We Didn’t Start The Fire

“We didn’t start the fire.
It was always burning,
since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire.
No we didn’t light it,
but we tried to fight it.”
– B. Joel

I want to invent the Chill Pill. It’s a product many need, though not many would want. That means this product would be an utter failure. But still, I want to invent it.

Every time I watch the U.S. news, it seems like the world is falling apart. Reporters don’t say this outright, but they bombard viewers with murder after murder, travesty after travesty, horror after horror. It feels like we live in a dangerous society where death and tragedy is imminent.

I once read a story about a European tourist traveling through the U.S. While at this hotel, he turned on the TV to watch the local news. From the reports, he concluded that the city he was in was full of violence. However, the city he was in was one of the safest in the nation. The media was just doing what it always does – report on sensational deaths and traumatic crimes.

In such an environment, all the extreme emotions don’t surprise me at all. It’s a Chicken Little paradise here. Hypochondriacs are running the asylum.

It’s a fact that we are living in a safer time than ever before. Can you imagine your parents taking you as a kid to a public hanging? Or to participate in a public stoning? Or to watch someone being hung, drawn, and quartered?

There was a time where the men in a family had to carry a sword because raids and rape were common. Pestilence and starvation ravaged entire villages too. Before 1847, doctors didn’t know they should wash their hands after working with dead bodies. Can you imagine delivering a perfectly healthy baby, then to die from puerperal fever yourself? That was a regular occurrence in some hospitals.

Playing violent video games is one thing. Experiencing violence at your doorstep is another. Just ask any child living in a war-torn country or gang-ruled neighborhood.

Despite those current-day examples of violence, the majority of the U.S. populace does not live with such violence or crime every day. Yet, the news media portrays a very different picture. Even in an age of ambivalence towards advertising, people still tend to believe the media.

The Chill PillTM would combat the negative effects of media sensationalism. It would suppress the urge to stay at home for the rest of your life after watching how another family of three died in a car accident on your regular work commute route. Or the urge to avoid life-saving vaccinations after a celebrity claims it caused autism in her son.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, the Chill Pill is not marijuana, medicinal or otherwise. The core effects might be similar, though it would not carry the side effects of potential mental health issues and the munchies. My version of the Chill Pill wouldn’t, at least. Competitors would no doubt sprout.

It would be even better if such a product was not necessary and the news media shifted their reporting structure to a more balanced view. Alternative news sources such as Twitter and positive news sources such as the Good News Network, Happy News, and AOL’s Good News Now are all examples of the positive reporting that the traditional U.S. news media could adopt.

Then there’s Michael Moore’s assertion that the news media in Canada is much more tempered. In his documentary Bowling for Columbine, he features several Canadian news clips. Then he contrasts what he calls a climate of fear in the U.S. media to a more – for lack of a better word – chill climate in Canada.

I haven’t seen enough Canadian TV to verify this personally, though he makes an interesting assertion. If it’s true, the U.S. media has a working model they could easily emulate – our neighbors up north.

Unfortunately, I have a negative outlook on such a future. Perhaps I’m colored by all the negative news too, but I just don’t think these corporations would be able to change their structures. There’s too much company inertia, shareholder concern, operational overhead, and, of course, profits from the current status quo.

I don’t think any investor would read the Chill Pill’s business plan and see a bright future either. “The U.S. news media has created a climate of fear and fostered a sense of pessimism in the U.S. society. The Chill Pill would restore a sense of calmness and positivity and lead to a happier society.”

Yea, not a killer product. I think there’s a need, but not a want. That’s not a recipe for success. But still, sometimes after watching the news, I totally want to invent this.

The Danger of Extremists

“People who speak in absolutes absolutely bug me.”
– Me

I don’t take kindly to extremists. Especially those with a public platform. Such public speakers strive to polarize their listeners with provoking rhetoric. This can be dangerous in the minds of those who are easily influenced and in a position to inflict harm on others.

An extremist is a person who holds an extreme opinion to the point of disregarding facts that may refute the opinion or support a counter argument. The extremist will never admit this, of course. In that person’s mind, counter-arguments carry no weight and should be dismissed, no matter the strengths of the facts. Extremists may further harbor the paranoia that an opposing group released such facts as part of a conspiracy against the extremist’s point of view.

A person with a strong opinion differs from an extremist in the severity of the belief and the actions the extreme opinion propels. Strong opinions can ultimately be changed if there is enough supporting evidence to the contrary. Extreme opinions, by this definition, cannot, and may even be strengthened with fanatical zeal.

