Monday, February 28, 2011

The Original Reality Show

Last night brought the single episode of the season for one of television's most enduring reality shows ... The Academy Awards.  Now in it's 83rd year, with an almost entirely new cast each season, this show somehow never fails to attract attention, despite the abundance of reality show rivals.  Is the Best Actor somehow more prestigious then the Iron Chef or the American Idol?  Does the Best Actress outshine the Biggest Loser or the pick of The Bachelor?

Fifty years ago, historian and all-around smart guy Daniel Boorstin wrote about pseudo-events in his 1961 book, The Image.  Pseudo-events are events arranged to give the impression of being news.  The Oscars ceremony is probably the grand-daddy of these, with lavish sets, elegant couture, film clips and other references to the art actually being honored (lest we forget), all staged to inflate the importance of movies and the movie industry.

What about books?  Maybe such a ceremony is what's needed to raise the profile of literature, and to elevate books to the status of entertainment, instead of mere art.  Wouldn't that be something?

After pausing on the red carpet to gush to the media about their tweed jackets with elbow patches, and their jean/sweatshirt ensembles, the year's top authors, editors and publishers file into the Library of Congress for their big night.  Flashes sparkle as Margaret Atwood, Ian Frasier, Patti Smith, Salman Rushdie and many others saunter into the hall.

Dazzling in their sweats and bathrobe, co-hosts Dave Eggers and Barbara Kingsolver exchange witty banter while introducing the succession of award presenters.  Legend Philip Roth is escorted onto the stage to present the award for Best Using of Gerunds (and to flirt shamelessly with Kingsolver, whom he repeatedly addresses as Anne Frank.)

Tension mounts as the posthumous achievement award goes to Stieg Larsson.  Finally, no less a figure than J. K. Rowling, the Steven Spielberg of literature, takes the stage to award the prize for Best Work of Fiction to ... H.R. 2: Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Altitude Problem

We are at once animals and intellectual/spiritual beings.  We occupy physical bodies, with their urgent demands, and yet we're capable of thinking in abstraction, of designing huge buildings and writing ennobling music.  We can watch "Wipeout" and switch to "Masterpiece" with the press of a button.

And historically, we've associated those sides of ourselves with altitude.  The more physical, animal urges are often described as low, base or earthy.  Our more intellectual and spiritual pursuits are high or lofty.  The Western tradition at least puts hell "down below" somewhere, and heaven up above us.  Someone with his head in the clouds is quite different from someone with his mind in the gutter.  (Of course, we also refer to great thinkers as deep or profound, so go figure.)

I'm thinking about plotting altitude changes over time.  As infants, we're pretty focused on input and output ... the bodily basics.  We're at the bottom of the graph.  As we grow, we learn how to cover those basic needs, and start to think about things like school, friends and TV schedules.  Somewhat later, we may develop a social conscience, worrying about wars, the environment and philosophy ... the meaning of life.

We pass that peak, and our concerns turn to entertainment systems, hardwood floors and cleaning products.  I'll never forget a shopping trip with a dear friend, one with whom I had shared countless hours of debating politics and discussing philosophy.  We were going to change the world, but now he practically lept across the supermarket aisle, exclaiming "Wow!  SoftScrub now has bleach!"

And ultimately, we're going to wind up worrying about taking our pills and getting enough fiber.  Walking may again become a challenge, and even getting a good night's sleep may be elusive.  So maybe the altitude graph looks like a bell curve, starting and ending with bodily functions, and peaking at metaphysics somewhere in the middle.

By the way, a good business model is to package physical basics like food, shelter and clothing as lofty activities like haute cuisine, luxury homes and high fashion.  Ever see a bidet?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Better Late

Ok, it's confession time.  Here it comes:

I sometimes procrastinate.

There are actually some benefits to procrastination, both for the procrastinator and for anyone waiting for results.  Let me explain.

Typically, we put off unpleasant tasks.  Kids don't say "I think I'll wait on having that ice cream."  Men don't say "Oh, let's have sex later."  Women don't ... well, women don't procrastinate anyway.  But if they did, they would not be putting off bubble baths and neck rubs.

