A place for questions, comments and rants that I don't expect anyone to answer, but I need to get them off my chest anyway. Unlike the Random Thoughts page, what you see here won't have anything to do with politics.
1. Never call me trendy. Unlike most folks, I would rather hear the latest news on an international crisis, than hear what drink or drug Lindsey Lohan is abusing now. You're not likely to catch me buying gossip magazines, or participating in discussions about celebrities. If a news story is not relevant to the narratives in my history papers, don't expect me to be very interested. For me celebrity stories are just filler material for a slow news day, especially stories involving high-profile crimes and trials in California, because they can drag on for months or more. That was the case in the 1990s with O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers. In 2003 Kobe Bryant was in trouble with the law, so when I heard that California was holding an election to recall its governor, my first reaction was relief that Kobe would no longer be in the headlines every day.
Now what does the media do for filler stories when there isn't celebrity news available? Well, thousands of men and women disappear every year, from all social and ethnic backgrounds, but if the person in question is white, female, attractive, and middle or upper class, she will get all the attention. Remember how in the summer of 2001, everybody was talking about whether Gary Condit was responsible for the disappearance of his intern, Chandra Levy, but after September 11, some talk show hosts admitted they couldn't remember the California congressman's name? Others given wall-to-wall coverage during the next five years were Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Jennifer Wilbanks and Natalee Holloway. This phenomenon has happened often enough to be called "Missing White Woman Syndrome" (MWWS). If they can't report on missing white women, the media may run stories of shark attacks, though statistically more people get bitten/stung by other animals all the time. Or they might do a story around a meaningless poll. Poll stories aren't news, because with any poll, the wording of the question completely changes the result. Of course, news organizations would go out of business if they ever ran a headline or began a radio/TV program by saying, "Today nothing happened," so they have to put something in their pages or air time. So if you see some offbeat "Man Bites Dog" stories that normally wouldn't make it in the news, that's a sign that all is quiet in the rest of the world.
2. I have learned from all of the above that the second worst time of the year for news is late summer. Presumably this is because a lot of us are on vacation in July and August, including the people who make news. The worst time of the year for news is the week between December 25 and January 1; that's why most of the magazines and newspapers fill their pages with pictures to remind us of what happened during the past twelve months. Nowadays late summer is becoming nearly as hard to fill with news stories, but unless you're Jewish or Ethiopian (their calendars begin the year in September), it's pointless to have an annual recap before Labor Day.
Along that line, we ought to remember that bias can work both ways; what the media doesn't report may be as important as what it does report. News organizations may not realize this, but they are exercising bias when they choose not to cover a story because they don't think the rest of us are interested (e.g., how often did the Darfur genocide appear on the nightly news?). That's why I no longer trust one news source to give me the complete picture; you might as well try listening to everything with only one ear.
3. Another thing I don't get is the concept behind "reality shows." While my family watches them, I seem to have missed something. The only one I ever made a committed effort to watch was "Duck Dynasty," and that was to find out what everyone else was talking about. The premise behind these programs is to either show a few individuals who don't behave like the rest of the human race, or people placed in situations we are not likely to ever experience; where's the "reality" in that? My guess is that reality shows are a move by the networks to save money--it costs a lot less to make a TV show if you can grab a bunch of ordinary folks off the street, as opposed to paying six-figure salaries for name actors. At least it saves money until those novices become stars because they were on that show. And a lot of these programs don't look like they have a scriptwriter, either.
At any rate, I don't expect I'll ever audition for a reality show. In 1973 I went with my school to Washington DC, to watch President Nixon's second inauguration, and for the parade I got separated from my group, and found a real good spot--in the front row, right across the street from the presidential box.
I was close enough to the VIPs that the treasury secretary, John Connally, waved at me twice. I was also in front of the TV cameras, so when I got back to the hotel and turned on the TV set to see how the parade looked from there, I saw the back of my head in the front row of the crowd, broadcast all across America! Therefore I don't need to be on TV again; I've had my fifteen minutes of fame already.
4. As a counterweight to the above points, I have learned there is a bright side to having a celebrity culture--it means we have solved most of life's problems, so now we are comfortable. Most of the people who have ever lived had to struggle to stay alive, and they couldn't afford to give attention to beautiful, rich people who haven't done anything important. I can tell you right now, if you were doing backbreaking labor on a farm or your family was sick with cholera, you wouldn't care what the Kardashian sisters are wearing, or which boyfriends they are shacking up with. Likewise, if a catastrophic disaster destroys our civilization, you will see celebrity gossip disappear overnight, and the paparazzi will have to find new jobs.
