And Another Thing...
Sometimes you just have to get it off your chest. Here's my two-cents-worth, gleaned from various email comments, letters to the editor, and forum postings. Well, okay, there's only one actual article here, but I'll probably get more posted as I run across them in my grumpy ol' man archives.
Part 1 -- In Condemnation of Cell Phones
Okay, I’ve held my tongue long enough; if I don’t rant a bit here, I’m going to explode. Am I the only person under 50 without a cell phone? What are all these “connected” people across this country (correction: world) continually talking to each other about? What is so important in their daily lives that they can’t wait for the next face-to-face encounter to have a discussion the way humans have been communicating since the dawn of language?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no technophobe, fearful of encroaching progress merely because it represents change. Quite to the contrary, I’ve always considered myself among those on the leading edge when it comes to intelligently applying technology to save myself time or money, to enhance efficiency—in short, to improve my life—but aside from the occasional missed connection or last-minute change of plans, I have yet to really need a cell phone.

Sure there are those professions that practically require full-time wireless communication—from delivery persons and tradesmen to realtors, news reporters and on-call physicians—but how do you account for all these other rubes absent-mindedly roving about with little boxes pressed to their ears? Can their lives be that dependent on unceasing prattle amongst their circle of acquaintances that to ditch the phone for a few hours would leave them wandering around, bumping into walls and babbling to themselves like some crew of undirected automatons? What would happen if the entire cellular network were to suddenly collapse? I envision something akin to a kicked-open anthill with uncoordinated insects feebly searching aimlessly for they-know-not-what.

Yep, I fear it is too late for the majority of the population: having fed from the convenient hand-outs of the corporate telecommunications giants with their free-phone-and-introductory-rate marketing enticements, they have all but forgotten how to logically collect their thoughts and sustain a conversation in the physical presence of another human being. Perhaps it is taken for granted these days, but speaking as one who is more accustomed to having something to say before addressing someone, I tend toward mild annoyance when phoned by a friend who is merely killing time in the grocery line or on the commute home. I guess that makes me old-fashioned before my time, but this techno-age, stream-of-consciousness style of interrupting another’s activities is nothing more than another flavor of 21st century discourtesy right up there with Instant Messenger, spam, and the telemarketer.

And if I say discourtesy, it’s only to reserve superlatives for the more infuriating situation we are party to countless times per week: If someone were suddenly to burst in on two people conversing face-to-face, is it not considered downright rude for the interloper and his target to amble off in dialogue without so much as a “please excuse us?” Why then should we expect otherwise for cell phone interruptions. Must we mandate new rules of etiquette when mere extrapolation of existing principles of considerate behavior more than suffice? Surely we’re not awaiting the authoritative counsel of Miss Manners to confirm what we already suspect, namely that one is not obliged to take the call.

But I’m not angry… no, I’m more saddened by what I see all too often lately. Living in Boulder, I daily find myself out enjoying nature and the outdoors. There was a time when the last thing I’d expect to encounter on a trail run up a mountain or a bike ride off the beaten path was a business manager attending a meeting, or a councilor advising a patient, or an IT specialist talking a colleague through a problem; but sadly, that’s what I find now in the great outdoors on a daily basis. Yes, it’s inconsiderate for someone to intrude upon my mountaintop solitude by yakking away into that detestable, little silver box—unwritten hiker’s etiquette dictates that we converse in hushed tones to preserve the solemnity of the experience for others who wish to enjoy it—but what is truly sad is that for people such as these, there can be no transcendent revelry in nature’s presence; perhaps there was a time when that mom-on-the-go or that busy entrepreneur knew the inner peace that comes with leaving the world behind and seeking the solitude of nature and inner contemplation, but that part of them is now repressed—enslaved by a trendy, profit-driven fashion to remain ever wired to a hundred voices chattering in one’s head. Madness, you say?

And what does this mean for that old American virtue of self-reliance? True, as a climber, alpinist and backwoods trekker, a cell phone could for me make the difference between a mere mishap on an excursion gone awry and a slow death alone in the wilderness, but I have consciously and resolutely made my decision to leave the technology behind. No cavalry summons for me should I encounter hostile forces—no airlift out of the canyon, but also no message to my wife to leave my dinner in the oven; no call to reschedule that late-day appointment; no hail from a friend in town… in short, nothing between me—the true core of my being, removed from the artificial supports of civilization—just me and Nature.

