Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Collective Soul's 'Run', Comfort in the Modern Era and Mediocrity

The second verse of Collective Soul's 1999 hit Run goes like this:

Is there a cure among us
From this processed sanity 
I weaken with each voice that sings 
In this world of purchase 
I'm going to buy back memories 
To awaken some old qualities 

As I listened to this song the other day, I actually listened to the words for the first time. It got me thinking:

Processed sanity. Most things these days that are processed are either unnatural, modified or wholly manufactured. I liked what was being sung. It was a message that has often crossed my mind. As a whole, humanity of today is very different than it was for our ancestors a thousand years ago. Mankind is not living up to its potential. We have changed fairly dramatically over the last 2-3 generations, even.

A geneticist from Stanford University, Dr. Gerald Crabtree, has argued in the journal Trends in Genetics that we are dumber than previous generations. He even stated that an Athenian from a thousand years ago could come to our time and be smarter than all of us.

But we make cars and planes... computers and smartphones. What did the Athenians and their contemporaries make? Little carts pulled by animals? Catapults? Come on, now. But wait...

Think about that. 

Someone designed a car or a plane. Someone designed and produced the electronics that we use daily. Specific individuals today combine other people's creations to make better tools for us all to use. But can you manufacture a car? Can I? Unlikely. But what about the Athenians? Sure they had markets and engaged in commerce and trade, but most any able bodied Athenian knew how to make and use the tools of his trade.

Similarly, two generations ago, my grandfather would see a problem, then with his natural ingenuity, he would engineer a solution based on what he had around him. He had the ability to do so because it was his nature... but it was also a talent that he exercised and sharpened. Sadly, what was a fairly common trait 40 years ago has now become a skill that most lack.

These Athenians are smarter than us and more resourceful...
even without all their limbs.
Dr. Crabtree pointed out that the average Athenian (and I suggest we include generations up through my grandparents' generation) had to rely on his or her own memory, problem solving and critical thinking skills. The current generation is devolving in these aspects because of inactivity. Our natural brilliance is suffering from atrophy. There is no life-saving necessity to store useful information in one's brain, because at one's fingertips is something called 'Google'. For example, where a previous generation had to know the basic workings of their personal vehicles, we have Jiffy Lubes everywhere and WikiHow articles accessible on a whim 24 hours a day.

Back in the Collective Soul song, the writer states that he wants "to buy back memories, to awaken some old qualities". This is exactly what Dr. Crabtree is suggesting we are missing. Memory and old qualities.

Richard Dean Anderson as the '80s real-life superhero, MacGyver
We are too comfortable. We don't need to constantly be aware of our surroundings in case we find ourselves in a MacGyver situation, because they just don't happen for the average person anymore. We have roadside assistance, so we don't need to worry about changing a flat tire. We have 24 hour plumbing services, so we don't need to understand the pipal organization within the walls of our homes. It is almost as if our self-sufficiency skills are stuck in a self-destructive round of the Kevin Bacon game. Rather than actually knowing how to do anything, we rely on being just a step or two away from someone who can help us.

In my fraternity, we had a chapter motto (to be perfectly honest, we actually had several, but one was better than the rest): "Mediocrity is of the adversary." Regardless of what or who your present adversary may be, your apathy or your choice to settle in and get comfortable is your biggest weakness and your opponent's most potent tool. By being mediocre, or getting too comfortable, your adversary does not need to do anything. You are limiting your own growth and your own progress.

If we are not finding ways each day to gain some level of useful knowledge, if we aren't finding ways to be better today than we were yesterday, we will continue to lose our natural abilities. To that degree, we will be responsible for the dumbification of the human race. Collective Soul asks, Is there a cure among us? I say to you there is. But it can only be self-administered. Be better today than you were yesterday. Get even better tomorrow. Decide to be observant and to think critically. Next time you realize that Danny DeVito's wife's real name isn't Carla, but you can't remember it is Rhea Perlman, think through it internally before immediately turning to Google. It works.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Whose idea was that?

