January 2010


Watchful EyeAt the moment I’m reading, SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  It’s a fun book if you like random facts and learning about why people actually do things (at least according to the principles of economics). It is an easy read, and I recommend it.  And it was while reading a chapter entitled “Unbelievable Stories about Apathy and Altruism” that I came across this tidbit:

At the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, a psychology professor named Melissa Bateson surreptitiously ran an experiment in her own department’s break room.  Customarily, faculty members paid for coffee and other drinks by dropping money into an “honesty box.”  Each week Bateson posted a new price list.  The prices never changed, but the small photograph atop the list did.  On odd weeks, there was a picture of flowers; on even weeks, a picture of human eyes.  When the eyes were watching, Bateson’s colleagues left nearly three times as much money in the honesty box.  So the next time you laugh when a bird is frightened off by a silly scarecrow, remember that scarecrows work on human beings too.

After reading this I almost immediately thought of the call for openness in government and all the endless lip service to bipartisan efforts to improve the way Washington does business.

Not to be overly cynical, but I don’t think those divides are going away anytime soon, so what if, as a stopgap measure, we just painted eyes on the inside of the capital?  You could put them on the roof, inside of drawers, on desks, over doors, and even in all the offices.  Maybe then those in power would always have the feeling that someone was watching them and unconsciously strive to do better.

Another benefit to this idea is that it will put people to work.  It will take a lot of artists to make that many eyes, and then you need to transport the finished products to DC or arrange to allow people to work on site with the supplies they need. Those kinds of logistics will require a fair amount of administrative and budgetary oversight.  Also because these are historical buildings, you must have people there to inspect all the work and materials to insure that the eyes do not damage other artwork of historical and cultural value; then you will have to have professionals come and remove the eyes from time to time, because it won’t do to just have them always in the same spot.  They have to move so lawmakers can’t quite remember which eyes are fake and which are real.  Think of the paranoia that would cause them, and how that could fuel productivity!

There are other physiological implications and locations to consider as well.  For example, in the Treasury offices you could make all the eyes angry and look like they are boring holes into the very floor of the building.  That way the people handling our money will know just what we think of the job they have been doing.  The same goes at the White House.  Only there you can install disbelieving and disenchanted eyes of children who have just found out that there really is not a Santa Clause.  The guilt of shattered hopes and dreams could then haunt those who work there and encourage them to do a better job, if for no other reason than who wants to look at those accusatory stares all day, every day.

However, the opposite approach can also work.  Lets say there is a department, in this case we will say the Department of Transportation, and lets also say that they find a way to not only improve the existing Interstate highway system, but they do so without coast overruns and long delays (this is just a hypothetical after all).  Then you could paint bright, happy eyes that have that approving come-hither-you-sexy-efficient-and-wholly-unexpected-mac-daddy look in the eye.  This would not only improve the workers self-confidence, but might have a spillover effect on other departments that want to get more pleasant eyes in their building.

But then one thinks, why should it stop with just eyes…the well-placed ear could also do wonders; although, there are no studies that I’ve found where the only encouragement to be more honest is a painted ear, but it could be yet another way to employee people. And who knows what a study devoted to the that phenomenon could yield: it may even recommend that the best way to get people act as they are supposed to is to have other people there checking up on them.  Wait…someone pass the paint. We are going to need to make a whole lot of eyes!

It is often the case that when hanging out with my friend Mike that we have, as he puts it, “wacky adventures.”  This may be due the fact that we are both rather easy going, so when things go askew, we are more apt to adjust to the new circumstances then become bent out shape.  Of course it could also be that we are rarely out do anything of major importance to anyone but ourselves.  Such was the case this past weekend when I flew in to visit my friend after a three year hiatus, and we went in search of a working and entertaining pinball machine.

We undertook our quest in a 1987 BMW that no longer has a functioning odometer, sports a broken passenger-side door latch and faded paint job, and what is thought to be over 200,000 miles on it.  The car also handles, accelerates, and sounds like a racecar, and it has, in fact, been used as such.  Thus, we were perfectly equipped to search out a form of entertainment that is just as exciting as any race, but which the general public’s eye would slide off just as readily as most people would discount this marvel of German engineering and durability.