I know my opinions will inflame some, but I’m not concerned about the person who would take offense at my views. He would be the guy, seated in the public toilet stall, I hear talking to his broker; it’s the person standing next to me in the store whom I answer only to find her in apparent conversation with her-headphoned-self; it’s the motorist holding up traffic at 15 miles per hour because he’s too busy barking at his subordinate; that’s the inconsiderate lout who has set up temporary office space on the summit of Mt. Solitude. I know all about their lives already—I overhear the details daily—and it doesn’t interest me.

And here's a rather compelling footnote:

Woman May Not Have Meant to Swallow Phone
Associated Press, Dec. 27, 2005

BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. - A woman who police thought deliberately tried to swallow her cell phone during an argument with her boyfriend was apparently the victim of an assault instead, authorities said.

Part 2 -- More Pet Peeves
Those little things that gradually erode our quality of life, presented here in no particular order.
That annoying station icon in the corner of your TV screen – What started out as an identification for the TV station you are viewing has become a vehicle of network advertising. It’s annoying enough if you find yourself trying to read subtitles through an intrusive graphic icon in the lower, right-hand corner of your TV screen, but some network twit has devised a method of breathing life into this irritating little homunculus: this now-animated graphic capers around, demanding attention, as it heralds the upcoming episode of Nanny 911, Joe Millionaire, American Idol, or some such brain-rotting program. Yet another fine product of the Ritalin generation.

A variation on this aggravating wonder of technology though, are the little information tickers—borrowed from news channels—that really have no place in entertainment viewing. I have recently witnessed the ultimate in short-attention-span TV: two versions of the James Bond classic, “Dr. No”—the first in regular format, the second in Annoy-o-Vision which bombards the viewer with absurdly irrelevant trivia throughout the movie.

But if these are the chattering little sisters of the station ID icon, then surely the class-clown big brother must be the amazing, shrinking TV screen. You know what I’m referring to: you’re trying to read the final credits of the movie you just saw when without warning, the screen is reduced to a narrow sidebar or stumpy header with insufficient resolution to discern any detail beyond the bold, “The End”. Abandon all hope of ever hearing the concluding sound track.

Cars that thump – You know those 5 kilowatt subwoofers that subsonically blast you from 3 cars away? Related images that come to mind: moose with ridiculously wide antler racks, bull frogs with astonishingly bloated air sacs, and mandrill baboons with those prominent, red butt pads. "Check me out, baby!"

Wind chimes – That’s not music, that’s random, man-made noise that distracts from all the beautiful sounds of nature which certainly require no brazen, tintinnabulary enhancement. You can’t hear the whisper of the wind for all the infernal clanging and tinkling! It’s like someone off in the distance tossed a box of pots and silverware down a bucolic hillside.

Dumb product packaging – Blister packs that you can’t open, recloseable box tabs that break off, cereal box liners with seams that fall apart, elaborately lavish packaging.

Leaf blowers – We got along perfectly well ere that cacophonous dust storm ever appeared over the suburban landscape.

Golf courses – What an environmentally gluttonous monument to Man’s inexplicable need for excuses to merely perambulate in nature. Waster of water, promoter of monoculture, elitist consumer of open space. (And I’m sorry but golf is not a sport any more than darts or billiards are a sport—merely a game of skill.)

Passwords – Specifically, businesses that collectively expect you to remember dozens of user IDs and account passwords, each with their own set of rules—number/letter combinations, minimum lengths, duration of validity, etc—rendering any sharing of secret words impossible. Shouldn’t the degree of risk be assumed by the user? If I am dumb enough to choose an easily guessed password, isn’t that my prerogative, just as I can choose to write it on the back of my day-timer if I so choose?

Wallet cards – It’s all about wallet bloat: do I really need to carry a card that has only my account number for the video store? If the clerk doubts my identity, why not request an existing form of ID? Don’t flatter yourself, Record-of-the-Month-Club, you haven’t earned a place in my wallet.

