Re-writing History

Protesters challenging entrenched governments in Tunisia and Egypt gained early momentum thanks to social media. That Facebook and Twitter could play such a role in modern insurrections was unimagined by the founders of these social websites, and the whole notion of a website would be incomprehensible to Our Founding Fathers.

Where current events will lead is unclear, but if you transport these latest devices back 236 years, it’s not hard to imagine that earlier revolutions might have started in the same way.

Friend me, children, and you shall hear
Of the Twitterstream of Paul Revere.
In April of 1775
Hardly a man is now alive
who remembers the web was already here.

He said to his friend, “When the Brits intrude,
If by land or sea from the town they lurch,
Send a message to me from your iPhone, dude
I’ve got coverage up by the old North Church.

One tweet if by land and two tweets if by sea
And I on the opposite shore will be
Already connected to Facebook and Twitter
I’ll rally each farmer and rancher and knitter.
Assuming they all can arrange for a sitter.

Later, impatient and holding his cell,
All jumpy from Starbucks and eager as hell
on the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he’s tested his ringtone’s knell
Now five bars, his reception clear.
Checked his battery. It was charged.
His pounding heart was twice enlarged.

He searched for hashtags to hasten speed
#British, #man-o-war, #redcoats and #steed
The network was up, but was it corrupted?
Then quickly to life the device erupted.
“Brits go 4 #man-o-war, coming by sea
Revolution is here, P. Revere OMG!”
He copied this message, not missing a beat.
Proceeded it with an “RT” for “re-tweet”
And then closed up the phone. Revolution complete.

You know the rest. It was blogged. It was posted.
The Redcoats, defeated, were routed and toasted.
For social connections can work with a power
as potent as lanterns hung in a church tower.
A people, aggrieved, can now push for redress
in one hundred forty quick keystrokes or less.

Longfellow’s poem (which actually does include the word “twitter”), is as famous today for it’s inaccuracies as its narrative – evidence that a memorable simplicity must eventually succumb to a more complex truth.

Ever been part of an uprising?

Walking Music

In one of yesterday’s comments, Clyde mentioned taking a brisk morning walk in Mesa, Arizona while listening to this song by Peter Mayer.

Peter is a wonderful guy and this is a great song for many cosmic reasons. But one of the more cosmetically attractive things about it is that the music unfolds at a pace that is just right for walking. Same thing here, though a little faster, from Fats Domino.

The right music at a perfect pace can make a walk more pleasant, though caution is always advisable. There has been a recent flurry of attention devoted to the developing hazard of walking while fiddling with electronic gadgets, amplified by a viral YouTube video of a Pennsylvania woman tumbling into a shopping mall fountain because she was walking while texting. Inattention can have serious consequences, and it’s not a new problem. These NPR stories about distracted pedestrians are two years old.

Back to walking and listening to music – we’ve been doing this since the invention of the transistor radio, though at least in the pre-Sony Walkman days you didn’t have the immersive experience of headphones to seal off the outside world – just a single earplug to deliver the music. Or else you turned it up all the way and had the sound blasting out of the radio’s tinny little speaker through the tiny holes in its leatherette case.

And before that? We had to play the music back in our minds. Or, heaven forbid, sing it to ourselves! That’s the kind of strange behavior that caused our fellow pedestrians to cross to the other side of the street (after looking both ways, of course).

What’s your favorite walking music?

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Ages of Man

Here’s the latest angst-ridden message from perennial sophomore Bubby Spamden.
I think the dark days of late January are starting to get to him.

Hey Mr. C.,

I’m wondering if it’s possible to erase blog posts forever.

The last time I wrote I admitted that I was kinda sick of being held back as a high school sophomore over and over and over again. After all, it’s been twenty-five years! But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I kinda wanna take that back.