In the age of the iPhone, movies on demand, the PS3, and a marked decline in the prevalence of arcades, pinball machine have all but disappeared.  The bumpers, lights, ramps, all became either too costly to repair or simply no longer generated profit enough for most companies to justify the expense of making new ones.  Mike and I were both aware of this, but it did not stop the quest.

So we searched.  Not in any planed way, but by driving to the local Dave and Busters to see if they had a machine. Predictably they didn’t, and while they did give us a lead on a place that might have a machine they were not really sure anyone still had them.  This particular arcade had dispensed with their last pinball machine over a year ago, and both the employees that we spoke to felt that most other establishments would have done the same.

With no other real plan, we wandered the midway.  There were games aplenty, but for the most part they were video games (one that caught both our eyes was a “Rambo” game…we decided it must not have been any good, as they only showed clips from the various movies and not the actual game).  But lo! There was something hidden in the bowls of that room that was worth the trip, a coin drop machine.  Shaped like a pentagon, it has two levels both loaded with coins.  The object is just to drop a coin on the top level which slides back and forth, so that the drop-coin, when compressed into the mass of other coins, forces one or a group of coins to move and forces those perched on the ledge of the first tier over the lip and down below where the process in repeated.  The more that fall, the more tickets you get.

While enticing, it would probably not have sold us, if it were not for the CD kiosk hooked up to the iTunes store.  But once that gleaming display of near obsolete technology showed itself to us, we were both hooked, and dutifully began the process of acquiring enough tickets to make a rocking burn-CD.

It took both of us playing the coin machine for fifteen minutes and more than 20 bucks to get enough tickets to claim our prize.  However, in the end, both of us stood in front of this kiosk, iPods in our pockets loaded with music, and made a CD.  We took it in turns to pick a song, which were mainly old hip-hop and rap (think OPP and James Brown).  We never did find a pinball machine, but we did wind up finding a technological relic (the CD) nevertheless.

On the way to meet Mike’s fiancée for diner we rocked that mix-CD harder than Motley Crew hit the bottle.  We zoomed down the road with huge grins on our face.  Our mission not even remotely accomplished, and yet, it was an awesome outing.  The kind of trip that results in a story that will be probably be told, exaggerated, warped, and recounted more than once.  In short, the kind of story that we all have with our good friends.  So if you have a story like that with a friend that you’ve not seen in a while, call them up.  Share a laugh. And go find a pinball machine (Particularly in the Washington DC or San Antonio areas) so I will know where to go get my fix!

I know I’m behind the curve, but I finally watched Avatar this past weekend. I sat in a theater enshrined in a replica of a Greek or Roman temple, and helped the movie retained its poll position at the box office, raking in $34.9 million this past weekend. (Side note: as I worked on this post, Yahoo informed me that Avatar has now become the all time highest grossing movie at the world-wide box office.)  For those of you who have not seen it, I won’t spoil the actual plot, but I will quote my friend, who upon exiting the theater declared, “if the Blue Man Group and the battles from the movie Troy got together and had a baby, it would be Avatar.”  At the time this seemed a good description, probably because it was much more funny than my other friends comment, “I liked the movie, but I wished it didn’t make humans look like such ass holes.”  To be honest, that is the one that has stuck in my head since last Saturday.

Also on my mind is the 19th century.  This is most like because I’m currently reading Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel by Julia Keller.  If you’ve not read it, I recommend it, as it is completely fascinating.  One of the things I learned is that many of the patent systems around the world are based upon the one we created here in the United States.  But more importantly there was a mindset that was at once both focused on profit and that saw no contradiction between making money and philanthropy.

You may wonder why I mention that when talking about a movie, and the answer is I think that Avatar, at least in terms of the humans portrayed, represents the way that people in the early 21st century view corporations and business in general.  We all seem to think that they “[do] business with led-pipe-cruelty” and that any beneficial actions they take are only motivated out of a need for a tax write-off, good press, or both.  The recent interviews with the heads of Wall Street certainly have done nothing to allay this impression.