Needless stop signs – Try this: Next time you drive to the supermarket, count how many times in the parking lot you are requested to come to a complete stop. (I say ‘requested’ because surely, these can’t be legally binding traffic signs on quasi-private property, posted without any regard for actual flow of motor vehicle traffic.) Observation has proven to me that I am not in the minority as I ignore most of these useless stop signs. Why not replace them all with a sign that reminds you as you enter the parking lot to always yield to pedestrians? Those that choose to ignore the person crossing with an armload of bags is certainly no more likely to obey some inanimate piece of tin.

Sentence fragments – There has been a marked editorial preference these days for those short, sentence fragments. I suppose in this fast-paced world of sound bites (“bytes”?), we readers have been judged too stupid to retain a thought for more then four words. Let the ADD of the world rejoice! Joyously. With huzzahs. What was I saying? Can’t remember. Too far back.

Products marketed as “systems”– These days everything from cosmetics to technical clothing (i.e. “high performance” outdoor wear), from tires to paint jobs are marketed as “systems”, as if the complexity of their interrelated components warrants such a high-fallutin’ designation. Come on, we’re talking sneaker soles, people!

Unnecessary software updates – Remember the days before the internet when software companies had to hold back a release until it was fully functional and largely bug free? Well all that has changed now that these “market-agile” development houses can crank out the code and defer the fixes until after they have initiated a “revenue stream”. The downside for the consumer is that nearly every software installation requires an immediate check for updates.

Well granted, this is a very aggressive market where the economic benefits of such a scheme could win an advantage over the competition, but this lax attitude about releasing incomplete applications—as well as its complementary acceptance on the part of the consumer—has led to a subtler annoyance: automatic updates for trivial improvements. Really, must my media player continually pester me that there are new skins available? (I suspect this is often a ruse to install the latest proprietary spyware.) For the savvy computer user, such updates are not taken lightly; the wise administrator will want to know the details involved and perhaps take precautions to facilitate any subsequent rollback should the update prove harmful to some other function.

And so the world becomes more complex the more it attempts to simplify things.

My This, My That – While we're on the subject of software, remember when Microsoft in an attempt to make Windows more personal—more warm and fuzzy—came up the pre-designated folder, 'My Documents'? "How friendly! It's like the computer knows it's me! This is not just an anonymous folder of anyone's documents... they're MINE!" Well that cheap illusion quickly got out of hand, didn't it? Now we've got everything from MyDVD to MyTunes, to none of which are actually mine. But in purely sociological terms, I think this possessive-mania faithfully mirrors the American mindset behind such gems as Manifest Destiny, the Westward Expansion and our current foreign policy.

Megalomaniacal, Monolithic Apps – But by far, the more egotistical declarations are bellowed by all these recent applications that purport to be the single, integrative solution to all our desktop tasks: image manipulation, photo-sharing, video capture, DVD authoring, music file management, CD creation... it seems it’s no longer sufficient to package several stand-alone tools into a program group from which the user may choose a utility to suit the job at hand. This evidently outmoded means of accomplishing a task has not earned its obsolescent status by some technical inadequacy but rather by a combination of wider computer literacy and shrewd marketing ploy. Consider the simple sequence of steps:

  1. Download photos from camera.
  2. Browse, cull, select final images.
  3. Crop, color-correct and otherwise doctor with a photo-editor.
  4. Send them to a print spooler, attach them to an email document, or post them on the web.

Rather than plan out a series of consecutive operations and perform them with a set of tools ideally chosen to suit the immediate operation, given such technical constraints as memory and system resource usage, (Are pretty-looking graphical skins really necessary to what I am doing?) less savvy users are seduced by the apparent convenience of all-in-one applications in which the necessary operations are presented through inflexible interfaces, assistants or wizards. While that may suffice for those who dare never venture off the pre-mapped path, it is a hindrance to those once afforded the privilege of power-user status by more sophisticated but arguably less immediately intuitive applications of the past. Yes, there was a learning curve associated with programs, but they offered much tighter control and wider latitude and range of choices in performing a task.

