I Won’t Watch It

Kish and I were driving home yesterday, so we missed the TV news coverage of the awful shootings in Virginia.  We therefore didn’t see the footage of the killer gunning down two innocent people, for reasons no one will be able to explain.

We listened to the radio, though, and heard the sounds of the gunshots and the terrified and anguished screams of the witnesses — and that was bad enough.

Whatever other twisted grievances and chilling fantasies may have motivated the killer to commit a cold-blooded murder of a reporter and cameraman on live TV, it’s obvious that a desire for public attention was one of them.  I won’t give it to him, nor will I have my sensibilities jaded and perverted and corrupted by watching something so horrible.  I’m not going to look for his Facebook page, or read his “manifesto,” either, nor am I going to put a picture of him, or his criminal deed, on this post.  Consider it my little protest against publicizing the evil actions of a sick, depraved mind.

There’s a serious journalistic ethics question lurking here:  if you are a TV news program, do you broadcast the footage, which plays into the killer’s desires and potentially might lead to copycat actions, or do you decline to do so, knowing that some of your viewers might change the channel to a station that takes a different approach?  I can’t fault those outlets that broadcast the footage, on a “just report the facts” rationale, but I can applaud those networks and programs that declined to do so.  Journalists are part of society, and as a society we have an interest in discouraging murderous acts by disturbed individuals.

We live in a weird world, where ethical questions arise that wouldn’t even have been possible in an earlier, less technological age in which “social media” didn’t raise the possibility that every criminal could also become a celebrity.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Virginia shootings, it’s a truly ugly world.  I’d rather not dive into that ugliness.

A Little Edsel Love

IMG_6499Its name is right up there with the Titanic:  a proper noun that, as a result of unfortunate circumstance, has morphed into popular language as a shorthand reference for disaster.  In this case, it is a corporate disaster — a highly marketed, ridiculously expensive roll-out of a new product that utterly fails to appeal to the masses.  It has endured for almost 60 years as the ultimate business failure, has survived challenges by New Coke and Betamax VCRs and countless other duds, and still tops the lists of absolute flops.

IMG_6500So when I saw a vintage, perfectly preserved 1958 Edsel — the year the car was first introduced to the American public — parked on the street yesterday, I just had to stop, give it a close, 360-degree inspection, and take these photos.  It was a big, gleaming, two-toned, orange-and-cream-colored beauty, with plenty of chrome that caught the sunlight just right — a classic example of a ’50s-era American car.

The reality is, the Edsel is a beautiful vehicle, and its allure is made all the more intriguing by the scent of failure and catastrophe that lingers around it.  I wasn’t the only passerby to stop, give a low whistle, and check it out.

IMG_6503The back story of the Edsel is a familiar one.  Named for the son of Henry Ford, the Edsel was an effort by the Ford Motor Company to introduce an entirely new car brand that featured new approaches to standard car features. Ford and GM were in their glory days, and GM had a family of car brands that would allow car-hungry, upwardly mobile Americans to progress from the cheaper ones all the way up to Cadillac.  Ford, on the other hand, had only three brands — Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln.  Ford’s “dream big” solution was to create an entirely new brand.

The Edsel was heavily promoted in advance, in one of the first huge, post-World War II marketing campaigns, with ads that featured tantalizing pictures of shrouded models and suggested that America was on the cusp of an entirely new driving experience.  Then the Edsel was finally rolled out, with great fanfare, on one day in September 1957.

And the Edsel bombed, completely.  It was such a colossal failure that, despite sinking huge amounts of money into the effort, only a few years later Ford recognized the inevitable, production on the Edsel ceased forever, and its name entered the lexicon as synonymous with corporate catastrophe.

IMG_6504Why did the Edsel fail?  Countless people have weighed in on that core question, and no doubt the Edsel is still and will always be a case study in MBA and Marketing programs across the country.  And people have identified lots of potential reasons.  The economy was just moving into recession as the Edsel was introduced.  The marketing campaign had raised public expectations so high that no product, no matter how great, could possibly match them.  The Edsel was too technologically advanced, with a push-button transmission set-up in the middle of the steering wheel and other novel features.  Ford tried to do too much by creating an entirely new car brand, with 18 new models and more than 1000 brand-new dealerships.

IMG_6502And some of the reasons even target the American car-buying psyche.  Some people argue that the top-of-the-world Americans of the ’50s were looking for huge, overpowered, rolling phallic symbols that would serve as tributes to their masculinity.  The Edsel’s distinctive front grille, they say, not only did not have the phallic element that Americans instinctively craved, but in fact suggested the exact opposite.