But wait!  The 19th century is still alive and well my friends.  At organizations like Project H Design, the idea that one can turn a profit and help the world has not been lost.  Which begs the questions, are humans  ass holes, or is it just that we are usually focused on the wrong thing?  Are people truly creatures that are willing to sanction the use of extreme force to compel  people (albeit, in the movie they were fifteen feet tall, blue, and had tails) to move and justify all kinds of horrendous behavior because we “hate bad quarterly returns?” Or do we rise to our better nature, and sometimes, even with the best of intentions find we have gone down the wrong road?

These questions are much too big for this trifle of a thought.  However, if history is any indication, then people might be inclined to think that the former is the truth.  And yet. If that truly is the case, why does the fiction of every generation tell us otherwise?  We always have voices advocating for the best in us.  We always have those (even if they always seem feeble and few) who stand up and tell us what is right and what is wrong.  In doing so, a majority of us recognize that something is wrong in the world and that we, as a race, can do better.

This, more then the fact that there seems to be only weak competition at the box office, may account for why Avatar is doing so well.  The hero takes the journey from a more or less Machiavellian outlook to the kind of understanding and respect of his neighbor that leads to his active repudiation of his former life.  It is a catharsis at the deepest root of the word (If you can, watch the movie in a replica of a Greek temple…I swear I can’t make that kind of joke up!).  So, as odd as I find it to admit this, Avatar my actually be doing so well, because it is a reminder to us all that we can and should do better, and that sometimes that takes a shifting of viewpoints the will to act against our inclinations and habits.

And as a side note…I totally want one of those flying bird/lizard things.

What a difference a year makes.  I’ve not really touched on politics in my postings, as most people would rather have their teeth pulled out by a blind dentist using rust pliers than listen to it.  But it was a year ago today that I, and what seemed like millions of my closest friends, packed The Mall and streets of Washington DC to see the President sworn into office.  With stomps of our feet and the chattering of our teeth we watched jumbotrons and listened to pontificators talk about the new age that we were about to embark up, as if we were all waiting to board a ship bound for an exotic destination.

As is traditional, the President has accumulated a swath of gray hair since taking office.  Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would want the job.  The hours are bad; you can’t take a vacation with out it being interrupted by something; and poll numbers, senate math, and the endless parade of non-answers to vague or scripted questions wind up with an inordinate amount of pull in your life.  Even then, after all is said and done, it looks like the big issue of health care may just be part of a lithermon’s-load.

Lithermon’s-load, again, comes from The Forgotten English Calendar by Jeffrey Kacirk, and it means, “a greater load than can be well carried at one time, but is nevertheless undertaken to save the trouble of another journey—a lazy man’s load.” In Old English, Lither means, “bad, wicked or has a secondary meaning of sluggishness or slothful.”   Why did this phrase ever drop out of existence?

Depending on who you get your news from, the Democrats are either tone-deaf to the concerns of the people, or they are simply keeping their eye on the long-term picture, realizing that they can’t deal with the debt until they fix healthcare and that eventually we, the average citizen, will all cotton onto what they are pushing into existence.  And yet—to cries of “Yes we can!—a year ago, the President talked about tackling all the problems that this country faced at once and simultaneously.  As Vincent proclaimed in Pulp Fiction: “that’s a bold statement.”

Maybe hubris was at work on that day a year ago, and as Marsellus Wallace points out in the same movie, “pride only hurts, it never helps.”  I don’t think I can fault anyone who has accomplished as much as the President for having pride.  But in the mad dash to begin meeting those lofty promises of a candidate, something simple happened—rubber hit the road, and life took its normal course.  I don’t think we the people are shocked at how tough it is to get anything of benefit passed; rather, we are outraged at how the whole system has become a parody of its intention.  We are angry because we sense that something is going to be passed, not because it is right, but because it is within reach.  Because those in the congress want to set down their lithermon’s-load.

We know from experience that things can be so far from perfect as to be called ‘flaming effigies to failure,’ yet still work exceedingly well (the real lesson of reality TV). If in five years, we might look back on this with the same feeling; we might be more forgiving of the process by which we arrived there. I doubt it, but being wrong is nothing new to me.  However, I think all of us at least want to look back, and know that even if what we pass is wrong that it was passed the right way.  The President could be right.  We might all cotton on to the wonders that we are missing, but perception is reality, and after a year, I think even the most ardent support will admit that it feels as if someone sitting in a loft seat proclaimed, “bring out the gimp!”