One of the earliest civilizations that could afford a celebrity culture was the Roman Empire. If you lived back then and weren't a slave you probably would have gotten caught up in it, especially with the gladiators. In medieval Japan, "The Tale of Genji" tells us that those living in Kyoto during the Heian era were obsessed with their appearances and relationships, but again there were limits. Here you had to be a member of the nobility and live in the capital; lords and warriors in frontier provinces, those who would soon become the samurai, had other things on their minds. The celebrity culture appeared again during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and this time it spread to the masses. This happened because Japan had no problems, especially foreign ones; for most of this period (1641-1853), Japan was closed off from the outside world.
When I discussed Greek philosophy elsewhere on this site, I mentioned that civilizations tend to start out with a Stoic outlook on life, and become Epicurean later. With American history, the crossover point came in the 1920s; then Americans were tired of getting involved in foreign entanglements like World War I, and basically took a decade-long vacation. Whereas early American heroes tended to be explorers, soldiers, statesmen and missionaries, it was in the 1920s that we started idolizing entertainers (e.g., actors, athletes, musicians, models); that's why those years are often called the "Roaring Twenties." There was a partial eclipse of the rich and famous during the Great Depression and World War II, but once the "greatest generation" was done saving civilization as we know it, the celebrity culture came back in full force; the invention of TV and the Internet allowed it to continue to this day.
To summarize all this, I do not recommend that anyone waste their time following celebrities who look perfect and don't have to work for a living. But the fact that many of us can afford to be that shallow is a sign that some things are still working right in this world.
5. The most uplifting news of 2004--literally--may be the successful test flights of Space Ship One, the first space craft built by somebody besides the government. To me, Burt Rutan and his pilots are a 21st-century version of the Wright Brothers, and they did it in one year on a $30 million budget; can anyone see NASA launching a new rocket so quickly, or so cheaply? Now that Sir Richard Branson is investing in them with his new Virgin Galactic company, they give me hope; if NASA can't get us back into space, perhaps these guys will.
6. The December 2004 tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean and killed a quarter of a million people proved two things to me. First, we don't need the United Nations to come to the rescue when a major disaster strikes. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India put together an effective rescue team right away, and sent it to the affected area, without any multinational organization directing them. When the UN finally arrived, several days later, its agents spent most of their time holding meetings in hotels about what they planned to do, and a large portion of the aid they gave was birth control devices. I'm sure that even in a country with a high birthrate like Indonesia, repopulation was far from being the foremost thing in the minds of the survivors.
Second, it showed that Western culture is superior to Islamic culture. Because Sumatra was the closest landmass to the epicenter of the tsunami-causing earthquake, two-thirds of the victims were Moslem, but the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf did not do anything to help until they were shamed into doing so by the US. And the money they finally gave toward tsunami relief was far less than what we gave; the Saudis gave more money to the families of suicide bombers in Israel. I guess that means the Saudis would rather see dead Jews than live Moslems. It would serve them right if our kindness results in some Indonesians converting to Christianity.
7. Why do pharmaceutical companies advertise prescription drugs? There's a reason why you can't buy them as easily as over-the-counter medicines. To make a sale, the company has to convince two people the drug is worth buying, the user and his/her doctor, and unless they advertise enough to annoy millions of people who don't need the drug, it isn't likely that both individuals will see the ad.
The worst part of the ads are the disclaimers. No doubt the pharmaceutical companies are required by law to list all the harmful side effects that might result from taking their product. With the printed media, you can buy a full-page ad and keep the disclaimer text small, but with radio and TV commercials, the warnings take up more time than the sound bite telling you about the drug's benefits. I don't know about you, but after hearing all that, I've been scared out of wanting to try that drug, and I'm certainly not going to ask my doctor about it!
To give an example of what I'm talking about, take this disclaimer for a drug that is supposed to help you quit smoking:
Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion thoughts or actions while using ***** to help them quit smoking. Some people had these symptoms when they began taking *****, and others developed them after several weeks of treatment or after stopping *****. If you, your family, or caregiver notice agitation, hostility, depression, or changes in behavior, thinking, or mood that are not typical for you, or you develop , stop taking ***** and call your doctor right away. Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking *****, as these symptoms may worsen while taking *****.
Some people can have serious skin reactions while taking *****, some of which can become life-threatening. These can include rash, swelling, redness, and peeling of the skin. Some people can have allergic reactions to *****, some of which can be life-threatening and include: swelling of the face, mouth, and throat that can cause trouble breathing. If you have these symptoms or have a rash with peeling skin or blisters in your mouth, stop taking ***** and get medical attention right away. Do not take ***** if you have had a serious allergic or skin reaction to *****.
