Trendy? Not So Much…

Space Ghost action figure: a random image that is quirky and means nothing.

A long time ago, in a geographic location far far away, when I was a college student, there was this diner near the school. It was decorated like a 50’s diner, and served the faire that you would expect from such an establishment. Not astounding food quality, but it was fun. There was even a juke box. It was a great place to unwind and enjoy yourself.

I hadn’t really seen a place like that since, until we moved to New England two summers ago. The city in which we initially lived had such a diner downtown. I mentioned to Karen that I really wanted to stop in, because it would be really fun to go to a place like that again. After all, it’s a pretty unique experience.

And then, in our second apartment in that city, we discovered another such diner only a couple of blocks away. And then, when we moved about half an hour away to the town in which we currently live, we discovered another in the center of town. Turns out that, at least in our part of New England, retro-styled 50’s diners are all the rage.

I haven’t been to one here. Sort of don’t want to now. Mostly because they’re all the rage.
Contrast this with a place like Flying Saucer Pizza, which we tried last weekend, and that is a really cool and unique idea for a science-fiction-themed eatery (at least I haven’t seen any others in the area). It’s the sort of place that you recommend to your friends, because it’s unlike any other place that you’ve visited.

I suppose that where I’m going with this is that I really don’t like to do what everyone else is doing. In fact, if it’s stylish, trendy, or “what all the cool kids” are doing, I really have no desire to do it. On a cynical day, I would tell you that this is because of a herd mentality, because I don’t want to be part of a group following with no critical thought involved. In reality though, and in keeping with the positive vibe of my day, I think it’s more about my own personality flaw.

I just like to be different, man! 

I sort of wish, for example, that Apple hadn’t gained the huge market share that it has, because it was a much cooler experience to carry an iPhone when very few people had one. Sort of like using a Mac still is, you were part of an exclusive club of sorts. I’ll continue to use one because it’s still superior to other phones, but when everyone has one…well, it just isn’t as fun.

We won’t discuss the secret fear that I hold of huge amounts of people becoming Whovians and forcing me to lose my joy in that program.

I think there’s something wonderful in being different, in defying easy categorization. Conformity is over-rated, and creativity flows from being a non-conformist. Still, the sour taste that doing what is popular leaves in mouth…it’s almost problematic.

Is this a pride thing? Do I need to mellow out in my old age? Should I follow the crowd more?

Nah. Being quirky is way too much fun…

Not So Amusing

Every now and then, a friend or colleague will reference a television commercial that is apparently all the rage, the thing that everyone is talking about. Karen and I generally remain (blissfully) in the dark about these, because we cut the cord years ago. The rare exception are adds that will appear on Hulu, and when I do see commercials, sometimes on a television in a waiting room or something similar, I generally just shake my head. Commercials generally are intended to leave one believing that if you buy that given product, your life will suddenly be fulfilled in some previously unrealized way.

Marketing, I will always believe, is a symptom of a great deal of what is cancerous in our consumerist Western culture.

Last week, Karen and I were watching a favorite program on Hulu, and we saw two such commercials. I think…I think…that they’re intended to be cute, amusing, and genuinely fun. And if you don’t think about them as you’re watching them, I imagine that they are just that. In the interest of actually thinking about what we’re seeing, though (you know, since that’s always a good idea), let’s look at Disney’s beckoning to bring us into their park for good family fun:

In what world would a grandparent have such poor self control as to upstage their grandchild? In what world would they even want to do such a thing? I’ve met a lot of grandparents in my life. I have a lot of friends that are grandparents. None of them would even dream of such a thing, because it isn’t funny, or cute, or amusing. It’s trampling your (grand)child’s self-esteem. And, incidentally, no child that I know would laugh at this either, to say nothing of the parents in the audience.

Or, perhaps even more depressing, this is apparently supposed to convince us to buy flavored coffee:

Except that’s it’s using a stereotype of vacuous women to do so, making the women in the commercial appear weak and flighty. Even worse, it’s making literary-minded women…and those interested in literature in general…to appear silly. Like we need less interest in literature in the U.S. today. Advertising as a discipline (if it can be called that) doesn’t care about whether or not it’s reinforcing a depressing cultural trend, though…it only cares that it can use it to sell a product.

Encouraging poor behavior, capitalizing on downward trends…what’s sad is that commercials like this (and there are others that are even more reprehensible…at least these two made some effort to disguise their manipulation with cleverness) do sell products. We let them. We mindlessly sit in front of a TV and soak them in, unthinking, without analyzing, permitting ourselves to be voluntarily reduced to the lowest common denominator.

The creators of these, and many other ads, should feel ashamed.

As should we.

Out of Practice

I logged into the blog tonight (Thursday) out of a sense of obligation. I haven’t posted anything all week, after all, and my posts seem to be becoming progressively later in the week, in any case. I used to write every Monday, after all. Every Monday, publish early Tuesday, a routine like clockwork, and…

…and I’ve complained about this before.

