Friday, January 25, 2008

Principles, ethics, and morals, oh,my

I was reading the New York Times on-line the other day. (Sorry, Mr. Montgomery, I am guilty of media adultery. I have been seeing another newspaper on the side.) There was a long article about morality. The guy who wrote the article was a professor at Harvard University, Steven Pinker. His approach was to talk about brain research, which was beyond my feeble comprehension capacities. There were a few items which stuck out to me though.
The first was the idea that there is a sort of morality switch. Some things just tickle the switch. The ticklers are things which are merely unfashionable, disagreeable or imprudent as opposed to those which are truly considered immoral. His examples were a little dense so I am going to have a go at it in my own voice.
It is unfashionable in many circles to get a tattoo. It is less a sign of drunken sailorism than it used to be, but many people still find it déclassé. It is disagreeable to get a picture of Rosanne Barr tattooed on your chest. It is imprudent to get Bill O’Reilly’s face tattooed on your forearm if you are going to the Democratic Convention. But, when all is said and done, it is only immoral to get a tattoo if you use the blood of clubbed baby seals instead of ink. (Oh, boy, even I think that was a horrible thing to say and I’m the guy who wrote it, sorry.)
What is moral can shift over time depending on the general knowledge base of the culture. It was once considered reprehensible to lie, cheat and steal to further personal goals, to blatantly, even proudly, put one’s bad habits and personal shortcomings on display for all to see, to demonstrate human failings in such an overt manner as to lose all deniability or opportunity for forgiveness. Now we call these same behaviors the latest hit reality show on CBS.
Mr. Pinker lists five components of the moral sense found in almost every culture. Those five are: harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. The concept of “harm” revolves around the idea that it is wrong to harm others. There are of course exceptions. It is okay to harm individuals who have committed an egregious act. Acts like stealing food from orphans, snatching the purses of elderly women, or helping to write, produce, distribute or market the latest Rambo film.
Fairness states that one should return favors, reward good deeds and punish people who cheat. Well, as a father of three, I have frequently heard the plaintive wail of a child saying, “That’s not fair.” (Somehow children can make the word “fair” into a veritable Wagnerian aria of displeasure when they’re really annoyed.) After reading Mr. Pinker’s article I am better prepared to battle that whiny cry of moral outrage. I can tell the nine-year-old boy staring at me with clenched jaw because the big sister gets to go to the movie and he doesn’t that sociobiologists have postulated that there may even be a gene which has evolved over time to enhance the reciprocity factors and cultivate altruism. Throwing that amount of logical sounding babble at him will cause him to become bored and go downstairs to the more controllable world of Lego Star Wars on the GameCube and I can take a nap.
Community can also be illustrated well using children. The fifteen-year-old and the thirteen-year-old sisters can call each other names, pull each other’s hair, and leave each other black and blue and miserable, but if someone outside the family even looks cross-eyed at “my sister” they turn into secret service ninja bodyguards bent on protecting the life, limb and reputation of the same person that just moments before they contemplated giving a wedgie of epic proportion.
The idea of authority means people believe it is correct and moral to defer to legitimate authorities and respect people with high status. Unfortunately in my life the list of legitimate authority figures seldom includes tired old dad. Also, in today’s society high status is bestowed on Tom Brady not assistant principals hidden amongst 550 fifth and sixth graders.
I do not have the credentials of Mr. Pinker, but I must disagree with him. He says purity is valued in all cultures. Have you read the ingredients on anything? Heck, even Ivory soap has sodium tallowate, sodium palm kernelate, water, sodium chloride, sodium silicate, magnesium sulfate and fragrance. 99 and 44/100% pure my Aunt Flabby!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Driver's Education