Now we naturally excel at things we enjoy doing.  It only stands to reason.  The more you love doing something, the more you're going to do it, and the better you'll get.  Practice makes perfect.

So by putting off the unpleasant tasks, we're actually allowing more time for the skill-building process to work.  This is why last minute rush jobs are always so awesome.  You've delayed the work until the required skills have peaked.

In addition, you have the adrenaline rush of imminent danger to keep you focussed on the task at hand.  Adrenaline, or epinephrine, to use the politically-correct name, basically kicks you into high gear, making you alert and energetic.  That's a big asset in getting something done, and you can't get that by starting things early.

And besides ... Ah, who am I kidding?  I've got nothing.  Once again, I've delayed too long in writing this.  Ideas just aren't flowing.

But at least I'm alert.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Elementary, My Dear

Those of us fortunate enough to be alive at this moment are witnesses to an incredible event.  (Others will have to watch it on YouTube.)  The event is nothing less than the end of human domination on this planet.  Or at least, the end of human domination on TV game shows.  IBM's Watson technology has beaten some very formidable human challengers to become a new champion on Jeopardy!  Following a brief sojourn at Disney World, Watson will begin preparing to face its opponents on Dancing With the Stars and Survivor. Then, after the usual talk show circuit, Watson will compete on Project Runway and may literally throw down Bobbie Flay.  (Iron Chef was thought to be redundant.)

Of course, the talk show appearances may be the most demanding --

Leno: Travel Plans for $2000 ... Disney World.
Watson: What am I going to do now?
Leno: Technology for $2000 ... Medical Research
Watson: What is my next career move?

You see, that's really all it knows how to do.  Did you notice that Alex Trebek failed to chum up to Watson and get any amusing anecdotes?

The fact is that Watson was built just to play Jeopardy!  It doesn't get coffee or answer phones.  It doesn't do your taxes or balance the budget.  It plays Jeopardy!  And it took a team of nearly 50 people to make it do that.  (I know that from counting the faces in the pictures on the IBM Web site.  Could Watson do that?)

I'm not trying to belittle the accomplishment.  Watson is certainly a technological breakthrough, and some of the problem-solving techniques that were developed for Watson could be used in other areas.  In fact, I suspect technologists are much more in awe of Watson than the average TV viewer.  I think most people would say, "Of course a computer would win on Jeopardy!  It's a computer!! Duh!"

In fact, there are rumors Microsoft is working on a rival computer, to be called Bill.  Bill will not only understand questions and answers in the English language.  It will automatically find words in English and register trademarks on them.  And remarkably, Bill is not named after a founder of Microsoft, but rather after its widely acknowledged talent for sending out invoices.

So let's not throw in the towel just yet, humanity.  After all, there's still Wheel of Fortune and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Ever been someplace where you're too hot while others are too cold, or vice versa? Ever have trouble sleeping in an unfamiliar bed? Ever wish you could sprint around mountains and leap over tall buildings?

I think Iron Man has the answer. Iron Man, the comic book not-quite-superhero, built himself a suit that can perform all kinds of amazing things.  Basically, whoever wears it becomes a superhero, able to fly, use built-in weapons, and look totally buff.

Imagine what a suit like that could do for you.  First, it could walk, run, jump and even fly for you.  This could totally replace crutches, wheel chairs and heelys.  It would, of course, have climate control, so you'd be comfortable at any temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.  If everyone had a suit like this, there'd be no need to heat and cool buildings anymore.

In fact, there'd be little need for buildings at all.  You could store your stuff in a locked steel box, but basically, you'd have no real need for furniture.  You could sit in the suit, and even sleep on the ground in complete comfort.  You could get around on a glacier, a rocky mountainside or the bottom of the ocean as easily as in an office.  You could even have a place to carry your iPad.

And, of course, the suit would monitor your vital signs, make sure you eat right and get enough exercise.  The suit controls how much or how little effort you have to expend to do things, so your workout may be running across the continent every morning, or jumping over a few skyscrapers.