When I started at Wendell Wilkie High School, holding the same job for a quarter of a century was the sort of thing a guy could be proud of, so I started boasting about it. I figured maybe I’d get a gold pocket watch for loyal service, but then I found out nobody gets a pocket watch anymore. Modern pockets are full of cell phones and iPods. Who needs a watch? Besides, people aren’t impressed if you stick around the same place for a long time. They want to know what’s wrong with you!

So one idea I had was that I could go backwards instead … back to the 4th grade, where I heard some schools were giving the kids free iPads! I could really enjoy being nine years old again with a deal like that. But now there’s all this fuss over a new book – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – where this one mom talks about how super-tough she was with her kids, forcing them to skip meals to practice the piano, forbidding sleepovers, and threatening to burn their stuffed animals if they didn’t work harder.

Some people are real upset over it and others think maybe she’s on to something. The first group says every kid needs to have fun and be social in order to grow. The second group just has a problem with stuffed animals, I guess. It’s a real loud argument, and I’m not sure who’s right. I don’t think I could take the pressure of either approach, frankly. It gives me a tummy ache to think about being in fourth grade again.

So then I started thinking maybe it was time at last to start moving forward. But now there’s this new study that says it’s more stressful than ever to be a college freshman and things are just getting worse at that level. Today’s college students have to deal with all sorts of upsetting things – unemployed parents, tuition debt and poor job prospects – not to mention the every day social pressure to keep your Facebook posts upbeat and your Twitter feed funny. It gives me a rash to think about being in college.

I guess what I’m saying is that the second year of high school is the perfect place for me. I feel way too old to be shaped for the future and way too young to be burdened with it. You could say I’m in the sweet spot, age-wise!

So could you delete that post from earlier this month where I said I wanted to move on? And then could you delete this one too? I’m trying to cover my tracks so I can stay invisible for another twenty-five years!

Your friend,
Bubby

I’m not sure how to tell Bubby this, but our digital trail may be even more lasting than dinosaur bones or newspapers preserved in a landfill. The thoughts he expressed about wanting to stop being a perennial sophomore aren’t going away. I’m afraid his only hope is that his awkward confession will be as hard to find as a specific tree in the forest of words that is the Internet. That, and continuing to fail 10th grade algebra, may keep him safe.

What is the best age to be in 2011?

Seeking Validation

Dear Dr. Babooner,

The roof on the storage shed out back collapsed this winter from the weight of the snow, and the structure is unusable. The thing has always been an eyesore, and now that it’s damaged a debate has started about its real value. I admit there are benefits. We throw all the sports equipment in there and it helps make everything nice and tidy in our garage.

Our kids and the others in the neighborhood get a lot of use out of the thing, too. They’re always playing one sort of game or another in it or around it. I stopped paying attention but it seems like the door is standing open half the time and some little urchin is crouched in there, ready to pounce on someone. Usually the game has something to do with winning a championship or being a loud, bossy millionaire. Occasionally you hear some shouts floating across the yard about “MONSTER TRUCKS”!

But since the collapse I’ve had to wrap the shed in police tape and tell them to STAY OUT because the roof is unsafe. Long faces all around.

My wife thinks we should tear down the shed and replace it with something even bigger and nicer with expensive bells and whistles so it can be even more fun for the children and their games, but I’m thinking we should let the place fall in on itself like an old barn on an abandoned farmstead. Yes, it would be traumatic for the children to watch that happen, but it would remind them that games are just games and maybe it would instill in them a kind of gravitas that, frankly, they’re lacking. An air of melancholy and resignation about the inevitability of death and decay can be a useful thing for a young person. They’re not all going to be sports stars, you know. Some might become independent filmmakers.

Besides, we’re out of money.

Dr. Babooner, please tell me I’m right about how this dispute should play out. I took the time to write to you, after all, and my wife and the kids never read your column. You won’t gain a thing by siding with them. Give a loyal reader a bit of support, and I promise to keep coming back for advice that makes me feel smart!

Sincerely,
Seeking Validation

I told Seeking Validation that humans are able to develop an air of melancholy and resignation without intentional assistance from anyone else, and it’s mean spirited to try to build gravitas into another life just because you can.