My daughter has started driving. This means I am now old. This means she has learned not all hand signals by drivers were replaced when cars got turn signal lights. This means my insurance rates have gone from “it hurts to write the check” to “does someone have a tourniquet…I’m hemorrhaging money over here.” This means when she has to go to drill team practice at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning I can stay in bed. Ah, there’s the proverbial silver lining.
I have never been the best teacher for my own children. We get frustrated with each other quickly. Even third grade math homework required UN peacekeepers being called to our kitchen table. (“I know this is not the way your teacher explained it to you, but it works so shut up.) Now that she has the rectangle of plastic giving her legal rights to drive we have found some things we did not spend enough time teaching her.
We are comfortable with her forward motion, but backing up has proven to be somewhat problematic. We have a garage behind our house on the alley which is the home for her little red two door. The first time she was driving to school by herself, I was watching from the upstairs window as she was leaving. You’ve heard of a three point turn, well, I needed a slide rule and Stephen Hawking to calculate the points in the geometric figure created by her attempts to get from the cement next to the garage into the alley. That night I used a shoe as a visual aid in describing a more efficient way. It turned out my wife had also been watching that morning and in the afternoon had done a sort of interpretive dance to demonstrate the “pulling into the alley” process.
A couple of days later I got a phone call from my daughter. She could not get the keys out of the ignition. Since the car was not running we decided she would go on into school and I would drive up and figure out what the problem was. A few minutes later I got another phone call. The situation had been solved. One of her friends visited the car with her and figured out the car was not in park so the steering column would not relinquish the key. I am just glad the high school parking lot is flat. A car, not in park, left unattended on an incline would have a very different result.
My daughter and her friend come out of the school and the friend says, “Okay, Emilyjane, where’s your car?”
Emilyjane scans the lot, “I thought I parked it right over there.”
The friend asks, “What does it look like?”
Emilyjane replies, “It’s a red two door Escort.”
The friend says, “You mean like that red two door Escort at the bottom of the hill resting halfway in the ditch and halfway through the principal’s car.”
Emilyjane says, “Oh, silly me. I didn’t even drive to school today. What was I thinking?” As she slowly backs into the building looking around for possible witnesses.
Before anyone starts thinking Emilyjane is a bad driver I need to make it clear I believe she is good at driving. She is just inexperienced and I did not teach her as well as I should have. She doesn’t have the benefit of a top of the line driver’s education course like I had.
She didn’t log hour after hour in a car with two other nervous teenagers and a grumpy man whose greatest pleasure was slapping the roof of the car loudly as the student made his first attempt at parallel parking. She did not watch 16 mm films of horrible accidents which struck abject fear into the hearts of many in the class and caused certain boys to argue whether a ’77 El Camino could even get up enough speed to actually tear a telephone pole off at ground level. (The real kicker was all those films had theme music more appropriate for kittens and puppies frolicking about in a sunny meadow than for the oil stains, cracked windshields and gnarled metal of disemboweled Chryslers.) She didn’t “drive” in a simulator helping nascent drivers identify, predict, decide and execute what would happen in a variety of real-life situations (See Mr. Ropp, I was too paying attention). However, I have passed on to her the most important message made blatantly obvious throughout my driver’s ed course: All drivers are deceitful and wish to kill you.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ask a frequent question, get a frequent answer

I came later than many to the world of computers. I can remember coming across the term “FAQ” and trying to pronounce it like it was a word. It was probably months later that I saw the words “frequently asked questions” written out. There was a clearing of the clouds, an astral choir sang, and I slapped myself on the forehead as I suddenly realized just because I enjoy Broadway show tunes doesn’t mean I have to be ashamed. I can admit it and still be a man.
Now, years later, I have learned that “FAQ” is often used as a signpost to guide users to answers that many people have asked before in order to shorten the time spent looking for information. Just think, if the wise Tibetan monks had a few FAQ Foothills fewer people would risk their lives climbing the mountains looking for enlightenment. Not everyone wants to know the meaning of life and the true road to happiness. Maybe an FAQ Foothill could just explain the meaning of a tough word like “solipsism” or the true road to the nearest Baskin Robbins (which has thirty-one varieties of happiness). Not everything needs to be so darned momentous.
As a way to avoid doing the things I really should have been doing I decided to cruise through a few websites and see what was being asked frequently. As you might have guessed the government has a lot of questions asked of it.
One of the popular questions on the Internal Revenue Service website is “What should I do if I made a mistake on my federal return that I have already filed?” The first sentence of the response is “It depends on the type of mistake you made.” If it is a mistake in your addition or subtraction the government will simply re-figure it for you and amend the return themselves. If it is a failure to report the thousands of dollars you made under the table by selling your complete collection of Leonard Nimoy albums on EBay then the government will impound everything you own and make you pay an extra penalty for trafficking in incredibly bad music.
My next stop was the Environmental Protection Agency website. A question I found was: “How will I know if my water isn’t safe to drink?” If the water is brown do not assume it is chocolate. Small chunks of rodent floating in the glass might be an indication. If a spark can set it ablaze drinking it is not recommended. Okay, I made that stuff up. The real answer is, “Your water supplier must notify you by newspaper, mail, radio, TV, or hand delivery if your water doesn’t meet EPA or state standards.” Of course by the time all these avenues for getting the word out have been prepared, and then used, your tropical fish have legs, the toilet glows in the dark and the carbonation in your ginger ale has mixed with the water causing a chemical reaction in your alimentary canal resulting in burps which can be recorded on seismographs in Japan.
I didn’t even know there was a website for the United States Court system until this exercise. The second question on its FAQ list was: “What are the qualifications for becoming a federal judge?” The first scary part of this question is that people are surfing the web contemplating becoming federal court judges. (It was either a career on the bench or draw that parrot and become a graphic artist in my spare time.) The second scary part is the real answer: “The Constitution sets forth no specific requirements.” If we are not careful we could end up with a Tenth Circuit Court composed of Paula Abdul, Bruno (from Dancing with the Stars) and that guy whose graphic artist career went belly up when he found out he had to draw things other than parrots.
Federal Bureau of Investigation: “How accurately is the FBI portrayed in books, television shows and motion pictures?” Very few of us have hair as good as Efrem Zimbalist Jr’s.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: “What is the difference between being overweight and being obese?” Froot Loops versus doughnuts for breakfast.
Federal Emergency Management Agency…actually I never got to read their FAQ’s because the internet connection slowed to the speed of a sloth sipping Benadryl. I am not making this up. The irony is a little too stark.
Now for my personal favorite. This was on the website for Northwest Airlines. “Do you have a policy for transporting antlers?”

