Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Starbucks & The Economy

So this weekend like lots of other weekends, I found myself in my favorite coffee shop, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The natural question here is if that is the case than what is up with the title? Well, despite my love for CBTL, the bottom line is that I, like millions of other people, frequent Starbucks for my fix once in a while because, well, they are everywhere.

This brings me to my often trotted out non-scientific observation of the lines at Starbucks as an indicator of the economy. I say that the long lines at Starbucks show how much the economy is improving despite stories to the contrary.

I must admit, I have been thinking about this one more so lately because I recently had a conversation with an uncle about the economy. Although he might have experience in finance, he is no social scientist. Where the disagreement ultimately came down to was how we view society. He views society as an external force that he must contend with while I view myself as an integral part of society who has influence in it.

But I digress. The important part is that there is a difference between looking at things, like spending, as a factor of business and looking at it as an indicator of societal behavior. Even the most adamant capitalist knows that the system is about people "voting with their dollars." Businesses in a free market are supposed to live and die based on people's preferences. The part that most business people, like my uncle, miss and that social scientists, like myself, get, is that it is never so neat and tidy as good product equals profitable business.

Spending money is often about social behaviors. Whether it's people gathering at Starbucks because that's where their friends are or because they offer free WiFi or just because many people simply fear the unknown and Starbucks is a known quantity, the truth is that not everyone goes there because they think it's the best coffee.

So Starbucks usage is not just about coffee drinking. It can be used as a measure of all kinds of factors happening in the country right now.

The more myopic types want to look at the state of the union in terms of individuals, a very egocentric model. That's fine, however, it is very difficult to extrapolate that out to the whole country. Moreover, the economy is not about what is happening at one person's house, it is about the entire system across a state or country.

Perhaps that is the difference between those who are on different sides of our political landscape these days. On the one side, there are those who see that we all have to join in together to make this a better place for us all. On the other, we have people who do not want to be bothered or have any obligation to the rest of society as long as their individual needs are met.

Unfortunately, an strong economy does not work that way. We all have a role to play and understanding that is important to maintaining a stable system.

I realize that understanding such concepts is difficult. It is far easier to think about what is happening at home than to try to fathom what is needed to create an environment that will help all 350 million of us to thrive. Perhaps we can start by recognizing each other's strengths and skills in these challenging times. Maybe we can have a little faith in each other. And if all else fails, let's just go meet for coffee.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Walk & The Cats

So this weekend was one of those, "I really need to get more active" type weekends. Not to say that I was out hiking or swimming all weekend long. No. Instead that means that when Sunday evening rolled around and I still hadn't produced a drop of sweat, I decided it was time to go.

I live near the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus. It is not the most convenient place to live next to during volleyball or basketball games, nor during the morning or afternoon rush hours. However, it does provide a nice route to run when the mood strikes me.

Last night, I laced up my shoes and started off on a walk around the campus. The college is by no means level or flat, so it is wise to start off walking if it has been a long time since the last time. Once I get warmed up though, I can't help but want to run.

I am certainly no obsessive runner. I can go long stretches without running at all. But I would be lying if I said that I don't miss it when I can't go for a run now and then..

Jogging around the campus can be fun because the various events that take place and the shear variety of people who seem to be around until late in the evening. One evening a few months ago, the street was especially crowded so I took a detour through the college. When I got halfway across the grounds, I caught a familiar. smoky smell and put it together that there was a reggae concert at the amphitheater.

As I was jogging around yesterday, it was a different scent that caught my attention. Cat food.

Unfortunately, the University of Hawaii suffers from a feral cat problem as do many public places across the state. The question I always had was, "How do all these cats survive? Are they scavenging the garbage cans? Are they cannibals?"

Turns out, a few misguided humans are to blame. As I approached the Old Quad, I saw dozens of cats chowing down from paper cups placed around the steps, sidewalk and lawn. The containers held both dry food and wet food since cats can be known to be finicky eaters, I am supposing.

Between the building was the culprit. An older man was collecting the receptacles and putting them into a plastic bag. His little furry friends had eaten their fill and his mission to spread fleas, feline AIDS and other diseases had been met for the evening.

I must admit that I kind of stared in disbelief at what I was seeing. I had heard in the news that feral cats were a problem and that the University and the state was formulating plans to combat the spread of the feral cat population since they had been deemed a health hazard. And yet, here was this guy. Feeding them.

I wondered if maybe he didn't understand that what he was doing was a problem. That he was actually contributing to the issue rather than helping it. Maybe when he heard that there was a feral cat problem, he assumed that the problem was that they were hungry. Or homeless.