Or you could simply tell the suit where you want to go, and relax and text your friends while it takes you there.  In fact, why go anywhere?  The suit has no need of you.  It knows what to do.  Stay home and watch TV.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day

Ah, Valentine's Day ... a day to love, especially if you're a florist or chocolatier.

Traditionally, Valentine's Day celebrates romantic love ... the kind that forms the basis of romantic comedies.  An alien watching these movies to understand our culture would come to the conclusion that romantic love is when two people who hate each other and have nothing in common wind up causing a series of increasingly calamitous events leading up to sex.  Come to think of it, I guess that's pretty accurate.

You see, there are many kinds of romantic love.  In some ways, love is like cheese ... there are all different kinds and flavors.  Some are soft, some hard.  Some are mild, others sharp and tangy.  Some are young and fresh; Others must be aged to be enjoyed. Some are obvious; Others you have to peel the wax off. And, like cheese, love goes well with wine and crackers.  (Just don't get crumbs in the bed.)

I'm trying to decide between two definitions of love:
  • Love is when you feel you're part of something bigger than yourself ... a relationship, a religion, a nation, etc., or ...
  • Love is when you actually are part of something bigger than yourself.
I'm stumped as to which of these is a better fit.  Is love a feeling, or is it a state or condition of being?

On the other hand, it's impossible to define love. As soon as you try, someone's bound to come along and say "I had a parakeet once that I loved," and shoot your theory all to hell. We could start with the proposition, "Love is anything that happens between two people that feels good." Does it have to feel good? No. Do there have to be two of them? No. Do they have to be people? No.

Maybe we should leave it at, "Love is anything that happens."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Workplace Diversity

In an effort to maintain workplace diversity in the home office, I currently employ two cats, Cindy and Buttons.  Cindy, the bossier one, is the floor manager.  She's responsible for examining and, if appropriate (or not), eating anything that falls on the floor.  Cindy also spearheaded the office recycling program, developing a groundbreaking technique for converting paper and plastic into vomit.

Buttons, ever the inquisitive one, heads the research department.  She's the first to look into any open cabinets, boxes, paper bags or toilets.  Buttons also takes care of intra-office communications, making sure that news and snail mail are regularly delivered and digested.  She then alerts me to any immediate needs by banging some part of her anatomy repeatedly against my office door.

Both cats help out with facilities management, making sure that break rooms (the entire house outside my office) are suitably stocked with refreshments and diversions.  This is only fair, since union regulations mandate they get two breaks each day: from 8:30 until noon, and from 12:10 until 5:00.

When not on break, both cats also handle building security.  They are ever alert to any signs of a security breach.  At the slightest provocation, they immediately assume lock-down positions behind the file cabinet and in the back of the upstairs closet, respectively.

Together, they keep the office running smoothly, so that I'm able to work without distractions except for feeding, watering, cleaning the executive litter-boxes, throwing the catnip mouse, crawling under the furniture to retrieve the catnip mouse, picking up the mail, showing Buttons where her dish is, showing Cindy where her dish is, showing Buttons where her dish is again, and so on.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Late Season Clearance!!


Special clearance on all inventory, including

Approx. 3.5" to 4" diameter.
Guaranteed soft, free of ice or
other irregularities. Aero-
dynamically shaped for
throwing accuracy.

4 snowballs..... $10.00
10 snowballs..... $20.00
25 snowballs..... $35.00

Traditional 3-part gender-neutral snow
torso. Made of finest New England
powder, this perfectly balanced figure
is a proud addition to any home. Can be dressed to suite any style or fashion. Anatomically accurate versions available. (Specify gender when ordering.)  (Facial features and accessories sold separately.)

3-Part Snow Figure ..... $125.00

In this age of heightened domestic security, what could be more reassuring than this rugged, all-natural snow fort? This solid, one-piece construction (28" tall) will defend kids ages 3-9, with a smooth ridged top for reconnaissance and pre-emptive strikes.

