Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why It is Harder to Get Old

I'm expecting my first child in a little less than five months, and though it comes as no shock to me that my perspective on certain things has already been altered, there is one area in which my constancy of perception may be surprising. I have no heightened sense of aging or, to put it more accurately, I have no sense that the passage of time is in any way accelerating.

I realize that conventional wisdom holds that as one ages, experience piles on top of experience, repetition of patterns become entrenched, and time moves faster. As we all know, one year to a five-year-old is a big deal, whereas one year to an adult is just another year. And conventional wisdom also holds that in regards to children, "they grow up so fast."

Yet I can't help but mull over how these two aspects of conventional wisdom are contradictory. How can they grow up fast if they are perceiving time so slowly? Are we really perceiving the "growing up" as occurring rapidly as it is happening, or is this actually a retroactive determination? I guess I will find out for sure and report the results in a couple of decades, but for now, I lean toward the latter hypothesis.

I realize that I have no firm memories prior to the age of about five. And I really didn't have a grasp of what was going on in the world (e.g. politics, pop culture) until I was seven or eight. So that means that my son won't really start to comprehend the external world (on a global scale that is) until 2016 at the earliest. By 2016, The 9/11 attacks will be as old as the Challenger explosion was then. The Challenger explosion will be as old as the birth of rock and roll was on that fateful day in 1986, and the advent of Elvis will be as old as the Spanish-American War was when Mr. Presley first took the stage at the Ed Sullivan theater.

When my son is 10 years old, he should be old enough to have memorized the names of the Beatles. At that point, the Beatles will have been broken up for 50 years. (And it will have been 63 years since John met Paul).

So in light of all this, how can I still maintain that I have no sense that time is accelerating? Well, it helps that culture itself has slowed to the point of stagnation. To wit:

1) After remastering their catalogue, The Beatles have sold 2.25 million CDs in the last week. This is a band that last recorded an album when the cassette tape hadn't hit the mass market yet.
2) Last week I overheard some of my students (college freshmen) discussing the playing of Super Mario Brothers 3, a game that was popular when I was in middle school.
3) I just randomly searched my facebook friends list for a person under 20. The first movie he lists under "favorites"?: Its a Wonderful Life.

Because of the cultural fragmentation that the Internet age has bestowed on us, it is harder to get old. When more 15-year-olds have seen Star Wars than any current release, when more 16-year-olds have the Beatles on their ipod than Lady Gaga, not only is there less of a cultural generation gap, there is less generational definition. Whereas once young people constructed generational identity largely through embracing the opposite of what came before, now matters of collective identity are secondary (if they register at all).

An important clarification: I'm not suggesting that we now have a cross-generational shared set of cultural reference points, but rather that there is no longer a centrality of reference points, specifically a centrality constructed by youth. We may still have popular phenomena, (e.g. Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hannah Montana) but ultimately, a person's decision, either conscious or unconscious, to avoid such phenomena is imbued with more legitimacy, and no longer considered a sign of being outmoded. Somebody who had no knowledge of the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1986 was a rube; somebody without that knowledge today is a normal person.

Or perhaps I'm just being selective in my analysis. If that is the case, I'll know it the first time my progeny refers to me as his "old man."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Putting the Mute Button on Hold: An Experiment

This week, I ran across an article detailing complaints about advertising on national sports broadcasts. Apparently, some media watchdog group is unhappy that many commercials that air during games are not kid friendly (e.g. ads for beer, R-rated movies, and the ubiquitous erectile dysfunction pills). What caught my eye in particular was this quote: "Parents should be able to watch a football game with their kids without having to either mute the television or explain the side effects of a life enhancement drug." This resonated with me because I have made the habit of muting commercials for years. About the only programming that I watch live anymore is sports broadcasts; so with the exception of Super Bowl Sunday, I never watch commercials. I have gotten so good hitting the mute button at the correct times that I don't have to consciously think about it; I just naturally hit it when the commercials start, I usually turn on music during the break, and then I time it perfectly coming back.

But is this right? After all, in theory I wouldn't be enjoying the programming without the commercials. And at one time in my life, advertisements actually paid my salary. So, I decided to make an experiment today. I determined that I would give commercials one more chance. And just to avoid the controversy detailed in the above article, I decided to watch commercials on the Big Ten Network (during the Wisconsin Badger football game), as that network has very high standards; it has even banned alcohol companies from advertising. But I also determined that I would make careful note of what exactly was being asked of me-- so I planned to write down the companies or products that are advertised, then research to see how much it would cost me to follow their exhortations. So without further ado, here is a list of companies that advertised on today's game, companies whose messages I had heretofore ignored, along with some brief commentary:

Phillips HD Television--I'm pretty happy with my two television sets, but apparently I need a new one. Cost: $350 for the cheapest model at Sears
State Farm Auto Insurance-- I'm pretty happy with what my independent agent has lined up for me (Secura), but I guess I've got to switch. I'm going to be conservative and say that it'll cost me an extra $30 a year. (Running total= $380)
Hampton Hotel-- I'm not planning on needing a hotel anytime soon, and when I do travel I generally don't look for a particular brand name, but apparently I need to book a room. The closest one to me is 35 miles away, and I can get a single room for about $75 before tax. ($455) This actually doesn't cost anything. I've probably got to download some boring podcasts, though.
Verizon Wireless-- I'm happy with U.S. Cellular, but I guess I need to cancel my contract. All told, this will probably set me back about $300 for a year. ($755)
Buffalo Wild Wings-- Closest restaurant is 27 miles. With gas and meals for my wife and me, I'd say the cost would be around $40 ($795)
Suzuki SX4- It's nothing special, but I'm happy with the car I've got now. It's nice not to have to make payments. But I guess I need to shell out for a new SUV at $16,100. And now I need the calculator to keep track of my running total (and we aren't even done with the first quarter): ($16,895).
Principal Financial Group-- Okay, without getting into my personal finances, I'll just say I'm not in the market for this company's services right now. And their costs aren't exactly advertised up front, so whatever.
Rotel Dip-- The website doesn't say how much it costs; I'll guess five bucks. ($16,900)
Auto Owners Insurance-- Gee, I just switched to State Farm. Now I've got to switch again. I'll say this costs another $10 ($16,910).
Polaris Midsize Ranger-- I've never ridden an ATV in my life, but I guess we all need new hobbies. Too bad this one will cost me $8,000--for the cheapest model ($24,910).
Green Bay Packer Wisconsin Lottery Instant Scratch Game-- I once bought a lottery ticket for a buck. I didn't win. I figured I gave it my best shot and I decided it wasn't meant to be. Now I've got to buy this $10 ticket. Maybe it'll pay for the Polaris Midsize Ranger. Probably not, though. ($24,920).
2010 Ford Edge-- The "Green SUV." I guess it will look good next to my other new SUV, even at a price tag of $27,000. ($51,920).
2010 XF Jaguar-- I'm running out of room to park this stuff. And at $51,000, this doubles my expenditures so far ($102,920).
Big 10 Universities-- It's hard to figure out what they want here. Should I go to all 11 of them? And I already have an undergrad and post-graduate degree. Maybe I could just make a $10 donation to each school's endowment ($103,030).
2010 Toyota Camry-- Yay, another car. This one is a bit cheaper at $19,400. ($122,430).
Charter Business Bundle-- Well, I don't have my own business. But I guess I need this. The website is coy about cost. I'll guess $150. ($122,580). More boring podcasts to download
Big Ten Network-- I'll have to watch more programming and see some of their other commercials
Honda Generators-- I've never needed a generator in my life, but I guess everyone has to have one, for tailgate parties if for no other reason. Cost is $300 ($122,880).
Jack Links Beef Jerky-- I was always loyal to Randy Savage, but I'll have to switch my brand, I guess. You can order directly from their website-- $19 for a four-pack ($122,899).
Sure Start Roundup-- I'm not a farmer, but I guess I need this stuff for my lawn. I can get a big jug for a couple hundred bucks ($123,099).
Phillips HD Television-- Great, I need another one. ($123,499)
Sonic Restaurant-- They are pumping a three dollar meal. Too bad it'll take me over an hour to get to the nearest location. ($124,012)
Hampton Inn-- Well, make that a two-night stay ($124,087)
Penn State University-- Again, not sure what they want from me. I'll give them an extra ten bucks for the scholarship fund ($124,097)
Rotel Dip-- Make that two jars please ($125,002).
State Farm Insurance-- I guess I'll be switching again.
Priority Mail Flat Rate Packages-- I don't have to send anything; maybe I'll sell some of my old comic books on ebay so I can use a $5 container ($125,007).
2010 Ford F Series Pick-Up-- Ah yes, another vehicle. Just what I needed, especially at $21,400. ($146,407).
Charter High Speed Internet-- I already have this, thank you very much.
Priority Mail-- All right, time to dig out some more comics ($146,412).
Buffalo Wild Wings-- Time for another road trip ($146,452)
Rotel Dip-- That's enough! That's enough! That's enough! We are at halftime, and I just can't take any more of this. The halftime show itself is loaded with ads, and the prospect of sitting through them is more than I can bear. I'll estimate that if I had followed through all the way, my total cost would have been greater than $300,000.

What have I learned? Almost all the ads that I have been skipping are completely irrelevant to my needs as a consumer. They are also repetitive, and they make huge demands of me. Are there any other areas of life where we put up with people that are irrelevant, repetitive, and demanding? (Note to any of my students that might be reading this--don't answer that).

I realize I'm not treading any ground that Seth Godin hasn't already covered before. But it took me all of 90 minutes to remind myself why the predominant marketing technique of many companies is outdated and ineffective. The vast majority of people living today have been born into a world where television programming is interrupted by commercials. This is the way it has always been. But that doesn't mean it is the way it should be. But until something different comes along, I'll keep my mute button handy.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Public Servants and Public Behavior

In the last week, I've read two stories about legislators that I had never heard of before. One of these stories surprised me, the other did not.