The bottom line was that this guy was purposely creating a bigger problem even while officials were working to solve it.

The unfortunate lesson in this is that most maladies that face us are not being perpetrated by some nameless, faceless shadow organization. There is no conspiracy set upon us by some nefarious mastermind. No. Instead, they are being foisted upon us by our own clueless neighbors.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Social Media & The Troll

So last night I had an wholly unexpected development. I tweeted a comment to a certain celebrity actor and walked away from my smartphone. Half an hour later, I logged back on to Twitter only to find that my comment had created a little bit of a stir.

My tweet was: Mr. ****, please stop giving air time to these anti-fans. Their poison is doing no one any good.

Now to be fair the first replies, and by and large the majority of the replies, were positive. It was other people agreeing and understanding that the heart of the tweet was the sentiment "Do Not Feed The Trolls."

Enter the troll.

The mistake all trolls make is that they go for personal attacks. Okay, maybe that is not so much of a mistake as the hallmark of a troll. However, in my case, it is a strategy that simply does not work on me.

As a non-psychologist, I cannot say with accuracy what the motivations of trolling truly are. It certainly appears to a cry for attention and the total lack of knowing how to get it in a positive way. In that sense, I sympathize that it must be an awful existence to have as the only method of human interaction a bunch of people thinking that you are a desperate outcast being a thorn for a laugh (and at other people's expense, no less).

The tragic part of last night's interaction was that when the troll was faced with a calm and unshakable target, she spun out. The sudden and crushing realization that she was in the distinct minority and that I had not taken the bait caused her behavior to become even more chaotic and bizarre.

Now I share all this because I am worried about what this means about our world in general. The fact that we are so complacent and allow for this kind of behavior to go unchecked all of the time, I find disturbing. Mind you, in retrospect I realize the challenge of wading into the waters of social media and calling for civility is probably the definition of "shouting at the ocean."

But shouldn't we try? Shouldn't we ban together and demand that civil discourse starts with being civil?

Perhaps that is setting a high bar. However, I would rather set a high bar and fall short than set a low one and settle.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Single Parent Households & Solo Parents

So one day I learn that one of my relatives, let's call her Carol, had been referring to herself as a "single parent." I just about fell over. There are two things you need to know to help understand why this struck me as particularly absurd.

One, I grew up in an honest to goodness single parent household. This is, by the way, where the term "single parent" comes from. It does not mean that you are simply single and a parent. It means that you are the custodial parent who is the head of your household. More on this in a moment.

And two, Carol, had neither custody of her child nor was she living on her own.

Apparently, Carol was referring to herself as a "single parent" because she thought it helped people to understand her situation. I say it also garnered her sympathy and let her off the hook from responsibilities that she would rather avoid.

I found it amazingly offensive that this woman was passing herself off as a "single parent" just because she figured out it gave her a special status in our modern society.

My mother had the real challenge of being a genuine single parent. She raised three boys on her own and worked two jobs to make sure we would survive. She sacrificed whatever she had to give us a chance to have more than she did. She was a pioneer in that respect since she was a single parent in the days before special accommodations were made for single parents and expectations around school, sports and other activities were structured around the assumption that there were two parents at home. Honestly, I don't know how she did it.

So you can understand my dismay that the term "single parent" has been co-opted by other people who are otherwise not burdened by the real obstacles of single parenthood.

Another such violator of the term is any parent who refers to themselves as a"single parent" while their spouse is in a business trip or otherwise out of town. Really, just because your spouse is out of town, you suddenly have half the income and resources that you had last week? For these perpetrators, I offer the term "solo parent." You are picking all of the parenting duties on your own, temporarily.

However, in the case of Carol, the ugly truth is that she was hiding her own shame behind the moniker "single parent." The truth was that we have a term for her status that we all have been slowly moving away from to once again remove the perceived stigma that comes from an honest label. She is an unwed mother.

Remember that term? What was wrong with it? She is unwed and a mother. Perhaps that truth would cause her to have to possibly discuss why that was the case. Most likely not. We all know so many people having children out of wedlock that it is not even a subject we seem to care about any more.

So please, for the sake of all of those true heroes out there who are doing all of the child rearing, the homework checking, the cooking, the cleaning, the bill paying and money earning, stop using the term "single parent" unless you fit that category. My mother deserves no less.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The First & The Best

So recently the 2012 Olympics wrapped up. Just over two weeks of sports excellence played out on the world's largest stage. And although the games are played to bring countries together in the spirit of sportsmanship, it's also conducted on the field of competition. So while we agree there are no real losers among those who make it to the games, there are definitely winners.