Snow Fort ..... $265.00
Be sure to check our other specials!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Alphabetical Disorder

Ok, I'll admit it. I'm compulsive. If I like a multi-volume book or a book series, I have to have all of them, in order, from the same edition so they'll match. I want every issue of a magazine, or I save none. And I want my email converted to a database or Wiki where all the useful information is preserved, in a logical structure, with all typos and spelling mistakes corrected. That's reasonable, right?

Think you may be compulsive?  Take this simple test:

  1. Tihs drives me crazy. (T/F) 

If you answered "TRUE," you may be compulsive.  If you copied this entire post, fixed the typo, and are now reading the corrected copy, seek help.

It used to be that INFORMATION was kept in BOOKS, which had been carefully edited and proofread, so they were reasonably correct and suitably packed with content. Of course, there were always plenty of trashy books, but you could recognize them by their lurid covers. (The really trashy books had plain covers. That was the tip off.)

Newspapers and magazines were considered ephemera ... reasonable ways of communicating short-lived information, but never with the weight, literal or figurative, of books. Then libraries started archiving newspapers and magazines, on microfiche or otherwise, so that even that transient information was preserved.

Now, information comes fast and furious, and from all sides. Everyone can publish via email, blogs, Facebook statuses (stati?), tweets, text messages and dozens of other means. New ones are being devised as I write. And all of it, every "c u l8r" and "squeat" message, every butt-dialed voice mail or accidental video of someone's feet, is considered content, potentially worthy of archiving.

If you watched the recent PBS series Downton Abbey, you saw that among the profusion of household staff, there were valets and maids for each member of the family, ready to help with everything from reviewing the day's schedule to selecting clothes. Think Jeeves in the well-known P. G. Wodehouse books (of which I don't yet have a matching set). These personal servants were ready with whatever was needed, at the moment it was needed. That was 100 years ago. Surely one goal of technology is to create the ultimate electronic valet ... something that can sift through all the thousands of messages and information sources and offer just what we need when we need it, with a clean simple presentation.  Yet instead, we have chaos.

The Internet, merely by simplifying the creation of spontaneous, poorly written messages, is a compulsive's nightmare.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Social Network (song)

Play Audio

I just joined the social network,
Hoping it would help me get work.
All I found was friends I never met.
Everyone told me their status:
How cool this is, how lame that is.
That's what's filling up the Internet.

Posts I just keep on receiving
From pages I don't believe in.
I don't care about your horoscope.
I can make my time productive
By doing something constructive.
All these apps will help me ... so I hope.

I thought "I don't see the harm, I'll
Play a few more rounds of Farmville.
Those pink baby pigs are fabulous.
Or, if that game gets too boring,
I can start Mafia Warring
Or devote my time to Scrabulous."

Now I see the social network
Is designed so you'll forget work.
MySpan, Faceberg vanquish tedia.
Now I've got an occupation
That's just like my dream vacation:
Marketing on social media.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day

I've been holed up in my office all day, so it's time to come out and see if I can see my shadow.  Not being a groundhog, though, I'm lacking in predictive powers.  If I see my shadow, it just means there's more daylight left.

On this date, the groundhog, or historically a bear or badger or other animal, either retreats back into his burrow, frightened by his own shadow, or else sallies forth into the world to start ... well, whatever it is that groundhogs do in the Spring.  This is an ancient custom, practiced even among pagan groundhogs during the Middle Ages and earlier, though contemporary folklore is inextricably and inexplicably bound up with actor Bill Murray.

Most observers, however, fail to realize that groundhogs do not predict weather so much as control it.  The duration of winter actually hinges on the groundhog's decision to either go out or stay home.  This is why groundhogs are now being intensely studied as possible instruments of climate change.  The National Science Foundation is funding studies in which large populations of groundhogs are exposed to computer simulated shadows, in an attempt to reverse global warming.  Preliminary results are inconclusive, but the sight of all those groundhogs wearing virtual reality glasses is quite overwhelming.

Another theory posits that groundhogs are actually descendants of an alien race, perhaps the same race responsible for the mysterious crop circles in England.  As this photo reveals, they are well on their way to the subjugation of human kind.