Besides, watching something collapse is a terrible downer

The money question is a serious one, though, and rather than simply accept decay of the backyard shed, perhaps you and your wife and the local children could work together on weekends to repair the roof and improve the structure so it can still be a fun and useful neighborhood attraction. Like Amish people would, but without the horses and hats. It may not be the best solution, but it suits the situation.

And Dr. Babooner can’t be blackmailed with threats of withdrawing your attention. Your attention is a mixed blessing – look at me! The lovely pearls are merely window dressing to cover my own inner pain. Your flip comment about “long faces” hurt in ways I can’t even begin to describe, so don’t get me started on gravitas!

But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

S.O.S. (Support Our Slogan)

Among the reactions to last night’s State of the Union message was this late night dispatch from marketing genius and all-purpose idea man Spin Williams, who conducts his business in a rolling conversation he calls The Meeting That Never Ends.

We’ve been kicking it around in The Meeting all night long, and it’s our verdict that the standout feature of President Obama’s speech last night is his repeated exhortation for Americans to “Win The Future”. It’s a brilliant three-word call to action that sounds wonderfully urgent and has the added advantage of being completely vague and is therefore totally flexible. Is “the future” the prize we’re after, or the game we’re playing? The answer could be both! In any case, how will we know we’ve won? The future is always just ahead, so even if we think we’re winning right now, there’s always a chance some unnamed country with a whole lot of hard working people and tons of money in the bank will overtake us before we get there. So if our goal is to Win The Future, we can Never Quit until we’re Told We’re Finished. I mean Victorious! Well done, Mr. President!

I love slogans and I wish we had more of them! For me, the last memorable three-word salvo from a president was Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” (WIN). Remember the buttons? I still have a box of them in my basement. People ridiculed it at the time, but eventually inflation got tamed, if not completely whipped. Although buttons that said “TIN” wouldn’t have had the same power – you have to be bold to get attention! I thought at the time that “whip” was wimpy and our goal should be to “Smash” inflation, but people told me the button would be an embarrassment. Why? Last night I suggested that “Win The Future” is deserving of its own line of “WTF” buttons and apparel, but all the younger folks at the table insisted that would be a huge mistake. I still don’t get it. Bright people can be so timid sometimes!

Image from zazzle.com

Anyway, I’m totally on board with this new national effort to Win The Future. Americans love competition, and the slogan is generic enough to connect whatever happens to be the issue of the day (education, energy independence, trade deficits, pollution) to whatever sport you most enjoy playing (football, chess, tennis, air hockey, poker). It may be that our cards don’t look so good right now, but bluffing is an important part of the game and false confidence in the face of overwhelming odds can be a winning strategy. This is our new slogan, people. We should support it. WTF!

I admire Spin for his enthusiasm, no matter the topic. And although I’m not sure I share his fondness for three word slogans, I think he’s right about our love for games.

What’s your favorite competitive sport?

Will You Be My Friend?

Here’s a special message for residents of Minnesota’s 9th Congressional district – all the water surface area in the state – from Congressman Loomis Beechly.

Greetings Constituents!

I’m looking forward to the President’s State of the Union address tonight because I can’t wait to see who’s going to be sitting with whom! Random seating! It’s like the Red Carpet walk at the Oscars, with all eyes on who gets out of the car and in what order. Once inside it’ll be fascinating to see how the very same people who have called each other tyrants, traitors and terrorist coddlers will now try to do the dance of fake friendship. But you can’t get elected if you’re not able to put up a false front, so I’m sure we can make it look very warm and pleasant. And if we pretend hard enough, it could start to come true!

I know that some of you will be scanning the crowd to see if you can find me. Unfortunately, you are at the mercy of the TV networks, and frankly, I’m not a very prominent congressman. Even though January is the time of year when the 9th District has it’s largest permanent population (ice fishing season), the chances are good that the camera will never settle on me. But that’s OK. Back in the district, I’ve already given my annual State of the Ice Shack (and Pick Up Truck) Address, so I’ve had all the limelight and beef jerky a guy can handle.