Ideas are the genesis of all deeds and all movements throughout history. Some ideas (like mixing hazelnuts and chocolate) are great, some (like head cheese...warning: only click on the link if you have a strong stomach) are terrible. What I want to explore is what it takes for a bad idea to gain support and general acceptance.

'J' and 'K' flashy-thingying a
guy (off screen).
K, from Men in Black, said (paraphrasing): A person is smart, but people are dumb. Perhaps mob-mentality can explain humanity's general acceptance of bad ideas, but maybe there is something more. For example: How can an otherwise intelligent person consider, believe then accept that something as awful as the Holocaust is not only acceptable, but necessary? 

BasicVirtueHaving lived in the former USSR, I discussed the Holocaust with several older folks who had been there when it all took place. One older gentleman told me that, for him, it took consistent bombardment from the propaganda machine to comply. This bácsi (Hungarian for old guy) told me that every Jew he knew was a terrific person. So when all the antisemitic sentiments of the Nazi party began broadcasting over the airwaves, he dismissed it. Several weeks later, he started to assume that the only good Jews were the ones he knew, because the rest of them were vermin. Looking back, he was embarrassed that he did nothing to stop the persecution of the Hungarian Jews in his village. He realized that most everyone loved their neighbors and friends who were Jews, but like he had done, assumed that all the rest were scoundrels.

*   *   *   *   *

Another one that I will never understand is the whole Y2K fiasco. Who was the first guy who suggested that computers (machines designed to process large numbers, equations and algorithms) might not be able to count from 1,999 to 2,000? Not only did the first guy think it was a big deal, but also a large enough percentage of subsequent computer geniuses that it became a worldwide scare. From a guy (or group of guys) thinking the calendar's switch from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000 would break computers, it snowballed. People thought their bank accounts would vanish, that planes would drop out of the sky... that mass chaos would lead to riots and economic devastation.

Think about that for a minute.

Look how frightened the computer
is of the number 2000.
Even in 1999, people could chat with other human beings across the globe through computers. Cellular technology was fairly solid and mobile web browsing and SMS were becoming more and more common. Computer models were tracking weather systems and generating solutions to mathematical conundrums at universities and research labs all over the world. But for very obvious reasons (start this sentence over and read it sarcastically, if you didn't do so the first time.), people thought that a machine, called a computer, could not compute that 2,000 follows 1,999.

Folks withdrew money, some closed accounts they had maintained throughout their adult lives. Others built bunkers and loaded up on survival gear. All of this, and for what? Why? Because they heard it was coming and that it would be bad. Hindsight is 20/20, but with a little critical thinking, foresight can also be near 20/20.

*   *   *   *   *

Las Vegas Wedding Chapel
Then there is the infamous group of students from a private religious university several years ago who thought it would be a good idea to go to Las Vegas to get married. They didn't want to get married for real, but just to engage in coital activities before getting their marriages annulled the next day. There was one person who suggested the idea: we can experience something exciting and new, without breaking any commandments regarding pre-marital chastity, then just pretend it never happened. Another person, without thinking twice, agreed that it was a brilliant plan...the letter of the law would be followed and they could get a little closer to the hot babes from the adjacent apartment. Subsequently, others (including the hot babes from the adjacent apartment) hopped on board and executed the idea.

-------Story continues below-------

Although it is common for college students to engage in promiscuous activities, this situation was a particularly ridiculous idea because of all the ways in which they justified their actions. The students could just have done whatever they wanted to do, without the sham marriage and two days later, nothing would have been different. But they spent a lot of time and money trying to trick the system. The end result is they were dismissed from the school for violating the code of conduct they swore to uphold and all the justification they could devise was meaningless.

Good rule of thumb: if one has an idea that requires an abundance of maneuvering around laws or ethics, it probably isn't a good idea. A solid idea should stand on its own merit.

This is planking... this is it.
There are plenty of plain old bad ideas out there. People all over the world are devising and supporting them everyday. Groups large and small show support for dangerous, ridiculous, evil or just plain stupid ideas on a regular basis. Why? Think about planking. People have died from falling off of buildings and bridges because they wanted to show how brilliantly awesome they were... by laying face-down, as flat as a board on everyday objects. Idiots!