Every event was a battle to prove who could be first. But more than that it was the race to see who could be best. Whether it was Usain Bolt proving that he could out sprint his competitors or if Michael Phelps could three-peat in any one of half a dozen races, we watched anxiously to see who would cross the finish line first. But the competition within the competition was to see who could prove themselves as the best.

 We watched as World Records were carefully tracked across the screen pacing the leaders and taunting the "also rans." Olympians were even asked to react to the knowledge that they just missed the record by the slimmest of margins. This question was only second in diminishing a performance to the question "what went wrong?" when a would-be gold medalist fell short. So how have we come to this point where simply winning isn't good enough?

Perhaps the phenomenon of calling "first" has called into question its inherent worth? Has having thousands of people doing things, no matter how inane, simply to claim the title of "first" eroded the value of being the first? Or have we decided that being first is just not good enough?

I submit that we have raised the bar on a group of people who perform feats most of us cannot even begin to dream to execute. By creating a new standard of best rather than first we are saying that people must not only compete against their peers but against every single other person who has come before. And at the end of the day it is far easier to be first than to be best.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

eBooks & History Books

This past Christmas, we got our son a Nook. Best. Gift. Ever. At least that is what he would tell you. And we could not be happier about that.

I am a book lover. Don't get me wrong, I don't read as often as I like, but I do have an affinity for books. Physical books.

I love libraries and bookstores. In part because you can often get a good cup of coffee in them, but also just to wander around the stacks. I have discovered more interesting ideas by picking up random books from the shelves than I ever would on-line or through chit-chat.

Being able to walk around a bookstore or library is like being able to sample conversations with hundreds of people. People you know. People you don't know. People you would be afraid to approach and those you would welcome like old friends. And all of those conversations can start and stop whenever you like. No hard feelings.

I suppose that is the value to having actual books laying around your house. There's that feeling that the house can't be empty when it is so full of words and ideas. But then there is the eBook.

eBooks all live together. Not on a shelf or in stacks, but on a hard drive. All squashed together and hidden from sight. And there are as many copies as there are devices to read them upon.

Which got me to thinking. If books are not limited by physical copies, are we as concerned about their survival?

Back during World War II, in addition to waging war on the world Adolph Hilter committed two unthinkable atrocities. One, he murdered millions of innocent civilians in such a ruthless manner that it earned its own term: the Holocaust. But second to that was burning books.

Imagine in the not so distant past, one of the most awful things a person could do was burn books. That in fact, most people who were guilty of wanting to oppress, kill or conquer other people were also guilty of burning books.

Book burning represents the desire to exterminate the thoughts, dreams and language of another people. Their history, their stories, their record of existence.

But now in the 21st century, would we all be aghast to learn that someone simply piled up a stack of books and had themselves a little literary bonfire? Or would we be content to read about it on our Nooks?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lord of the Rings & The Opening Ceremony

So today I was surfing the internet when I came across a post regarding a shot by shot comparison of the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London and scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. It was a well-crafted posted that echoed some observations that others have made about the pastoral scene and similarities to The Shire.

It also went on to compare the ring of power, or the One Ring, to the rings forged in the industrial setting of the ceremony. While this is a fair observation, it is really quite a shame that it is thought to be any kind of revelation.

For full disclosure, I am no Tolkien scholar. My own knowledge on this subject is limited to Wikipedia, the DVD extras on the Rings trilogy and my own reading of the books. However, it is my recollection that Tolkien was inspired and moved by the exact motifs expressed in the opening ceremony, at least those that occurred during and prior to his lifetime.

The Shire is a representation of the English countryside. Some say that it is an idealized image that Tolkien painted that captured the country he knew before he went off to the Great War. So it is not surprising that when Mr. Boyle depicted an English pastoral scene that it would bring to mind the Shire for viewers of the opening ceremony.

Similarly, the industrial revolution and the mechanization of war were heavy themes in the Lord of the Rings as these events were pivotal in Tolkien's time. Many scholars speak to his experience in World War I in the crafting of events and relationships in the trilogy.

So as it turns out, those astute viewers who drew parallels between the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and the Lord of the Rings were correct. Just not for the reasons they thought.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Storytelling & the Prequel

So the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be coming out in its fantastic Peter Jackson version later this year. Although in its book form it is the first novel and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the sequel, in the film version the roles are reversed such that the Hobbit becomes the sequel production, prequel in story-line movie.

This makes me curious to see how the story gets told. Although in Middle Earth time, the events of the Hobbit precede those in The Lord of the Rings, the story itself is getting reversed. This is fine as long as the audience thinks of the film versions as part of a story that is being told by a new storyteller, in this case Peter Jackson.