Why did the Edsel fail?  I’m glad to leave that question to the academics and armchair psychologists and marketing gurus and corporate planning executives.  All I know is that when I see an Edsel on the street, I’ll gladly give that low whistle and take a good look at what remains a very cool car.


Modern Snooping

My grandmother had a relative — I’m not sure I was ever told who, exactly — who was an impossible, totally unreformed snoop.

Every time this woman went to someone’s house she would find an excuse to use the facilities and then surreptitiously wander through nearby parts of their home, opening desk drawers, rifling through the contents of wastebaskets, and checking out closets, hoping to find something of interest.  She viewed herself as a kind of community detective, and If she was ever found on her information-gathering jaunt she would just claim, however implausibly, to have gotten lost on her way back from the bathroom.

IMG_6417For this nosey busybody, the Holy Grail of her quest for confidential information was the medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom.  She viewed it as a kind of ultimate window to the soul that could reveal all kinds of inside scoop that might be worthy of a little gossip around town.  The pill bottles, patent medications, trusses, and other devices that might be found all were little clues that could help her to spin a well-weaved tale about whether Esther had a heart problem or Harry was hitting the bottle a little too hard.

The march of technology has closed some windows for the snoopers among us — the death of the party line phone probably caused this particular buttinsky to weep bitter tears — but of course new windows have been opened.  And I found myself wondering:  if my prying relative were around today, would the upstairs medicine cabinet still be her goal, or would she have concluded that other places would yield more of the kind of juicy tidbits that inveterate gossips crave?  No doubt she would have concluded that you could tell a lot about a person by seeing what’s in their freezer, or the programming they’ve DVR’d.

But I’m guessing the new dream destination of the scandalmonger, were she still among us, would be the home computer or the smart phone.  She’d have developed some rudimentary hacking skills in hopes of checking out what she could find under the history or bookmark tabs of the internet portal, what email messages had been sent, and whether there were any especially incriminating selfies kept in that iPhoto library.

These days, medicine cabinets are for pikers.

When Teeth Are Like Garage Floors

Yesterday I had one of my periodic tooth cleaning appointments.  This time, after already using the pointy-ended scrapers and the flat scrapers, the ultrasonic scaler, the water spray, the buffer, and the dental floss, the hygienist frowned thoughtfully.

“The tongue side of your teeth still has some staining,” she said with some impatience, as her rubber-gloved hands probed my incisors.  “I’m going to try a new procedure.”

Whhgl?” I responded.

The procedure first involved draping me with towels that covered all parts of my upper body except my mouth and left me unable to see — which was itself a weird sensation when you know the person hovering over you is wielding sharp implements.  “There’s a bit of a spray,” she explained.  She then proceeded to blow puffs of particulate matter against my teeth — which was an even weirder sensation, because humans normally seek to avoid getting clouds of dust in their mouths.  But after numerous puffings and rinsings and suctionings, she removed the towels and expressed evident satisfaction at the result.

All this, to address the apparent dinginess on the back side of my teeth that no one sees.

If you go regularly to a dental hygienist — as 9 out of 10 dentists say you should — you eventually realize that the hygienist community is simply borrowing cleaning techniques initially used in American garages.  First, it was simple scraping and scaling, like a homeowner using a hoe to try to remove flattened globs of gum or tar from a cement floor.  Then it was powerwashing, with those pulsating jets of water that leave your face coated with a fine, wet mist.  And now, with this dust-puffing device, hygienists have adopted sandblasting.

What’s next?  Using powerful chemical solvents?  If you want to see what’s coming down the pike in periodontal technology advances, I suggest you just check here.

The Relentless March Of Ice Cube Technology

First, there were enormous blocks of ice cut from freshwater lakes, hauled away by burly men armed with huge tongs, and stored until summer in sawdust-filled icehouses, before finally being delivered to the home icebox when the iceman cometh.  Then, the invention of the electric refrigerator empowered homeowners with personal ice cube-making capability, thanks to frosty metal ice cube trays with lift bars and then twistable plastic versions.

IMG_6352Now, a new frontier in drink-chilling technology has been reached.  Finally, Americans can achieve their dream of making spherical ice cubes in the comfort of their own homes.

