes he were a standup comedian.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, there’s Ashton Kutcher. He really thinks Twitter is the logical evolution of radio to telephone to TV to web to tweet, and that its founders are to be enshrined alongside the names Marconi, Farnsworth, and Bell.

Maybe. One thing I’ve noticed, though, about life-changing inventions in my lifetime is that almost none of them have individual inventors. No one person can be credited with inventing the Internet, the cell phone or the personal computer as we know it. As the Master Control Program says in Tron, “No one User wrote me. I’m worth millions of their man-years.” The real lasting value of something like Twitter will take a decade or two to determine. After all, what is Twitter but a MySpace or Facebook status update? And what will come along in 5 more years that might replace it? The Internet makes so much collaboration possible that I wonder if the next hundred years of inventions will be defined by networked team efforts rather than individual genius.

For now, we have Twitter to play with. Maybe it will go away as people get bored with it, but it seems to be of enough value that it will never truly die. Like MySpace, which nearly everyone I know as all but abandoned, persists because its vast musical platform continues to provide value for musicians. As long as it provides a service people enjoy, it will continue to exist in some shape.

Video never really killed radio. So why should MySpace or Twitter be any different?

Definitions

Friday, April 17th, 2009

As so many people are concerned with marriage being between a man and a woman, I’d like more people to defend the notion that war should be between a country and another country.

Wars fought between a country and a nebulously defined concept should be considered null and void. Wars between a country and randomly distributed individuals across multiple countries should also be outlawed.

If the purpose of marriage is to produce children, then the purpose of war is to produce victory. And how can victory ever be achieved without someone declaring surrender?

On a similar note, humans should never be allowed to marry animals because animals cannot give consent. Nor can nebulously defined concepts or randomly distributed individuals across multiple countries. Beyond that, what consenting individuals or countries do in the privacy of their own lands is none of my business.

Walking Zen

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Walking in NYC can be difficult, primarily because of all the other moving obstacles. NYC pedestrians, if they are destination-focused, tend to walk much the way commuters in, say, Dallas, drive: at a constant speed of just-past-comfortable, and with a desire to get out from behind anyone in their way.

Much like my fellow New Yorkers, I have a particularly swift walking pace. This speed is set unconsciously by the nervous system, and I’ve recently learned that walking rhythm is actually is handled by the spinal cord itself without any assistance by the brain. This means that whenever walking speed has to be altered, the task of changing pace is transferred up to the brain for a conscious decision. I’ve noticed that I get vaguely agitated when this happens.

Breaking rhythm seems to be something my body wants to avoid. When presented with a jam of people, my feet will often take the same number of steps, just in progressively smaller strides (often until I’m making near-imperceptible baby steps). It’s as though my brain is an irascible boss that my nervous system really doesn’t want to bother.

All of this depends on whether or not I’m actively trying to get somewhere. If I have no particular destination and am just enjoying walking around, I tend to move slower and with more flexibility to changes in speed. I mosey.

So my goal for my daily commute is to mosey more. But it’s hard. I have to really pay attention to each step. Unlike meditation, where breathing is controlled voluntarily in an effort to quiet the mind, walking mindfully requires the exertion of energy and a lot of environmental navigation (the tracking and predicting of others’ movements and the shifting of speed and position to compensate). To actively subvert natural biorhythms is a tricky business. The brain has only so much bandwidth with which to juggle all these activities, which is probably why it farmed out the walking rhythm to the spinal cord in the first place.

It’s a challenge. Most of the time I end up just reminding myself every few minutes to slow down.

Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia

Monday, March 16th, 2009

A friend recently told me she was diagnosed with a condition that translates, as she put it, to “my heart doesn’t talk with my head much… and then when it does it over compensates.”

Who amongst us hasn’t had that problem? I know my mind tends to overcompensate when it comes to communicating with my heart. I’m glad to have such a splendidly multisyllabic label for this. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia.

As a bonus, the electrophysiological test involved to detect the condition involves going through groin arteries to analyze the heart’s electrical system. So to get to her heart, they had to go through her groin.

Who amongst us hasn’t had that problem? I think this one is less a problem for me than it is for other people, though.

Economics Question

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I remember as a kid when I first opened a savings account. I think it was First Federal[1], at the branch in the mall (correct me, mom, if I’m wrong). I was really surprised that just by giving some money to the bank I’d get more money back over time. It didn’t really make sense to me, but I accepted it as just another one of the thousands of concepts we’re introduced to as children that we don’t have the time or tools to question. So I’d like to revisit this, in light of recent economic events:

Where does the added value come from on a savings account or a certificate of deposit? How can a bank guarantee any rate of return[2]? Is it simply assumed that the bank’s business will grow enough over time that the value gets produced? Is that always a realistic assumption; is there not risk involved here? Are banks essentially shell games where Peter deposits money to pay for the interest on Paul’s CD?

Somebody help me out here. I was never good with numbers.

1.) I also wondered why banks and churches were so intent on being “first” – “First Federal Bank,” “First National Bank,” “First Baptist Church”…meanwhile you never hear of “First Pizza” or “First Burger Joint.” I’m still kind of mystified by this, actually. It must have something to do with seriousness. You can put some personality into Little Caesar’s pizza, but don’t go naming your bank or church “Luigi’s Famous.” Interesting historical turnabout: “Caesar” is now head of a small pizza empire while his former Christian prisoners now dominate much of Western civilization and pretty much founded the American way of life.

2.) And don’t say the FDIC. That’s not what I mean.