Many will argue with me about the danger of extremists. “What’s wrong with passionate devotion to a particular opinion,” they ask. “Without such passion, some of the world’s greatest art would not exist.” Neither would war, for that matter.

A stronger counter-argument is: “Humans are hard-wired for extreme opinions. It is in our nature.” That I cannot deny. It doesn’t change my opinion of extremists, but I realize it is futile to do much more than rant on my lowly website about them. And to avoid them, as I tend to do.

Another good counter-argument: “Isn’t this an extreme opinion against extremists?” Heh, funny. This opinion is not an extreme one. I don’t take kindly to extremists, but I do realize their contributions to society. Art is definitely one. Books, music, movies; some of the most moving creative works are born of intense passion.

The extremists I don’t like are those with a public platform and the desire to use their influence to inflict harm on others. History is littered with such examples. Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden are two infamous examples in the Western world. And unfortunately, I’m sure there will be many more in the future.

There are also many less heinous examples. Broadcast and cable television have given many the ability to reach millions in their own homes. The Internet has exponentially expanded that reach, though extremists on television still seem to have more influence than those on the Internet, for whatever reason. That will most certainly change in the future.

Bill O’Reilly is an easy example, though he would argue that he is not an extremist (or extreme conservative) and prefers to be labeled a “traditionalist.” He does have a public platform however: the O’Reilly Factor.

For better or worse, he is media savvy enough to know how to exploit this medium. The economics of television programs means those with the highest ratings stay on the air. In order to continue the survival of his show, he has to maintain high ratings. One of the most effective ways to do this is through sensationalism. And what is more sensational than a pundit shouting his polarizing views with fanatical zeal?

A show that carefully weighed both sides of an issue would not score high ratings, sadly. Most political issues are so complex that it would take hours to explain them all. No major media conglomerate would risk the loss of advertising revenue from such programming. (Thank goodness for NPR and PBS. Too bad more people don’t listen & watch them.)

Therefore, short sound bites about a particular political topic coupled with polarizing rhetoric is the best way to incite an audience and encourage them to tune in again and again. The end goal isn’t to disseminate the facts effectively; it is to cultivate a viewing audience.

Therein lies the danger of extremists. An extremist in isolation is not going to cause any harm, but an extremist with the ability to spread that opinion to millions could.

Let’s return to Bill O’Reilly again. In 2005, O’Reilly publicly denounced Dr. George Tiller on his television show. Dr. Tiller is a physician known for performing second and third trimester abortions. O’Reilly referenced the doctor as “Tiller the baby killer” multiple times across multiple shows. There is anecdotal evidence that this rhetoric may have influenced Dr. Tiller’s murder at the hands of Scott Roeder.

It isn’t fair to say O’Reilly directly led to Dr. Tiller’s death. The correlation is weak at best. But just as conservatives argue that heavy metal music and video game violence leads to violent behavior amongst teens, many have drawn a connection between O’Reilly’s words and Roeder’s actions.

Roeder has a history of mental illness. At 20, he was diagnosed with possible schizophrenia. His ex-wife believed he was suffering from bipolar disorder. He has also been involved with extremist organizations such as the Sovereign Citizen Movement (an anti-government organization) and the Army of God (an anti-abortion organization that believes murdering doctors that perform abortions is justifiable homicide).

It is fair to say that Roeder has a predisposition for violence in line with his extreme views. It is also fair to say that David Leach, another Army of God member and publisher of the anti-abortion newsletter Prayer & Action News (another example of an extremist with a public platform) had more influence on Roeder’s state of mind than O’Reilly did. But unfortunately for O’Reilly, he is more famous than Leach and therefore more influential on the nation as a whole. This is why he caught a lot of criticism for his statements, especially calling the doctor “Tiller the baby killer.”

In my opinion, no, O’Reilly did not directly contribute to Roeder’s murderous actions. But his influential voice did amplify Tiller’s demonization. Even journalist Gabriel Winant asserted that O’Reilly’s anti-Tiller tirades contributed to an atmosphere of violence around the doctor.

The influence of public extremists is strong, much stronger than many realize. With more and more Americans turning to commercials (yes, it’s true) and television shows for their political education, programs like The O’Reilly Factor and The Daily Show (I’m not biased here, even Jon Stewart holds tremendous and potentially dangerous sway) are becoming mouthpieces for political parties, whether they like it or not.

Since both sides resort to short, catchy sound bites instead of verbose, drawn-out arguments, the viewing public is in danger of falling sway to extremists with public platforms — especially those who are easily influenced and in a position to inflict harm on others.

Daytime Television Sucks

Being a work-from-home entrepreneur sometimes means, well, working from home. Most of the time, I prefer to go out and work in a café, bookstore, or even library. Having people around me, even if I’m not interacting with them, feeds me. It energizes me and keeps me motivated.