What’s that, you say?  Spherical ice cubes are mere frippery, and by definition cannot be called a “cube” at all?  Fine, call them “ice balls” if you must — but don’t minimize the aesthetic and practical value of having a smooth, round, blissfully chilling globes of ice floating in a properly made adult beverage.  Because icy orbs are a lot more fun than everyday ice cubes, and they have the added advantage of being far too big to chew.  And whether you are someone who loathes the sound of people crunching away on ice pellets, or you are an unreformed chomper who simply can’t resist temptation, any development that prevents ice-munching and closes that alleged window to your innermost frustrations is a good thing.

Plus, the technology is pretty cool.  The Tovolo ice sphere molds consist of a plastic cup that forms the bottom half of the sphere and a rubber insert that forms the top half.  You fill the plastic part with water, put the rubber top on — which causes excess water to fountain out of the center hole — and then place the mold into the freezer.  After a decent interval you remove the mold, twist off the rubber top, and pop out a perfectly round ball of ice.  It not only looks good, the one-at-a-time preparation method makes you feel like an ice sphere artisan as you slowly build your supply for your upcoming social event.

I am glad that I lived to see the human race reach this height, but I wonder:  What’s next for ice cube technology?  Are there any remaining ice-making Everests to be climbed?

Living In A Sim Universe

Here’s a bizarre thought for a Tuesday:  what if the world that we know is really just one gigantic, thorough, technologically adept computer simulation that encompasses everything we see, hear, know, and touch?  Believe it or not, scientists and philosophers are actually considering this concept in earnest these days.

In part, this is just another of those weird mind exercises and “proofs” that made philosophy class a tiresome exercise back in college, but it’s also being spurred by the advances in computer gaming technology that are making massive, realistic simulations seem increasingly plausible.  If you’ve seen the latest versions of some “reality” games, you know that things have changed completely in the 40 years since “Pong” — and the pace of improvement in computer simulation capability seems to be accelerating.

Is it so unbelievable that, in 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years, humans could create a simulated world that covers every last detail of life, from the feel of a wooden floor under your feet to the taste of coffee on your tongue to the laws of physics that control the natural world around us?  After all, we perceive the world entirely through electrical stimulation of parts of our brains — so why couldn’t our perceiving minds be wired into an advanced computer game?  Maybe what we call “sleep” is really the downtime when gamemasters load new simulated situations into the programming.

If we are just the imaginings of futuristic disembodied brains in vats, or the product of some hyper-realistic supercomputer existing centuries from now, would we know it?  Some of the scientists and futurists and philosophers quoted in the article linked above think we might search for back doors, programming glitches, or gaming options that could allow us to briefly do superhuman stunts — like Ms. Pac-Man gobbling an energy dot so that she can consume the ghosts that relentlessly chase her.  That seems unlikely to me.  If the goal is to create a truly realistic world that you could immerse yourself in, gizmos that create superpowers would be contrary to the whole goal.  Maybe what we consider to be “normal” is exotic and interesting enough for the jaded game players of the future.

So what if everything around us, from this computer keyboard I’m tapping to the great Mozart piece I’m listening to, is part of an elaborate game?  I would never be able to distinguish the difference, anyway.  In any case, I’m thinking:  Hey, this is a good game!

Closed Captioning

As we have watched the last few episodes of True Detective — which I think has really picked up lately, incidentally — Kish and I have had the same conversation several times:

“What did he say?”

“I don’t know — I couldn’t hear it.”

“You know, I hear that a lot of people are watching this show with the closed captioning feature on their TVs activated.”

The Vince Vaughn character, in particular, seems to specialize in muttering things under his breath, menacingly but incomprehensibly, but we have have trouble understanding many characters on that show.  Is there something about the sound quality of True Detective that just sucks, or have the producers decided that whispered statements fit better with the dark themes of the show?  Maybe the “never mind” theme music is supposed to suggest to viewers that the dialogue really doesn’t matter much, anyway.

When you can’t hear the dialogue on a TV show, there aren’t any good choices.  If you’re watching a recording, you can try to rewind, but you need the deftness of a surgeon to move back to just the right spot without overshooting, and it really wrecks the flow of the narrative even if you are successful.  Or, you can crank the volume up to senior citizen retirement home levels, give up any pretense of clinging to remaining youth, and start going to restaurants at “Early Bird Special” times and using the word “whippersnapper.”  Or, you can activate the closed captioning option — which will expose your obvious lack of technological know-how in trying to find and turn on the option in the first place.

I have no doubt that my hearing acuity has declined over the years, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve got a hearing problem — at least, I don’t think I do.  Does any young whippersnapper out there have trouble following the dialogue on True Detective, too?  Speak up, will you?