When Mr. Jackson tells his version of the books in this order, he will no doubt assume that people have seen his first three films. As such, he will likely place characters from the Lord of the Rings into situations that allow for a connection backwards in Middle Earth time between the two trilogies. I argue that making the films this way will then require that the films are viewed in this sequence as well.

I am afraid that this will not be the case among a certain segment of the Tolkien/Jackson movie viewing audience.

When all of the Star Wars prequels were completed, I heard many folks talk about wanting to watch all six movies as a huge movie marathon (Note: much less work than an actual marathon. And better snacks). Unfortunately, this is usually followed up by the idea to watch them all "in order." I say "in order" with the bunny ear quotes because they mean in internal historical order not storytelling order.

I argue that anyone who watches the movies in the internal historical order will be disappointed. How surprising would it be watching the original Star Wars trilogy after you already know that (Spoiler Alert) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father? Or how grossed out you would be knowing that Leia is his sister? It's bad enough thinking about Luke's incestuous thoughts and their awkward kiss in retrospect. Now imagine watching it all unfurl Episodes I through VI and getting thoroughly confused by the plot holes, technology downgrades and the apparent lack of written history in the Star Wars universe.

I for one will always watch the Star Wars movies in their story telling order and will show them to my children that was as well. I say that the same goes for the new Hobbit films.

Although the Tolkien movies have the benefit of being based on classic novels that have been read and re-read for decades freeing the new storyteller to tell his version of the tale, I still say that the die has been cast on these films. Although The Hobbit should always been read before the Lord of the Rings, it should always be watched after it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Form & Function

So my friend and I are driving down the road the other day. He spots an SUV with a sticker in the window that says:

He then turns to me and asks if I know what that sticker stands for. It should be noted here that about 90% of the time when one of us asks the other if we know what something is, the asker knows and it is really a pop quiz for the askee.

I tell him that since we live in Hawaii and I have some background in Hawaiian language, my brain automatically starts to decode it in that context. So all of this time I have been reading it as "heki." I figured someone was being artsy and cool and was mixing it up just for the sake of mixing it up.

As it turns out, it is not what I thought and it instead stands for HE is greater than i, with the I in lower case for emphasis.

Now, I am not one to put my personal beliefs into a bumper sticker, but if other people want to, then that's totally up to them. My issue with this way of communicating is that I did not understand what it was supposed to be saying. It made me think about how often we sacrifice the message's meaning for the message's look or feeling.

Perhaps this particular message is not meant for me. Perhaps it is a coded message meant for other drivers who are in on it and want to signal each other that they are around. To be honest, I don't know.

But if it is a way to communicate to the world, wouldn't you want to be clear what the message is supposed to be? Was there ever any consideration to being clear before being clever?

In this case, someone outsmarted themselves. In an effort to be clever, they lost the meaning of the message. And that in turn begs the question, if no one can understand what it is that you are promoting, then what's the point?

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Metatweet & the 2012 Games

Yes. This is one of those things that I am guilty of. When I go on Twitter, I can't help but sometimes make comments on Twitter itself. On the people who tweet. On the types of tweets they've tweeted. On my observations of the Twitterverse in general. So I have come to calling this phenomenon, Metatweeting.

So far, I have been on Twitter for about two weeks. As it turned out, it was a great to time join since the 2012 Summer Olympics were about to start. (Side note: I guess now that there are only one Olympic games per year, we probably no longer need to distinguish Summer from Winter games.) Having Twitter, and the internet, at my disposal during the games has been an interesting twist especially living on the opposite side of the planet from the games.

 Here in Hawaii we have taken to labeling everything Olympics with the ubiquitous "spoiler alert!" Since we are about 12 hours away from London, we get all of the results long before any of the action is televised. However it has all been worth it to be able to see Olympic fans like Mr. Samuel L. Jackson on Twitter getting excited just like any one of us would watching our own hometown heroes in the games.

But as advantageous as it has been to have that kind of access, it has created its own controversy on the part of the tweeters and reluctance on the part of the readers to get on Twitter before seeing the coverage on TV.  There are those that rail against anyone who posts too "early" the results and yet many who relish the idea of being able to have one over on all their less-connected friends. Like the "fans" that follow celebs on Twitter, during these couple of weeks it would seem that people are having a love/hate relationship with the Twitterverse itself.

So this post about metatweeting is really about the leaps and bounds of not only technology but of an event that brings the world together in one city and it tearing it apart across the globe. Here's hoping for the 3D (Winter) Olympics in 2014!