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Now and then you need to look at then, now

Well, believe it or not, it is now the year 2008. When I was a kid the far fetched future talked about in science fiction books and movies was 1984, 1999, 2001 and 2010. Only one of those has not already happened.
Many of the futuristic do-dads from those fictitious settings are not even as cool as the things we really have. Would anyone actually want the bulky monotone robot from Lost in Space? (“Danger, Will Robinson” what good is that? A three pound dog can alert you to danger and the maintenance is easier.) For people with the proper know how technology can do so many things. I am not one of those people. I use my cell phone to call people and even less often to receive calls from people. Some folks can use their cell phones to send text messages, listen to music, watch video, google (to those who are less technologically savvy than I, that means “look up”) the 1975 MVP of the NBA, and get GPS directions to Nirvana.
When “older” folks like myself start complaining about how the world is going to Hades in a picnic basket the implication is it used to be better. Let’s take a look. The year is now 1908. Here are some things which happened back then.
January 21, 1908, New York City passes a law making it illegal for women to smoke in public (it was vetoed by the mayor). Nowadays that would never happen. No municipality would contemplate banning the civil liberties of any group willing to purposefully inhale smoke laced with a variety of unhealthy or even deadly toxins while generously sharing the smoke with bystanders who simply are compelled to breathe because stopping has more immediate health concerns attached. What’s that? Over twenty states have banned smoking in public places and hundreds of cities have as well? Never mind.
February 18, 1908, Japanese immigration to the United States is forbidden. Hmm, problems with immigration? That doesn’t sound familiar at all. I mean Lou Dobbs won’t even buy a CD with Hot Blooded or Double Vision on it. (That is truly an obscure reference. Give yourself 150 bonus points if you know what I’m talking about.)
September 17, 1908, Thomas Selfridge becomes the first person to die in an airplane crash. Now, you probably think poor Mr. Selfridge died due to an inept pilot who did not know how a plane really worked since it had only been invented five years earlier. Wrongo! Mr. Selfridge probably felt pretty doggoned safe. His pilot was Orville Wright, the guy who had invented it.
October 14, 1908, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It was the second year in a row they won it. I am sure they saw the beginnings of dynasty. One hundred years later bleacher bums are still drinking large amounts of cereal malt beverages and looking for goats, Bartmans, Kerry Woods’ sixteenth arm surgery, and any other manifestation of their futility.
November 6, 1908, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have been killed by soldiers in Bolivia. There has been a bit of a mystery surrounding this story. But anyone with half a brain knows they didn’t die there. They were seen in 1930’s Chicago when they took a bunch of money off mob boss Doyle Lonnegan. (This reference is only worth 35 bonus points.)
Several famous people would be celebrating their one hundredth birthday this year, if they weren’t…dead. Louis L’Amour could be working on his one hundred forty-fourth novel. That is if he kept up with his average of 2.48 books released each year from 1950 to 1987. If Edward R. Murrow was still alive he would be armed with a high powered rifle looking for Rupert Murdoch. Mel Blanc would still be one of the funniest men around that very few people had ever seen but everyone had heard. The most famous person born 1908 was born on my same birth date, September 19, Paul Benichou. What, you don’t know Paul Benichou? He was a French intellectual. Okay, so he isn’t famous today, but is anyone famous today for being an intellectual?
Actually, I do not share a birth date with many famous people. That is until you get to September 19, 1928. That is the date that a baby boy was born in Walla Walla Washington named William West Anderson. This kid would go on to make an impression upon television surpassed by very few. This kid would change his name to Adam West. Holy eighty years old, Caped Crusader!