The most common side effects include nausea (30%), sleep problems, constipation, gas, and/or vomiting. If you have side effects that bother you or don't go away, tell your doctor.
You may have trouble sleeping, vivid, unusual, or strange dreams while taking *****. Use caution driving or operating machinery until you know how ***** may affect you.
Do you feel like you just took a peek at Satan's "to-do" list? If I was a smoker and saw all that, I'd conclude that it was safer to keep puffing. Altogether I think the only pharmaceutical ad that I ever liked was the one where Dr. Frankenstein's monster is acting like a normal guy, now that he has gotten help for his arthritis.
8. Why is there no Bigfoot roadkill? For more than forty years I have been told there's a big ape out there in the American woods, called Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Skunk Ape, and various other names. Now you can get a good idea of what kind of animals live in a place, by what gets killed on the road: squirrels, opossums, cats, dogs, rabbits, racoons, deer, etc. In Florida I saw armadillo road pizza very often, but I don't see it in Kentucky; that alone tells me it's probably too cold for armadillos in Kentucky. On the other hand, I see (and smell) skunks far more often in Kentucky. But I have never heard of a Bigfoot getting killed on the road anywhere. Even if Bigfoot was rare, it would happen occasionally; deaths along Everglades roads like Alligator Alley were the reason why the Florida panther was put on the endangered species list. Heck, do you remember how Bigfoot was introduced in the movie "Harry and the Hendersons?" He was hit by a family car! But nothing like that seems to have happened in real life.
Along that line, it's time for true Bigfoot believers to produce some hard evidence. How about some hair samples, for a start? And why aren't there any Bigfoot bones or teeth anywhere, except maybe for the ones anthropologists labelled as coming from Gigantopithecus and Meganthropus? We've seen enough footprints and fuzzy pictures, so if you want us to continue believing, show us the body!
And no, a picture from a tabloid doesn't count.
9. The most destructive wars in history typically last thirty to fifty years, because they consume two generations before the combatants have had enough. Examples of such conflicts include the Peloponnesian War, the First and Second Punic Wars, the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars. Often there is a time-out from fighting in the middle, giving the impression that this is not one big war, but two wars involving the same nations. This can happen when the first generation is decimated, and the second generation isnít old enough to continue where the first left off -- or we may be dealing with cultures that think "cease-fire" is another word for "reload!" Then when the second generation is done, peace finally comes, because theren't aren't enough grandchildren left to fight any more.
10. With most elements of culture, such as art, religion, language and literature, it is possible to trace how they developed into what exists now. However, most of the story of music's development is lost to us, because we did not have a way to record it. Except for some traditional melodies and a few genres like Gregorian chants, our history of music begins in the 17th century, with longhair composers like Johann Sebastian Bach. There were a few attempts in ancient and medieval times to write down songs; the oldest example comes from the Hurrians, who inscribed a song on a clay tablet, sometime between 2000 and 1500 BC. But alas, even when we have such "sheet music," we cannot be sure we are reading it right. Consequently we donít know what tunes went with King Davidís Psalms, we donít know how Homer sang the Iliad and the Odyssey, nor do we know the national anthems of any empires before the modern era. Pope Sylvester II, the head of the Catholic Church at the turn of the first millennium (999-1003), is credited with inventing the eight-note scale of Western music, and giving the notes the names of "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do," but we don't know what scales were used previously in Dark Age Europe. Quick now, what is the greatest song of all time? Chances are it was composed hundreds of years ago, and then forgotten. Forever.
11. One of the perverse characteristics of human nature is our initial reaction when we invent something new. The first thing we want to do with a new invention is use it as a weapon, or have fun with it. Only after we are done trying those things will we attempt to use an invention to improve our lives. When CDs and DVDs became available, for instance, we used them for entertainment at first, and then a few years later some folks made educational tools out of them. The latest example could be our mobile devices. A middle-class person can now own a machine that gives him access to the sum total of human knowledge, and often it is small enough to fit into his pocket. I remember when only the characters on "Star Trek" had tools like that. And how do we use it? Most of us use it to look at pictures of cats, or to argue with people we have never met in real life!
p.s., I got one of those machines as a birthday present in 2013. It is thoroughly useful wherever there's an Internet connection, but at home I mainly use it to play music and videos for my parrot!
12. Where did peanut allergies come from? Apparently exposure to peanuts is deadly poison for those who are allergic to them. Because of that, we now have warning labels on products containing peanuts. However, I never heard of them hurting or killing anybody before the 1990s. When I was a kid, we had peanut butter sandwiches and nobody thought they were dangerous, but now I have a feeling that if George Washington Carver was alive today, he would be considered a public enemy, not a great scientist.