However, I’m not always able to go out. Especially when it’s raining out or I’m trying to save cash. In those cases, I work from home, which sounds great, doesn’t it? If you’re sitting in an office after a sixty-minute commute through back-to-back traffic, I’m sure it does.

There is a dark downside though. Daytime television.

Just to set the record straight, I don’t regularly watch TV. When I was single, I didn’t even own a television set. Everything I watched was on-demand from DVDs, Hulu or elsewhere.

And admittedly, I’ve gotten addicted to a handful of shows, like Lost and Family Guy. But I skip the majority of shows on TV. Yup, I get all of my modern culture awareness from Lost and Family Guy. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

So it is with great trepidation that I turn on the TV every day. No, I’m not turning it on for myself. I’m turning it on for my dog.

That’s right, my dog.

I have a fearful little pup that is prone to barking at outside noise. Or at least, the noise he can hear.

When the television is on, Jerry Springer blocks out the scary neighbors outside with scary neighbors inside. The screeching of cats outside is replaced by the screeching of The View inside. The rumbling trucks in the street are covered by the rumbling shmucks in The Bold and the Beautiful.

My dog doesn’t watch the TV himself. Even when there are dogs on TV, he’ll just do his own thing, like play with the Kong or lie at my feet.

Without the TV, however, he’ll stand by the window on alert. With ears perked, he’ll sniff the air and bark at impending intruders. “Danger close, danger close!” he shouts.

What does this mean for me? It means my eye will wander to the television from time to time. I’ll catch a glimpse of a pregnant woman DNA testing ten guys to find out who is her baby daddy. Or a stately old man discovering that his wife’s young lover is really his cousin’s twin brother who’s been lost at sea for years.

Then I’ll shake my head, sigh, and long for a cafe. Daytime television really sucks.

P.S. Fortunately, there is a feasible alternative. Music also shutters outside noise. Though perhaps my band choices – like Slipknot, Slayer, and Five Finger Death Punch – aren’t the best choices to calm a nervous dog.

The Wear Sunscreen Speech

You know the Wear Sunscreen Speech, right? If not, where have you been? Under a rock buried in the sand behind an outhouse on an island with dark sunglasses at night? Tsk tsk.

The Wear Sunscreen Speech—sometimes simply known as the “Sunscreen Speech”, but originally called “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young”—was written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich way back on June 1, 1997 as a fictional commencement speech that she’d like to give if she were ever asked to.

For some reason, a mischievous student decided to send the speech around as a MIT commencement speech given by Kurt Vonnegut. Weird, huh? If you’ve seen that email, now you know who really wrote that speech—Mary Schmich and not Kurt Vonnegut (though Vonnegut could have certainly written something just as witty & profound).

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The Memory Loss of Young Professionals in Urban America

“Damn, I can’t remember what he said, but I remember it was something important.”

Laura gave me the Raised Eyebrow. “You can’t remember? That was like, only ten minutes ago!”

I sighed. “I know, I know…”

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Peeing With a Star

“Who do you think they are?” I asked.

We studied the two guys who spilled out of the limo. They had long hair, hard rock T-shirts (one of them said “Motley Crue”), and the whole hard rock ensemble (black outfits, metal chains, boots, etc).

“I don’t know,” said Geraldine. “You’re the heavy metal guy, you should know.”

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WTC 2.0

“Today, our nation saw evil,
the very worst of human nature.
And we responded with the best of America—
with the daring of our rescue workers,
with the caring for strangers and neighbors
who came to give blood
and help in any way they could.”
– G. W. Bush
“The purpose of architecture is to create
an atmosphere in which man can live, work, and enjoy.”
– M. Yamasaki

“Don’t Rebuild. Reimagine,” says the New York Times Magazine of the site of the World Trade Center. And so a group of leading architects met to discuss what could be done.

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The Slumber Party

It’s time for the Victoria’s Secret Spring Slumber Party again. Oh yea. I love this party. The ladies get together for a whole day and show each other their new clothes. Then they take lots of photos and mail them out to friends.

If you look through these photos, you’ll see their story unfold. It’s like a picture book, only better.

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Is That Anthrax On Your Shoulder?

“It’s difficult for me to get a grip on what you mean
When you stick your fingers in your ear and create another scene
You always step into the traps set perfect in your path
Busy going crazy over whose knife’s in your back”
– J. Bush

“What if you walked down the street and someone pricked you with an infected needle? You might get anthrax!”

About a dozen friends asked me something like that when I told them I wanted to take a trip back to Manhattan.

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