I’ve fallen in love with Twitter.  You can follow me, if you like (http://twitter.com/Choodomir if you’re not on twitter, or just @Choodomir if you are), and the reason that I find it more addictive than watching an ADD kid on pixy sticks playing human-pinball—admittedly, not P.C., but such ridiculous fun— is twofold: first, I tend to go on and on (insert your own snide comment here), and second it allows you a method to follow people and events that is both insanely intimate and yet at arms reach.  You get to see people reacting to the world, one tweet at a time.  Of course some people sensor themselves, while others barley use their account.  Still others send such a non-stop stream of tweets that you wonder if they actually do anything else all day long.  I have some days that I have one or two tweets and others where I have a plethora.  So even the volume of tweets can tell you something.  Yet as sweet as I find twitter, I also wonder if it is not an interesting comment on our time.

Let me switch topics for a moment.  Shows like Project Runway, Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs, and Iron Chief have all enjoyed huge popularity over the past few years.  At the same time, I learned that the trade industries are pouring money into programs to encourage people to consider things like elevator repair, welding, and industrial machining.  These are all jobs that require a high degree of skill to do well, that pay well, and that are shunned just as much as that ADD kid.

It seems that as a culture we love to appreciate people who are skilled with their hands.  People who make things, or make things better.  But we don’t actually want to be the ones to get dirty and make them ourselves.  There are a few exceptions to this rule: surgeons and doctors come to mind, but I wonder if that is more a product of perceived prestige and the belief that the money involved is so good that it will make the grueling hours and educational debt worth it?

Twitter is the same phenomenon, but on the electric plane.  We can watch something without getting our hands involved.  I was rather humbled the other night when good friends of mine sent me a text message that left little room for negotiation.  To whit: “I hope you don’t have plans next weekend cause we’re flying you to San Antonio.”  That is the exact opposite of twitter.  To spend time with a person.  To laugh, to drink, to cry, and collect those inside jokes that only make sense to you and your friends.  And for those of you who have not guessed, my friends is a highly skilled tradesman, so if you ever need a motorcycle repaired or just some good cycle gear (and you happen to be in south Texas), hit me up…I know people!

I love twitter.  For the dazzling urbanite (ten bonus points if you know the movie I just blatantly ripped off), it is a great way to meet people and to find out what is going on, but like anything truly intricate that requires work and skill, relationships require time and a bit more effort then 140 characters can muster.  I consider it a huge complement that most of the folks I follow on twitter, do meet up with me and that we have had some awesome times in the flesh, with more to come.  But that illusionary immediacy and coziness truly is the sign of the time.

Standup comics, at least the good ones, always give me something to think about.  One that I recall was a man talking about being unemployed and having a hard time seeing light at the end of tunnel.  But no matter how bad things were, he always bought the extra soft toilet paper so that he’d always have something good in his life.  I like that.  It also set me to thinking about that common roll of paper that lurks next to toilets across America.

One of the first thing I realized is that while many of us worry about what kind of paper we have, not many of us consider how much time passes per roll.  This may work better if you are single (as you are the only one taking off the roll) but if you take the average package of toilet paper, it contains six rolls.  Figuring a single person uses up a roll every week and a half or two, that comes to just about three months of time per package of toilet paper.  A lot can happen in a quarter of a year.  You could get fired or hired from a job.  Find or lose a boy/girlfriend.  Have a car crash or experience a windfall of cash.  Or absolutely nothing out of the ordinary can happen, but you will still be a little further on down the road.

Then there is the actual function of toilet paper.  It is not exactly something you absolutely must have. But nobody wants to be without it, ever, which makes it almost the exact opposite of taxes, if you will.  And at those awkward times when you find yourself in need but lacking, you always swear to yourself never to be caught with your pants down like that again (couldn’t resist).  But like most things that are important in life, humans usually don’t notice the absence of it until we have a mighty need for that soft square of spiffy scouring power.