Congressman Beechly's State of the Ice Shack (and Pick Up Truck) Address

As far as the State of the Union is concerned … I try not to get too bound up in pettiness and partisanship. In the spirit of this year’s grand gesture I will try to sit in between two people I genuinely despise. Who it will be I can’t say at the moment because there are so many to choose from, but you can count on this – I’ll be suffering, and I’m guessing they will be too.

If you see me you will notice one more thing (besides the identities of my worst enemies). I have decided to hold my applause until the very end of the speech. Why? Because the State of the Union is a very very important duty of the president (he has to do it – it’s in the Constitution)! We shouldn’t let it turn into a pep rally. In recent years too many of us in Congress have put our energy into coordinated ovations – so much that we actually miss a lot of what the president is saying. Frankly, there are times when I can’t even recall who had the job before, um, the guy who’s holding it now. So this time I’m resolved to sit quietly and listen.

Besides, back when I sat next to my friends, all I had to do was get up when they got up, stay seated when they stayed seated, and just generally do everything they did. Absent those cues, I might make a terrible mistake and jump up and cheer or cross my arms and fume at the wrong time, going with real emotion rather than remembering what I’m supposed to do. That’s the kind of bad political trouble you can get into when you try to think. So I’m not going to applaud or stand up at all, and I’ll try not to have a facial expression of any kind. My goal is to get through this thing gaffe-free.

But don’t let any of that get out, or the cameras will be on me for sure.

I do hope everyone in the 9th district will watch the State of the Union speech tonight. It is, after all, an opportunity to watch a guy hard at work fulfilling the requirements of his employment. And in America today, to have the chance to see someone actually doing their job … a job that they are paid to do – a job with great health coverage from an employer who will also provide them with a decent pension … well, it’s rare. Like seeing a Dodo Bird. Who talks! I wouldn’t miss it, and neither should you!

Yours in good government,
Hon. Loomis Beechly

Will you watch the State of the Union speech tonight?
And the counter-speech?

Goats in the News

PBS has launched a four part series under the Nova banner called “Making Stuff”, hosted by New York Times Tech columnist David Pogue. If you didn’t catch last Wednesday night’s first installment, you can watch it here.

Especially if you like goats, and I know a few of you do.

About three quarters of the way through the hour, Pouge’s search for the strongest stuff on the planet, which has already covered steel and Kevlar, finally comes around to some extremely tough, undeniably natural stuff – spider silk. And he introduces us to a University of Wyoming scientist named Randy Lewis who is trying to solve the problem of producing massive amounts of spider silk without having to rely on finicky, famously uncooperative spiders. Instead, he’s working with genetically modified, finicky, famously uncooperative goats.

Yes, there are goats in his lab that produce the right protein for making spider silk as one component of their milk. Spider Silk Goat Milk!

Spider web photo from losttulsa.com

It’s all part of an ambitious dream of mass-producing super strong materials. Two ambitious dreams, actually – the other one being to make goats the engine behind the next major global industrial manufacturing revolution. Three ambitious dreams if you consider what it would mean for goats to be returned to their rightful place at the center of our crucial economic revitalization and national security efforts. (Ambitious dreams #2 and 3 aren’t part of the official goal, but why not?)

Think of it – factories springing up out of nowhere to process goat’s milk into super-duper strong cables for bridges, components that far exceed steel in terms of durability and flexibility, and all manner of impervious materials. With vast amounts of goat cheese as a by-product.

The upside? Those who already have advanced animal husbandry skills could form the next global cartel to manage a vital resource – GOATPEC (Goats Organized to Assert Total, Permanent, Everlasting Control).

The downside? Bigger webs in the barn rafters.

Do you have a good real-life example of the truth (or irrelevance) of the standard caution “Be Careful What You Wish For”?