One story involved California assemblyman Mike Duvall, who was unknowingly being recorded as he spoke to another legislator about his affair with a lobbyist, including graphic and lurid details about their "relationship". (The married lawmaker also told of another affair he was having--this other woman apparently knew about the lobbyist, though the lobbyist was unaware of her). Other interesting aspects of this story:

A) Duvall had previously received a 100 rating from a conservative group for his "pro-family" voting record

B) He did end up resigning as result of the recording being made public, but he now maintains that he was lying about what he said on the recording

C Perhaps most relevantly, the lobbyist in question allegedly worked for an energy company (relevant because Duvall served on an committee overseeing energy legislation).

The second story is that of South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, who is now infamous for his "You lie!" outburst during President Obama's speech to Congress.

I don't think I'm alone in being more surprised by the Wilson story, primarily because I think it is safe to say that it is a less outrageous story. The Duvall story is in line with the type of template one sees in many a fictional story, but the reason these tropes work so well in fiction is because there is so much basis in reality--when no less than three sitting governors become embroiled in absurdly melodramatic sex scandals in less than five years (see McGreevey, Spitzer, and Sanford), when the bedroom (sorry, Oval Office) habits of a former President become a matter of public knowledge, when a major political party loses its majority status largely because of improper dealings with lobbyists... the threshold for public shock (and perhaps even outrage) is significantly lowered. Yet the novelty of someone breaching the decorum of a presidential address as if it were a 1966 electric Dylan show? That's a new one.

Yet for me, it's more than the sheer novelty of the disruption that I find surprising. I'm not sure if my perception of the country's political landscape has been unduly affected by sensationalistic media reports, but largely because of the frequency of stories like the Duvall incident, I've come to realize that I regard politicians as typically reprobate, concerned more with securing a personal lifestyle of luxury and license, as opposed to actually investing in public policy. I realize there is nothing novel about my cynicism, but this last week as given me new insight into the alternatives to this state of the union.

Would we rather have a government comprised of pragmatism and exterior propriety, a government in which politicians succeed in hiding their hypocrisies and their lack of true dedication to cause, or would we rather have a government in which fervent and passionate adherents to various causes pursued their agendas irrespective of standards of propriety, or perhaps even civility? Realizing that logicians would call this a false dilemma, I still ask which would be better for society? Which would be better for public confidence in governmental institutions? And are these two things necessarily the same? And finally, if most people would answer the question a certain way, would there be anyone willing to stand up and yell "You lie!"?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Dim Future of Light Bulbs

If government forecasts for the final four months of 2009 hold, this year will see the first time since 1949 that energy demand has decreased in consecutive years. Congress could very well pass a bill that would mandate decreased carbon dioxide emissions. So-called "Green Industry" is one of the few sectors of the economy adding jobs. We are seeing increased serious attention given to radical ideas involving alternative energy, including the notion that one day we will drive automobiles that are not powered by gasoline. In short, society seems more receptive than ever to reconsidering how we use our world's resources.

Yet I have yet to see anyone suggest that the work of Thomas Edison will ever be obsolete. In all the various visions of the future I have read about or seen rendered, utopian or dystopian, I have never seen anyone suggest that electrical lighting will ever be replaced. But is the light bulb, now well over 100 years old, truly the pinnacle of illumination? Or have become so accustomed to it that we fail to envision that there can be any improvement other than more efficient models of the same thing?

Everyone alive has always lived in a world where nighttime travelers can perceive the location of cities by their collective illumination. But in relative time, it wasn't that long ago that when it got dark, the horizon stayed dark in all directions. Cleveland became the first U.S. city (and second in the world) to have electrical street lighting, in 1879. Could there be a time when cities are once again indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside?

I think in order to conceive of how there can be a paradigm shift, we need only consider the concept of insect repellent (or "bug spray," if you will). We could build gigantic towers in strategic locations that would emit vapors in order to ward off unwanted vermin, or we could empower individuals to strategically ensconce themselves in protective substances. Following this model, what if instead of seeking to illumine from without, we shifted to illuminating from within? And no, I don't mean in a metaphorical, abstract, or supernatural sense. I mean, what if we could scientifically empower each person to project their own light source, with greater clarity and less demand on energy?

The obvious application that comes to mind is some form of night vision glasses. Right now, the battery power required in military-grade goggles would be too much of an environmental liability, but could a contemporary Edison invent a set of night vision glasses that could perhaps charge up with solar power during the day? And then there is this intriguing proposal, submitted to a contest sponsored by Popular Science over five years ago (and mustering a runner-up prize): night vision contact lenses, powered by blinking. I think if the full attention of both government and private resources were given over to this issue, the future would be literally brighter than ever. But that might be too much to hope for, given the inertia of the status quo. So maybe we need a secret, powerful cabal to try to effect this radical idea. We could call them "The Illuminati."