So, I’m not here to initiate a resurgence of whining. I’m just noticing something else that goes along with this, a part of the bigger picture. I don’t keep up with the blogs that I follow as I used to any more, either. I used to carve out 30-45 minutes every day to read posts from everyone that I knew in the blogosphere. I was always looking for a new blog to follow. I classified myself among the serious bloggers, those who would list this as a very important hobby, if not a side vocation. The reason is because I think that this medium is so important. The expression that this permits is so huge on so many levels. Free information is put out there by numerous sources. As everyone kept a journal at certain points in our history, we can now throw our thoughts out there for anyone who wants to listen (sort of what I’m doing now). And, of course, what has always made it so fascinating is that readers can interact with us and our thoughts.

“Ummm…yeah, Dave,” you’re saying right now. “This isn’t exactly new. Not like we didn’t realize this and you’re giving us an ‘aha’ moment…”

I know. Not like Web 2.0 is a new innovation or anything. I think, though, that we need to be reminded of this, because we’re doing it every day and we’re lost a bit in taking it for granted. Choose your social network…whichever one(s) you use, you’re doing the same thing, just is shorter sound bytes.

And that’s what concerns me.

I will always believe that long-form blogging is important in a way microblogging can’t achieve. Not saying for a moment that the latter isn’t important, as well, but there are things that it can’t do that we can do in this medium. Yet, this medium seems to be declining, or at least that’s the word on the street with many bloggers that I’ve followed for a long time. There’s no time to write these posts anymore, they say, and many say there’s no time to read them, either.

And, certainly I find myself skimming my subscriptions and pulling out specific posts now, and that’s on the every-third-day that I manage to open Feedly at all.

I can identify any number of reasons why this is the case, most of them legitimate, if not all. My time is stretched thin with a 2-year-old in the house, family obligations, various creative pursuits, and, of course, that whole day-job thing. However you slice it, our attention spans become forever shorter, our time to read anything more than a few characters increasingly strained. Out of practice, and all that. So, perhaps this is a hobby that’s been nudged down the priority list as my season in life has changed. That happens. It’s still important, though, for all of us who write, and for all of who read, in spaces like this one. The thoughts that can’t fill a book by themselves, but that can’t be boxed into 140 characters. These spaces are important.

We just have to find the time to read them.

Language is Optional

My first thought when I head the news that the College Board and changed the vocabulary requirements and made the essay portion of the SAT optional was something like this…well, actually, pretty verbatim:

“America has…if this is even possible…become even more stupid.”

And, I’ll be honest, I still haven’t shaken that initial perspective, although I agree with other, more nuanced reactions, that the motivation behind the College Board’s changes were, at least. altruistic. And certainly there are good things attached to this overhaul, such as efforts to create opportunities for students from poor families. That said, there is so much about this that frustrates me.

I remember sitting in the SAT testing room during my senior year in high school, concerned about the competition for the colleges in which I was most interested. That stress was a real thing, and it certainly has potentially negative effects, which shouldn’t be minimized. Still, all things being equal, my experience there was similar to my experience only a few years ago when I sat for the GRE…my verbal scores were excellent, my analytical writing scores off the charts, and that saved me from the appearance of intellectual disability that would have been the result of looking at my abysmal math scores in isolation.

I just don’t get numbers, and yet I’ve managed to have a perfectly successful career, and am embarking on another. Imagine that. It’s amazing what an ability to communicate and write well can achieve.

It seems, though, that we as a country intend to produce only students that can perform mathematics and sciences. And, keeping in mind that I write code for a living, I’ve ranted on more than many occasions here about how we’re doing a monumental dis-service to our children and to our entire culture as we make our educational process progressively less literate. Now, even when the writing option for this test is taken, the focus will be objective and analytical, leaving little room for creativity and encouraging vocabulary that the student would realistically encounter in a professional setting.

Read: The limited and results-focused language of business.

So…where’s the poetry, man? What happened to one’s higher education pursuits being a time in which one can explore different disciplines and ideas, not only disciplines in which the student might be interested professionally, but also…and perhaps even especially…disciplines in which the student is merely interested? That creates a well-rounded person, a creative problem-solver, a person with some life experience. The answer to fixing our educational process isn’t rocket science. Leaving behind test-focused teaching and concentrating on an interdisciplinary approach to life would go a long way.

The College Board has failed us miserably here.

That said, though…and after my initial knee-jerk reaction above…I have to also recognize that this is a complex issue. Standardized testing, in my humble opinion, is the enemy, and placing one as a potential barrier to entry for bright, eager, and qualified students is a poor practice. When I took the GRE, a close friend who retired from a career in academia and sat on several PhD selection committees told me flatly: test results are only considered when the committee needs a reason to cut someone and can’t find anything else. I fail to see how this is useful. Multiple colleges have already made decisions to not use the SAT as a selection criterion, and this will hopefully be a continuing trend. Considering the issues raised before a student is even near being ready for college: the fact that we teach middle-schoolers calculus but not handwriting, for example…more so-called objective data interfering with the educational process at the most formative period in one’s adult life just isn’t helpful.

So, while the College Board has made an epically stupid decision this week, I’m not sure it should matter, because the SAT is…or at least should be…a red herring. Objective testing has nothing to do with educational achievement, because educational achievement…and the methods by which what one learns can lead to career success throughout life…is amazingly…well…subjective.