Friday, April 27, 2007

Erasing the Past

Frequent readers here know that David Amulet is no fan of political correctness—or people who insist on changing the past.

Altering something that has already occurred simply to suit some new purpose annoys me. Last fall, for example, do-gooders’ attempt to edit Tom and Jerry cartoons to eliminate scenes of cigarette smoking got me hot under the collar.

Now revisionism is coming from corporate squabbling, of all things.

It seems British Airways can’t stand the fact that Sir Richard Branson—wealthy head of rival Virgin Atlantic—has a scene in last year’s James Bond smash Casino Royale. So the BA in-flight version of the film has his face airbrushed out.

This is foolish. It’s petty. It’s childish.

It’s messing with Bond. Is nothing sacred?

A barrier has been crossed, with disastrous consequences. Just think of what this will lead to:

Eddie Van Halen will remove Michael Anthony’s bass lines and vocals from Van Halen’s classic albums. Because he has replaced Anthony in the band with his son Wolfgang, Eddie simply will edit Wolfgang’s work into the albums.

The vocals, however, might be a bit strained—seeing as Wolfgang wasn’t even a fetus when these albums were made.

Nick Lachey will edit Jessica Simpson out of episodes of their vapid reality show, Newlyweds. Without her image onscreen, viewers will see Nick talking into thin air—or to a wall.

Which will only improve the conversation.

American Idol producers will remove judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson from the show. They will find replacements that, in one fell swoop, will change Simon Cowell from the premier jackass of the show into the nice guy of the triumvirate. And who will these new judges be?

I suggest Alec Baldwin and Rosie O’Donnell.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Celebrating Diversity

With all of the controversy lately surrounding insensitive media personalities, I thought it was a good time for me to explore new experiences.

No, I did not go see Cats. I did not take mind-altering drugs.

Nor did I have a child with Britney.

But for a long weekend, I did take a working vacation down south—to the deep, deep south—to spend time seeing the local sights, tasting the local tastes, and smelling the local smells.

Regular readers here know that my batteries aren’t normally charged by the charms of the region, be they musical or cultural. That was no obstacle—I was a man on a mission to celebrate diversity.

For most of five days I listened exclusively to country music. This was probably more of the genre than I’ve subjected myself to, combined, in twenty-plus years.

And here’s what I discovered: Country music is damn repetitive. The stereotypes are true, because here are the things I heard the most warbling about: (1) bad husbands/wives/girlfriends; (2) beer, with the occasional nod to whiskey or moonshine; (3) pickup trucks.

I’m not kidding.

My voyage of discovery did not end with aural stimulation. No, on Sunday afternoon I also went to a delightful local culinary establishment (aka dive, aka hole in the wall, aka sticky-floored white trash hovel) to watch, live in all its glory, a NASACR event.

This place had all the stereotypes:

A waitress at least seven months pregnant, devoid of wedding/engagement rings, missing a few prominent teeth.

Beer, onion rings, and fried anything-you-can-imagine.

Fellow diners—drinkers, really—shouting out support/hatred for their most/least favorite drivers (which, despite their alcoholic consumption, they seemed able to identify very easily by their car numbers, sponsor logos, or crew members).

I reflected on the experience a bit later under the southern sun, which was the only thing that saved me from poking my own eyes and ears out with broken glass from the bottles of beer that I gulped to dull the pain.

And, indeed, I did learn some things.

On one hand, I can understand why the South lost the Civil War. The traits that country music glorifies don’t exactly say “ambition” or “success.” And the only physical activity car racing encourages is the 12-ounce curl.

On the other hand, NASCAR doesn’t get the credit it deserves. On the third lap, I got to see a great spin-out, with at least six cars smacking into each other at nearly 200 miles per hour. Who knew crashes were so much fun to watch?

For the twisted among us that enjoy ski jumping for the monumental face-plants and watch ice skating hoping to see spectacular falls, car racing has much more to offer than I ever suspected.

So I not only survived my journey but also gained a little something. It’s rarely a bad thing to become better rounded … and this experience left me a better-rounded man from the experience.