I do hereby resolve ...oh, nevermind

Christmas is over. The wrapping paper is in the dumpster. The decorations around the house have a slight melancholy about them. The teenage daughters have the iPod ear buds firmly planted in their ears. The nine year old son has his hand grafted to the video game controller and responds to questions with grunts signifying anger, triumph, or hunger. Mom is counting the hours until school starts again. Dad is counting how many hours he worked to pay for all these electronics which cause his children to ignore him. Ahhh, money well spent.
After Christmas people are looking at the New Year. A new year shouldn’t simply mean a headache, a certain spinning sensation when trying to get out of bed followed by college football. It should mean a fresh start, a chance to improve one’s life. To this end many make resolutions.
When you look up resolution in the dictionary it says: “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” The problem with the definition is the term “firm”. Most resolutions are about as firm as the handshakes you get from the “La Cage Aux Folles” chorus line. I surfed the internet for the most common resolutions. Four resolutions which showed up with frequency were: reduce stress, spend more time with the family, get out of debt, and get organized.
Reducing stress is a very positive goal. Stress causes all sorts of unhealthy side effects. I resolved to try to minimize the stress in my life. But then I started worrying I might not be able to keep my resolution. That caused stress. Then I realized to truly eliminate stress I would have to eliminate a lot of people. The guy at the grocery store self check out who pays his $37.48 bill using pennies, the kid down the block who plays his devil worshipping rap music loud enough to rattle the windows in my mother’s house 120 miles away, and the guy on the phone commercials who doesn’t even have to say “Can you hear me now,” to earn more money than I do, pant, gasp, myocardial infarction! Killing all those individuals might be cathartic, but a federal penitentiary creates a whole new set of stressors.
On to the next one. In this hustle and bustle world we find ourselves spending less and less time with our family. Everything we are, and have the potential to be, is built from our families. Our family is the foundation of our lives. The strong foundation makes for a strong house. But, have you ever looked carefully at the foundation of a house? It is full of spider webs, things the dog dragged out of the neighbor’s trash cans, and dead possum parts. The foundation is important, but do you really want to spend time with it? Look at your family. There is Cousin Frank who thinks he is a true lady’s man with his short-sleeved lime green leisure suit. Also, your sister-in-law who makes guests on the Jerry Springer Show seem sedate and well-balanced. Let’s face it, your own kids could use intensive manners training or a lobotomy, whichever is cheaper. Resolution two lasted about an hour and half into the New Year’s Day party when you suddenly remembered a pressing task at the office.
Getting out of debt is not an easy thing. Getting into debt is both easy and a heck of a lot more fun. I know creating a budget and sticking to it is the way to live. Cutting up the credit cards and putting a portion of your paycheck into a government secured education fund would be the smart thing to do. The fun thing to do is to charge a new hi-definition television, a kickin’ stereo system and a recliner with a built-in beer cooler and massage settings from “Wife’s Back Rub” to “Full Geisha” then retire to your basement to watch sports and Schwarzenegger movies until your eyeballs fall out.
The last resolution on the list is getting organized. I did a bunch of research and found several great ideas. These pointers by highly effective people make it so every thing you do will be efficient…well, I had it here a second ago. It was in a color-coded file folder, color coding helps immensely I read. The folder was purple. Purple stood for top priority. Or was it purple because it’s my daughter’s favorite color? Oh, no I feel stress, where’s my Visa? I’m going to go to the store and get enough Dr. Pepper to founder Secretariat (losing weight was also a resolution).