Along those same lines... the whole YouTube craze where people try to do something ridiculous in order to get views. Some of the worst involve pogo sticks on treadmills or anything else that can result in broken bones and/or death. All for hits on a video sharing website.

Without going into a discussion, it is also worth noting: reality TV, the Tickle Me Elmo insanity, Furbies and mannequins with nipples.

What others are out there?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Rants for thought...

PART 1: Scrumptious misnomers:


It has always bothered me that there is a candy bar called 3 Musketeers that doesn't have three of anything in it. It is just a whipped, chocolaty, milky substance dipped in a chocolate shell. There is absolutely nothing about the 3 Musketeers that has anything to do with the number 3, with musketeers or with the literary trio known as The Three Musketeers. There is no "One for all and all for one" mentality associated with the bar at all. Why on Earth would they name the bar 3 Musketeers?

Basic VirtueWhat makes me more uneasy is to realize there is an actual candy bar (made in the same factory, no less) that has three distinct elements working together in harmony:  peanut, caramel and nougat. (Since the outer chocolate shell is common to both candy bars, I omit it as one of the elements.) This candy bar is not called 3 Musketeers, instead it is named Snickers. What about a Snickers bar can be associated with slightly reserved chuckles?

I realize that candy doesn't have to make sense, I learned that from Willy Wonka. So by extension, names of candy bars certainly don't need to follow a logical nomenclature system. But something this obvious should have caught the attention of Naming Committee at Mars.

To rectify the nonsense, here is my proposal: Call today's Snickers the 3 Musketeers bar going forward. The current 3 Musketeers bar should be changed to the Milky Way bar. Because it is nothing but a chocolate-covered, chocolaty milky way from end to end. This leaves the name 'Snickers' without a bar and today's Milky Way without a name. So match those two up and call it good.

-------Story continues below-------

PART 2: Authoritarian Travel Agents:

Picture yourself saving money for a long time in order to go on vacation. You want to see a new part of the world, to experience new cultures. So you collect enough money for airfare and lodging, along with cash for activities and souvenirs. You are full of anticipation and excitement! Boarding the plane, you begin to day dream of all the wonderful things you'll do, sights you'll see and cuisine you will eat.

Instead of Holiday Inn Express, let's call it Hostage Inn Express.
You land, take a cab to your hotel and begin to check in. The host at the front desk hands you your key, your meal tickets and a list of activities offered by the hotel throughout the duration of your stay. He also hands you an itinerary. As you glance over the schedule, you realize that they are only letting you leave the hotel for a few hours each day, except on the third day. On the third day, you have to stay in the hotel all day long.

The bell boy, almost instinctively, like he can read your thoughts, says: "Don't worry sir, shuffle board is very popular."
Every day their shufflin'.

Shuffle board, you think to yourself. How old do I look to this kid? Just then, you see that all of your meals will be forced upon you by the hotel staff. The menus are pre-planned and not to your specific tastes. At least there is a buffet, you tell yourself.

But as great as a buffet may be, you are trapped. You cannot go where you want to go or do what you want to do. You are given a few choices of activities, but they all involve staying put in the hotel... except for the daily guided tours.

Is this what you saved three years to do? To be a hostage guest at a hotel?

Now, for those of you who haven't made the connection, I am ranting against the cruise industry. With a cruise ship, there are four distinct differences between it and a regular, land-based hotel:

Costa Concordia partially sunk January 13, 2012 after
striking a rock.
1. The hotel will not strike an iceberg or large rocks or coral reefs to ultimately sink in the ocean. The cruise ship might.
2. The food that is served at a hotel could be brought fresh everyday. On a cruise ship, it was only fresh on the first day.
3. The hotel will not make you seasick. The cruise ship can.

4. The view from your hotel room window will not change, but on a cruise ship, it likely will. As long as you don't have a cabin facing the shuffle board court or the ocean-only side of the ship.

Sacha Baron Cohen as "The Dictator"

Think about it... the cruise industry had to have been invented by either a dictator who had a thing for planning/organizing travel or the other way around... a travel agent who had dreams of being a dictator.