Mostly from the fried food and beer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Supernatural Thoughts

Many things I just don’t understand. Off the top of my head, here are just a few:

Human consciousness.
Mathematics in 248 dimensions.
Hummingbird flight.
People who worry all of the time.
Michael Jordan’s basketball abilities.
The meaning of life.
The popularity of American Idol.

Unlike many people, however, I resist ascribing the origins of things I don’t understand to a supernatural entity or entities pulling all of our strings.

But doing this is nothing new. Humans have invented rationalizations as long as we—and I use “we” assuming that you, dear reader, are human—have been living here.

The Mayans thought Huracan brought storms—for which the ancient Sumerians blamed Enlil. When thunder crashed, specifically, the Greeks gave (and a tiny subset of them STILL give) credit to Zeus; the Norse assigned responsibility to Thor.

As we have collectively learned more about our home planet, we’ve started to use science to explain the previously unexplained.

Weather results from a very complex series of interrelated physical events—which bedevil forecasters even now, annoying millions of travelers every day. And thunder is a shock wave that our ears detect as an aftereffect of a lightning bolt’s intense heat. The march of science makes unmagical more and more of the things thought to be magical.

Unknowns become known.

That said, plenty of room will always remain for supernatural explanations, for string-pullers in the sky, which will enable many people to live with the existential stress of knowing that we still don’t know everything.

One reason, ironically, may be physical in origin.

A recent article related the work of neuroscientist and author Andrew Newberg. This enterprising medical doctor dabbles in neurotheology—a field focused on discovering how the human brain handles spiritual concepts and impulses. His early results are fascinating: Followers of diverse religious traditions have minds that contain similar patterns and processes during meditation or prayer. There may, in fact, be universal features of our brains that enable belief in some higher power.

Another reason for the persistent belief in various forms of deities derives form the very success of scientists in revealing the secrets of nature.

Simply put, the more we learn, the more we realize there IS to learn. The ancients didn’t study 248-dimensional mathematics because they hadn’t conceived of such things. Medieval thinkers didn’t fret over the chances of a black hole gobbling up our part of the galaxy because they hadn’t discovered black holes yet.

So don’t worry, believers in the supernatural. There’s plenty to still attribute to the god or gods of your choice. And as we learn more about the physical universe and strip away the things you need to explain that way, we’ll surely draw attention to additional unknowns that our ancestors could never have dreamed of, mysteries that they failed to even imagine.

For example, they did not anticipate American Idol.

I just have to believe that they would have found a way to warn us … or at least invent a god to explain how people’s strings are being pulled.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Real Research

We’ve all heard about crazy research grants.

I’m talking about the money that goes to studies of things like the urine output of the rhesus monkey and the sex life of the Japanese quail. (Yes, these are actual funded projects.)

But I just heard about one that sounds much better to me.

AFP reports that a student in New Zealand has won a government grant to investigate the lifestyles of metal music fans, including everything from tattoos and body piercings to dancing. Over the course of three years, the people of New Zealand will be paying the kiwi equivalent of almost U.S. $70,000 for this study.

It’s about time! Why waste money on water treatment, conflict resolution, or cancer cures when research on metal has been so tragically neglected?

I’m glad professional researchers are turning to one of my favorite genres. This New Zealand study comes on the heels of anthropologist and metal fan San Dunn’s documentary, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.”. If you haven’t seen it, keep your eyes out for this entertaining two-hour show on VH1 Classic.

A step in the right direction. But, of course, there is a downside.

And that downside is the possibility we’ll see this trend taken too far, with a proliferation of such investigations. Watch out for these studies:

Decisions to run for president: Let’s review the facts. It’s a job that brings criticism no matter what you do. People will accuse you of evil motives for even your most well-intentioned acts—and the road to get there is full of non-stop campaigning and personal attacks. The brightest minds may not be able to figure out why people clamor to do it.

Country music: What exactly IS it in the water in the Southern U.S. and rural areas across the country that compels people to listen to this drivel? Of course, if they actually do find this odd elixir, what’s to stop those still fighting the Civil War from spreading it to all of our water supplies?

Blogging: We’re all in trouble if they research our pet phenomenon and discover that it’s harmful to our health. What will we do if this hobby actually has negative side effects?

Maybe they’ll make us pay for crazy research studies.