The decline of user control is not the only unfortunate consequence, however. At once, companies realized the enormous marketing potential of such a pervasive, central interface and following the lead of pioneers like MusicMatch, began to push advertising through their desktop portals. Now no longer a mere vehicle for patches and product upgrades, an integrated internet communications layer has become a means to sell the user on everything from recording media to new software and spin-off consumer items. Daily I witness a veritable war unfolding on my desktop—a battle of media library software where Microsoft, Real, MusicMatch, and Apple vie for control over my computer’s default settings. Advancing the battle line through my system registry, they count their victories as the number of COM classes installed and shell extensions seized or as the shortcuts covertly infiltrated into my start-up group, programs menu, desktop and context-sensitive menu items. And all the while, in a shameless display of consumerism, my computer now unabashedly proselytizes as I burn DVDs with Roxio, promising a better life through the latest software releases... now at 30% off!

Non-steady cam – It started out subtly enough, then came that TV show, NYPD Blue, that I could never bring myself to watch for more than three minutes. Why? Cause it made me dizzy! Perhaps their first camera man had Parkinson's, so I shouldn't poke fun, but since then it's become all the rage to toss out the tripod and strap that camera to the shoulders of a AD/HD nine-year-old. I don't know, maybe it's just easier for the cinematographer to just frame the POV shots on-the-fly, readjusting to his particular vision as the mood strikes, than to plan the shot ahead of time. All I know is, rather than creating tension or a sense of realism, all it creates for me is a headache.

Gender-neutral pronouns – I'll be the first to admit that I'm not at all politically correct when it comes to choosing my pronouns or gender-inflected nouns. To me, Merrill Streep is an actress, not an actor, and if I speak hypothetically of a garage mechanic, he is not a she in any abstract grammatical reference. For whatever reason (I imagine this is a big topic in the Feminist Studies arena), our language is indeed gender biased, and linguistic determinism being what it is, this does color our view of the world around us. If it were up to me to create a new language from scratch, I would avoid gender-bifurcated constructs altogether—or allow for the indiscriminate case (as I have done in Rathvardic). But sadly, to adapt current discourse to a gender-sensitive ethos is to complicate the lucid, or worse, to mangle an otherwise beautiful language: "Each student should open his or her test booklet" his/her booklet?... their booklet??! I'd rather live with the gender bias than the un/pronounce/ability or the grammatical disagreement. But perhaps the mere act of contending with this problem actually makes us more sensitive to the underlying issues of sexual inequality. Just for God's (Goddess') sake, don't ask me to address the Chairperson!

Overplayed musical selections – I am speaking of classical radio stations, music services and concert programs here, but feel free to extend the concept to any applicable musical genre and distribution medium. My complaint here is that with the hugely vast volume of published musical works, why do classical stations continue to play-list the same compositions over and over? I suspect the problem stems from the music recording and publishing industries' marketing practices: why take a chance on an obscure Miaskowsky symphony or an early Haydn string quartet when they can predict exactly how yet another release of that idiotic Eine Kleine Nacktmusik will perform at the record stores and concert box offices? I sense a niche market here for any brave start-up. It worked remarkably well for the prospering Naxos record label, which has a policy of not recording any more than one release of any particular work. Why not apply this model to a radio station play-list service? (Probably because that won't win favors from the RIAA industry giants, like Sony/EMI/BMG, Warner, etc.)

What's worse is when a radio host dangles the carrot in front of your face by saying, "It's too bad that Max Bruch, who by all accounts was a reasonably prolific composer, is know today almost solely for his violin concerto..." And then they go right ahead and play—you guessed it—his violin concerto. I recall that he's got several nice symphonies to his name too... play 'em!

It's situations like these that prompt me to write grouchy letters like the following, submitted through my local NPR affiliate's on-line comment form:


And please... [name withheld] shouldn't assume that her listeners are so unsophisticated: The Moldau, Lt. Kije, Peter & the Wolf, Carnival of the Animals... it's like an elementary school music appreciation class! What's with all the pot-boilers?

Lately, I notice, there has been a much greater exposure of lesser-known composers and works, but there seems to be a commensurate dumbing-down as if there were a penalty to pay; at times I actually have to switch to the cable TV classical service to steer clear of the over-played pieces by Copland, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Dvorak. What about all the never-heard work by these guys? There's so much! Even Haydn and Mozart... Why always play the "Drum Roll" and the "Jupiter" when there are so many unplayed gems languishing out there? Think of all the never-before-aired chamberworks alone!

Sorry to rant; it's just that CPR has such learned and talented hosts, they should use their powers for Good, not to annoy!

Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Brian Zegarski, all rights reserved.