Then there is the furtive nature of toilet paper itself.  We all buy it, yet nobody I know actually wants to be seen in the check out line with it.  Not because we are ashamed that we need it; more the idea that someone might notice what kind we are purchasing.  Thus most people take as much care in the selection of the paper they use as they do when selecting clothes for an interview.  We know it is an important decision in so far that if anyone should use your toilet, then they will inwardly judge you not just on how clean your bathroom is but on your paper, and nobody wants to stock the fiberboard that they use at public high schools or airports.  Also, you want something that is both effective and textually pleasing.  This, of course, is a subjective quality and why we have so many different kinds of paper.  And while that is true, there is no hiding the rough stuff, which is an unacknowledged fact—much like stereotypes can be extraordinarily useful, but that is a different post. In fact, some people might consider doing without any paper versus only having the rough stuff, because at least then you can lie and claim you just ran out and apologize profusely.  You feel bad for your friend who has to go without, but now you only appear forgetful as opposed to cheap and tasteless.

Then there is the spool itself.  A fat, new spool makes a person, even if just for an instant, feel good, because the world is ordered as it should be.  Then you start to take lines of paper off that new roll, and before you know it, just like addict, you are halfway through your supply.  At this point, though, you are not concerned; although, you may look under the sink to see if there is another fat roll under there, because you remember the promise you made to yourself, and you are absolutely not going to have to take a shower after using the restroom just so you can clean your backside.  Again though, most people don’t bother, and then in a flash, you are almost down to the end.  At this point, the cardboard tube rattles as it spins, and you know you are in need, and yet few of us do anything about it.  Finally you reach the end of the roll, and the last little bit of paper shreds as it comes off the cardboard, which now looks forlorn and might claim to have “fallen down the stairs” if pressed for why it looked that way.  Then comes the moment of truth.  Do I have more?

Yes, there are a myriad of banal things about toilet paper, but sometimes taking at look at the boring and unassuming is useful, because it is at the end of these things that we are pressed to look at ourselves and go, “Ok.  What now?”

It’s bleak outside.  This is not a metaphor; although, it could be.  But no, it is actually gray, cold, and the wind is howling through DC like a Siberian express train…ok, it is moving a little faster than that, but you get the idea.  But, as we all know it is not just the weather.  Many people, myself included on some days, are practicing the philosophy of living in hope, and dying in disappointment.  Yet, by and large, we keep on going.  What a wonderful thing that is.

It’s the small things that get you through.  For example, at the moment my budget is stretched tighter than the head of a snare drum, but people seem to have this need to find ways to get the things they want.  In my case it is music, and I’ve found that Amazon—bless them—have full CDs for download for free. Yes they are usually samplers, but hey, it is still a free album.  There are some real gems if you just spend ten minutes looking, which is easy thanks to the links to other albums they helpfully display on every page. I’ve found some awesome artists, like Chris Joss, this way, and all because I’ve been forced to look for a way to get my music fix.

Or if that is not your fix, there is Blue and White. Blue and White has come to define the term “hole-in-the-wall” for me.  They serve breakfast and lunch, and at about five dollars, you can get a huge piece of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and sweat potato pie, all of which is killer.  What you can’t get is a seat.  You order in a corridor that is only slightly wider than a man, while the other side of the glass partition is crammed with three or four people, a kitchen, and cash register. If you are there when the rush is on you can even take a little time to give your order.  However, once you are in line, there is only one way out…to go through.  But if you can’t find a chair, you be just as hard press as to find someone who dose not have their day improved by eating such good food at such a steal.

That idea…that the only way out is though is a useful one.   Usually the way to get though is with friends. If this sounds like a cliché, that is because it is.  Yet is does not change the fact that your friends are the ones that get you through when times are tough.  They are the ones that make sure you get you butt out of bed in the morning, and who keep their ears and eyes open for you on the ground.  True that sometimes you have that annoying person in your life that you’d just like to say, “hey, have you ever wondered how strong duct tape actually is?” but we all know that is just a sign that you need more coffee or beer (Side note, I was just reading about duct tape and discovered you can buy it in at least twenty different colours…it would almost be worth employing some of that tape on someone but in a nice festive pink or cheery yellow, just to see if your friend notices). And so I say, we shall keep on beating on weary path, because it usually hold, that just when you think your totally done, and there is no hope…that is usually when the unexpected shoe of good fortune comes along to “drop kick you through the goalposts of life.”  And it’s then that you get to celebrate with your friends, and that is really what we should all look forward to.

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